Networked society, disoriented audiences 
and the future of Public Service Media

Paper (Draft version) for RIPE conference Antwerp 22–24 Sep 2016


The paper takes the view that a complete transformation of PSM institutions and strategies is necessary to cope with the disruptive changes in media use. Broadcast enterprises are endangered by the generation rift, vanishing relevance in their traditional fields and a minor role in online competition. The unavoidable departure for the networked future has its downsides, and enthusiastic interpretations of the networked society have to be rejected. Issues like the measurement of relevance and the priorization of linearity over the non-linear and interactive poles of digital media production are treated in the second half. The argumentation ends with a hopeful consideration of regulation strategies.

Change is gonna come

When dealing with the prospects of the network(ed) society, sociologists often stress the benefits of communication and interaction in and between international communities. Castells (1996) depicted already the distribution of VCR technology and the spread of cable TV as means to (citing Françoise Sabbah) determine a segmented, differentiated audience that, although massive in terms of numbers, is no longer a mass audience in terms of simultaneity and uniformity of the message it receives.*1* Castells’ technological driven vision foresees the empowerment of active media consumers and the advancement of interactive media instead of unidirectional mass media.
Since more than twenty years the digitization within and, much more, the emergence of digital cultures around broadcast media defines an area of tension in which discussions about the future of public service media are located. Their situation is determined by a complex set of intertwined processes.

Production, storage and distribution technologies have changed. Media regulation does not keep pace with the ongoing transformation. Copyright laws, lack of concepts and money and technical deficits prevent the visibility of and the access to digitized broadcast archives.
Audiences behave different than in former decades. The relevance of PSM and traditional quality media is at stake, especially among younger generations. The internet and its platforms offer a wide variety of topics and views but not the orientation that press and broadcast used to give in former decades. The more selective the audience is, the deeper tends to be its segmentation. The public sphere which was already an ideal-typical construct is missing a common agenda. Mass media lose or have to loosen their control over the structure of everyday life.

Magical numbers

Some reflections on numbers maybe helpful to understand the critical situation of PSM. With their internet content Public Service Media do not get the same attention share as in the broadcast sphere. But this is an inappropriate comparison. Looking at the everyday media engagement time, there are three types of media use: reception of linear media with more (print) or less (broadcast) attention, reception of non-linear content with presumably higher attention, and engagement in interactive media channels with highest attention. All three types contribute to the information and entertainment of media users. The felt relevance of an information is the combined result of all visited channels, whereby peer-to-peer communication tends to have the highest impact. The measurement of broadcast reception (in minutes and shares) is pointless in this context.

The market shares of German public broadcasters are still large, about 12 or 13 percent overall for each system. In the USA the linear TV erosion is much more advanced. The absolute reach of well-known shows and series is often lower as in Germany, despite the quadruple population. An US programme with a market share of 3% may win the daily quota ranking, wheras in Germany double-digit quota are still common. The interest of the US audience is distributed over a greater number of platforms and channels, but more important is the growing use of non-linear TV services and video platforms.

In Germany and other European countries the public systems still rule the senior generations, but in the younger cohorts the share is much smaller. Will these cohorts (the teens, twenties and thirties from today) change their attitudes towards television use and especially the reception of public service media, when they get older? Will they desire to sink into the cozy couch atmosphere in their living rooms when they reach their 40th birthdays? Or will the ignorance towards the public media grow and in the end delegitimate the mandate of these institutions?

Research in the field of newspaper use shows that there is not much hope. Even non-newspaper readers judge newspapers as relevant (that is what they have heard of), but the motivation to read and subscribe newspapers sinks constantly. A similar observation about the gap between image and use has been made amongst the youngest age cohort (12 to 19) in Germany.

Public broadcasters will lose the younger parts of the public if they do not position themselves as part of the culture of the younger generation. This culture is interspersed by personal mobile media. The lesson is already learned by some radio stations, but not in TV programming and only in a small part of the PSM web and mobile activities.

