Public Service Television in a Multi-Platform Environment

volume 03 issue 06/2014

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Public Service Television in a Multi-Platform Environment

A Comparative Study in Finland and Israel

Oranit Klein-Shagrir

Department of Sociology, Political Science and Communication
The Open University of Israel
P.O. Box 808, Raanana, 4353701
Israel
oranitkl@gmail.com

Heidi Keinonen

Turku Institute for Advanced Studies
Media Studies
22014 University of Turku
Finland
heidi.keinonen@uta.fi

Abstract: Cultural and economic transformations have encouraged television companies to turn their attention to multi-platform practices so as to increase their compatibility with the changing media environment. While digital media provide public service broadcasting (PSB) institutions with new opportunities for meeting their public commitments and maintaining their relevance in national media systems, PSB is also faced with additional challenges. One of these is the tension between public service values on the one hand and digital technologies and practices on the other. In this article we discuss how Finnish and Israeli PSB managers and producers perceive the opportunities and challenges of multi-platform production. In both countries public service broadcasting is striving for public legitimacy and relevance in a changing technological environment. However, the two countries currently find themselves at quite different stages: Israel has a struggling public service agency, while Finland boasts a strong broadcasting company.

Keywords: multi-platform television, public service television, interactivity, television production, PSB values, Israeli television, Finnish television

1 Introduction

Over the last two decades, the rise of digital media has brought about dramatic changes to the media environment. To name just one, broadcast television has been affected by technological transformations such as digitisation, which enables media convergence and the flow of content across multiple media platforms. As a result of cultural and economic transformations, television companies have increasingly turned their attention to multi-platform practices so as to increase their compatibility with the changing media environment. PSB institutions, however, face additional challenges beyond those of commercial broadcasters. As Debrett states:

Digital media technologies… mean far more to PSB's than multiple channels and flexible delivery; they offer potential for renewed legitimacy, by engaging and connecting communities in new ways.1

However, these new possibilities may also lead to conflicts between different public service values and objectives. Multi-platform production thus, requires public service broadcasters to re-evaluate their public commitments and to prioritise certain public service values in order to adapt to the converging media environment.

In this paper, we examine how managers and producers in PSBs perceive multi-platform production in two countries: Finland and Israel. We also address the opportunities and potential challenges associated with multi-platform production in drama and entertainment. In the final part of the article, we discuss the underlying potential tensions between different public service values and the various ways broadcasters in both countries have negotiated these tensions and prioritise certain values over the others. The paper is based on semi-structured interviews with middle-level managers and producers2 at Finnish and Israeli public service television channels. Four interviews (in Finnish) were conducted at Yle TV1 and Yle TV2, and five interviews (in Hebrew) at IBA Channel 1.3 All interviews took place between December 2013 and February 2014.

2 Finland and Israel: Similarities and Differences

Israel and Finland are both small nations. Israel's population is around 8 million, while Finland's is approximately 5 million. The small scale of their broadcasting markets is further restricted by their languages (Hebrew in Israel and Finnish in Finland), which separate the countries both from their geographical neighbours and the rest of the world. However, while Finland has maintained a substantially cohesive culture, Israel has traditionally been a multicultural immigration society, with PSB thus expected to serve a range of social groups. Both Israel and Finland are regarded as advanced high-tech countries. For Finland this status has mainly been sustained by the success of mobile phone company Nokia, but it is worth noting that in 2007 it was only the third country in the world to digitise its terrestrial broadcasting and switch off analogue television transmissions. Israel, in turn, has been dubbed a ‘start-up nation’ due to the numerous technological start-up companies and innovations that have come out of the country. The commercial television industry in Israel is often compared to its high-tech industry,4 as it produces innovative television formats and exports them globally.5

Despite certain similarities between the two countries, such as an established tradition of public service broadcasting, the evolution of these institutions in Finland and Israel has not followed a similar pattern. The Finnish broadcasting company Yle was established in 1926 as a radio company and launched two television channels in the 1950s and 1960s. Yle currently operates four national television channels (including one for the country's Swedish-speaking minority) and six radio channels.6 The future of public service broadcasting in Finland was recently secured by converting the licence fee into a public broadcasting tax, which now raises questions of legitimacy.7

The Israel Broadcasting Authority (IBA) grew out of a radio station that has been operating as an independent station since 1948. Television broadcasts were introduced to Israel only in 1968 with the launch of a single television channel in the format of the European public service model.8 It remained the only broadcast television channel in Israel for more than twenty years. Currently, IBA operates one main television channel (Channel 1) and another channel in Arabic (Channel 33) along with eight radio stations.9 In recent years, the public television channel has lost many of its viewers to commercial channels and has been suffering from organisational difficulties and intensive political involvement, which has contributed to negative public perceptions of the channel.10 An appointed public committee recently published recommendations to dismantle the current malfunctioning public service agency and establish a new agency instead.11 In both countries, public service broadcasting is striving for legitimacy and relevance; however, they are at quite different stages: Finland's Yle is a strong and thriving broadcasting company, while in Israel the IBA is seriously struggling.

