Between acceptance and rejection: "public service media are fighting for legitimacy more than ever before"

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View of the control room during the main edition of the SRF Tagesschau. (KEYSTON
View of the control room during the main edition of the SRF Tagesschau. (KEYSTONE/Ennio Leanza)

What does a good public service mean in today’s media landscape and how much should it cost? These questions not only concern politicians, but also divide the population. Media economist Philipp Bachmann explains in an interview why social headwinds are not necessarily a bad thing for public media.

Philipp Bachmann, in a recently published survey, 61% said that they would vote in favor of the "200 francs is enough" initiative to reduce SRG fees. What does that tell you as a media economist?

The initiative strikes a nerve. Even the Federal Council, which rejects the initiative, is now in favor of reducing radio and television fees to CHF 300 per household. From a financial point of view, this would be painful for the SRG. At the same time, the initiative is forcing the SRG to position and justify itself both internally and in the public debate. This pressure to scrutinize itself and enter into a dialogue with the public also has positive aspects.

For example?

As part of a recent study, we found that public media in Switzerland have stronger support among the population than in Germany and Austria. Political co-determination plays an important role here.

Doesn’t this result contradict the intention to cut off the SRG’s funding?

Direct democracy forces SRG to adapt more closely to the needs of society. Otherwise, it risks negative sanctions, such as those threatened if the initiative is accepted. Paradoxically, this can lead to greater legitimacy in the long term, as SRG has an incentive not to lose touch with the population. Unfortunately, many people are not yet aware of how great the pressure to cut costs in Swiss journalism has become. One of SRG’s core messages should therefore be to counteract the structural media crisis by producing high-quality content. The framework conditions for this to succeed are good: historically, the public service in Switzerland, which includes the SRG, is more important than in our neighboring countries.

Study shows: Basic care organizations have greater legitimacy in Switzerland than in Germany or Austria

In an international study, the opinion research institute Gallup AG Switzerland and the Lucerne University of Applied Sciences and Arts examined the legitimacy of 25 organizations providing basic services in Switzerland, Germany and Austria. While postal services are particularly highly regarded by the population , public media in all three countries have the lowest level of support.

The country comparison also makes it clear that public service organizations have a higher status among the population in Switzerland than in Germany or Austria. They are all in the top ten of the legitimacy ranking. While Swiss Post is in first place overall, SRG brings up the rear in tenth place.

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Who would that be?

In Switzerland, public service is seen as an element that connects the different cultural and linguistic regions. This applies not only to the media, but also to other basic services such as the postal service and telecommunications. I am therefore not surprised that Swiss public service organizations have achieved the highest legitimacy ratings in a three-country comparison.

Why does SRG still enjoy less legitimacy in Switzerland than other public service organizations?

This is due to the complexity of their core mandate. Take postal services, for example, which enjoy a very high level of legitimacy both in this country and internationally. It is relatively easy for the population to assess whether they are fulfilling their core task of transporting mail from A to B. Public media, on the other hand, must offer a diverse program of information, political opinion-forming, entertainment and culture.

In other words, to cover aspects whose quality and content are easier to argue about.

Exactly. The assessment of whether topics are relevant, whether a contribution appears politically biased or whether formats such as "Samschtig-Jass" are part of the public service is highly subjective. It is therefore a particular challenge for SRG to gain broad social approval. This is where the importance of well-trained journalists becomes apparent: By presenting and categorizing relevant topics in a professional and understandable way, they can narrow the gap between subjective assessment and the formation of social will. The media quality rating, in which I am involved, shows that the SRG titles have a major influence on the formation of opinion and will with their political and economic reporting. Seven of the ten media titles with the highest "impact scores" belong to RTS and SRF.

The changed media landscape has also become a tough place. Do public service media have to assert themselves more strongly today than in the past?

Definitely. The variety of media offerings has grown exponentially, which has intensified the competition for the audience’s attention. Public broadcasters are now in direct competition with a variety of other media, platforms, social media and streaming services. In this context, popular entertainment formats such as "Landfrauenküche" or sports programs are not purely an end in themselves for SRG, but could be described as magnets to attract viewers’ attention. They are often routinely watched and "facilitate" access to the rest of the SRG offering, to information, cultural and educational formats.

So entertainment formats are important for SRG to survive in the media market?

Yes, because SRG’s entire program offering is more than the sum of its parts. Imagine if the Harry Potter stories focused exclusively on Harry and his friends going to school and writing exams - but without spells or magical creatures. Important themes such as friendship would still be present in the stories, but no one would read or watch them. The situation is similar with the removal of entertainment elements from a media offering. Pure information has a hard time on the media market.

SRF, ORF and co. are also trying to reach young audiences on platforms such as TikTok. Is the frequently voiced accusation that they are moving away from their core mission justified?

It is an insoluble dilemma. On the one hand, public broadcasters must reach and appeal to all sections of the population in accordance with their legal mandate, so there is no way around social media. However, adapting to the rules of social media entails the risk of undermining their own journalistic integrity. After all, social media thrive on exaggeration, emotionalization, one-sidedness and sometimes borderline humour. Characteristics that run counter to the principles of public service such as balance, objectivity and diversity.

What are the consequences of this dilemma?

The public media can only fail on social media. But ideally, they fail at a very high level. Their situation is comparable to a classical orchestra trying to adapt popular music styles to reach young people on platforms such as Spotify and TikTok.

Shouldn’t public media in particular play a key role in the fight against fake news on social media?

That would be desirable. In my view, it is an advantage for a democracy to have well-funded public media, especially in the context of the increasing spread of fake news. In order to counteract this misinformation, well-trained journalists are needed to carefully select and prepare information. This is difficult for private media to do profitably in view of falling advertising revenues and a low willingness to pay.

Regardless of whether the initiative mentioned at the beginning or an alternative proposal will prevail: How can the public media maintain their legitimacy in the long term?

By achieving a high level of customer benefit despite cost pressure: In other words, by providing a high-quality overall offering that includes information, cultural and socially unifying elements. They must also live up to their economic responsibility and use their funds sensibly and justifiably. The public should feel that decisions are made prudently - even if they do not reflect their own opinions.