Micro-broadcasting – a broadcasting or arts model?

Geraint Talfan Davies
On 4 November 2009 the Institute of Advanced Broadcasting at Newport University held a conference on the future of broadcasting. The emphasis was on new media, particularly the IAB’s micro-broadcasting pilot in Blaenau Gwent, carried out in partnership with the Wesley Clover Corporation and Move Networks and using Inuk technology. Geraint Talfan Davies saw a possible parallel between micro-broadcasting and the arts.

I am very grateful to the Institute of Advanced Broadcasting for asking me to say a few words here today. But I have to say that I’m a bit surprised. I used to work in ITV and the BBC – in public service broadcasting – a broadcaster – one to the many. In this context I am a dinosaur. Quite soon, I am told, I will be extinct. If you invite me again you may be watching a CGI image of me with a whispered commentary by David Attenborough.

I am a curator in the museum of old business models. I take the models out of their glass cases every morning and give them a polish. I even write articles in learned journals about them. There’s nothing to beat those old steam locomotives. They were big, powerful, noisy – and romantic – and they left the station when the guard said so, not the passengers. At a conference of the Institute of Advanced broadcasting, I ask myself, am I going to feel like King Ludd, the Luddite leader, at an early meeting of the society of mechanical loom makers? We’ll see. I promise to be on good behaviour and not to break anything.

However, just so that you do not think I am totally beyond the pale – not fit to be allowed into an IAB sandpit – let me reassure you that I own a computer as well as a television – I’m even a Mac rather than a PC man. I have an iPhone. I have been known to download apps and, from time to time, I use iPlayer. Quaint though it may seem, I still read newspapers. Even more eccentrically, I read the Western Mail.

I thought that I would take as a text for this talk, a thought from the historian Tony Judt, described by one reviewer as ‘a liberal thinker dedicated to demystifying liberal illusions.’ Last year he published a book of essays, Reappraisals, in which one of his main concerns was ‘the place of recent history in an age of forgetting’. He talks – and I quote – of being ‘struck more than once by this perverse contemporary insistence on not understanding the context of our present dilemmas; on not listening with greater care to some of the wiser heads of earlier decades; on seeking actively to forget rather than to remember, to deny continuity and proclaim novelty on every possible occasion.’

He does not deny that we are in a present age of transformations, but argues that despite the expansion of communication and the infinity of data available to us, the ‘fragmentation of information’ is leading to ‘an absence of common culture – beyond a small elite – and a situation where the particular information and ideas that people select or encounter are determined by a multiplicity of tastes, affinities and interest. As the years pass we have less in common with the fast multiplying worlds of our contemporaries, not to speak of the world of our forbears.’

Judt is far too intelligent to want to stop the world and get off. His real warning is against an intellectual hubris that seeks to deny the past, against a year zero mentality. And he was writing before the current world financial crisis where we are all paying the price for the intellectual hubris of the free market.

Hubris can afflict the world of technology too. In the mid eighties I remember my wife and I, on a sunny day in California, being taken around several facilities in Silicon Valley, where we were obliged to say ‘Gee Whizz…can it really do that’ to a succession of screens. A little jaded towards the end of the day, at our last stop I clearly failed to show the requisite degree of enthusiasm. My guide stopped me – ‘I just want to make sure you have got this’, he said and continued very slowly: ‘You are now standing in the middle of the greatest agglomeration of human knowledge in the history of mankind.’  Now that can do things to people.

With these thoughts in mind I want to stand back a little, to urge us to remember that our tradition of broadcasting is not suddenly irrelevant, to emphasise some continuities rather than discontinuities, and to raise some questions and parallels, even if I do not have answers to offer.

The British public have been brought up on a very rich programme diet. That diet has changed, markedly over the last 20 years, partly because financial pressures have forced the traditional broadcasters into lower cost genres and partly because of the advent of lightweight electronic camera technology facilitated reality television, that would have been prohibitively expensive given film stock and processing costs. The most expensive programme I ever made was for HTV Wales, and on the finest film stock – a documentary about wild horses in Arizona. Keeping the camera running, while the horse decided what to do or not to do, was like standing in the desert ripping up £20 notes.

Then again, as we all know the advent of multi-channel television has fragmented the audience, reducing consumption of news and current affairs, and stacking the cards against expensive genres by pushing up the cost per viewer hour.

But the passion of the audience for a story with a beginning, a middle and an end is undiminished. That is why sport and movies are the driver of pay TV. It is the power of narrative, and whether in soccer or cinema, the quality narrative. The movie was, after all, arguably the only major new art form created in the 20th century. Is there then a connection between what has happened in television and what has happened to cinema audiences in the UK?

Cinema admissions started to increase just as electronic cameras were replacing film cameras in television, doubling between 1984 and 1993 from 54million to 114million, and adding another 50% between 1993 and 2002 to take them to 170 million. Interestingly, too, the demographics of cinema audiences are much closer to those of internet usage than to television. The biggest cinema attenders are the 15-24 age group. So the very age group that is most active on the web, is also the age group that is most active in seeking out constructed, authored narratives in the cinema.

But the Hollywood blockbuster must seem a world away form micro-broadcasting – and it is. That is why I wonder whether micro-broadcasting may have much more in common with the world of the arts than with the world of television as we have known it, let alone cinema.

