Dr Maria Michalis is a VLV Trustee and Reader in Communication Policy, University of Westminster. Here she writes about policy developments in European public service broadcasting.
There have been interesting developments regarding public service broadcasting in Europe. The first two concern funding and the last two concern the future of the Digital Terrestrial Television (DTT) platform.
Starting with Switzerland, a referendum took place in March 2018 to decide whether the licence fee should be abolished. The Swiss voted overwhelmingly (about 72% of votes) to keep the licence fee, rejecting the idea of a commercially funded PSB.
The threat to the viability of the PSB, the wish to support a strong PSB, and overall satisfaction with PSB services were the main reasons behind the result.
What is worrying, however, is that 80% of the youngest (18-29 year olds) voted in favour of the abolition of the fee. This shows the continuing need for all public service broadcasters to better connect with younger audiences.
In 2013, Finland, a country with a long and strong history of PSB, adopted a new funding model for the national public service broadcaster, YLE. It replaced the licence fee with an innovative tax model whilst continuing to support YLE’s independent and sustainable development in the new media environment.
It is a tax outside the state budget, designed to safeguard PSB independence, with the level of funding guaranteed by law, including the possibility of annual increases in line with inflation.
Increases, however, have been rejected by Parliament in the face of the broader economic downturn. Still, what is noteworthy is the willingness to try to keep as many of the benefits of the licence fee funding mechanism as possible in the new tax-funded model.
The future of the DTT platform
Turning to developments in the DTT platform, in September 2018, the Swiss PSB announced that it would terminate digital terrestrial transmission in 2019. This is part of broader cost-saving efforts, but can also be interpreted as a move to release favourable frequencies for other, notably mobile broadband, uses.
Unlike Britain, the Swiss DTT platform is not significant with only around 2% of households using it for their second or third television sets. The PSB recommends that the affected households move to the free at the point of reception digital satellite platform.
In a similar move, the Belgian PSB in the Flanders region announced the end of free-to-air DTT transmissions. About 45,000 households will be affected and the PSB plans to invest the resulting savings of EUR1 million in its free-to-use online platform. The PSB channels will now be distributed on the country’s pay-TV DTT platform, thereby altering the terms of access to these channels on DTT (from free at the point of use to pay).
These developments might add pressure to other countries in Europe to close down their DTT platforms and will influence future World Radio Communication (WRC) negotiations about the future of the sub-700MHz UHF band, even though its use for DTT has been secured till 2030.