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The ABC - and SBS - of social innovation

By Terry Flew - posted Wednesday, 4 February 2009

Public service broadcasting was one of the great 20th century social innovations in media. The aim of public service broadcasters (PSBs) was to seek to harness the new mass media towards social purposes. These included nation-building, mass education, strengthening the information base of democracies, and broadly-based cultural improvement, particularly in areas such as documentaries, news and current affairs, and children’s programming.

Public service broadcasters have been major generators of social innovation. Social innovation refers to those forms of social and cultural value that are generated over and above commercial benefit to providers, and the benefits to the users or audiences. Given that institutions that generate social innovation are often publicly funded, the tricky question is always to work out whether the less tangible social returns exceed the cost to taxpayers, and whether the value is maintained over time as cultural expectation and technological affordances change.

In the case of PSBs, three messages seem to come through. First, the key to the PSB model is not government funding per se - governments have funded broadcasters from Albania to Zimbabwe, with very mixed results - but the combination of public funding and a degree of independence and autonomy from the government of the day.


Second, a relationship with commercial broadcasters that is both complementary and competitive at some levels seems most conducive to innovation, as it forces PSBs to be more responsive to their audiences, and less inclined to adopt a “we know best” mentality, while at the same time promoting their distinctiveness from the commercial sector.

Finally, the role played by Charter in making PSB’s, such as the ABC and SBS, accountable to Parliament is vital. Charters provide performance benchmarks that move the rationale for PSBs from market failure (providing what the commercial services don’t) to combining provision of specialist programming with the need to be innovative and responsive to community expectations.

The Department of Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy (DBCDE) recently called for public submissions into the future roles and responsibilities of the ABC and SBS as Australia’s national broadcasters. The DBCDE Review has been read at one level as a move by the Rudd Government to draw a line under the “culture wars” of the Howard years, where debates about perceived ideological bias were seen as permeating the relationship of government to the PSBs - especially the ABC - at all levels, from funding to Board appointments.

More generally, however, the Review of National Broadcasting is being undertaken at a time when the remit of public broadcasters worldwide is being looked at. In contrast to the 1990s - where much of the debate was about whether they were still needed as cable and satellite TV and the Internet led us to a multi-channel universe - the debate is now about how best to reconfigure their mission in a media environment where users increasingly expect participation, interactivity, and content on demand from any digital media device at any time and place.

The ABC has been a national leader in the provision of online media, with its content-on-demand iView service attracting massive traffic for TV over the Internet, but this comes at a cost. In contrast to radio and television, where the cost of reaching each additional consumer is zero to the broadcaster once infrastructure is in place, the cost in terms of network time and capacity for allowing existing content to be accessed online increases with the growing numbers of consumers. This is before any consideration is given to committing resources for developing Web-only media content. Public service broadcasters do not have online provisions within their Charter obligations, and are funded to only a limited extent - and in the SBS’s case not at all - to provide it to Australians.

In a submission that I co-authored with Stuart Cunningham, Axel Bruns, and Jason Wilson for the Review of National Broadcasting, we proposed that the ABC and SBS should be understood as public service media. This is not only an accommodation to the 21st century reality of media convergence, but it emphasises how it is the services are provided - rather than the delivery platforms on which they are carried - that is at the core of pubic support for the ABC and SBS today. It also indicates that the basis for supporting public service media is not simply that of market failure in a limited channel environment; but the capacity to promote innovative, engaging, and inclusive Australian information and entertainment content in a world of seemingly limitless media choice.


This vision of public service media is framed by a larger understanding of social innovation in the 21st century. At the time when public service broadcasters were first established, social innovation was largely understood as something that came from the centre. Governments identified national priorities, and set up institutions to realise them.

The development of the Internet draws attention to a second vision of social innovation; where it came from the margin and it built incrementally rather than being the product of large-scale, conscious organisational design. Whatever were the original intentions in developing the Internet, it has proved to be a radically decentralised informational and communications system. One where innovation arises from the ad hoc and unco-ordinated actions of a myriad of individuals whose activities become interconnected in the complex networked ecology; to a whole that is exponentially greater than the sum of its parts.

The ABC and SBS can effectively harness both of these models of social innovation. To do so, however, we would argue that there should be a substantial opening up of both organisations to user-created content. By becoming more participatory public service media organisations, there is the scope to stimulate more public participation, creative output, diversity of sources and, ultimately, more public support for both the ABC and the SBS.

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Terry Flew is co-author of a submission to the Review of National Broadcasting conducted by the Department of Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy, with Stuart Cunningham, Axel Bruns and Jason Wilson. The submission is available here.

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About the Author

Terry Flew is Professor of Media and Communications at the Queensland University of Technology, Brisbane, Australia. He is the author of Understanding Global Media (Palgrave 2007) and New Media: An Introduction (Oxford University Press, 2008). From 2006 to 2009, he has headed a project into citizen journalism in Australia through the Australian Research Council’s Linkage-Projects program, and The National Forum (publishers of On Line Opinion) have been participants in that project.

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