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Is there an audience for a public TV channel?

This month the government defines the establishment of new television network

Reproduction: "Operários" by Tarsila do Amaral“I think television’s something that’s very educational. Every time someone turns on a TV set I go to the room next door to read a book.” These words from Groucho Marx sound like a challenge to the launch of a public TV channel  scheduled to go on air with the first transmissions of digital TV in early December. Either this month or next the government should submit to Congress a provisional measure or legislative bill determining the creation of the new network, which, according to the Chief  Minister of the Department of Social Communication of the Office of the President, should have a budget of  R$350 million. “God gave me a second term in office to do new things and one of them is public TV,”  said President Lula, for whom the new TV will be the start of a cultural “PAC (Growth Acceleration Program).”  According to him, “at present, in no Brazilian state, with rare exceptions, do you have debating programs.” He warns, however, that “we don’t want a government-only TV channel, because it’d become demoralized on its own and wouldn’t last three months. It’s not something for either bad-mouthing or talking up the government; it’s to inform.”

What format this public TV will take is still a mystery (there is the possibility that the current state TV stations will be brought together into one network, serving as an “embryo” for the new TV), there’s a lot of confusion between “public TV” and “state TV” and   it is not yet known how the network will be funded and what direction it is going to take. There are also technical dilemmas: there is no room in the electro-magnetic broadcasting spectrum to create public channels with digital transmission in São Paulo. “If the process for transforming from the analog mode were to start today they’d be out of it,”  says the Superintendent of the National Telecommunications Agency (Anatel), because during the migration process each channel is going take up the space of two channels: the existing analog one plus the new digital one. The only things that are known are Martins’s statements guaranteeing that he will follow some of the points of the “Letter from Brasília”,  a document with recommendations and proposals that resulted from the First National Public TV Forum held in May, 2006. The letter foresees a “new public network organized by the Federal Government that should broaden and strengthen the current public educational networks across the board.”  The document insists that the “new network must be independent and autonomous vis-à-vis the market and must receive its funding from several sources, of which government budgets would be a significant one.”  Its mission is to complement commercial TV, whether open-signal or cable, “including regional production, encouraging independent production and distinguishing itself  by encouraging the production of interactive and innovative high quality digital content.”

“In Brazil the idea of public broadcasting services was always subordinate to the commercial model,”  is the analysis of sociologist Laurindo Leal Filho, a member of the council of professionals who came together in order to devise the public TV channel. The first initiative of this type occurred in 1923, when Roquete Pinto created the Radio Society of Rio de Janeiro, whose function was “to take the moral comfort of science and art to all households, via radio.”  Thus, Brazilians actually created a state-run TV system a few months before the British BBC, which was born out of the same spirit, but is funded by a license users pay for, thereby assuring its financial independence. “In Brazil it was just the opposite: the model succumbed to commerce and in 1932 the government authorized broadcasters to have up to 10% of their airtime dedicated to advertising. Although Vargas was a centralizer he had to come to terms with private capital, which had an interest in this sector. Even the National Radio station, which belonged to the government, worked like a private company,”  notes Leal. This peculiar merger, assesses sociologist Renato Ortiz, “generated the total lack of limits between the public and private sectors in Brazilian broadcasting, which still persists to this day, with funding being provided by the State to private TV broadcasters, in the form of advertising and sponsorship.”

In 1968 there was a new attempt to reverse this situation with the creation of the Padre Anchieta Foundation, that copied the BBC model, whereby a governing trust, representing society and with independent management , ran the broadcaster. “Except that the British trust works with 12 members whereas in São Paulo’s TV Cultura today we have 45 of them ,which dilutes responsibility and weakens the network’s autonomy,”  ponders Leal. The third chance, believes the sociologist, was lost with the Constitution of 1988, in connection with Article 233, which makes it incumbent upon the Executive Branch to grant and renew the concessions and permissions for sound and image broadcasting. “Brazil has kept a hegemonic commercial model, with a reduced state radio and TV service and a sole experiment, TV Cultura in São Paulo, which is forever in a state of crisis.”  For Beth Carmona, director of  TVE and also a member of the public TV council, “both the understanding and practice of public network concepts in Brazil are recent.” According to Ms. Carmona, “right from the start Brazil chose the path of granting concessions for the broadcast of television signals to the private sector, no strategic policy having been established about these vehicles being used with social objectives.”  The State, she continues, only became involved with the issue during the 70s, when an irregular and weak educational radio and television system was introduced in several states. “Brazilian TV has developed in a liberal climate, in line with commercial parameters that are aimed at the consumer market and whose objective is profitability; there are almost no limitations to content,”  is the assessment of the director from the Rio de Janeiro broadcasting station.

