In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Public Service Broadcasting

  • Introduction
  • Principles and Philosophy
  • John Charles Walsham Reith
  • Historical Contexts
  • “Measuring” Performance
  • Organizations

Communication Public Service Broadcasting
Michael Tracey
  • LAST REVIEWED: 27 November 2013
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 November 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756841-0109


There is a very plausible argument that public service broadcasting (PSB), as an idea and a set of institutions, was one of the singular, great creations of the 20th century. In terms of providing culture of all kinds (e.g., drama, music), education, news, current affairs, programming for children, and documentaries, PSB was remarkably successful. Even more to the point, there is no argument as to its being the dominant form of broadcasting globally from the 1920s to the end of the 20th century. Broadcasting that employed a commercial business model, such as advertiser-led broadcasting in the United States, was actually very much in the minority. And yet, PSB has never gained any serious traction in the United States— principally because of political opposition and public indifference—and remains very much marginalized in the production of cultural and journalistic goods. (As a historical sidenote, there is a certain irony here, in that the idea that broadcasting should be a public service was first identified and argued by the American broadcaster David Sarnoff, in 1922). PSB is, however, not a simple formation to describe: it is an idea, a philosophy even, about the relationship between communication and society, between the program maker and his or her audience; it is a set of institutional and social practices; its funding can be complex, whether involving a license fee paid by the owner of a television set, state subsidy, or commercial revenue, or a combination of these; it employs technologies that are constantly evolving; it is oftentimes politically controversial as its assertions of independence—again divergent, depending on place and circumstance—bump up against political externalities; it is variable in size, from organizations employing several thousand people, with a vast of array of professions, to small local stations employing hardly anyone; and its success, in terms of audience size, is equally variable, from its being the central communicative practice for a nation-state to being relatively marginal. Given this, the range of literatures that need to be considered is vast and somewhat unwieldy. In addition, PSB has become caught up with larger debates within almost all societies, certainly all those where its presence and function are jostled by the emergent economic, philosophical, and technological forces that are defining the early years of the 21st century. If, at its most basic, PSB is about the provision of broadcast goods to provide for a public good, a public interest, then some of the most fundamental issues, reflected in late-20th- and early-21st-century literatures, produced by broadcasters, governments, and academics alike, are to do with whether such provision, in an age of digital revolution (cable, satellite, the Internet) and heavy emphasis by many governments on market forces, is still necessary or indeed proper. So, any review of the literature must deal not just with the philosophy, history, and communicative practices of PSB, but also with the question of its future. It is quite clear that by the latter part of the 20th century, and certainly by the early years of the 21st, PSB, across the globe, found itself under siege politically, technologically, and competitively and thus seriously weakened. This is perhaps most reflected in a shift in language, as, increasingly, governments, policymakers, and scholars spoke not of PSB, but of public service media (PSM), which, essentially, is the effort to map public service values onto the new digital platforms of cable, satellite, and the Internet. Whether the effort has been, or ever can be, successful will be for history to judge.

Principles and Philosophy

The immediate question that needs to be addressed is how the principles and basic philosophy of PSB have been defined historically. In terms of the founding charters of almost all public service broadcasters, the definitions have been somewhat threadbare, not saying much more than that the purpose of PSB is to inform, educate, and entertain. The institutional structures and forms of funding may vary, but public broadcasting is, above all else, an ambition, a belief that its sheer presence within all our lives can and must be used to nurture society, to proffer an opportunity for society and its inhabitants to be better served than by systems that primarily seek consumers for advertisers. A number of basic texts, however, have sought to help to flesh out the definition of PSB. The monograph from the then London-based think tank the Broadcasting Research Unit 1986 is often cited. McDonnell 1991 offers a useful documentary account, and Mundy 1982 provides a valuable account of the origins of PSB in the United Kingdom, the United States, and Australia. The report Carnegie Commission on Educational Television 1967 laid out the essential intellectual architecture for what would become public broadcasting in America.

  • Broadcasting Research Unit. 1986. The public service idea in British broadcasting: Main principles. London: British Film Institute Publications.

    This is perhaps the most cited and expansive definition of specific principles. The monograph defines eight principles of PSB: universality of availability; universality of appeal; provisions for minorities; service to the public sphere; educational programming; distance from all vested interests; structure that encourages competition for good programming, not competition for numbers; and broadcasting rules that liberate rather than restrict the program maker. The text is, in effect, an articulation of the ways in which the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), in particular, saw its own purpose, though that purpose would, to a greater or lesser extent, be adopted by many other broadcasting institutions.

  • Carnegie Commission on Educational Television. 1967. Public television: A program of action. New York: Bantam.

    This report popularized the term public television and was a key factor in the legislative campaign for federal aid to public broadcasting. There are those who have concluded that the great ambitions contained within the report were starved of the oxygen of meaningful public policy support. A summary is available online.

  • McDonnell, James. 1991. Public service broadcasting: A reader. London and New York: Routledge.

    This a relatively brief but very good overview of the history of British PSB, from its inception up to the late 1980s. The work is part commentary and narrative but is mainly organized around extracts from key works, official reports, and speeches. An especially useful guide to the various commissions of inquiry into broadcasting that have constituted key moments in the evolving history of British broadcasting.

  • Mundy, Greg. 1982. “Free enterprise” or “public service”? The origins of broadcasting in the US, UK and Australia. Journal of Sociology 18.3: 279–301.

    DOI: 10.1177/144078338201800301

    This article looks at the different ways in which broadcasting was developed in the United States as compared with the United Kingdom and Australia. The article makes the essential point that although radio employed technology, how radio was used varied, according to the enveloping social milieux. In other words, technologies are just that, technologies; tools to communicate. How they are used depends on the values that prevail within the larger society. Available online for purchase or by subscription.

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