3 Public Service Values in the Multi-Platform Era

As multi-platform productions are becoming increasingly common in all media markets, the future of public service broadcasting has come to attract the interest of scholars. Enquiries into what happens to public service values in a multi-platform environment have generated different arguments, ranging from support for the extension of PSB into PSM (Public Service Media) to doubts as to whether it is possible to reform the public service system at all.12 The values of PSB have also received several interpretations. The European Broadcasting Union recently defined the six core values of PSM as universality, independence, excellence, diversity, accountability and innovation. As these are not necessarily the only core values, more detailed accounts have also emerged. In his report on adapting public service to multi-platform scenarios, for instance, Roberto Suaréz Candel put forward a model of values with related public service objectives. The values he elucidates are solidarity, equality, pluralism, accountability, independence/autonomy, quality, diversity, creativity, innovation, and enlightenment.13 Even though Suaréz Candel does not clarify the meanings of these values in detail, his model portrays various objectives that derive from each of the PSB values that he mentions. For example, the value of ‘enlightenment’ is related to objectives such as promoting culture, national identity, education and art. Drawing on these definitions, we asked our interviewees about their perceptions of multi-platform production and examined their underlying public service values and objectives.

4 Multi-Platform Production: Converging Platforms and Concepts

The adoption of multi-platform production is a new and ongoing process; as such, the central concepts and definitions have not yet been crystallized either in the professional field or in academia. In the interviews, we mainly referred to the object of the study as ‘multi-platform’ (‘monimediallisuus’ in Finnish and ‘platformot merubot’ in Hebrew),14 but left it for the interviewees to decide which concepts to use. All the Finnish interviewees used the terms ‘multi-platform production’ and ‘transmediality,’ but only one made a clear distinction between them (F1). For him, transmedia storytelling refers to the “synchronized use of multiple platforms” whereby “the customer [sic] has to consume content on several platforms to get the whole story.” In a multi-platform production, on the other hand, the customer needs to use only one platform, usually the broadcast platform, while other platforms play a supplementary role (F1). The other interviewees used concepts more vaguely when talking about practices such as delivering near real-time content on different platforms (F2) or enabling a user experience that is “more than the sum of its parts” (F3).

Israeli public television managers used the terms ‘additional platform,’ ‘multi-platform’ and ‘other platforms’ when referring to delivering content beyond television. One of the interviewees even used the somewhat archaic technological concept of ‘multi-system,’ which originally referred to different technologies of broadcasting, specifically, American vs. European (NTSC vs. PAL). The concepts of cross-media and digital platforms also surfaced in the interviews with Israelis, but the concept of transmedia was not mentioned at all. In relation to all of these concepts, the Israeli interviewees generally referred to releasing the same or additional content online or on the radio in addition to television broadcasts. The relevance and significance of multi-platform productions is thus clearly recognized in both countries, but the concepts are not yet established. The interviews also reflect on the fact that the Finnish public service broadcasting company has already adopted multi-platform practices in many genres, while its Israeli counterpart has been unable to initiate multi-platform productions. This might be the reason that the Finnish interviewees mentioned Yle productions when discussing the user experience, while the Israeli interviewees’ point of view was mainly technological.

5 Opportunities Provided by Multi-Platform Production

Managers and producers in public service television perceive multi-platform production as both an opportunity and a necessity. In both Finnish and Israeli interviews, multiple platforms were seen as a means of reaching wider audiences, especially younger audience groups and people who do not watch public service television (IS1, IS3, IS4, IS5, F1, F3, F4). Engaging teens and young adults, who increasingly spend their time on social platforms, is seen as a major challenge for public television in general.15 As one of the Israeli interviewees noted, “[u]sing digital media can bring us closer to new audiences, not necessarily our natural viewers but younger ones… It can also help us compete with the commercial channels” (IS3). This quote hints at two of the main criticisms that have been directed towards public television in Israel: its aging viewership, and the dramatic gap in viewer ratings as compared to commercial channels. Multi-platform is seen as a potential remedy for both issues, although the use of multiple platforms has not yet been extensively adopted.