“Today the people and the State realize there is a need for people-oriented TV, with programs that take into account the value of the public not merely as consumers, but also as citizens. A public communication system is necessary for democracy,”  she finishes. A journalist and professor of communication from the USP School of Communication and Arts, Eugênio Bucci, is less radical. “It’s good to make it clear that market demands are legitimate and vital in a democracy rather than the devil incarnate; they just can’t be the only things that define social communication. That’s where public TV comes in, with complementary rather opposing functions. Public and commercial broadcasters, each in their own field, make for a strong and healthy democracy. If they become the same, if they offer similar content, then society doesn’t need public TV,”  he ponders. Advocating the independence of the public network from any subordinate role for promoting governors, ministers or presidents of the Republic, Bucci proposes four esthetic banners for public TV: targeting the invisible, in other words, getting away from flattering the audiences, an attitude that defines the entertainment industry; abolishing the offer of pre-fabricated enjoyment, by offering something different rather than repeating increasingly larger doses of the same sensations; looking for content that does not fit into commercial TV, without fear of the abyss of “boredom”;  emancipating, instead of selling, and not succumbing to the impulse of needing to be wanted, not functioning as an audience capturing entity, but as an emancipator and incubator.

Would this not be the antithesis of the nature of the vehicle? After all, even President Lula repeated his vision of a TV that was not just an “educational tool”, but that “had an audience rather than traces of one?”  Is it possible to produce TV that is not “entertainment” and even so win over viewers? “Television is not a given from nature, but a cultural production of social relationships and democracy. Its meaning and use are  determined on the plains of culture and by itself  is not of a nature that extends to  culture. Entertainment, a branch of commerce, has nothing to do with communication of a public nature,”  observes Bucci. There are, he recalls, examples of this in several global public network experiments, some of them very successful, especially the UK’s BBC.

“You need to give citizens a good quality program schedule, devoid of commercial interests, geared toward educating, supplying culture and making available the type of information that is rarely shown on commercial TV networks. Public TV exists for the citizen, who is its chief guardian,”  says journalist Lúcio Mesquita, Head of the BBC’s World Service for the Americas, who is interested in establishing partnerships in Brazil. The British network is funded by means of an annual fee of £116 paid by every household that has a TV set, as well as by the sale of programs and licenses to several countries and government purposes. However, advertising obeys Draconian rules. “The main one is the distance between those who produce the program content and the advertisers,”  says Mesquita.

The BBC’s Director-General reports to a Trust, whose members represent civil society, which monitors programming across the network’s 10 radio channels and 50 TV broadcasters. The network which prides itself on having a  “manual of conduct”, with severe ethical rules  banning the exclusion of any line of thought in its content. Because of this Mesquita believes in the power of renewal of the public network. “In Brazil, programs like Castelo Rá-tim-bum, thanks to their quality, have become a benchmark, obliging other broadcasters to improve their children’s programs.”  Is it a model to be followed? For journalist Nelson Hoineff, “perhaps the BBC is not capable of supplying us with any clues about how to deal with the poor performance of  Brazilian private television, but it is an indicator that a strong public TV model is essential for a democratic society to function.”  There are, however, problems in the British funding method. “A few years ago the government of  São Paulo tried to drum up compulsory support for TV Cultura via electricity bills and the world almost collapsed,”  remembers Hoineff. “Unfortunately”, he observes, “it’s not possible to reproduce this model here, beginning with the origin of Brazilian television, which was born following the American private model; it won’t get away from this until the notion of broadcasters and networks has been exhausted.”

The difference is that the American government has invested in public television since its inception, in 1951, when 242 TV channels were reserved for non-commercial transmissions: “Public interest will be clearly served if these stations contribute to the nation’s educational process,”  stated the Federal Communications Commission at the time. It was necessary to stop an organized commercial TV monopoly. After all, the disorganized start of radio in 1920 meant that television followed a functional pattern, immediately adopting the principle of program funding via advertising. In 1967, President Lyndon Johnson sent Congress a message in which he outlined the guidelines for public TV, dividing television communication into three lines: commercial, with “the purpose of relaxation and entertainment”; educational, “which supplies recognized knowledge”; and public, “that is dedicated to everything that is of interest and importance on the human plane, without being transformed at the moment into an object of publicity”.  Although it had federal funding this TV was “free of any interference on the part of the government”.

