In a killing spree

Political enemies of Denmark’s public broadcaster DR are hatching plans to crop the station’s budget. A bellicose commercial media industry is going to bat for them.

A “TV hit factory.”

This is how Gerard Gilbert, a television writer for the British newspaper The Independent, in May 2012 described the Danish public broadcaster DR, producer of a string of successful TV series including The Killing, Borgen and The Bridge.

Among other things, a tight eye on quality control and strict production policies forbidding remakes and adaptations secure the success of the Danish TV drama, as DR’s culture head, Morten Hesseldahl, told Mr Gilbert. Every project has to be a winner simply because DR, with a budget eight times lower than that of its British counterpart, BBC, can’t afford to waste money.

Drama is not all, though. DR, which runs both TV and radio channels, is widely praised in Denmark for its objective news output, thought-provoking public affairs debates, high-quality music programs, documentaries and comedy shows.

This was not sufficient, though, to dissuade local politicians in Denmark from agreeing in mid-March 2018 to scrap the license fee and to slash the broadcaster’s budget by 20% over the next five years. The fee is DR’s main source of funding.

The move came as no surprise, however.

“Many in Denmark, particularly commercial media, have been criticizing DR as being too big and dominant,” said a Copenhagen-based journalist working for DR who spoke on condition of anonymity.

“They planned [the attack] for a long time. Now, they finally got the political support to do it.”

DR’s program production will take a bad hit, admitted the broadcaster’s director general Maria Rorbye Ronn.

In the State’s Shadow

The decision to do away with the fee and operate budget cuts was made by the current center-right coalition government in Denmark, consisting of Venstre (as the Liberal Party of Denmark is known), the Liberal Alliance, and the Conservative People’s Party (DKF, Det Konservative Folkeparti). The populist Danish People’s Party (Dansk Folkeparti, DF) supported the decision. Neither in government nor in opposition, DF is openly offering support to the government coalition. Parliament is expected to vote for these changes during this spring.

The cut in DR’s budget is the equivalent of DKK 773m (US$ 129m). Losing that cash will directly impact Danish production, Ms Ronn told Borsen, a Danish business portal. More worrying, though, is the plan to drop the license fee, a yearly contribution of DKK 2,527 (US$ 422) that Danish households are legally obliged to make to finance the country’s public media. The bulk of the license fee money, a total of DKK 3.7bn (US$ 617m) goes to the DR’s budget. The rest is used to fund, among other things, eight regional public TV stations and a privately owned radio channel.

The removal of the license fee will threaten DR’s financial stability,  claimed local journalists interviewed for this article. The fee is the strongest connection the Danish public has with DR. “They see exactly where their money goes, they see the value of what they pay for,” the DR’s journalist in Copenhagen told MediaPowerMonitor.

Politicians want to replace the license fee financing with a state budget subsidy, a solution that is likely to jeopardize the broadcaster’s independence.

“A “clean” tax solution where the public service media is financed through the ordinary state budget opens up [space] for more state/government intervention,” said a local public media expert with intimate knowledge of the DR’s operation. He believes that the Finnish model is better suited for DR. In Finland, the license fee that finances the country’s public broadcaster Yle was in 2013 replaced by a public broadcast tax, known in the country as the Yle tax. This tax is collected annually from both individuals and companies in a bigger bucket with other taxes. Such a model “will work without serious problems” and be accepted by the opposition parties as well who don’t seem to favor the state subsidy solution, the expert told MediaPowerMonitor.

Public Friends and Enemies

Attacks on DR are not new. In 2014, the debate about a new policy agreement for Denmark’s public media covering the period 2015-2018 was dominated by the vocal commercial players. The size and scope of Danish public media were highly questioned.

Since 2009, DR has massively expanded its operations, launching new channels and growing its online presence. During the same period, commercial broadcasters suffered declines in revenue due to a combination of fresh competition ushered in by digital switchover (which made new frequency space available) and financial crisis.

Commercial players called for policies that would help downsize DR, arguing that the public broadcaster undermined their financial performance. Danske Medier, a local commercial media association, called for a ban on DR to offer services online as they see in that unfair competition to commercial portals. Commercial broadcast company Modern Times Group (MTG) of Sweden, with operations across all Scandinavian countries, argued that DR aired too much entertainment, which is not a core public service.

Film producers and even cable and satellite distributors joined the chorus of disapproval. “This alliance between commercial media companies is remarkable,” wrote at the time Henrik Sondergaard, professor at the University of Copenhagen. “[…] It seems they have been united in defining public service media and DR in particular as their common enemy.” The parties now in power, who in 2014 were in opposition, called back then for a spate of drastic measures, including funding cuts, closure of channels and limits on entertainment programs.

In the end, a compromise between Social Democrats (Socialdemokratiet) who were then in government, and the opposition was reached. DR was obliged to outsource more of its programming and devote more time to purely public service content such as children’s programming and regional coverage. Major decisions such as reduction of online content were postponed.

Now, as the time is up for a new four-year DR policy agreement, attacks are being resumed. “The Danish private press has, over the last two years, been bombarding DR with very critical writing,” the Danish public media expert said. “So have the governing parties and a number of lobby organizations.”

The big difference is that now DR’s political enemies are in power.

An Inconvenient Popularity?

DR is one of the most popular media outlets in Denmark. The country is a low consumer of TV with just 2 hours and 38 minutes of viewing time a day in 2016, far below the European average. Data from the Danish culture ministry indicates that 63% of TV viewing in 2016 was on public service channels, an increase of five percentage points compared to the previous year.

However, Danes are rapidly moving online. In 2016, 85% of Danes used the internet daily. Radio and TV come next with 75% and 67%, respectively. In contrast, print media has experienced a bitter decline. Only 40% of Denmark’s population read a newspaper in 2016.

Overall, via radio, TV and internet, DR has a reach of around 92% of Denmark’s 5.7 million population. Its programs are also made available to every household in Danish overseas territories. The 56,000 inhabitants of the far-flung Greenland have DR in their homes. The broadcaster’s news programs, in particular, are consistently praised by Danes as the most credible sources of information.

However, the hatchet jobs run by commercial media have started to erode DR’s status and reputation. Various, more or less dubious, surveys questioning and challenging DR’s public role are increasingly being circulated in Denmark, according to a dozen of journalists and experts interviewed for this article.

Some of the DR’s detractors exploit young people’s preferences. Many of them go for non-traditional forms of TV consumption such as the private streaming services Netflix or HBO. In 2016, for example, Danes aged 12 to 18 watched TV for less than one hour a day. The Venstre party in government suggested last December using part of the money they want to take away from DR to fund content churned out by independent producers in a move to fill a 24-hour TV streaming service. It could be called Danflix and made available to all Danes.

This is music to people’s ears, especially in Denmark where on-demand streaming can get expensive. Danish people pay in excess of US $15 a month for Netflix, which is the highest charge in the world for Netflix content, nearly twice what American subscribers pay, according to 2015 statistics from UBS, a financial group.

Populism doesn’t stop here. Ekstra Bladet, a Danish tabloid newspaper, reported that some of the savings made from the cuts in the DR’s budget would be spent on improving the conditions Denmark’s pensioners live in. 

 A majority of Danes still favor the DR’s license fee model. More than half of them preferred that form of financing in 2016, according to data from the DR’s research unit. That number, though, is plummeting.

With the industry and politicians upping the ante, the future of the Danish public media is bleaker than ever.

Photo: DR courtesy

Marius Dragomir is the director of the Center for Media, Data and Society (CMDS).