In Finland, the public service broadcaster Yle has aimed to meet the challenges of the post-broadcast era by establishing several television-based multi-platform productions, including a drama called Uusi päivä (‘A New Day,’ Yle TV2, 2010-present). In addition to television broadcasts, Uusi päivä uses other platforms and applications, including radio, internet, Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, all of which can be accessed through the Yle website. Live events are also included. Unlike in any other Finnish drama production, the production team constantly interacts with the audience and has succeeded in reaching a younger audience, especially teenage girls.

figure1

Fig. 1 Screenshot of Uusi päivä, source: http://yle.fi/aihe/uusi-paiva.

The Israeli interviewees pointed to another opportunity, namely, using digital platforms as a potential carrier of the broadcaster's archive. Whereas the Finnish interviewees did not refer to Yle's established online archive, the Israeli interviewees stressed that an extensive online public broadcasting archive16 would be instrumental for promoting and preserving national culture and identity.17 In addition, the ideal of a multi-cultural society was reflected by the Israeli interviewees, who stressed the potential of carrying “less popular” content online, as well as content intended for specific audiences such as minorities (Arabic speaking), ethnic groups (Ethiopian Jews) or even children. The ability to carry online content relating to Israeli and Jewish culture was also highlighted and relates to the public service objectives of promoting national culture and language.18 These objectives were laid out in the Israeli Broadcasting Authority Law from 1965 and are still considered significant by IBA's managers, and may come to be highly prioritized in a future multi-platform environment.

6 Challenges in Adopting Multi-Platform Practices in Public Service Television

PSB managers and producers in Israel and Finland highlighted the various challenges they face in the process of shifting to multi-platform production: internal organizational challenges, identifying the viewers’ preferences in a changing media environment, and negotiating public service commitments in an online world which is primarily dominated by social media platforms such as Facebook, YouTube and Twitter. Yle and IBA also face divergent challenges in adopting multi-platform practices, which clearly mirror their organisational differences.

In Israel, the challenges reflect the problematic situation of the Israeli PSB in general. The interviewees pointed to organisational stagnation and the difficulty of instigating change and adopting innovations while the PSB awaits governmental reform (IS1). According to the managers, there is no organisational policy, only personal initiatives regarding multi-platform adoption (IS4, IS2), which makes the individual workers’ professional skills, attitudes and identities highly significant. Similarly, the challenges in Finland stem from the new skills required in project management, programme planning and television production (F1, F2, F3, F4). A producer in Yle feels that “[t]he social media are not in our hands. […] [The programme] brands can follow totally different paths from those we intended” (F3). Also, two interviewees from each country mentioned economic challenges (IS2, IS5, F2, F3). Given that producing content for multiple platforms costs more than producing programmes for linear television alone, “stark prioritization is needed” (F2).

7 Audience Preferences in a Multi-Platform Environment

With the commercialisation of the television market, audience figures and preferences are increasingly directing programming in both public service broadcasting companies and their commercial rivals. The adoption of multi-platform requires PSBs to identify the changing audience orientations in the digital media environment. In the Finnish PSB, audience research is conducted on different platforms in order to obtain information about what the viewers really want. Audiences are seen as more active than in the past, as they want to use multiple platforms, consume transmedial content, and have the opportunity to share and comment (F1, F2, F3). In Israel, no in-depth audience research has been conducted by the PSB in recent years, though the interviewees indicated they are aware of viewers’ dissatisfaction regarding the slow adoption of multi-platform content. Similarly to the Finnish interviewees, they voiced concerns regarding the changing audience: “[t]echnology has changed them. They want to be active, they want more options” (IS1).

A remarkable difference in the discourses of the Finnish and Israeli interviewees can, however, be found in the way they relate to their audiences. At Yle, viewers and listeners are generally referred to as customers, a term used by three of the four interviewees (F1, F2, F3). Talk of ‘customers’ was adopted by Yle in 2006 as part of a new strategy focusing on customer orientation, multiple platforms and content production.19 The Israeli interviewees, on the other hand, related to viewers as members of the public, or even as citizens whom the public media should serve. The Israeli interviewees said that broadcast managers should be making the decisions regarding content, while taking viewers’ opinions and preferences into account to a certain degree. In this, the Israeli PSB is still closely adhering to a paternalistic public service ethos, while in Finland the PSB has adopted the strategies and jargon of the commercial television industry.

