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Public, commercial and civil Television in Europe's New media landscape

Abstract : Despite the growing strength of commercial broadcastingmedia, public service broadcasting (PSB) remains at the core of Europe's cultures and economies. Currently, three PSB outlets - BBC, France Television and RAI - lead revenue generation in this growing Europe-wide sector, and lead in terms of audience and cultural influence within all the other media in their respective countries. But PSB's fiscal vigour aside, Europe's emerging new-media landscape, defined by novel moral codes embedded in the programming and innovative forms of interactive production and distribution, is arguably transforming the debate around the principles that sustain public television's legitimacy.Generally associated with social-democratic ideals, PSB's traditional legitimating principles were nonetheless aligned with particular types of morally conservative views. John Reith, the BBC's first director, was arguably the moral programmer of PSB in Europe (Hodkinson, 2011), initially set up to "improve society's knowledge, taste and moral awareness" (cf. Reith's claim in 1924, cited in Hodkinson, p. 285). PSB's enlightened claim to the monopoly of reason and "quality" implied a protection from commercial involvement and competition, and the necessity to achieve a universalised character among the population.Reith's perspective bears an interesting yet complicated relation with the ideas of Pierre Bourdieu (1993; 1996), for whom "quality" is never objective but reflects class divisions, a concern to mitigate the contradiction between the production of democracy and massive dissemination of new meanings throughout market structures. Due to its structural attachment to audience ratings, television is profoundly subject to market pressures, institutionally incapable of progressively affecting the symbolic order of society. Clearly influenced by Bourdieu, the still abiding debate about PSB pivots on "quality" and "market pressures," echoing as well the Habermasian notion of the public sphere, according to which Europe's PSB "has to" aim at informing rational debate.At the same time, proponents of commercial television discursively associated the structural search for "audiences" with a democratic sense of the collective. They portrayed PSB as misaligned with the actual civil sphere, arrogantly imposing undemocratic yet politicized benchmarks of "quality." PSB's proponents traditionally argue that "commerce," the primary objective of private television, is in itself de-attached from the collective principle of the civil sphere for it promotes a type of programming oriented to short-term individual preferences - escapist forms of entertainment and sensationalist yellow journalism that appeal to negative emotions - and not to long-term goals and processes that foster civil-sphere solidarity.From the emergence in the 1980s of a dual nature in Europe's television market - "audience" constructed as society, "more rational" vs commercial content - there arose during the 1990s a new internal language around the material fragmentation of audiences and programmes due to the multiplication of options and channels. This fragmentation and the new organizational language have not disconnected the institution of television from the universalistic character of the civil sphere. But the relationship between the civil sphere and television has indeed changed. We can outline this change along three axes.First, given the redefinition of the internal logic of television production and reception within a new context of technological transformation, de-regulation and market liberation, and of globalization along with audience fragmentation, the post-consensus system is discernible by the creation and legitimation of new televisual forms that transcend the traditional imperative to appeal to the broadest possible "audiences," understood as a commercial and political construct. Second, a significant portion of the commercial-television industry operates according to an amplified quantitative logic in terms of viewership through overtly exaggerated narratives, judgments and dubious journalistic practices. Third, the Internet and content digitization provide for dispersed, previously "voiceless" agents of the civil sphere with a mass-media production and distribution platform that is potentially more participatory and "grassrooted" (Freedman, 2000).The objective of this paper is to propose a coherent set of theoretical and methodological tools to explain the emerging cultural dynamics of the institution of television in Europe. We wish to illuminate the changing structure of the public vs commercial TV debate through the lens of Alexander's theoretical concept of the civil sphere. Alexander (2006) argues for a sociological theory of the civil sphere defined by its relative autonomy from political and economic interests. At the core of the civil sphere, we find the institutions of communication, which contribute to the collective feelings of solidarity around ideals of community and justice, empathy and integration. Such institutions frame the debate of civil society through discourses and institutions, providing universalistic civil codes for democratic critique, action, reform and also exclusion. The civil sphere operates as a skeletal structure of binary codes for opposed civil and anti-civil human "motives," social "relations" and "institutions," and of corresponding categories: "pure" or "impure," as in "the discourse of liberty" as opposed to "the discourse of repression." The positive codes represent the "sacred" and the "civic" while their opposites stand for the "profane" and the "anti-civic" insofar as they emerge from extra-civil spheres such as markets, states, sections or parties.In the first part of this paper, we describe Alexander's civil sphere, establishing the study of the debate between public and commercial television as a particular way of encoding the discourse of civil society. In the second part, we use this theoretical framework to examine the discourses appearing in both mainstream and alternative Spanish media in regard to crucial events in Spanish PSB's limelight: the audio-visual sector reform proposed by the Government in June 2005, the intent of the Board of Directors of RTVE to control the news in September 2011, and the recent announcement by the government to reduce state funding to RTVE.This empirical investigation suggests that the emerging forms of discursive legitimation of both private and public television are now mediated by both the civil sphere and "civil television," signified and materialized by the Internet. Both private and public television try to associate with these cultural structures, in a process that is condensed in the emergence of a new concept of "audience" which is not based on rationalistic principles of taste but on the generation of collective expectations as a cultural experience per se. Public television's renewal may thus emerge in the convergence of the commercial, the public and the civil.
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Submitted on : Tuesday, July 2, 2013 - 5:19:19 PM
Last modification on : Monday, June 3, 2019 - 11:56:06 AM


  • HAL Id : hal-00840644, version 1



Esteve Sanz, Maria Luengo. Public, commercial and civil Television in Europe's New media landscape. Communiquer dans un monde de normes. L'information et la communication dans les enjeux contemporains de la " mondialisation "., Mar 2012, France. ⟨hal-00840644⟩



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