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A Historical Look at a Sad Decline:
A Review of
The Decline and Fall of Public Service Broadcasting

The Decline and Fall of Public Service Broadcasting
Michael Tracey
Oxford University Press
1998, 295pp, $40.50, ISBN 0-19-815924-2

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.

Kirsten Cowan is Promotions Co-ordinator for Sources.

Published in Sources, Number 42, Summer 1998.

See Also:

Sidebar: A Goal for National Survival: 50% Canadian TV Content

Sidebar: Cuts, Canadian Culture and the CBC

Sidebar: Public Broadcasting is Cultural National Defence

Inside Seven Days

Are We Manipulated by TV?


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