Academic journal article Innovation: Organization & Management

Public Broadcasters and Innovation: A Contested Combination in Flanders

Academic journal article Innovation: Organization & Management

Public Broadcasters and Innovation: A Contested Combination in Flanders

Article excerpt

For long, Western European governments considered public broadcasters to be propellers of innovation in the media sector. For several reasons, public broadcasters were deemed suitable to invest in innovation. They could afford to invest in longterm research tracks, collaborated through the European Broadcasting Union1 with other public broadcasters, and were aiming at innovations going beyond the implementation of mere marketoriented inventions. What is more, governments, in foreseeing necessary funds, could control public broadcasters' innovation programs, assign specific tasks, enforce particular focal points and require cooperation with private actors as well. This approach was not unique to broadcasting. Also in other sectors, there was a tendency to concentrate innovation efforts within large companies, integrating in a very much centralized way everything that had to do with research and development. The Bell Labs is a notorious example. Essentially, public broadcasters were deeply vertically integrated (covering in most countries content production, aggregation and even distribution) which was a key characteristic of innovation in general in the post WWII era (Chesbrough, 2003, p. 29).

Gradually, the innovatory role of public broadcasters became criticized. With the entrance of private television in the 1980s, the logic of State intervention was abandoned to the benefit of private initiative. In fact, there was a crisis of State intervention, which was - quoting Garnham (1990, pp. 127-128) 'part of a wider political crisis, namely a profound shiftin people's attitudes to the State and to the State's proper role in social time'. Concepts like market failure and consumer sovereignty inspired policy-makers and narrowed down the room for government interventions. The change of political ideology was soon accompanied with de-regulatory actions and budget cuts with public broadcasters. The latter, part of fierce competitive processes with private companies, were also not always eager to continue their commitment towards innovation as other priorities, as serving 'his majesty, the viewer' (Van Roe, 1999)2 were considerably more pressing. Nevertheless, most public broadcasters in practice maintained their investments in innovation - probably because of the rise of innovation policies as key elements of national, regional and supranational information society actions.

Nowadays public broadcasters' role with regard to innovation is under severe pressure. Criticism is more carefully framed within an overall attack on public broadcasters' role in new media. Opponents of public service broadcasting will in theory agree with a technology neutral vision, allowing public broadcasters to be active on all platforms provided they offer public service content. In practice, however, they are very critical of public broadcasters becoming active on the Internet, mobile platforms and the like (ACT, EPC, & AER, 2004; Biggam, 2009). A proactive role of public broadcasters in new media markets is allegedly not justified in the absence of market failure on new platforms (Armstrong & Weeds, 2007). Private media companies extend this rationale to innovation in general, arguing that developments in new media should be triggered by private actors on the basis of actual consumer needs. In addition, they maintain that innovation requires flexibility and adaptiveness - criteria public broadcasters (which are often characterized by high numbers of employees and bureaucratic structures) are said not to comply with (e.g., Interview, 24 January 2011; Interview, 8 February 2011).

Private sector criticism has fueled government debates on the innovation tasks of public broadcasters in most Western European countries (Donders, 2012). This article investigates whether government rhetorics and regulatory actions indeed follow suit. Is there a shiftaway from relying on public broadcasters for triggering innovation in the media sector towards innovation programs that depend more on private sector investments? …

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