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There can be little doubt that Trine Syvertsen's analysis of the creation and development of public television in Britain and Norway is a timely contribution to our understanding of the changes which such institutions are currently undergoing. But Syvertsen's aims go beyond merely highlighting the sorts of contemporary forces which are forcing change. In her words, she seeks to develop 'elements of a more general approach to how broadcasting structures develop and change in liberal capi talist societies.' (p. 329)


In pursuing these aims, Syvertsen adopts a comparative approach so as 'to determine how general forces and interests have interacted in specific historical settings' (p.14) to produce, specifically, the BBC and the NRK.

She goes on to argue that there were three 'historical moments' in the formation of public television in Britain and Norway. These were:

  • the establishment of the institutions as radio monopolies;

  • the implementation and impact of television;

  • the profound changes in the television situation in the 1980s and 1990s, and that at each of these stages, one can identify processes of change and adaptation to changing circumstances.

Each of these 'moments' is treated separately in the book as it develops into an ably researched and very well documented social and historical analysis of broadcasting. But this is incidental to its central themes, namely, that one can, at every 'moment', identify sets of factors which play significant parts in the development of broadcasting institutions, and that these factors are sometimes not very dissimilar in different countries. Hence, the emphasis on the comparative approach, and the lessons which can be learned from it.

Much of this general approach to the study of broadcasting can be illustrated by looking at one specific 'historical moment', namely the establishment of the radio monopolies. In this period, a number of possibilities for broadcasting can be identified such as

  • the nature of the technologies themselves which can set their own limits, or be constrained by social and political consideration;

  • economic constraints which raise questions of revenue generation and expenditure;

  • and the general social consensus, whereby 'the technology must be institutionalised in a form which is not only considered legal, but also socially leaitimate. (p. 24)

The 'possibilities' which can be derived from the above are, in turn, mediated by other decisions or 'choices' which have to be made.

So, Syvertsen asks, 'who makes these choices as to how broadcasting systems should be organised? '(p. 24) The interests which play a part here are those of business and industry and their concern with 'the optimal conditions for profit-taking', the ministries of the state and their differing perspectives which raise the spectre of media policy within states, and the role of the public. The resulting mixture of constraints, interests, ideologies and pressures give rise to an 'historie moment whereby different interests all attempt to maximise their gains and minimise their losses in the struggle over what institutional form should be applied.' (p. 26) Or, put differently, 'initial possibilities' are narrowed down 'to a few alternatives' which are determined by general limitations and constraints, and by the specific composition of social forces and interests in the historical period. ' (p.30)

At this point, Syvertsen introduces two terms which help us to understand better her analysis. The first is the negative alliance. Here, 'participants differ on what solutions they favour, but come together in coalitions because they agree on what solutions to oppose. ' (30); the second is the idea that broadcasting institutions are granted privileges which they need to defend and justify, for example, the privilege of monopoly broadcasting or the licence fee. But, at the same time they have obligations or duties which are expected 'in return for' the privileges. (pp. 31-2). The trick is to 'maintain the balance between the privileges and obligations' (p. 31) so that there can be no disjunction between the two.

There is enough here to illustrate the ways in which the work is conceived and the analysis is executed. For example, in discussing the period up to the 1930s Syvertsen points out that there were many similarities between the origins of both the BBC and the NRK. She continues 'lf we accept the assumption that the policy-makers operated largely within national context, there is only one explanation: That the forces helped bring about public broadcasting corporations took on a similar configuration in different countries.' (p.68) This is not to deny that there were different influences, such as that of Reith, but that similar structural characteristics developed in these two organisations.

For later periods in the history of broadcasting, Syvertsen continues to use the same approach to show how the public broadcasting institutions have adapted to different circumstances, to challenges to their 'privileges', to funding crises, to arguments about their location in the social and political world, and to debates about their futures. As she rightly points out, changes in society, in the balance of interests and forces etc. have created a situation where 'there seems to be little agreement as to what the specific roles which the public corporations are supposed to play in the coming decades.‗ (p.336) They both have crises of identity where the privileges and obligations are subject to constant negotiation and are, more critically, being contested. This poses the more general problem of how the two institutions should adapt to meet the challenges of the future. Although Syvertsen does provide her own ideas, this section is too brief - a mere two pages - and are more of an afterthought than a considered plan of action.

As can be seen from the above review of the form the analysis, and the book, takes there is a considerable amount of information which will be of immense use to researchers and policymakers alike. The material is explored systematically and in a chronological way so that one can trace the progress of similar institutions in different contexts. Yet the strength of this book may mask a general weakness which can best be illustrated by looking at contemporary changes. Whilst it is clearly possible to undertake an historical analysis of changes up to the present which logically set out forces and constraints, this is undoubtedly more difficult to carry out in situ as it were. How are we, for example, to measure satisfactorily the balance of forces which are currently at play? Relying on published sources is clearly insufficient since these present the public face of the argument. The private face of policymaking is thus concealed. Reconstructing the argument on the basis of these published documents, say in 10 years time, would certainly make it possible to identify the balance of forces which have played a part but they do so with an element of hindsight and after the event. In other words, the approach used in the book may be less useful in a predictive way.

Another reservation relates to the countries selected for the comparison. Whilst the work is extremely useful, it is a pity that there is no attempt to employ the approach in the context of non-Western European countries where there was less resistance to 'the commercial domination of broadcasting' (1) and where ideologies and policy traditions were so different as to produce different results. Such a comparison would have, as an aside, tested the forms of the explanations offered here, as well as the relative importance of different forces. Ultimately though one might still have concluded that things could not have turned out otherwise because of the balance of forces at play at any particular moment in time, i.e., because they did not turn out differentiy.

One final point needs to be made about the book as a whole. It is a PhD thesis reproduced in book form. On the positive side, this highlights the way research should be conducted, evidence deployed and arguments presented. On the negative side, it suffers from being a thesis rather than a concise argument in book form.

Having said all this, the book remains an important analysis of the way the BBC and NRK developed as well as of the challenges which they are likely to face in the future.

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