12 Mar 2007, Posted by Eric Karstens in Public Broadcasting, 0 Comments

Broadcasting to a younger public

2007 marked the 30th anniversary of the INPUT conference, an annual forum where commissioning editors and programme makers with public service television Broadcasters from all over the world meet in Lugano, Switzerland, to watch their peers’ new works and to discuss current issues without the pressures of either a marketplace or award competition.

The screening sessions of the conference showed how diverse the strategies of publicly funded TV are in the context of different media landscapes. Of course, and fortunately, there are still a lot of programmes around that fit into the classical aspirations of educational and culturally relevant broadcasting, such as “Terpsychora’s Captives”, a Russian recount of a working session between a ballerina from Moscow and a black choreographer from New York. The quiet but intense film showed that even in non-verbal art, cross-cultural convergence can be rather difficult. Other contributions fulfilled the function of preserving the cultural heritage: “Girl in the Mirror” from Australia, for instance, presented life and art of a female photographer from the seventies, complete with an unsparing account of the bohemian lifestyle of that decade.

But one of the major trends that were tangible at this year’s INPUT was the endeavour to entice younger audiences to watch Public Service television at all and at the same time to get them interested in political and social affairs. To achieve both these objectives in combination is crucial for most pubcasters existing in competitive environments where commercial television soaks up most of the viewership: Just winning back young people at all costs would infringe the public service remit and thus the very foundations of the system.

Probably the most striking of the new productions meeting these criteria was “Canada’s Next Great Prime Minister”, a programme that, indeed, managed to convey serious political content spiced up with all the trappings of popular casting shows such as “Pop Idol”. Four up-and-coming politicians between the ages of 19 and 25 presented themselves to an expert jury of former Canadian prime ministers and a studio audience representative of the country’s population. Something similar tried the Croatian format “The Pyramid”, where citizens advocated their political beliefs in the ambience of a quiz show.
A less glamourous yet also quite effective approach took programmes such as “Puberruil” from the Netherlands or the Swedish format “Wildlife Rookies”. Though very different in details, both adapted the concept of having people radically change their lives for a short period of time in order to inspire social learning effects: “Puberruil” made teenagers from diverging racial backgrounds swap their jobs and circles of friends, while “Wildlife Rookies” sent quarrelling families on a survival mission under extreme conditions in the wilderness.

This year’s panel discussions focused on the future financing of public service broadcasting, mobile TV, and citizen journalism. The latter two topics were debated in front of rather small audiences – a sign that quite a lot of conventional television staffers have yet to embrace the “new” media. Interestingly, the almost legendary reputation of mobile TV model country South Corea was somewhat disenchanted: although it is correct that quite a lot of Corean commuters routinely watch television on handheld devices, the programmes do not consist of specifically produced content, but are simply recycled from regular TV. As a consequence, polls showed that users are not very satisfied with the offerings; they just watch because there is no alternative available. And even in demand-heavy Corea, broadcasters struggle to re-finance mobile distribution. Again, the general impression about mobile TV – not only in Asia – was that a killer application increasing its popularity and opening up revenue streams is still nowhere in sight.

Citizen journalism, on the other hand, seemed to be perceived by the media professionals present rather as a threat than as an opportunity. Practically all panelists tried to domesticate and downplay the phenomenon and rejected the term “citizen journalism” in favour of talking about “user generated content”. Indeed, broadcasters such as the BBC demonstrated that it is very well possible to integrate audience contributions into regular editorial work flows and use it to enhance the “old” media. Whether this course of action indeed provides professional journalists with an opportunity to nip the obviously unwanted competition in the bud, though, remains to be seen.