Public service broadcasters in the Western Balkans have become increasingly unaccountable to their audiences and tone deaf to their needs. At stake is the very legitimacy of public service broadcasting in the region.

Public service broadcasters in the countries of the Western Balkans – Albania, Bosnia & Herzegovina, Croatia, Kosovo, Macedonia, Montenegro, and Serbia – are in crisis.

In Bosnia & Herzegovina, the state-level public broadcaster BHRT announced in July 2016 that it would stop broadcasting its programs due to the lack of funding, highlighting the deep structural crisis of the public service broadcasting system in the country. The decision was later revoked; but the crisis remains.

In early 2016, in the Serbian province of Vojvodina, the regional public service broadcaster RT of Vojvodina was put under direct control of the central government. In Croatia, an EU member, the national broadcaster HRT underwent a radical reshuffling of key personnel and changes to editorial policy only a few months after the new conservative government took office in late 2015. Similarly, the public broadcaster in Kosovo is in a deep financial crisis, facing eviction from the premises it can’t afford to rent. In Macedonia and Montenegro, the status of public service media has been the subject of protracted negotiations among political actors, the international community, and media professionals. Besides financial and operational problems, Albania’s public broadcaster is struggling to draw in eyeballs; it has the lowest audience share compared to other public broadcasters in the region.

Political Pressures, Broken Funding Model, Outdated Broadcaster

These problems exist amidst the wider challenges stemming from small and oversaturated media markets, growing competition from the private sector, and changing audience preferences, which are rapidly moving away from traditional broadcasting towards online and mobile media platforms and asynchronous consumption of media content.

The failure to deal with all these problems and adjust to new technology-driven trends and audience needs undermines the very legitimacy of public service broadcasting in Western Balkans. This issue was raised at an international gathering of media experts in Sarajevo last May.

Although these broadcasters are funded by citizens through license fees or state budgets, it seems they are less and less accountable to them, do not provide the necessary services, and almost never include citizens in discussions on program quality and service improvements.

All of these symptoms of crisis point to three underlying existential threats faced by public service broadcasters in these countries.

The first threat is that of political colonization and instrumentalization of public service media, which is the consequence of illiberal tendencies and the politicization of the media landscape in general. That means political elites control and use the public media as an instrument to pursue their own interests. Regulation and legal protection of these media’s independence are ineffective against populist and increasingly authoritarian elites who adjust laws as they wish in a bid to turn these broadcasters into instruments of political power or to minimize their influence as independent and democratic voices.

The second threat is that of a broken funding model. The funding models for these broadcasters have virtually collapsed in several countries, in particular in Bosnia & Herzegovina and Kosovo. Countries that still have license fee systems are struggling with inefficient fee collection. Those public broadcasters funded from the state budget are becoming even more vulnerable to governmental interference into their daily operations.

Finally, the third existential threat comes from the failure of these broadcasters in the region to adjust to the new technological environment and redefine their structure, operation, and services in line with consumption habits and preferences of the audience. In the West, the concept of public service broadcasting has evolved into a public service media (PSM) model where mobile technologies, internet platforms, and interactive content are adjusted to reach out to increasingly fragmented audiences. In the Western Balkans, such a transformation occurred only partially, in Croatia and Serbia. These broadcasters still operate in an outdated paradigm of traditional public service broadcasting, almost completely neglecting the rapid changes in the media landscape. That makes them less and less relevant.

Advice: Rebuild Everything

These threats highlight fundamental problems that public broadcasters face in the Western Balkans. If the public service broadcasting system is to survive, significant changes must be introduced in the way it is governed and funded and in how it positions itself in the digital media environment.

Ongoing debates on the future of public broadcasting should be open to new approaches and ideas.

First of all, new models of funding securing adequate financial resources should be introduced. Such models should reduce the room for political interference. These models can’t be simply transplanted from other countries but should be developed internally by each respective country, taking into account the local context.

The finances of public broadcasters should be fully transparent. Mechanisms of public control over their financial operation – such as regular reporting on financial activities, publishing annual financial reports, public hearings and discussions, and free access to information and documents – should be in place. The Croatian and Serbian cases offer examples of good practice in that respect. For example, they regularly publish information on their employees’ income.

Secondly, public broadcasters’ management should be more accountable. Their governance should be restructured to ensure that citizens have control over their operations and to reduce the space for interference from political parties, the government, and businesses. This can be done, for example, by increasing the number of members in the supervisory boards or program councils of these broadcasters. This way, more segments of society will be represented.

Moreover, the decision-making procedures in these broadcasters should be more transparent. Citizens thus should be allowed to fully access information about how these broadcasters function. Their independence should be guaranteed through laws and regulations. Appointing people known for their integrity and expertise in these governing bodies would also secure more independence.

To address the fragmentation of audiences, public broadcasters should preserve its core function, the universal reach. But they should find a balance between this universal reach imperative and what today’s audiences want: more personalized and specialized content. A combination of new media channels and social media platforms and classic broadcasting could solve that.

To achieve all this, public broadcasters in Western Balkans should start rebuilding their operations from the ground up. They have to leave the dysfunctional models behind and build new, stronger relations with the public audiences. People will come to public media if they are given quality programs, trust that these media operate independently, and if they see transparency.

Failure to do that means that these broadcasters will become even more irrelevant; and with them the very concept of public media will remain a 20th century washout.Unknown Object

Editor’s note: this is an edited version of an article published

Photo: Zlatko Vickovic