These days, with Twitter, Instagram and Facebook everywhere, people tend to think that media must be the shortened form of social media. They also give no thought to 'media' being the plural form of 'medium', defined as a form of communication.

Government and entertainment figures have been using broadcast media to keep us looped into goings-on and keep us entertained for nearly a century. Before then, it was print media that news services used to keep us informed of local, national and global happenings. To some extent, they entertained us, too.

During the Second World War, we stayed up-to-date and reassured, at least to some extent, through the medium of radio.

For all that we've left vacuum tubes and, for that matter, cathode ray tubes behind us in our quest for ever-crisper images and sound, the question remains: who pays for all of the information showered upon us - gratis, for the most part?

Broadcast media economic models:
Public broadcasting media is supported by license fees, government funds and other grants and contributions.
Community broadcasting may originate from local universities or interest groups. They are funded by the entity and the municipal government. They may also solicit public donations.
Commercial media are paid for through adverts and subscriptions to cable services and premium channel packages.
This model includes satellite commercial broadcasting.
Webcasting is funded by viewer subscriptions; they may also receive funding from advertisers.

Regardless of type, most broadcasters draw on a combination of these funding methods to carry out their operations. A few countries, like Saudi Arabia and China, place all broadcast and print media under state control while others, such as the UK, allocate grant funding.

In today's world, with more people than ever getting their news from digital platforms - news with any degree of truth to it, we have to wonder about the future of broadcast media. Will it have enough money to sustain itself?

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Financing Media in the UK

Love it or leave it - and some are avowed BBC contras, the British Broadcasting Corporation is the UK's gold standard of broadcast media. Despite having 'corporation' baked into its name, the BBC is a public service broadcaster that garners more than 28% of the entire UK's viewing audience. It also enjoys substantial international viewership.

Where does the money come from to pay for all of that?

The BBC is funded by a mix of contributions, license fees and government money
The BBC's financial profile is a mix of donations, fundraising and government monies. Photo by Jason Leung on Unsplash

Besides viewers' television licence fees and various fundraising events, donations pour in from the likes of:

  • The Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency
  • The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation
  • The United States Agency for International Development
  • The United Nations Development Programme
  • The Global Affairs office, Canada
  • The Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs
  • The European Union
  • The North American Aerospace Defence Command (NORAD)

As for funding from the UK government, the Foreign and Commonwealth office, as well as the UK Department for International Development chip in roughly half of the financial needs to keep the BBC's home and satellite operations running.

Of course, we'll have to keep an eye out for ITV and Sky, both commercial broadcast ventures, which also operate across the globe, to see how future funding for the BBC will shake out.

Media Financing Elsewhere in the World

The US is an interesting case study of a country's broadcasting financial profile that gets no direct government support.

At the outset, there were The Big Three: ABC, NBC and CBS; none of which were ever public broadcasting companies. They are all still on the air today. And then, along came Fox Broadcasting Company, another wholly commercial entity, which became the Fourth Network.

This country's aptly named PBS - their Public Broadcasting Service hit the airwaves much later than the Big Three (but earlier than Fox) to counterbalance all of the commercial fare available. Even so, the US government does not contribute to PBS's financial bottom line despite this broadcaster providing most of the country's educational programming, and even coverage of government events at the state level.

By contrast, all of China's media lie under government supervision, even if they're no longer required to strictly adhere to all regulations. State television is, of course, funded by the government but, more recently, China has granted a few foreign broadcasters their country's license, paving the way for commercial entities. Nevertheless, all media is overseen and violations of this government's requirements result in stiff penalties, including expulsion from the country if the business is not native.

Russia provides their media consumers with a blend of state-owned public broadcast and commercial channels. The state-owned outlets are funded by the state, obviously, though they may still fundraise and accept donations. By contrast, the commercial channels receive no government monies; they rely strictly on product sales, advert-generated revenue and subscriptions.

