By Dom Serafini

Regularly, like tax collection, the question of public TV funding returns to stimulate the volatile minds of politicians, TV executives, journalists and academics. This time it was French president Nicolas Sarkozy who fired the first salvo, when he announced in January that he wanted to Sarkozy-ize France’s public television by banning advertising on its programming.

Italy followed suit with a proposal from the political left (now the Parliament’s minority party) to privatize at least one of RAI’s TV channels. This would effectively be the equivalent of castrating the public TV sector in Italy. These seemingly out-of-character proposals are actually a staple of the left if one remembers that it was late socialist president Francois Mitterrand who was responsible for the privatization of France’s TF1.

Last, but not least, it was the BBC’s turn in April, when British media regulator, OFCOM, began pondering whether the U.K.’s public broadcaster should share its annual license fees with commercial TV outlets such as ITV, Channel 4 and Channel 5.

In reality, OFCOM began looking at the question of whether or not Channel 4 (C4) should get some of the BBC license fee because of C4’s “public service remit.” However, the license fee is set by Parliament, so if OFCOM finally decides that C4 should get some of this money, it would have to be approved by Parliament. Although entirely commercially self-funded, C4 is ultimately publicly owned and was established with a remit of public service obligations, which it must fulfill.

Now, I’ve always considered the BBC a bit extravagant — represented as it was by 130 of their executives at markets such as MIPCOM, versus just 24 from U.S. studios such as Buena Vista — but nevertheless an important element in the fabric of British society. Plus, last October, the BBC announced that it was shedding 2,500 jobs and selling its London headquarters, thus showing lots of financial goodwill and discipline.

On the topic of the future of public broadcasting, some acute observations came from SkyB’s Mike Darcey who argued that:

* The commercial television model, which is wholly funded by advertising, is drawn towards bland, middle-of-the-road programming.

* People consume less BBC programming, so they should reduce the license fee they pay.

* On the other hand, viewers like to pay for subscription television because it is directly accountable to them. If they don’t like it, they’ll cancel it.

All true, I’d say, except that one has to make a distinction between subscription television — which is the basic service that includes a large number of channels — and pay-TV, intended as a premium service. While viewers tend to like to pay for their channel bundling services, pay-TV channels tend to have a high churn. Plus, SkyB must also soon make some adjustment to its business model when, with the mass market introduction of IPTV, it will have to convert from its current “push” (sending all channels at once) to a “pull” system.

A bigger question, though, is the definition of “free-TV,” which is often associated with over-the-air services. In this case, BBC, French TV and RAI are not free since they are funded by compulsory license fees. Perhaps, this is what OFCOM, Sarkozy and the Italian politicians want viewers to understand.

Commercial over-the air television, on the other hand, is a free, if only “impurely free” service, and now it is in a transitional stage due to technology, such as the Internet, that depletes viewers. It’s like a dog biting its own tail. Programming from traditional TV services, mostly generated by the commercial sector, is what drives entertainment on the Internet, which, in turn, takes away viewers from traditional television.

And please note that, while people enjoy watching traditional TV programs on the Internet, Web-generated programs do not work on traditional TV, as recent examples have demonstrated.

Therefore, the key problem for all concerned — regulators, TV execs and politicians — is to make sure that a balance between license-fee TV and commercial over-the air TV services is maintained. This, perhaps, is what regulators and politicians are ultimately trying to achieve in order to adjust imbalances that could prematurely trample the whole broadcasting system.

Naturally, we are aware that all proposals that are so far floating around represent only band-aids to the bleeding over-the-air broadcasting system, both public and private. But in my view, what they are doing is just buying time until technology and entrepreneurship come up with a real and lasting solution. I’m sure that no one wants to throw the baby out with the bathwater, but rather to allow this newborn (that is broadcast television facing the Internet era) to grow again into a mature business, whatever it might be or become.

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