8 Public Service Content on Commercial Platforms

In both countries, broadcasters endeavour to use all available online services and applications, be they public or commercial. Digital platforms are generally seen as an extension of television, which is still perceived as “the engine” behind, or “the basis” for, multi-platform productions (F1, F3, F4).20 The interviewees said that they mainly use other platforms and applications, such as radio, websites, Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and Instagram (and in Finland, live events) to promote television programmes in new ways (IS2, IS4, F2, F3, F4). Because the convergence of television and digital media has tended in practice to be led by the established television organisations, television remains the core activity, with digital media providing supplementary activities.21 The online units depend heavily on the TV platform to draw in mass audiences and thereby generate interest in their digital and interactive features.22 Thus, the supremacy of television as the dominant medium in the multi-platform triangle of TV, internet and telecom was emphasized in both Israeli and Finnish interviews.

The use of commercial social platforms such as Facebook or Twitter to promote public service content is a common practice in both countries, though a duality of suspicion and attraction has for some time characterised PSBs’ institutional embrace of social media. In the early 2000s, Facebook and YouTube constituted a new public arena in which public broadcasters simply had to be present if they wanted to take part in citizens’ attempts to reinvent the media space.23 However, these media soon developed into commercially exploited data-driven platforms owned by large global companies. Currently, social media logic is impacting on all sectors of public life and sociability, including broadcasting.24 Yle is trying to cope with this development by distinguishing between public service platforms and commercial platforms, their policy being that any content delivered on commercial platforms should already have been published on Yle's own platforms, such as Yle Areena (F2, F4), with exceptions like the popular Uusi päivä are allowed to bend the rule (F4). The Yle.fi website serves as a portal to all Yle content published on different platforms, both public and commercial.

figure2

Fig. 2 Screenshot of Yle's Facebook page, source: https://www.facebook.com/suomenyleisradio

Israeli PSB television managers described the use of commercial services such as Facebook and YouTube as unavoidable. At first, they seemed to be unconcerned about the commercial orientation and interests of such platforms. However, they stressed that an up-to-date, independent online public service platform is being developed. At the same time, managers have proclaimed that because the channel's website is still being built, commercial platforms serve as a technological ‘bypass.’ As one of the interviewees said, “[w]e would like to develop our own robust on-line broadcasting centre where viewers can watch all our content, and a mobile app as well…this is the future…for now we have a YouTube channel and Facebook pages” (IS5). Apparently, for public service broadcasters both in Israel and in Finland, the use of commercial services is not a matter of choice but of necessity, given that they “need to be where the audiences are” (IS1, IS2, F1, F3).

figure3

Fig. 3 Screenshot of IBA on-line broadcasting center

As public service broadcasters in both countries see multi-platform use as a necessity, it would appear that public service television is following the viewers to other platforms rather than leading the way. This view is confirmed by the UK mainstream broadcasters in their accounts of the transition to multi-platform as “a defensive move.”25

9 Audience Autonomy and Multi-Platform Practices in PSB

The commercial media market has already challenged public service values and objectives,26 which are currently being challenged even further by technological and cultural changes that enable interactivity and a participatory culture. As they strive to maintain their relevance, public service broadcasters must reconsider the key purposes of public service provision in the digital era,27 and they have to find ways of combining their values with those of the multi-platform media environment and its related cultural practices. A crucial change in the digital age relates to the ways in which media audiences consume and interact with media content. This change has been conceptualized as ‘audience autonomy,’ referring to ‘the extent to which media audiences increasingly have control over how, when and where they consume media; and now increasingly have the power to affect the content they consume and to become content producers and distributors in their own right.’28 Interactivity is one of the key elements enabling audience autonomy, and thus poses new challenges to public broadcasters. Interactivity represents not only a technological feature of certain media, but also a promised change29 as the traditional spheres of media production and consumption might become blurred.30

Our interviews indicated that perceptions of interactivity are divided in both countries, though the public service broadcaster in Israel tends to view audience engagement in a more limited and conservative manner. In Finland, two of the interviewees emphasised interactivity as the main purpose for producing transmedial content (F1, F4), while another stated that multi-platform or transmedial productions do not always entail interactive functions (F3). At Yle, interactivity is not primarily seen as voting with mobile phones in live shows (F2), but is rather understood as an interaction between the audience and the production (F4) whereby viewers are able to suggest topics and guests (F3) and propose ideas that will eventually be implemented (F2). Yle also aims at activating audiences online in ways that are not possible in broadcast media, such as providing the audience with the ability to search for more information, contact civic organisations and write their own stories (F1).