Two years ago in a document from a German public broadcaster was stated that its position in the internet competition was unique: For a radio station that is delivering mainly quality spoken-word audio content, said the document, there are no competitors in the internet. This perspective is evidently wrong. The USP of radio news in online environments is not audio. If the focus is shifted from the radio channel to the website with radio news content, the market definition has to be changed. The competition is not longer about radio content, it is about news or music or health care counselling. The online competition is focused on attention and its duration, and it is driven by specific content.
In regard to competition and the market the behaviour and the expectations of the audience have to be focused. The media users select for more or less good reasons the programmes they consume and – in many cases – pay for them. They would not select them without the expectation that the reception would be useful for them. This utility includes elements that public broadcasters are seldom offering. It is well known that entertainment, suspense and relaxation have often a higher rank or subjective value as education or information about political affairs. Most people react to attractive formatted and comprehensible content more than to reliable sources, independent investigation and balanced opinions.

Another important aspects are the asymmetrical market shares in traditional broadcast compared to online market shares. As an example: The German news programme Tagesschau is watched by 10 million viewers every night at 8 pm. This results in a market share of around 35% for that timeslot. Website and apps from do not often exceed the range of 40 million visits per month and rank between place 8 and 10 of German online news media – far behind (335 million visits), (218 million visits) and even behind the services of the small TV news channel (121 million visits). Habits and trust of the audience do not migrate automatically from traditional to new media environments. This is one of the most threatening insights of the last decade.

The challenge for PSM for the next decade is to proof their relevance in online and mobile media environments. The gain of relevance in these fields should at least balance the loss of relevance in linear media environments which happens because of the generation rift. Of course relevance is not measurable in a quantitative way as audience share or clickrates. The proof must include the approval of their specific value for the public communication. An awareness or felt relevance of PSM brands which actually are no longer contacted (like TV news in younger generations) does not suffice.

If they do not deliver this proof of relevance, the PSM systems are doomed to lose their legitimation. This legitimation depends not only on quality content that no one else can deliver, it depends also to a certain amount on the relationship with an existing audience.

Full digital transformation

In summary of the arguments of the last section: Public service broadcasters have to face the situation

  • that they will get no gratification for their unique selling proposition,
  • that they are confronted with a bunch of new competitors. It is not an uncountable myriad, by the way, because the internet competition is getting highly concentrated, and the pure multitude of voices should not mistaken for diversity,
  • that they have very seldom such a prominent position in the online market of their countries that they had or still have on the radio or television market,
  • that they are not free in the decisions regarding the development of appropriate online media formats – in comparison to a commercial publishing company.

Media change produces insults for traditional media and their employees which they maybe cannot overcome in one generation. Some professional categories, like radio studio technicians, are over the phase of insult already. The critical paradigm shift is still pending yet.

The transformation of broadcast enterprises to future-proof digital media enterprises has begun only rudimentarily and is not achieved.
The full digital transformation of PSM does not only affect distribution channels, but also content, presentation, tonality, external (legal) and internal rules and most notably the structure and the spirit of the institution itself. Analysis of failed attempts to gain acceptance in the digital sphere (e. g. of newspapers like the New York Times) shows that only a change of all processes within a media enterprise can produce the desired results.

The New York Times Innovation Report 2014 stated that every single process within the whole enterprise should be optimized for digital, not for print. If this guideline would be applied to PSM it would read: There must not exist any concept in the whole institution that serves exclusively the linear programmes. Furthermore, the real existing needs of the online and mobile audience have to be detected in active communication with the users and refined together.

What’s in a network?

