A Historical Look
at a Sad Decline:
Reviewed by Kirsten Cowan
The Decline and Fall of Public Service Broadcasting is a
densely written, academic treatment of a subject which grows ever
more timely in the Canadian context. By examining the on-going struggle
between public and commercial broadcasting, Michael Tracey outlines
not only a historical conflict, but an ideological one.
"In a public system, television producers acquire money to
make programmes. In a commercial system they make programmes to
acquire money. However simple, this little epigram articulates the
divergence of basic principles, the different philosophical assumptions,
on which broadcasting is built." p. 18
Tracey begins by examining the theoretical underpinnings of the
current situation. He identifies the foundations of the public broadcasting
model. Public service broadcasting is defined by its adherence to
the very notion of public service and several adjoining principles;
universality, education, quality, autonomy. All this is thrown into
question by a new set of technological realities and ideological
imperatives coming into their own in the 1980s throughout the world.
Tracey looks at the new reality of broadcasting and communications
and the siege of a non-market-driven public sphere around the world.
The central portion of The Decline and Fall of Public Service
Broadcasting consists of an in-depth look at the histories of
several countries' public broadcasting systems - the UK and the
BBC, Japan's NHK and Germany's NWDR. The development of the BBC
from an aristocrat's dream into an international force is chronicled
in several chapters. Japan and Germany's networks are closely examined
in the light of their legacy as post-war constructs, imposed by
the Americans in the case of Japan and the Allies in the case of
Germany. Tracey appears strangely neutral on the explicit intention
of these networks, particularly in the case of Japan, to "westernize"
the defeated nations. Although he is certainly not silent on some
of the problematic aspects of a "colonizing" public network,
it does not appear to infringe on his conviction that public service
broadcasting is a force for good which must be preserved throughout
the world. Nor does Tracey appear to link the 1940s imposition of
American values through public broadcasting and the present day
continuation of this process through ubiquitous satellite projected
commercial broadcasting. Frankly, none of the historical material
makes compelling reading. Although exhaustively researched, Tracey's
prose lacks the spark to bring alive the characters in these stories
and none of the rather sordid tales of various elitist, politically
expedient or outwardly imposed networks inspires much sympathy for
public service broadcasting in the reader.
After a thorough history, Tracey turns to the present, examining
the devastating impact of deregulation, satellite technology and
a market-driven ideology on the principles and practice of public
broadcasting. He concludes with a disheartening look at the future
of public service broadcasting, and the consequences of its destruction.
The Decline and Fall of Public Service Broadcasting is a book which will interest and impress the student of broadcasting history. It will do little, however, to inspire the citizen who would like to see a place maintained for public service broadcasting. Exhaustive research and thorough documentation leave the reader overwhelmed rather than motivated. In the end, The Decline and Fall of Public Service Broadcasting is a book for the scholar, not the activist.
Published in Sources, Number 42, Summer 1998.
Sidebar: Cuts, Canadian Culture and the CBC