Buried at the end of a recent speech by UK culture minister Jeremy Hunt there was something that grabbed my attention. At some point I would like to write something proper about this, but right now I only have time for a brief sketch. But then that's what blogs are for.
In his speech, Hunt said (my emphasis):
I intend to bring forward new legislation to clarify which [Public Service Broadcasters'] channels should get guaranteed positioning on page one of the Electronic Programme Guide and its future online equivalents.
As we move into a multi-channel, multi-platform era, this is likely to become the principal intervention through which we repay broadcasters who invest in content with a social or cultural benefit. I want to make sure we have absolute clarity on how that will work.
This may be a significant statement. To see why, a bit of context is needed.
The Public Service Publisher (PSP)
Until now, European governments and regulators have had three main tools to ensure that quality, "worthy" public-service content reaches TV audiences:
- Directly funding broadcasters from taxation or licence fees – e.g. the BBC
- Assigning spectrum to advertising-funded broadcasters (public and private) who commit to certain public-service obligations
- Requiring pay-TV operators (mainly satellite and cable) to carry PSBs' channels and to feature them prominently in their Electronic Programme Guides (EPG)
These tools worked relatively well in a world in which linear television was the main way that people consumed public service content. But as media moves to an on-demand world, their suitability becomes less clear. So, starting about seven years ago, some people in the UK policy community began asking how these tools should be updated for the internet era.
For a while, this discussion centred on an idea floated by Ofcom (the UK broadcasting regulator) called the "Public Service Publisher" (PSP). To summarize years of work by lots of clever people, the thinking was roughly this: As audiences get more and more of their content outside traditional platforms, it becomes less sensible to focus policy only around traditional broadcasting or broadcasters. And since in the on-demand world it is audiences who decide what to watch, when and how, perhaps a more sensible strategy would be to focus on Public Service Content (PSC) and not in how it is delivered (Public Service Broadcasting). Therefore, the key is to identify areas of potential "market failure" where not enough content is being produced (e.g. autochthonous childrens' programmes), and to use public funds to ensure that it is produced and made available to audiences (i.e. "published").
Although the PSP idea was eventually shelved, the thinking that it generated remains relevant. Indeed, when it announced the shelving, Ofcom said that generating the discussion had been the main reason to float the idea in the first place.
Around three years ago, some people in the policy community (yours truly included) took issue with some of this thinking. It is all very well and good to "publish" good public-service content, they said, but if it sits buried in a web server waiting for people to find it, the exercise will have been pointless. Public value is released when public-service content is consumed, not when it's created. If content is not consumed, all you have is a job-creation scheme for the creative industries.
To be fair, Ofcom was not blind to this. In a key document it said (my emphasis):
…this abundance of provision, and extreme fragmentation, also leads to an important new barrier to public service content achieving reach and impact: how will people become aware of, or discover, interactive public service content which meets their needs as citizens? […] In future, ensuring that people know about, and can find, a wide range of high-quality interactive public service content seems likely to be a greater challenge than ensuring its availability […] One question is therefore whether intervention might be possible to enhance the reach and impact of existing public service content, and ensure it is easy for audiences to find and access.
This went in the right direction but, in my opinion, not far enough. To suggest that it's enough for public service content to be easy to find is like saying that it's enough for supermarkets not to make vegetables too hard to find. From a public health perspective you would like supermarkets to "push" vegetables aggressively, and you might also use public money to promote their consumption ("social marketing").
Now, at this point you could very reasonably object that in a free society the state has no business telling you what you should eat – and, by the same token, that it should not try to get you to watch any particular type of TV programme. I think that's an important debate that should be had. But whatever your position in it, to suggest that public-service content can work without proactive promotion is at least a radical break from the traditions of broadcasting where getting people to watch things they don't choose (think of hammocking, or even advertising) have been central.
Without a push, broccoli content just won't get eaten very much, no matter how "high-quality" it may be. If society is prepared to live with that then fine, but if it isn't (and I don't think that it is, at least in Europe) then you have a problem.
Even if you agree with all this, you might still object. "The internet is a 'pull' medium" you might say, "and all the 'push' that broadcasters used to do simply won't work here, however high-minded." But here I disagree. Consider two things:
- The web's "economy of ideas" is often a black economy and the "wisdom of crowds" is often the herding of sheep. Read this fascinating post by internet investor Mark Suster on his shock as he realized that many of the main social aggregators are "systematically rigged by powerful trading networks of people who are paid to help propagate (and kill) stories".
- What keeps the web turning is advertising, which is nothing but a way of pushing content to people who are not looking for it. Without "push" the web would go broke
I'm not suggesting that the web is "bad" and broadcasting "good", or that the web's free choice should be limited in any way. What I am saying is in the web "push" lives side by side with "pull", and that manipulation is as commonplace and potentially undesirable as it is in broadcasting.
If you agree with that, then the notion of a democratically-supported public intervention to provide a trusted anchor amid the self-interested shouting should make sense – for the same reasons that it does in broadcasting. The question is how. In broadcasting, this was understood as a matter of producing content that was balanced and told both sides of a story. But in an era when of content promiscuity and extreme statements, telling a balanced story is not enough. People seek ways of hearing things from the horse's mouth. The challenge is to help people hear all horses, and the tool for that is curation. That is, be a good curator, use your brand to draw people to you, and link out to other people who have something so say, making sure you do this in a balanced and intelligent way. The BBC is on the right track here. But I digress.
EPGs after EPGs
So, back to Hunt's speech. His emphasis on the "future online equivalents" of Electronic Programme Guides is spot on. Of course a key reference here is Youview (aka Canvas), but the issue goes much further. Nobody knows what shape on-demand media will take in the next five or ten years. But we can tell already that although people will be able to view almost whatever they want, in practice what they want will be "to a large extent the result of external decisions which we can call, in a broad sense, advertising-led" (Houellebecq). Given this, the key space for intervention will be where things get promoted – where we decide to watch this rather than that. In television, today that means EPGs. Their future online equivalents are anyone's guess.