In the last decade sociological and media studies do not only focus on the gains of the technological developments for the public. On one side there are still assertions of more openness and participation through internet specific mechanisms. Internal contradictions of seemingly open and democratic platforms like Wikipedia or Liquid Democracy are often overlooked. On the other side the control aspects of the internet are increasingly explored, at least since the NSA surveillance shock. Related to this are studies of disempowerment, disorientation and lack of interest among the audiences in western democratic countries – combined with the susceptibility for populist movements and their black-or-white agendas.*2*

In a mixture of idealistic social-technological stereotypes and neoliberal openness, Harvard law professor and peer production advocate Yochai Benkler interprets the emergent „networked information economy“ as basis of a more critical and self-reflecting culture.*3* He ignores much criticised occurrences of plebiscitary and nearly bolchevik decision structures in important web domains – like Wikipedia or the so-called „liquid democracy“ mechanisms of political organisations like Cinque Stelle in Italy. The networked parts of societies do not prove to have comprehensive information or to be able to find compromises that fit for majorities. In contrary, they tend to demotivate independent political orientation and deliberation.*4*

And, as an additional observation, Benkler never takes the materiality of networks and its effects on their participants in account. Benklers networks are plotted as aggregations of autonomous individuals – one of the standard fallacies of liberalism since Rousseau. In fact the asymmetrical communication of the mass media era is supplemented by asymmetrical communicating net communities. In Benklers argumentation theoretical models of democratic deliberation seem to be mistaken for empirical opportunities. The phantasma of a better networked economy melts away when business models of Airbnb or Uber would be taken in account. The internet established new opportunities to share music or (legally more agreeable) playlists, and opportunities to show one’s talents as artist or presenter. Market relations are only mildly challenged by these practices, and they do not offer a higher degree of democracy of any kind. The market forces have been able to integrate internet economics.

Interesting in this field are new infrastructures and ecosystems of private, institutional and commercial actors which would have been improbable in pre-Internet ages. A good example is the Danish LARM ecosystem that combines sound studies, technical research, commercial software development, education and new form of access to audio-visual archives.*5*

Despite all the drawbacks PSM have no other chance than to open their programme concepts and their organisation for the digital network future of media. Avoidance of the complete transformation into digital enterprises would lead to a loss of relevance and legitimation, and in the end to a withdrawal of the public – in Germany even constitutional – mission. The foundation of a media enterprise on network activity demands a complete paradigm shift. Listening before talking, direct contacts with the audience on all levels of the organisational hierarchy, orientation at sustainability are only three important factors of the internet paradigm. The measurement and evaluation of success raises new issues which are mostly unsolved up to now.

Measurement of relevance

PSM programmes in the web – live streams or on demand content – have no other USP than their quality. A concept paper of a German radio broadcaster which was written two years ago contained an interesting description. Our position in the web competition – it said – is outstanding because we have an USP: audio. The impact of our activity on the market is therefore extremely low. This point of view is inappropriate and dangerous at the same time. Of course there is a huge amount of audio content in the web, and that covers audio of all genres. Some of the broadcast content will find its match there. But competition in the web is not about content features like audio or video. It is about the time budget of the users. If someone has found an illustrated report on Syrian refugees and spent 10 minutes with reading, he may not be so much motivated to listen to a 5-minute radio report additionally, and vice versa. And in many real use cases it is not even possible to listen to an audio or watch a video – for instance if someone is commuting in a train and equipped with a smartphone.
The competition in the web is about time. There is a huge flood of online videos and content of other sorts which compete with a programme or a single clip. Online communication especially in social networks should convey the impression that this special product is a must-have and that users get definitely richer when watching or listening to it for 30 minutes.

Audience measurement for radio and TV was never very appropriate for PSM programmes. Their mission is to deliver quality content, enhance intercultural understanding, enable comprehension of complex political and economical affairs and many other hardly measurable tasks. The measurement of reach in the broadcast fields and of clickrates, visits, visitors and so on in the online area are targeting the advertising impact. For advertisement-free media these numbers cannot be relevant as guidelines for programming, or at least they should not be. Additional problems arise when audience data from broadcast and from internet media shall be compared. A unifying measurement standard does not exist yet. But there are promising developments. The newspaper Financial Times is testing a time-based currency for digital advertising instead of the traditional Cost Per Mille.*6* If broadcast contact time will get as measurable as online contact time, a unified standard could be established. At least for connected TV sets the possibility of time measurement exists already.

The proven contact time still cannot provide information about the relevance of a programme. But in combination with qualitative evaluation methods the consumed time for any kind of content is a valuable reference. In critical discussions about the need for public financed media such kind of reference could help.

