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6. Specific Patterns of Media Regulation: Broadcasting

By contrast to the press, radio and television broadcasting were subject from the beginning to high levels of restriction, sometimes involving public control approaching a condition of censorship. The general concept of social responsibility and public interest lies at the core of the broadcasting model, although there are several variants as well as weaker (as in the USA) or stronger forms (as in Europe). The main difference is between systems that are within public ownership and control and those that operate commercially, but subject to licensing conditions and public scrutiny.

The main reasons for the high regulation of broadcasting can be expressed in terms of the following main aims (see Hoffmann-Riem, 1996; and Feintuck, 1999):

  • To ensure universal availability to the general population of the country of broadcast services.
  • To allocate frequencies and broadcasting concessions in an equitable and orderly manner and supervise conformity to the rules laid down.
  • To ensure a wide range of services and access opportunities according to the needs of society - meaning diversity in social, political, cultural and local/regional terms.
  • To promote high quality of content provided as far as possible according to locally decided values and standards, with particular reference to information, education, advertising, culture, taste and decency.
  • To look after the basic interests of the state in matters of security and good order, as locally interpreted.

The broadcasting model covers two main types of system. One is the public service variant, the other consists of privately owned and financed systems. The distinction is not always absolute, since some commercial broadcasters may also have public service duties as a licensing condition. Public service broadcasting is expected to serve the needs of significant social institutions (for instance, in relation to politics, education, the justice system). It is also directly or indirectly expected to serve or to respect the main party political groups. In some countries, the political interest is served by imposing political neutrality (as in Britain) or `fairness' (as in the United States), while in others political party influence is more or less openly and proportionately allowed (as in Italy, France and Germany).

In a fully developed form public service broadcasting generally refers to five main features, which are supported by policy and regulation. One is the provision of a universal service (a full service to all). A second is that the system should be financed by payments from all citizens or, as in the UK, all receiving households (not just the consumers of the service). Thirdly, there is public control of access to broadcasting channels, in greater or less detail, to ensure "fairness", political neutrality, independence from vested interests and from the state.

Fourthly, a public broadcasting service is democratically accountable to the society (or nation). This is usually achieved by way of parliamentary control of financial allocations and periodic renewal of licenses to operate. Fifthly, a public broadcasting service seeks to achieve various goals of quality of service. Some of these features can also apply to broadcasting systems that are privately owned and financed by advertising.

Detailed regulation inevitably limits the freedom of public broadcasters and it is inconsistent with running services in a fully commercial manner. In fact one of the values of public broadcasting is its non-commercialism and `non-profit' character. The regulation of public broadcasting makes it accountable to the public and to society rather than to owners, or the market.

Commercial broadcasting systems, in contrast, are free to choose their own objectives, in the sense of whichever consumer audience or advertising market they want to serve. They are primarily accountable to owners, investors and clients. Regulation in this case is essentially restrictive and proscriptive and is designed to establish the ground rules and set limits within which the systems operate. These ground rules mainly concern the following matters: permitted amount and content of advertising; control of other means of finance (e.g. sponsorship); content potentially harmful to the young or causing offence to some value or group (e.g. in matters of racism, or religious blasphemy); procedures for complaints and rights of reply.

Commercial broadcasting systems often have to meet certain minimum standards as a condition of receiving a license or operating concession. These conditions vary a good deal from one system to another, but often relate to such matters as provision for education, news and information, local language or culture, political or other access opportunities, minority needs.

The forms of regulation are diverse, but there is a certain standard pattern. Generally, we find a media or broadcasting law governing the structure of the system as a whole. Such laws state broadly the goals of the system and who or what bodies are eligible to operate as broadcasters and under what conditions. For instance, some countries forbid or limit foreign ownership and, as indicated earlier, many have rules forbidding cross-ownership between press and broadcasting (especially where they operate in the same marketplace). In some European countries political or religious organizations are not allowed to own and operate broadcasting stations.

Finance, control and accountability to government and society are also covered by such regulation. More detailed terms and conditions may also be set down in license and franchise agreements, which have to be periodically renewed and can be revoked. Broadcasting and cable laws often contain content-related regulations, for instance requiring a balance between different kinds of content (especially information and entertainment) or requiring a certain amount of home production or transmission in the national language.

Laws of this kind are the province of parliaments and governments and there will often be a Ministry or other Department of government which has the responsibility for their formulation - for example, the Ministry of Culture (in Sweden), the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (in Britain), or the Ministry of Communications (in France). However, there is usually another layer of administrative machinery between government and the actual broadcasting organizations which can serve as a two-way link and, in certain cases, help to preserve the independence of broadcasting from direct government interference. This link is increasingly formed by powerful regulatory agencies which have an oversight over different media. In Britain, for instance, we find (again) the Office of Communications (Ofcom), in France the Conseil Superieur de l'Audiovisuel (CSA), in Sweden the Broadcasting Commission, in Holland the Commissariat for the Media, in the USA the Federal Communication Commission (FCC), and so on (see d'Haenens and Saeys, 2001, and Kelly et al, 2004, for a fuller exposition of broadcasting regulation in different countries).

Quite often there are additional advisory or supervisory bodies that play a part in the regulatory framework with varying aims and degrees of competence. Most public broadcasting organisations will have their own Boards of control which are separate from day to day management and are the equivalent of the Boards of commercial companies which run private broadcasting systems. These bodies decide on overall policy and have final responsibility. In general, we can observe a chain of control from the political to the legal, to the administrative, to the managerial. There may also be a few additional bodies (both statutory and voluntary) that represent the interests of viewers and listeners, whether as consumers or citizens and keep up pressure for enforcement of rules and for expressing complaints.

In Europe, transnational television has been institutionalised within a loose framework provided by the Television Directive of the European Union. This sets out the general conditions and rules for cross-border television transmissions between countries of the Union. In practice, this is mainly a lowest common denominator of rules that does not have much practical effect, apart from enabling cross-border transmission. However, it does support basic standards of fairness and objectivity and there are rules limiting advertising time and types as well as for protecting children and young people from extremes of undesirable content. Some preference is also given to "European" content and independent production. Using the same framework as Figure 5, Figure 6 provides examples of the main types of formal and informal regulation of broadcasting.



Provisions of media laws.
Channel operating conditions.
Cross-ownership rules.
Rules about owners (religion, politics, nationality, suitability).
Political party policy.
Industry pressure.


Technical standards.
Transmitter/satellite/cable ownership rules.
International agreements. Industry standards.


Universal coverage requirements.
Receiver license regulations.
Hours of broadcasting.
Regional and local variations.


Political party airtime.
Minority access.
Government access.
Fairness, neutrality and balance rules.
Local community service.


Copyright and performance dues.
Rules and mechanisms of accountability.
Rules for advertising and performance.


Laws concerning pornography, violence, racism, etc.
Content quotas (type and origin).
Producer codes for sex, violence, etc.

Figure 6: Summary and examples of national broadcasting regulation