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.
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.