TV is still alive

A survey of empirical studies shows that PSM representatives have to accept the fact that the pending question – if TV is a cohort media or an event media – tends to get unwelcomed answers for broadcasters. A „TV is still alive“ strategy (likewise: Radio …) will apparently not outlast the next two decades. As long as PSM prioritize linear production and distribution they are endangered by a sudden loss of legitimation within this time-span.

The argument that linear media are not dead, has another side. A strategy which distributes special online and mobile content only for the younger ones can reveal itself as a big mistake. Online affinity and media usage is spread over all generations from 10 to 80. The millennium generation, the so-called digital natives, is not more capable to handle and understand digital devices than others – rather less, as one can learn from experiences at schools and universities. There are indeed differences: Members of the older generations are not so impatient and do not communicate with the same tonality as the younger ones.
The public media mandate is to address all strata of the society – and this should be done over all media channels. If you address the young in an online niche and change no other part of your business strategy, you will fail. Instead the self-conception of traditional media has to be attacked and to be altered. PSM should produce younger content for all channels and spend a lot of money to move the whole institution into the direction of an online service.

The transition process will not be easy because employees on all levels of broadcast enterprises could interprete the perspective shift from broadcast to online as insult of their work and their competence. Despite nearly twenty years of experience also with online services many lessons still have to be learned.

A mapping study of a German PSM had the result that its websites had no or very little impact on the awareness of its linear radio channels and its brands. All possible options were discussed including the question if the websites are dispensable at all. Apparently this would add even more problems.

1. Radio audience and website visitors are not the same people. Even if the traditional minded PSM company values its online service as mere PR for its linear channels, the online visitors do not. Many of them are looking for valuable online content and nothing more.

2. If the online audience is small and volatile, the online content may not be attractive enough. It does not suffice to point to highlights of the linear programme, the public must be attracted by non-linear content which is linkable and sharable and apt to become the subject of communication in open or closed communities.

The transformation of the media sphere does not proceed automagically. If online and mobile media do not get prioritised from now on, the transformation will probably fail.

Tripolarity versus trimediality

Digitization initiated the emergence of two phenomena: technological convergence and interconnectedness. Convergence is a dynamic transformation process which creates new media entities, not only the combination of existing elements. This is a much-debated statement since the end of the 1990s, and broadcasters took part in the discussion very early. But public broadcasters soon run into legal and institutional obstacles when they tried to initiate close connections between broadcast and online media. If online editors like to develop powerful new interactive and multimedial formats and services they depend on radio and television departments which are willing to cross the horizon of their traditional linear programme slots. There have been many good examples of such formats in the last fifteen years. But frequently the endeavours to produce remarkable online content look like the mere assembly of leftovers.

The experimental beginnings of public service online media was connected with the construct of the „third pillar“. But in the perspective of convergent media development radio, television and online media do not share the same category. Online media constitute not another media channel that competes with others. Basically they have the potential to unify all other media channels. At least they reallocate the places of traditional media and redefine their relevance. This is the process we are facing now.

Looking at the mutual relation of medial channels, considerable problems arise not only in the legal and institutional fields but also in respect of their contact and reception mode. How will the relation of linear and non-linear services develop? In a long-term perspective there is no doubt: Linear programs will be a special case of discrete digital media services. Only very few TV formats – like some live shows and sport events – are mandatory linear. The old paradigm of TV primetime audience flow and the loyalty of the audience to a certain channel is already vanishing. For TV documentaries and educational programs it never existed anyway. It tends to be replaced by the interest in remarkable content. Even if the linear perspective still prevails it is reasonable to make long-term plans for the next two decades on the basis of the other, the digital perspective. The evocation of magical numbers – as the unchanged 240 minutes of daily linear tv reception – will not impress the consumer behaviour of the younger user generations. Orientation will not longer derive from TV channel logos but from content brands like Jamie’s Super Food, Tagesschau or Sherlock.

