Impossible to predict the future of Sweden's public service broadcasters

PUBLIC SERVICE. New broadcasting licences for the Swedish public service broadcasters Sveriges Television, Sveriges Radio and Utbildningsradion are to be decided. The Swedish government will first adopt its own position and is expected to submit a proposal to parliament in May. Parliament will then decide on the issue in the autumn.

In Sweden, such decisions are prepared by a committee appointed by the government. Swedish Radio has now submitted its comments on the committee's proposal. Swedish Radio shares the basic view of the public service mission as put by the committee. The Committee says that "it is important that broadcasters see to the interests of the public as a whole" and that public broadcasters in the future should "keep a broad mandate and thus also a variety in terms of their content."
   Swedish Radio wishes to emphasize that public service radio can neither be controlled nor limited for commercial reasons.

Swedish Radio's comments on the public service committee's report raise questions about funding. The committee was to inquire whether the current, licence-fee model should be replaced by a general household fee or a special tax. Swedish Radio's view is that the current fee for public radio and TV works well in Sweden. The funds come in and have been increasing year by year. The licence fee establishes a relationship between listeners and users and their public broadcasters that is invaluable – both in terms of the audience's proximity to the broadcasters and political independence. Developments in a number of European countries attest to that.

The issue of a new funding model was omitted from the decision-making process for "further inquiry," meaning the licence-fee model will likely remain in place when the new broadcasting licence enters into force on 1 January 2014.
   But according to Swedish Radio, funding is the most important aspect of the new broadcasting licence, and several issues that concern the future of public broadcasting relate to financing. Most important, however, is not the funding model itself but the size of the grants.

"As a result of past savings, an additional list of grants from 2010 and low expenditure increases from 2010 to 2011, Swedish Radio has had a reasonable amount of resources at its disposal during the current licence period, i.e. resources that have matched the actual increases in expenditure. That has freed up room for development. Such room is no longer available. Reductions from current levels will be required, and programmes and content currently offered to audiences will have to be discontinued. Swedish Radio wants to develop its journalism rather than lower its ambitions as a publisher. If Swedish Radio is allowed reasonable and adequate financial resources, it could invest more in original journalism, a local presence, its network of foreign correspondents and audience dialogue."

The media industry is rapidly developing and it is therefore important for Swedish Radio to have a good amount of resources earmarked for development. This is not least to meet the challenge of the audience changing their ways of consuming media. Some of the future investments upheld in Swedish Radio's response to the committee's proposal are:

• In 2014 we begin the development of digital radio in Sweden, provided sufficient funding is available.

• We expand our current network of 17 foreign correspondents.

• We increase weekend news coverage in our 25 local channels.

• Investigative journalism is to be given a more important role in our overall news coverage.

• The number of specialized reporters increases throughout licence period.

• Our culture coverage beyond Stockholm increases.

Digital radio is not primarily an issue for Swedish Radio; it is at least as important for commercial radio. The response states that "Swedish Radio believes that the digitization of the radio medium is a matter of social infrastructure that concerns the entire radio industry, and that therefore the question of shutting down the entire FM broadcast band should be handled in a separate process that does not exclusively concern public service."
   As far as Swedish Radio is concerned, it is important to have finances that guarantee qualitative and attractive content for digital radio, so that listeners are motivated to buy the new, technical equipment they may need to listen.

Sweden's centre-right government is only supported by a minority in parliament. It is still quite unclear how the issue of public service will be dealt with politically. Several options seem plausible:

  • The government may submit its proposal and then let negotiations in parliament decide the outcome.
  • The government may adjust its proposals so that the xenophobic and right-wing populist party the Sweden Democrats support them.
  • The government may try strike a deal with the Social Democrats – and/or the Green Party – in advance. Such contacts have not yet been taken.
  • A fourth, "non-alternative" would be push back the big issues – digital radio, funding models, funding levels – so that the parliament elected in September 2014 will make the decisions. That would, in practice – though not formally – mean a prolongation of the status quo.

Although only three months remain before the government is to submit its proposal, it is impossible to say in which political direction the government will go.

Cecilia Djurberg
Editor of Journalism 3.0 -
Media ecology and the Future, Swedish Radio