News

March 7, 2018

Swiss voters reject “No Billag” initiative, save public broadcasting

Headquarters of RTS in Geneva /AFP
If Swiss voters had approved the “No Billag” initiative to end taxpayer funding for state broadcasting, Switzerland would have become the first country in Europe to abolish its public radio and TV services.

But the Swiss authorities and state broadcasters heaved a sigh of relief after the referendum on Sunday (4 March), when 71.6% of voters rejected the proposed privatization of all the state broadcast media and chose to keep paying the annual tax that funds the Swiss Broadcasting Corporation (SRG/SSR) plus 34 privately-owned local and regional TV and radio stations.


The vocal if minority support for the “No Billag” initiative – which got its name from the company, Billag, that collects the tax on behalf of the state – is nonetheless indicative of growing opposition to obligatory taxpayer funding for public broadcasting both in Switzerland and other European countries. Public service broadcasting is being questioned almost everywhere.


Changing media landscape


The media landscape is evolving and digital technology has brought a wide range of new video services, both linear and on-demand, offering an enormous variety of content from all over the world. A single, taxpayer-funded broadcaster occupying a fixed place in the market now seems out of date. The growth of global operators such as Google with immense economic power have resulted in a surfeit of foreign content. But they invest only 2% in original content, while public service operators invest 50 to 60%.


Many wonder whether taxpayer-funded broadcast media still have a place in the digital era. A report by the European Broadcasting Union says that, given all these changes, the new services now available to the public could end up eclipsing the public broadcast media.


Public broadcast media nonetheless still play an essential role in the digital era as a reliable source of independent news and information. But, in order to fully carry out their public interest mission, they must continue to receive adequate funding. This is often emphasized by the Council of Europe, which says public service broadcasting organizations can obtain the necessary funding in a variety of ways, including “direct contributions from the state, licence fees, income-generating activities or a combination of these sources.”


Public service broadcast media are not commercial in nature and don’t try to generate profits. They have a budget that is determined by their public service mission. In addition to sports and entertainment programmes, they have to broadcast quality news and current affairs programmes and a variety of original programmes with special social and cultural interests (in response to specific genre quotas that include news, children, minorities and languages).


Almost everywhere in Europe, public service media are being criticized or questioned, giving rise to debates about what these TV and radio stations cost, about the use of public funds and what they really contribute to the media landscape,” said Pauline Adès-Mével, head of the EU-Balkans desk at Reporters Without Borders (RSF). “These media nonetheless play a central role, helping to guarantee democracy, social cohesion and cultural values. For this reason, we hail the decision by Switzerland’s voters to preserve a tool that is essential to the freedom to inform.”


In France, almost everyone seems to agree that there is too much public broadcasting. And in the era of streaming, the discussion can no longer be limited to traditional terrestrial broadcasting. Public service broadcasting needs to be rebuilt on the basis of its mission to serve the public and to educate. As in Switzerland, the controversy is above all about public television. The French government no longer hides its desire to overhaul a sector that consumes 4.5 billion euros a year and is partly funded by a 139-euro tax that around 20 million citizens pay annually on homes “equipped with a TV set or similar device.” The current government says the sector must learn to do better with less, in part because more and more French citizens write to the tax department to say they no longer watch TV and are therefore refusing to pay this tax.


The high standards of the United Kingdom’s BBC and the quality of its programmes are a model all over the world. But the TV licence fee (paid by each British household with a TV set) has been reduced, and the BBC has been the subject of budget cuts leading to lay-offs. Under a September 2016 amendment, the licence fee is now universal, regardless of how broadcasts are consumed. It will be the same in Switzerland next year, now that the “No Billag” initiative has failed. Like the SRG/SSR, “Auntie” (as the BBC is sometimes called) gets 70% of her budget from the TV licence fee but, instead of advertising, makes up the shortfall by selling documentaries, films and series to other countries.


The situation is similar in Belgium, where both public broadcasting in general and the role of advertising on RTBF (Belgium’s French-language broadcaster) are the subject of debate. Because more than one language is spoken in Belgium, the media landscape resembles Switzerland’s superficially. But there are many differences. Belgium does not have an overarching national broadcasting corporation like Switzerland’s SRG/SSR. And unlike Switzerland’s French-language TV broadcaster, RTBF has a major competitor in Belgium’s French-speaking areas: RTL-TVI, a commercial TV channel owned by the RTL group. This microcosm is also braced for changes by TF1, the French commercial TV channel, which is about to introduce Belgian ads into its broadcasts to the French-speaking parts of Belgium. RTBF’s funding is also different from the Swiss system. There is no TV licence fee. RTBF gets 70% of its funding from the Wallonia-Brussels Federation, the French-speaking community’s government. A third of its 316-million-euro budget comes from advertising and other revenue sources.


RSF’s Adès-Mével added: “At a time when the media are threatened by disinformation and fake news, it is essential that every country should have independent public service broadcast media with enough funding for them to be able to fulfil their mission, regardless of the form this funding takes, whether from an annual fee or in the form of a direct allocation from the state’s coffers.”


In the Netherlands, for example, the annual fee was replaced in 2000 by a direct grant from the government’s budget. However, direct government control of the budget of the Netherlands Public Broadcasting (NPO) led almost immediately thereafter to series of drastic cuts in the NPO budget.


In some countries, the public funding mechanisms have been modified. Finland and Germany implemented major reforms in 2013 because the existing tax collection mechanism (based on TV or radio set ownership) was regarded as obsolete and disconnected from reality. Finland introduced a public broadcasting tax, known as the Yle tax, that is collected annually from individuals and varies according to income. Germany now collects a public broadcasting tax from all households and commercial entities (except certain social categories) on the grounds that, regardless of location, they all have some kind of device giving them access to the available public service broadcast media.


In other countries, innovative solutions have been found to complement the basic public funding. Spain, for example, decided to tax the income of telecom operators. Similar changes have occurred outside Europe, in the western hemisphere and Asia.


Television continues to be the main source of news for 50% of citizens in the United States but, in the Internet and cable era, the main news programmes of networks such as ABC, CBS and NBC are becoming increasingly “sensationalist and superficial,” according to Rodney Benson, a professor of media, culture and communication at New York University.


In most democracies, it would be logical for the state to intervene to offset the economic collapse of this hyper-commercial system, marked by under-production of quality news and over-production of sensationalist and misleading news, Benson told RSF. “But in the United States, any state intervention would elicit fierce opposition from a coalition of anti-government conservatives and professional journalists driven by a strict reading of the First Amendment, which in their view forbids any government intervention in the media,” he said.


Mistrust of federal government intervention is the reason why the media get minimal financial support from the US government. According to Benson, government funding for public media “represents about 1 dollar per inhabitant, as against 50 to 200 in most European countries.” An increase in government support would help to improve the quality of the public media, he says. But the United States is not moving in that direction. On the contrary, even this already low level of support is now under threat.


Japan is developing online services with the aim of “providing the public with immediate access to information in any place and at any time,” according to Ryoichi Ueda, the president of NHK, Japan’s public broadcaster. NHK has no advertising and gets 96.8% of its funding from a reception fee paid by viewers. This public funding also enables NHK to provide an obligatory public information service about natural disasters in a country prone to earthquakes and typhoons. Nonetheless, 20% of households with TVs refused to pay the reception fee in 2017, in many cases because they think NHK toes the government line.


The debates prompted by the “No Billag” initiative reflect upheavals that are not limited to Switzerland. The controversial proposal to abolish public broadcasting was the subject of much discussion at the European level and even worldwide, indicating that, to maintain their role and their status, the public broadcast media will have to learn to reinvent themselves.