In Israel, the interviewees disagreed as to whether viewers want interactivity and participation, and in what manner. While one manager claimed that viewers “want to watch good television, they don't want interactivity” (IS5), another believes that viewers do want to participate and be engaged with television content (IS3). When specifically discussing multi-platform production, only two interviewees mentioned interactivity as an objective. However, almost all of the Israeli interviewees agreed that “getting feedback from the viewers” through additional platforms is important. Public service broadcasters in Israel perceive public participation within the narrow scope of obtaining feedback from the public and have rarely discussed audience participation in more varied ways. Along similar lines, the Israeli interviewees believed that broadcast managers should be making the decisions concerning content, and emphasised traditional PSB values such as ‘enlightenment:’ “I don't think that the viewers should call the shots, I believe that as PSB we should educate and I am not ashamed to say it…” (IS1).

In comparison, the Finnish public service broadcaster is more accessible to its audience. By making their productions open and transparent to both audience (by enabling the interaction between production and the audience) and commercial competitors (by welcoming the hybrid broadcaster Nelonen to visit the Uusi päivä production (F4)), Yle is giving something in return for the broadcasting tax paid by individuals and companies. While they certainly expressed concerns about the legitimacy of Yle, the interviewees in Finland demonstrated more flexible and innovative attitudes towards the functions and objectives of a PSB in a multi-platform environment than their Israeli counterparts. The Finnish PSB acknowledges that audiences are increasingly active and autonomous audiences, and agrees that audience participation is a key strategy in the digital age.31 Audience autonomy would seem to be prioritized as a PSB objective in Finland, while the Israeli PSB holds a more paternalistic point of view such that managers and producers and not audiences, have primary control over media content.

10 Concluding Thoughts on Prioritising PSB Values

The adaptation of multi-platform content production is an ongoing process, which may have some unexpected consequences for PSBs. We have identified a number of potential points of tension within public service values, as well as between public service values and multi-platform practices. We argue that these tensions might lead broadcasters to prioritise their values and objectives differently, often in accordance with the various elements of the respective media systems.

Despite differences between the two media systems and their different stages of multi-platform adoption, Finnish and Israeli public broadcasters share an ongoing commitment to their public. In both countries, multi-platform production is seen as an opportunity and a necessity for expanding the reach of PSB content and adapting it to new habits of media consumption. Nonetheless, reaching a wider and younger audience through digital platforms and commercial services such as Facebook and YouTube might create tension between the objective of universal service and the value of public service independence or autonomy. However, cross-platform access can also be seen as a new universality that caters to contemporary lifestyles.32 On the one hand, this may be seen as audiences and audience ratings gaining relevance in public broadcasting companies. On the other, it could be contextualized within the public service commitment to reach their audiences wherever they may be.

PSBs in both countries believe that their multi-platform use should differ from that of commercial television. Israeli interviewees, however, prioritised enlightenment as a central value in public service broadcasting, and highlighted objectives such as the promotion and protection of culture and language, as well as education and national identity.33 The Finnish interviewees, on the other hand, paid less attention to enlightenment and instead emphasised the openness of multi-platform productions and participatory practices, thus searching for ways to combine the traditional values of public service broadcasting with those of the digital media environment.

We argue that PSB prioritise their values according to their role and the circumstances of their respective media systems. IBA's general weakness is reflected in its hesitant adoption of multi-platform and its relatively conservative conceptions of public service values as it holds on to traditional PSB objectives, considered as the IBA's cornerstones ever since its establishment in the 1960s. Yle on the other hand, as the stronger public broadcaster, seems to be able to adapt both its strategies and its public commitments to the changing media environment, although not without a cost: Yle has recently announced that it is launching employer-employee negotiations with one third of its personnel to cut expenses and to renew its activities to adapt to unexpectedly rapid changes in media use34. It thus remains to be seen how public service broadcasters can best fulfill their public service values and objectives in a changing media environment.

Biography

Oranit Klein Shagrir is a lecturer at Hadassah Academic College and a course coordinator at the Open University of Israel. Her main research interests are television in the digital environment and public broadcasting.

Heidi Keinonen is post-doctoral researcher at the Turku Institute for Advanced Studies, University of Turku. Her research interests include multi-platform productions, television programme formats, broadcasting, television drama and television aesthetics.

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