It's rather interesting that three of the world's most high-profile countries embrace completely different ways to finance their media, isn't it? The US is a free-for-all while the Chinese government holds tightly to its media's reins and Russia falls somewhere in between the two.

As do most other countries around the world.

COVID coverage proved that news is neither standard nor universal
The coronavirus pandemic laid bare just how distorted the news can be across the spectrum. Photo by Tech Daily on Unsplash

Does it Matter Who Pays?

For most of broadcast news' history, it was seen as a vital public service because keeping people informed was (and still is!) the way to foster responsible civic engagement. Providing entertainment was also considered a public service; anyone who lived through austerity knows how desperately needed a few minutes of levity are, every so often.

That's why governments footed a lot of the bill in the media's early days and why they still offset the costs of public broadcasting today. Is that enough?

Considering current times' increasing polarisation, misinformation and disinformation, and the many outlets that pump out information of all types, one might argue that supporting public broadcasting is like trying to empty the ocean with a toy bucket. It's simply not going to be enough to turn the tide.

Commercial media, by now the largest part of broadcast media's realm, offers more glitz, more panache, more splash and more diversity. No longer are people confined to regimented channels of entertainment and news; today, it's all about pulling in the largest audience shares. To do that, the sets have to be visually appealing and the programming must be both engaging and exciting. Also, it helps if the presenters are attractive.

Amid all that glamour, how much veracity can be found?

That gets to the urgent problem confronting society. Today, truth depends on which side you lean: left or right, conservative or liberal, Tory or Labour. Commercial media is not often held to standards of impartiality; they can essentially say anything they want to draw an audience - and some go overboard in doing so.

Even before that American presidential advisor legitimised 'alternate facts', commercial media was well on its way to blurring the lines between the actual and the perceived. Since that widely-mocked assertion, though, the media has been tripping over itself presenting entire universes of facts to support preferred narratives.

And discrediting news sources incompatible with the desired narrative as fake news.

Forget the fictional Don't Look Up, we only need to look at the Russian state media's wholesale embrace of alternate facts about the war in Ukraine to get a sense of how far gone even the illusion of truth is. The Kremlin is a pioneer of the genre but media in so-called free countries isn't far behind. Rupert Murdoch's media empire is making great strides in... not wholly breaking from the truth but certainly reporting from remote galaxies full of alternate facts.

Therein lies the danger of who pays for the media.

The ones who control the purse strings also control the narrative. We're seeing, more and more, that the narrative is neither collectively good nor collaboratively constructive. And, though the information is delivered, whether that information bears even a passing resemblance to reality is sometimes questionable.

There's so much more to be said about money in the media; we hope you'll join us in discussing it.

As more people turn to streaming, broadcast media is struggling to come up with revenue
These days, as viewers prefer streaming services over broadcast media, those companies are having to redesign their financial plans. Photo by Tech Daily on Unsplash

Looking Ahead at Media Finance

In general, broadcast media has good reasons to worry about their future viability. Today, most of the advertising dollars go to social media platforms and other internet giants like Google. Broadcasters are bleeding audience shares. Streaming services - especially those that play on mobile devices are claiming more and more of the public's attention.

This problem is particularly relevant to public broadcasting. Younger viewers are less likely to sit in front of the telly and, when they do, they usually tune in to commercial programming targeted to their demographic rather than period dramas and remakes of classic works.

The biggest issue, by far, is that the public is simply not interested in how the media, public or commercial, is financed. However, after the revelations in this article's previous segment, the privatisation of public media is most certainly something everyone should care about.

Leaving media funding strictly to investors and advertisers has its strong points; generous budgets and wide latitude to program as they see fit - this setup offers obvious advantages. However, the question remains whether they would broadcast in the public interest or only their own.

That's why concerned viewers believe that the government should still have a measure of input - and output when it comes to media content. And governments should definitely foot at least part of the bill for public and community broadcasting, especially as it's in the better civic interest for these outlets to continue operations.

But who knows? Maybe some savvy social media influencer will make money promoting local issues, concerns and newsworthy events.

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