European TV getting dumber and dumber, study says

A hard-hitting report by the Open Society Institute criticises dumbing down and trivialisation of TV content throughout Europe, as a result of ineffective regulation and insufficient funding of high-quality public service TV. 

In all European countries, public service television has to compete with private companies, which have little to no public services obligations. The ownership of these companies often lacks transparency, with a general tendency towards a concentration of media ownership in the hands of some big companies, and with few safeguards against the abuse of such dominant positions. This is the case in many central and southeastern European countries, and in particular in Italy, where the prime minister still controls most of the TV channels. 

In central and southeastern European countries, public service television has just been transformed from what used to be state-controlled television. The transformations were coupled with significant decreases in funding. The result was in most cases a drop in the audience market share. In Poland and Hungary, for example, public service TV’s market share dropped from 80% to 20% between 1997 and 2003.

While the reasoning behind liberalisation was that competition with the private sector would increase the quality of public service TV, the recent trend seems to be the exact opposite: lack of diversity, commercialisation of content, trivialisation and tabloidisation of newscasts and dumbing-down of newscasts were only some of the harsh words found by the authors of the OSI study to describe tendencies in the European TV landscape. 

All of this, the authors of the study conclude, makes TV a hotspot where regulatory issues are in direct touch with the values of democratic societies.

The authors of the OSI study say that 

  • "investigative journalism and minority programming are hard to find in both public service and commercial broadcasting. Viewers often do not receive the information necessary to make informed democratic choices." 
  • "The super-concentration that characterises Italy’s broadcast sector, the confusion created by the collusion between the media and the political establishment, and the excessive attention of the executive to the management of the public networks are not just 'Italian anomalies'. These problems represent imminent potential threats to any democratic system, and especially to the transitional democracies of Central and Eastern Europe. " 
  • They conclude that all countries and international bodies should ensure the involvement of civil society in efforts to develop and shape media policy and prioritise the monitoring of theses polices and their implementation. 
  • They propose the creation of an independent European body to monitor these processes.

Tobias Schmid of the RTL Group, a division of the international media corporation Bertelsmann AG, said private broadcasting companies cannot be expected to solve the problems of public service stations and that more regulation is not what television audiences need. "We've got to be a bit careful to go into a discussion of heavy regulation because, in the end, the viewer regulates himself. He knows what he wants to see and what he doesn't."

Aidan White, the Secretary General of the International Federation of Journalists, said what was needed was not more debate about pluralism. "We need more actions to defend European basic values - the whole debate is window-dressing. This report highlights the realities. The consequences of the lack of pluralism are a rise of ignorance and a decrease in social inclusion. Saying we need more debate is not enough. We need to say what are our values, how do we defend them and what action needs to be taken."

Watson Brown  of DG Information Society  said the report was partial in favour of public service providers: "This is back to the 80s, to very little choice for the consumer."

In response to this, Werner Rumphorst, the Director of the Legal Department with the European Broadcasting Union, reproached the Commission for favouring private TV over public service providers, e.g when it actively promotes football to be available on pay-TV. 

The OSI's study, which was presented at the European Policy Centre on 11 October 2005, is on 'Television across Europe: regulation, policy and independence'. The 2,000-page paper analyses the situation throughout Europe, focuses on 20 selected countries and gives recommendations for policies.

Almost 4,000 television channels are available in the European Union. On any given day, European citizens spend on average more than three hours gazing at the TV screen. Television remains, in spite of the rise of the internet, the prime source of information for the vast majority of Europeans. 

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