Setting aside US$27.5 million, Johnson made room for the creation in 1969 of the PBS (Public Broadcasting Service), whose by-laws state that its “main purpose is to serve the country and not the market”,  making clear its option not to use audience figures as parameters for its content. PBS is a not-for-profit organization consisting of 350 stations and a provider of non-commercial programs and other services (especially educational broadcasting via the Internet) for which viewers pay an annually estimated figure. Furthermore, it receives government funds via the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. The network also gets money from viewers who contribute to  collection campaigns. PBS is the mediator of  partnering agreements between its stations and the universities that produce distance-learning programs that benefit nearly 450,000 students, who complete their university credits through televised lessons. “Although it’s sometimes ambivalent, PBS is proof that only in that particular space is it possible to broadcast a product of human creation that would not be welcome in a market that is neither creative nor human,”  is how the article “PBS’s independent lens”  in the New Yorker sums it up.

The network’s major innovation, in fact, is neither to produce nor to fund programs, but to buy what it needs from third parties, generally independent producers from all over the world. This is the position also advocated by journalist Gabriel Priolli, director of  TV PUC, from São Paulo, as a means of cutting costs and making public TV viable in Brazil. Its funding, he argues, should be “mixed”,  ensuring that State budget grants actually reach the broadcasters while society and private initiative get involved in the project. “Public TV needs to stop operating like producers and need to get back to exhibiting, but with absolute control over the creation of products, concepts and the orientation of the program schedule.”  Priolli is cautious about state enthusiasm. “We must develop the concept of what public TV is and what type of public TV we want to fund very carefully. I don’t agree with the network idea; multiplicity is the way to go,”  he reckons. This is the tone adopted by German public TVs that have chosen to use regional stations, with their regionalized programs, which also provide a multiplicity of information. “Public broadcasters are not just media; they’re mainly an important forum for social debate. The German public broadcaster likes to go out of its building so the public can see it,”  says Uwe Rosembaum, Programming Director for Südwestrundfunk.

Continuing with the comparison, German public TV, in the past, was an example of a threat that many today fear will be repeated in the Brazilian public network, i.e., becoming a political tool for government propaganda. “I think we need public TV, but society needs to be very careful and vigilant. It can’t be Lula’s TV; it has to be society’s. We need to move beyond minor interests. You can’t create a serious public TV network in two or three months, by listening to just a few ministers and their advisors,”  warns Valerio Britos, Ph.D. in Communication from the Federal University of  Bahia and professor of the University of  Vale do Rio dos Sinos (Unisinos). The President of the Brazilian Association of Educational and Cultural Public Broadcasters (Abepec), Jorge Cunha Lima, agrees. “A public network is not born by decree, but from converting content, from the sum of each state’s production capabilities and from broadcasting this on a national basis.” For the President of Abepec, “A  TV station will only be public if it is intellectually and administratively independent, mid-way between government and the market, ruled by councils that represent society.”   According to Cunha Lima it is important that funding for public TV stations be established.

In Lima’s assessment the states are ready to produce quality content and he proposes using the Sao Paulo TV Cultura as a  model,   in lieu of the intentions of the federal government,  who he suspects intend to transform the future public network into a type of  “state TV”  in disguise. “Saying that state TV is a government advocate and that public TV is independent,  is a cunning argument, because even a TV that belongs entirely to the State cannot proselytize,”  ponders Bucci. He believes that they all have the obligation to be  impersonal . “No democracy can do without public communication, because it serves those areas that commercial communication cannot. Our problem concerns managing and formatting the regulatory milestones.”  Beth Carmona goes further when she states that now is the time to rethink the role of the State in the communications area. “Television is a powerful tool for strengthening  society’s values and customs, so it should be included in public policies. However, any attempt at discussion is viewed with suspicion as being censorship or as a lack of transparency. The State has practically limited itself to just granting the channel and controlling it from the technical point of view, disciplining and organizing the electromagnetic spectrum.”  According to Carmona the State’s task has become even more complex. “At present it’s not enough to differentiate public TV, using the premise of quality programming or for its national content, because others have already taken control of this brand of TV. It will only make sense due to its potential for diversifying opinions, opening up content, dealing with all topics and covering all locations.”  If you dislike like it, go next door and read a book.