Picture it: Out of a population of two hundred and eighty odd thousand souls, living in approximately one hundred and ten thousand households – 98% of which have televisions – a staggering 70% of these households will be watching television between six thirty and seven thirty each evening. The whole of a nation glued to their sets, and all for the News.
September 11th and the Death of Diana every day
This 70% figure needs further amplification. The percentage is five times more than the comparative viewing figures in the United Kingdom and approaching ten times that of the United States. In order to attract similar ratings, these broadcasters would need September 11th and the Death of Diana to happen on the same day, every day. They might then reach the same proportion of households, but only just.
It’s not hard to put a finger on where the nation’s love affair with The News stems from. RUV, like many national broadcasters, was created in the age of radio nearly 75 years ago – in those times there was one broadcaster with one channel. In Great Britain we had the BBC; in Iceland they had Ríkisútvarpið – literally, “State Radio”.
RUV and BBC took their roles seriously as the programmes they were broadcasting developed almost universal coverage and appeal, and with this came the burden of responsibility and accountability for broadcasters. In Britain, Lord Reith, who was responsible for creating the BBC’s Charter, devised the term Inform, Educate and Entertain. Tenets which were adopted by broadcasters around the world, and nowhere more so than here in Iceland.
It became clear that the bedrock of all broadcasting and programming would be the news. The family was assembled, a blanket was put over the parrot’s cage and everyone sat down to listen. This was a scene that was replicated in millions of households throughout the world.
“Narrow” casting replaces broadcasting
Turn the clock forward nearly seventy-five years. The radio has been replaced by television as the main means of receiving and there are multiple channels available to everyone, even in the most isolated communities. The concept of public service broadcasting has been stood on its head; with commercial operators who have a completely different set of rules and priorities now competing for viewers, state broadcasters can no longer take their universal appeal for granted.
Now the audience has the power to choose what it wants. In parts of some European countries the advent of digital broadcasting is so advanced that each household can now become their own television station. Selecting only the programming they want to watch, and only when they want to watch it.
‘Broad’ casting is fast becoming a thing of the past – ‘Narrow’ casting is the way ahead. There has been a democratising of television that could never have been envisaged all those years ago. While television stations hunt for viewers and compete for advertisers, ‘Entertain, Entertain, Entertain’ are becoming the tenets held by contemporary broadcasters and Lord Reith is most probably revolving in his grave.
Digital television is the way ahead and it will provide viewers with more choice than is currently imaginable. At its best, homes will be able to select the best plays, documentaries, films, sport, news and debates and have them beamed into their homes at whatever time they want. At its worst, people will be glued to around the clock pornography, reality shows and mindless action.
Ambulance chasing for adverts
A by-product of this democratisation could be the abandonment of Public Service Broadcasting as we know it today, and as governments find it harder to justify license fees, state broadcasting will become a thing of the past.
Some will argue that this will be democracy and free markets working at their best. Viewers should be able to watch what they want, when they want, without a ´nanny’ state intervening. We now have more access to news outlets than ever before. But are we getting more reliable news? Editors have repeatedly claimed their independence from political and economic interests and stated that the media does not set agendas but only mirror the opinions of the day. But global newsgathering is an expensive business and it is the advertisers who pay the bills.
Increasingly the competition to get to the story first and provide the most attention grabbing pictures has undermined basic rules of sound investigative reporting. ‘Ambulance Chasing’ may seem too strong a word, but there are times when viewing CNN, SKY and FOX it appears that is what we are watching. If ratings figures begin to drop then there is commercial pressure on News editors to find stories or methods of reporting that will put them back on track, otherwise advertisers may loose interest.
Perhaps the price we will pay for the freedom of choice that the new digital technology will bring will be for News to be relegated to just part of the ´entertainment’ that is offered to viewers. As viewers we have now not only to look at the news, but also look closely at what interests lie behind the reporting.