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Monday, September 22, 2014
- Today’s new world of digital communications presents public media outlets with a complex challenge: to conquer loyal and active audiences, with programming that is beholden neither to governments, their main funders, nor to market imperatives.
This was the conclusion reached on the first day of the 4th Latin American Forum on Public Media, held Thursday Aug. 29 and Friday Aug. 30 in Brasilia, organised by the World Bank and the Empresa Brasil de Comunicaçao (EBC) with the support of the Inter Press Service (IPS) news agency and the secretariat for social communication of the presidency of Brazil.
“There is no single recipe, but the important thing is that public media outlets must have an audience,” Sergio Jellinek, the World Bank’s external affairs manager in Latin America and the Caribbean, told IPS. “The main challenge is to identify the audience you want to attract and offer a really interesting service.”
To make this happen, however, there is a longstanding problem to overcome: public media outlets need alternative means of financing themselves to avoid dependence on state resources.
For instance, EBC, a Brazilian government-owned corporation created in 2007 to manage the government’s radio and TV stations, controls two TV channels, eight radio stations and Agência Brasil, which publishes news and videos on the Internet. It has an annual budget of 211 million dollars, 90 percent of which comes from the state coffers.
“Our hands are tied, we are hostages to the availability of budget funds,” said Nelson Breve, EBC’s president. “No business model is sustainable with a single source of revenue, because if it dries up one day, there is nowhere else to turn.”
This year, for example, EBC has had to cut its budget by nearly 17 million dollars, and will not be investing in new technology, according to Breve.
This kind of constraint does not only operate in Brazil. Dependence on state funding also occurs in Mexico, where a recent constitutional reform allows public media outlets to sell advertising.
The head of public broadcaster Once TV, journalist Enriqueta Cabrera y Cuarón, said: “Up to now, Once TV had been considered an official corporation and was not allowed to air commercials. Only now when it is regarded as a concession, will it be able to do so.”
Cabrera y Cuarón advocates a mixed model of financing, limiting revenue from commercials to a maximum of 30 percent of the budget, and with the option of banning advertising of products harmful to health and the environment, or that incite violence.
Breve told IPS: “The problem is that when we talk about diversifying income sources, we end up competing with private companies for the advertising pie, and there is a lack of dialogue between public and private media outlets.”
More complex still is the case of Telemedellín, the local TV channel in the Colombian city of Medellín, which receives nearly its entire annual budget of 18 million dollars from the city government.
But there are strings attached. Fabián Berro, the programming director, said: “The Secretariat hand over the money, but they demand programming tailored to their wishes. With the little time that is left to spare, we try to do something different.”
But some innovative solutions have emerged. Early this year, Telemedellín suspended its programming for 24 hours. Its team held a meeting and decided to film a mega-documentary, from noon on Feb. 22 to noon the next day, in order to portray life in the city.
With images they filmed themselves, footage from surveillance cameras placed in different locations, and above all, home videos sent by the general public via internet, Telemedellín produced M24, Colombia’s first collaborative programme.
The initiative, recently awarded a prize by the Centro Internacional de la TV Abierta (International Open TV Centre), was presented at the Forum Thursday as an example of the use of new platforms to attract and interest the public, and engage it in direct participation.
Berrío said, “At first we thought 300 user-generated videos would be enough. In the end, we received 1,900 clips of people dancing, eating, celebrating birthdays. We changed the trend of Twitter use in Colombia, and because of the large number of responses, we aired those images during the whole of the following week.”
But this initiative is still an exception. “I searched worldwide for a similar experience, and could not find one,” Berrío told IPS.
In Brazil there are many hurdles. “We came late to public communications,” said Breve, referring to EBC’s six-year history. “”We still have to explain to society what we are and why we are important.”
In the view of Carlos Tibúrcio, a special adviser to the cabinet of the Brazilian presidency, the issue is that there is a lack of awareness of public television programmes.
“I recently met with a communications director for a foundation in São Paulo. She did not know what the TV Brasil programmes were, or even what the channel number was. We have to improve our information,” he said.
IPS Director General Mario Lubetkin highlighted the need for dialogue between media outlets to avoid wasting efforts. “We don’t need to reinvent everything. We need an alliance, an effort that is not just of one agency, but of media outlets in general, that includes civil society and the private sector,” he said.
Communications also need to be handled differently, Lubetkin said. “The Internet completely changed our scope as a news agency. We no longer have a monopoly on technology, nor on content. What we need is to know what the added value of our enterprises is. It’s no longer a technological problem, but one of knowing what we are writing, and for whom,” he concluded.