First, in terms of numbers: Traditionally, the arts have been narrow-casters, in the live analogue worlds of the gallery, the theatre and opera house. And although the web has given us a new means of reaching out, the degree of engagement with the public has not reached anything like the scale achieved by traditional broadcasting. Will the arts and micro-broadcasting be forever minority tastes? How can micro-broadcasting mimic the distinctive of the arts at their best? Will micro-broadcasting, like the arts, struggle to fund that distinctiveness?

Second, there is another analogy in terms of process. Early this decade Welsh National Opera in a bid to win additional funding developed the WNO Max concept to encompass all our education and outreach work. We conceived the programme as three objectives expressing a hierarchy of relationships: Engage – Participate – Create.  The hope was and is that the one would lead on to the other. There seems to be something of a parallel here with the kind of development programmes that are currently aimed at digital and social inclusion: the sought-after progression from passive viewer, to interactive participant, to the creation of user generated material. Is there also a parallel with Reith’s famous triad, albeit in a slightly different order to that which he promulgated?  Entertain, inform, educate.

WNO Max Micro-broadcasting Reith

Level 1 Engage Passive consumer Entertain

Level 2 Participate Interactive consumer Inform

Level 3 Create User-generated content Educated

Would-be micro-broadcasters, just as much as the arts, may also need a reality check. We must not fall for the irrepressible liberal illusion that everyone can be turned into an activist. Liking opera is not compulsory. There will always be a core of broadband refuseniks, although in time they may come to be as eccentric as those who refuse to have a television in the house. But there will be a much wider group whose use of broadband will remain limited and elementary.

Third, there is a political imperative to graft onto both our aims, social objectives that, in the case of the arts, renders the art itself politically respectable, and, in the case of online development, will help secure public seed investment (like a universal service obligation) for what many corporate participants hope will be, eventually, a profitable business. I am not seeking to devalue those social objectives in any way at all – they are important at both the individual and collective level – but, because of their political primacy, they can divert organisations from their core purposes, or disguise those purposes, whether artistic or commercial.

Fourth, there is the injunction to find new business models, something we have been told to do in the arts for the last few years, usually stemming from precisely the same motive – that people want to reduce the dependence on public funding. Chasing new business models has become an essential badge for forward-looking organisations. But are we in search of the holy grail? And what difference does the framework of objectives make? Is it easier to find a business model for a specific interest group – e.g. the university market that Inuk has explored – than for a specific geography?

And when it comes to geography, is a new business model for an organisation aiming at a UK or even wider market (let’s say, London’s publicly-funded national theatre spinning out into commercial West End theatres) rather easier to find than for an organisation seeking to deliver a service at the all-Wales level, or a sub-regional level or at a local community level? All the evidence points to the fact that the all-Wales level may be the most difficult level at which to construct a commercially viable model. The struggles of commercial local radio in the UK, not least in Wales, are not hugely encouraging, while community radio is, in many cases, dependent on local authority support.

This brings us to a fifth issue, of just what we mean by a business model. Are we seeking a model that is commercially sustainable, or one that is socially, or publicly  sustainable? It does seem to me that we are currently experiencing an interesting disjunction: of a system of regulation, whether in energy or telecoms or broadcasting, that is increasingly market driven, at the very point when market models of ownership, as deliverers of long term public ends, are most in question: whether its Northern Rock, HBOS, Trinity Mirror, ITV, or Qinetic.

So it may not just be a question of monetisation. Perhaps the time has come to examine different models of ownership. Only last Friday, the IWA organised a conference in Cardiff on the theme of ‘the new mutualism’. We arranged this event because, already in Wales, people are exploring the potential of these mutual models in the realm of social housing or even rail transport. But if these models have a natural role, might it not be in the field of communications – micro-broadcasting, community radio, local television, independently financed news consortia – ownership structures that lie somewhere between the market and the state, not dominated by either. This has to be a better way than the unsustainable slash and burn model of ownership and management that often results from the pressure to sustain a particular share price. We need to explore how to incentivise these different models.

The partnerships offered by the BBC reflect precisely the same calls for helpful asset transfers that you are hearing from community groups who want local authorities to donate them a disused building or plot of land. S4C and higher education institutions are other potential players.

Let’s not forget that the new business models, may be a re-working of older models. Since the beginnings of the industrial revolution, Wales has made a rich contribution to concepts of free association and the public good: Robert Owen of Newtown, one of the founders of the cooperative movement; the record of Welsh miners and their communities in establishing mutual organisations for social, educational and cultural purposes; the contributions of Lloyd George, Aneurin Bevan and James Griffiths to the welfare state, and dare I say, the fact that Wales has the only not-for-profit water company in England and Wales. In England, too, you have the nineteenth century tradition of municipal enterprise, delivering public goods, along side robust capitalism. It is no surprise, either, that the Scott Trust – the trust that owns the Guardian and the Observer – had its roots in Manchester.

We are at a point of transition. The timing of a tipping point from the legacy systems of public service broadcasting to new forms is not yet clear, if indeed it will ever be that clear-cut. There will be, and needs to be a period of co-existence, for there is currently no equivalence between the old and the new, in purpose or reach. We may see the continuation of that paradox whereby more things will change than we imagined, but more will stay the same than we ever thought.

We need to distinguish clearly between private and public purposes. The internet makes possible the creation of an infinite number of communities of interest, but it is a long way from proving itself as a gathering place for the mass audience in geographically identifiable communities. In Wales, as we pursue the new and defend the old, we should remember that is does not need to be a zero sum game.

Geraint Talfan Davies is Chairman of the IWA

Also within Politics and Policy