From cuts to controversies, NPR and PBS haven’t had an easy time of it lately. Indeed, the news last month that the National Endowment for the Arts had sharply cut its support for traditional PBS programs in favor of gaming- and web-based projects was only the latest disappointment for public broadcasters in the United States. In northern Europe, by contrast, public broadcasting has traditionally been funded very well and without controversy. But that, too, may now be changing.
Lately, the Scandinavian countries’ parliaments are proposing new funding schemes, and the European Commission is dictating new governmental regulations. As both economic and political pressure mounts, some journalists feel unsure of the future of their funding system—and of the editorial independence they say comes with it.
Modeled after the BBC and founded in the 1920s, public radio in Sweden, Finland, Norway, and Denmark are non-profit and advertisement-free. Public television followed in the 1950s. Public service broadcasting is central to Scandinavians’ lives, with an overwhelming majority of the public watching, listening to, or reading its news programming online every day. Surveys and studies of media consumption in the region consistently show that public service radio and television provide the most unbiased news, and are the sources of news most trusted by the audiences in their respective countries.
Operations are almost entirely funded by a yearly license fee that every household with a television (or, recently, with a computer) must pay. That fee, which ranges from about $300 to $450 per household depending on the country, is set by each country’s government. An independent trust in each country collects and distributes the fees so that the money is kept separate from the national budget, and several layers of buffers exist between politicians and appointments of the broadcast companies’ executives.
Journalists who work for these organizations say they appreciate the license fee funding system, because it ensures that their work remains independent of both the political landscape and changes in the economy. Politicians cannot cut funds from the broadcasters if they disapprove of the coverage they receive, or re-route money from the broadcasters to other projects, like hospitals or roads, at a whim.
Just as in the U.S., politicians in Scandinavia sometimes accuse their public broadcasters of having a political bias in one way or another. But unlike the U.S., those accusations can’t turn into threats of funding cuts.
“It’s important to have direct funding, rather than to have the money go through the Parliament, which would then have to be in the budget and in the discussions there every year,” says Stein Bjøntegård, head of the news department at Norway’s public broadcaster NRK. “That would be a big problem.”
Tor Arnbjørn, head of radio news at Denmark’s DR, agrees. “I think that being a public service broadcaster makes everyone feel that they have a stake in what we are doing, and so whenever we do a kind of controversial story, they accuse us of being either left wing or right wing,” he says, adding that the license fee model and arms’-length staff structure both help to mitigate that. “I don’t think you can completely remove the political pressure, but it sort of keeps it a bit at bay.”
Throughout Scandinavia, public TV viewers and radio listeners generally accept the necessity of the license fee, but with minor grumbles. In Norway, for example, audiences living in the country’s vast rural regions have complained about having to essentially pay twice for NRK television—once through the license fee, and again for satellites to pick up the signal—according to Tor Erik Engebretsen at the Norwegian Media Authority, a governmental organization that regulates broadcast content.
In Finland, too, some objected to the fact that the license fee was the same for every household, regardless of income or number of residents, so that it was more of a burden for poorer households and people who live alone. That, and the fact that an estimated one in four households were evading the fee altogether, led to a change in the funding system in December. The Finnish parliament voted for a new, more progressive fee structure that will be calculated according to combined household income and then levied automatically on every residence.
Lauri Kivinen, director general of Finland’s public radio and television broadcaster YLE, applauded the change, saying that it would preserve YLE’s independence while making the system fairer for lower-income audience members. In Sweden, meanwhile, public broadcasters are fighting potential changes from a license fee to a tax-based system for its new charter, which will be announced this year and run until 2019.