In a near convergent future, TV and radio are no longer separate media with their own distribution technologies but mere distinct formats with specific journalistic, editorial, aesthetic and technical features. Even today, successful multimedia productions demonstrate on websites and in apps how benefits can be drawn from all available sources and materials. The altered media use drives the consideration of new services and formats. An essential observation is that the reception of video content is currently the strongest force, particularly on smartphones and particularly in younger generations. The most prominent property of smartphones is not that they are mobile but that they are personal. Adolescents may spend a lot of time in rooms with turned-on TV sets, but their video reception on smartphones is much more relevant for them. Consistence with their preferences and therefore highest attention are guaranteed.

Beyond all buzzwords like crossmediality or trimediality it is important for media with a public value mandate to be present with mobile media services. These require financial and organisational efforts that are or can be constrained by the traditional broadcast orientation of PSM*7*. TV and radio departments may be willing to share their content with the online colleagues, but not their budgets. For instance an initiative of a high-ranked TV editor of a German broadcaster to spend 1% of all editorial TV budgets for Youtube reformatting and user communication failed. The third pillar alone has no mandate to produce independent content, and the other two pillars are not inclined to support the production of adequate and impressive online content. This dilemma cannot be solved within the boundaries of the current self-conception of PSM TV and radio departments. Since several years the concept of crossmedia production gets featured at many events, and there is a lot of literature about it. This concept tries to bridge two different territories. But it does not intend to change any of them. And therefore it ignores the dynamics of media development. If traditional media do not understand themselves as part and factor of online media, they will lose their options for the future.

Crossmedial or trimedial productions try to reflect the requirements and expectations that arise with the present state of media development. But they lack a strategical concept as a frame for the editorial work and the usage of resources. Without such a frame trimediality generates only a semblance of modernity but avoids a fundamental shift. A wiser concept than trimediality would be tripolarity: The two broadcast media, radio and TV, should assign ideas and resources for each of their programmes to three poles: linear, non-linear and interactive/communicative (or „social“). The responsibility for a successful transformation to the digital age rests in the hands of the radio and TV editors who have the idea potential and the financial means to organise it. The trimedial „three pillar“ thinking relieves them from that task and assigns it to online editors who could be seen as internal competitors for resources.

Regulation, including AVMSD

The future of linear broadcast is indeed at stake. Online and mobile media will inevitably continue to exist. It is only doubtful if the public financed media will have a part in the digital media future. The perspective of „journalistic-editorial communication services“ could point into the right direction.

The broadcast and media regulation of EU members is oriented at the legal framework of the EU Commission in which the Audio Visual Media Services Directive (AVMSD) plays a central role. For the discussion of the role of PSM in the digital media future it will be useful to orient oneself in the valid definitions of the directive.

The definition of a „programme“ shows that the distinction between broadcast and internet-based services is already blurred:

‚Programme’ means a set of moving images with or without sound constituting an individual item within a schedule or a catalogue established by a media service provider and the form and content of which are comparable to the form and content of television broad­ casting. Examples of programmes include feature-length films, sports events, situation comedies, documentaries, children’s programmes and original drama …

Central for the legal privilegation of programmes – like those that are hosted by PSM – is the exercise and quality of editorial responsibility:

‚Editorial responsibility’ means the exercise of effective control both over the selection of the programmes and over their organisation either in a chronological schedule, in the case of television broadcasts, or in a catalogue, in the case of on-demand audiovisual media services. Editorial responsibility does not necessarily imply any legal liability under national law for the content or the services provided …*8*

Technically and in the domain of the users the convergence is going on. Considering the the usage of streaming services like Netflix, Amazon Prime or Spotify and Tidal, the boundaries between classical broadcast and partly editorial operated streaming services are dissolving. Binge-watchers of a House of Cards or a Good Wife season do not mind if it was produced by a TV company or by Netflix. If a playlist is appropriate and varied enough music listeners do not care if it is offered by a rock radio station or by Spotify. The playlist editors of streaming services have meanwhile proved that they can deliver more interesting stuff than standard Top 40 or even specialized rock radio stations. A recently developed mobile app called SpotiNews that works in combination with the Spotify app makes it even possible to listen to a news programme with adjustable frequency and genre.

