Those who oppose folding public service broadcasting budgets into the national, tax-based annual finances point to historical precedents that give credence to their fears. Dr. Tom Moring, professor of communication and journalism at the Swedish School of Social Science at the University of Helsinki, cites the Netherlands and Iceland as examples. “The government declared that they would put financing of public service under the state budgets, with a guarantee of the level of financing,” says Moring. ”And a few years later, with a change of government, or a change of political and economical context, there were grave cuts.”
Perhaps the biggest challenge to the license fee system, though, comes not from these countries’ governments, but from the European Union—and the commercial competitors who are currently lobbying the EU to protect their interests.
Publicly funded TV and radio maintained monopolies in the Scandinavian countries for many decades, and the media markets have only opened up in recent decades. In Sweden, for instance, TV4 launched in the early 1990s as the first commercial competitor to the Swedish public television company SVT. In contrast to SVT’s slightly stodgy and authoritative style, TV4 had a younger, more spontaneous tone. Eva Hamilton, CEO of the SVT, believes this was great for SVT because it nudged them to improve their programming. “I think a monopoly’s never good,” she says, adding that TV4 immediately surpassed SVT’s viewership when it launched, and stayed on top until just two years ago, when SVT regained the number one slot.
Through the years, SVT has continuously updated its lineup, adding entertainment shows and sports games and other programs that have had the effect of making it resemble a commercial network—but without the commercials. PBS audiences in the U.S. accustomed to classical music concerts and Antiques Roadshow-type fare would probably be surprised to see the wide range of programs on SVT, from soccer tournaments to HBO imports like The Wire. This broad scope, says Hamilton, is vital to their mission to be a public service to absolutely everyone. “[Many people] will never enter the channel if they are not invited by entertainment, or sports, or whatever,” Hamilton says, “and then you can provide the nicest programs, and it won’t reach them.”
Some commercial television competitors in Scandinavia are calling all of this an invasion into their territory, and, more to the point, asking why public service broadcasters should get billions of kronor (hundreds of millions of dollars) every year to do it.
“If you have a competitor that starts each year with a hell of a lot of money, and we start with nothing, it is not very fair competition, you might say,” says TV4’s administrative editor-in-chief, Anders Palmgren. “Don’t misunderstand me: I think that public service is not something bad. But to go back to a monopoly is not good, either.”
Commercial television and radio networks aren’t the only ones upset with public broadcasters’ expanding their purview. Because public TV and radio are now available online—and often supplementing their audio and video newscasts with text articles—the broadcasters are now also competing with newspapers’ websites. Newspapers in the Scandinavian countries are not losing circulation and advertising revenue quite as quickly as their American counterparts, but it’s still a worry.
When Finland decided to change YLE’s funding structure from a one-size-fits-all fee to a progressive tax this past winter, the editor-in-chief of the Helsinki-based Helsingin Sanomat, the largest-circulation daily in Scandinavia, used the opportunity to highlight the unfairness of the system overall. Mikael Pentikäinen’s editorial criticized the new agreement for guaranteeing such generous funding for YLE without putting any restrictions on its expansion online, at a time when many other media companies are still wondering how to make any money online at all.
“We think they are pretty aggressive,” says Per Hultengård, attorney for the Swedish Media Publishers’ Association, referring to the public broadcasters. “I mean, they want to expand, they want to be on all platforms. Which is, from their perspective, natural. But when they are expanding on the local and regional markets, competing in more direct ways with the more regional newspapers, we think it’s fundamentally wrong as they are financed by this fee that the government obliges its citizens to pay.”
In 2009, the European Commission announced that it would require public broadcasters to subject any new platforms or services to a “public value test,” an evaluation that balances the potential value for its audiences against the potential impact it would have on the wider media market. It would then be up to each member state to decide whether or not to allow the new service to launch.