I recently caught up with a friend who works for a state-owned television channel. And as some friends usually do, she lamented the times when her job meant guaranteed employment and benefits, flexible working hours, and unchallenging tasks. Don’t get her wrong — this has not radically changed. Now that they have had a channel relaunch, she has lost some sleep, some security, and is badly in need of some “time to think.”
Like many other employees of state broadcasters from Greece to Liberia and across the Arab world, the rebirth of state television channels as competitors of commercial television has been a nightmare: how can they reconcile the government’s interests with those of commercial competition? While my friend was worrying about her job perks, I mourned the death of hope for a public service mission. Needless to say, my friend and I had different priorities.
Before the introduction of satellite broadcasting, state television channels, their controllers, and their employees had it relatively easy. As many academics have noted, state broadcasters were symbols of national identity, tools for internal and external propaganda, and promoters of socioeconomic development and modernization. For them, audiences should be grateful for the audiovisual blend of censored news, entertainment, and education. Audiences were simply subjects of the state broadcasters, not citizens capable of choice and accountability.
In the early 1990s, the introduction of satellite television ushered an era of alternative choices. First broadcasting from outside the Arab world, commercial channels became symbols of individuality and choice, tools for expanding permissible entertainment and commercialization, promoters of liberal agendas with fresh and edgy programming. For them, audiences should also be grateful for the audiovisual circus of endless news, commercials, and entertainment. Audiences became media consumers, counted and packaged for advertisers, not citizens with rights (and media with responsibilities).
So the Arab public (in media as in politics) was rarely treated as citizens, but rather as subjects of state broadcasters or consumers of commercial media.
Today, it is difficult to ignore the growing similarities between these state broadcasters (with different degrees of “rebirth”) and the commercially owned channels. Structurally, state-owned channels are emulating multi-channels by offering niche services based on geography, interests, demographics, or languages. In addition to the classic western-oriented channel, they have sports, cultural, news, and other niche channels. Operationally, these channels employ staff, on-air talent, and production companies formerly associated with the commercial sector, and borrow similar production, programming, and scheduling practices. And, as a sign of current economic policies, state broadcasters are increasingly seeking funding from advertisement.
Here again, the public interest is absent from the equation: state broadcasters are still expected to support the government and attract the advertisers. Managers are increasingly forced to ignore the citizens as they try to please their paymasters —governments and advertisers.
Is there another option for the Arab world?
Perhaps the countries of the Arab uprisings can offer an opportunity to reconstruct state broadcasters as public broadcasters. After all, citizens fought for freedom and dignity; they sought change, and are interested in having their voices heard. Instead, newscast editorial lines replaced old masters with new ones, and in some cases, censorship practices were strengthened. Furthermore, the risks of corruption or failure to protect the best interests of local communities are increasing in light of past experience. Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, Yemen and others seem to be on the same path as Lebanon, Iraq, and Palestine in demonstrating the failure to provide a public service. Seventeen years after the Lebanese government’s complete takeover of that country’s oldest commercial channel find it further alienated from its public. After millions of dollars in media assistance, the Iraqi Media Network has not been capable of overcoming the country’s political divisions. Similarly, the Palestinian Broadcasting Corporation is a center of political and financial confrontations.
For a public service broadcasting model to succeed, it must be free from the constraints of commercial market pressure as well as from didactic state control. Information must reflect a diverse plurality of sources and opinions. Entertainment should be a communality of experience, providing a moment to celebrate and develop creativity in every segment of society. Education should avoid preachy attitudes and address cultural complexities and challenges.
As if this were not idealistic enough, let’s consider three additional challenges. Across the Arab world, there is an absence of clear regulatory texts and structures that mandate, articulate, and protect the public’s interest. Second, Arab countries are expected to switch to digital video broadcasting — terrestrial (DVB-T) — by 2015. If and when completed, additional spectra will be available for more terrestrial channels. Will these increase the variety and quality of offerings, or will we get more of the same channels? Paraphrasing Bill Clinton’s presidential campaign slogan, “It’s the economy, stupid,” I would say, “It’s political will, stupid” — because an uninformed public is a compliant public.
Which brings us back to the fundamental question: why do governments insist on relaunching state broadcasting, instead of giving birth to a public service?
Not that there's any chance governments will change course or my friend will regain her cushy job. After all, governments like to portray themselves as acting in the public interest, and sometimes they do. But the marriage of government and business interests may not be the best model for serving a population that is increasingly aware of its needs as citizens. In an age of increasing media fragmentation, the need for a publicly funded and governed public service broadcasting is far from dead.
Joe F. Khalil, Ph.D., is an associate professor in residence at Northwestern University and visiting research fellow at the London School of Economics. He has more than fifteen years of professional television experience as director, executive producer and consultant with major Arab satellite channels. He is co-author of Arab Satellite Entertainment Television: Opportunities for Public Diplomacy (2009) and co-author of Arab Television Industries (2010).