The family of Public Service Media and its friends have the choice to support any conservative movement that aims to protect classical broadcast including its legal and technical features – or to go ahead with the digital transformation of services and institutions. In the digital realm distinct distribution technologies and receiving units are superfluous. Each smartphone, tablet, laptop or PC is already a digital radio set – and can work as digital TV receiver. In fact, in most European households have Wifi available, and the existing FM and DAB radio sets are challenged by internet connected devices. In most cases, they are able to deliver much better sound quality and much more variety than terrestrial radio reception. But as mere radio receivers they are under-addressed. In addition to live radio they can offer non-linear content, communication and interaction. Radio channels that dare the transgression to networked media can stabilize themselves as interesting anchor points for their target groups. They have to act tripolar and to learn not only to talk but also to listen. TV stations also are not doomed to senescence and death if they invent themselves new as net-based online service with optional linear channel. Nowadays the priorities are just the other way round. Linear programms are enriched by online PR and Youtube morsels.

The legal permission for a priority shift of public funded PSM is still a problem. But there are good chances to cope with this problem.
A cornerstone for the safe future of PSM will be the definition of broadcast in the realm of digital media in European and regulation disputes. A pioneering approach was delivered by Kluth/Schulz in a report for a German governmental commission.*9* In conformity with the existing federal broadcast laws in Germany and the established wording of the European Audio-Visual Media Services Directive (AVMSD) they outline the concept of replacing the traditional broadcast term by the formula „journalistic-editorial information and communication services“. This concept would provide the landing platform of those convergent media which are privileged by constitutional or other law. Broadcast would no longer be defined by technical characteristics or linearity of transmission and reception. The metamorphosis from a broadcaster to a multimedia service provider could be fostered by the adoption of this new legal framework.

In fact the media regulation does not keep pace with the actual transition of media environments. The problems are increased by the conservatism in the leadership of many PSM corporations. The administrative independence from direct political influence has a downside. Even if politicians have insights regarding the endangered relevance and legitimation of PSM they do not have the means to convince or overrule the reluctant broadcast leadership that proceeds as usual. This problem of media governance could create the greatest danger for the future of PSM.


*1*Castells, Manuel. The Rise of the Network Society. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 1996/2000, p. 386.
*2*See for instance: Bertone, Giulia et al. (2015). LiquidFeedback in Large-scale Civic Contexts: Framing Multiple Styles of Online Participation. In Journal of Social Media for Organizations. Volume 2, Number 1. —Große, Katharina et al. (2012). Der Erfolg von Begleitforschung zur Adhocracy-Plattform der Enquete-Kommission „Internet und digitale Gesellschaft“. Friedrichshafen: Zeppelin-Universität. [Download:]
*3*Benkler, Yochai. The wealth of networks. How social production transform markets and freedom. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2006.
*4*Große, 2012 (note 2).
*6*Sanghvi, Nikul. Cost Per Hour. Using a Time-Based Currency for Digital Advertising. May 2015. [11 Sep 2016].
*7*See Virta, Sari & Lowe, Gregory Ferrell. Crossing Boundaries for Innovation. Content Development for PSM at Yle. In Gregory Ferrell Lowe & NobutoYamamoto (eds.), Crossing borders and boundaries in Public Service Media. RIPE @ 2015. Göteborg: Nordicom, 2016, p. 230.
*8*Directive 2010/13/EU of the European parliament and of the Council of 10 March 2010 on the coordination of certain provisions laid down by law, regulation or administrative action in Member States concerning the provision of audiovisual media services (Audiovisual Media Services Directive). Official Journal of the European Union, L 95,12.
*9*Kluth, Winfried; Schulz, Wolfgang: Konvergenz und regulatorische Folgen. Gutachten im Auftrag der Rundfunkkommission der Länder. Hamburg: Verlag Hans-Bredow-Institut, Oktober 2014.