Regional and local broadcast media in Europe may appear for many as a last bastion of plurality, of vox populi and of democracy.
The European Audiovisual Observatory, part of the Council of Europe in Strasbourg, has just published a brand new IRIS Special analysis of the current state of regional and local broadcasting in Europe.
This new report offers a much-needed overview of regional audiovisual media in Europe in three sections. The first delivers a broad overview of current national developments and reforms in recent years; the second digs deeper into individual national case studies of regional and local media – their distinctive features and regulatory approaches; and the third looks into the future of regional and local broadcasting.
The report opens with a social analysis of regional media and their importance as fora for public debate, communication channels for regional identity or for regional news not covered in national reporting. The Council of Europe’s various conventions and treaties which aim at supporting media plurality and regional identity are well outlined in this context.
Chapter two details national law and policy developments in regional media throughout Europe. The report notes trends such as greater flexibility of the rules and regulations in countries such as the UK, Switzerland and Spain. Structural reforms for greater efficiency in regional media have been carried out in the Netherlands and Portugal, for example, and developments in advertising and regional windows policy have been noted in Germany and Russia.
The report then describes the Media Pluralism Monitor (MPM). It provides an empirical means of assessing the risks to media pluralism and freedom in any EU country. Having been used in 2015 to analyse the media systems of 19 EU countries, the MPM draws some valuable and telling conclusions. It stipulates that effective safeguards for regional pluralism should take into account both internal, endogenous factors such as diverse programming, for example, and external factors such as growing centralization on a national scale. It is striking that the MPM notes that virtually all countries are dealing with problems in this field.
The first section of the report rounds off with a valuable snapshot round-up of the number of regional broadcasters and their structures currently active in Europe. The MAVISE database of the European Audiovisual Observatory contains data on the 13,000 TV channels currently available in Europe – almost 60% of which are local or regional.
The second section of this new report, building on the first, provides a more in-depth country by country study of regional media in Europe: their operational structure and regulation. Germany and its heavily regional-based “Länder” structure are examined. Nine independent regional broadcasters operate within the German ARD system and the report points to “detailed legislation and case law dealing with the use of regional windows” as being influential in shaping German regional media. The report also explores the creation of a new Dutch centralized body – the RPO – with an exclusive 10 years concession to provide regional public service broadcasting. The Spanish system is analysed with reference to its capacity to allow public and private regional broadcasters to co-exist, thanks to the power of the autonomous communities to control their regional media activity. The Swiss system has just increased the share of revenue generated by the broadcasting licence fee allocated to regional media.
Italy is notable in its importance attributed to national frequency allocation for local television, as the Italian communications regulator, Agcom, reviewed the national plan for frequency allocation in June 2015. A particular challenge faces French regional media as France re-drew its regional boundaries, merging smaller regions into larger administrative entities, in 2015. The task of the established regional media structure will be to deal with coverage of larger areas and in particular to promote the culture and identity of the former smaller regions throughout the new larger region. The UK regional media environment has long boasted a very strong regional structure, carried by both the BBC with regional windows and the 13 ITV regions. The fate of regional broadcasting in the UK is strongly linked to the funding of the BBC and the current review of the Royal Charter.
The final section of the report dares to gaze into the future of regional and local broadcasting. The current economic context is clearly hostile to regional media as cutbacks cause closures of regional channels throughout Europe. Increasingly fragmented audiences and on-demand consumption patterns are affecting traditional consumption models, with obvious consequences for regional broadcasting. Concluding on an optimistic note, the authors state that there is clearly no “one size fits all” solution to the challenges faced by regional media, given their very country-specific structures and regulation. They do however point to “success factors” such as internal creative and managerial dynamism, national and regional political support and regulation for the sector, effective and recognized local news coverage and new and innovative economic models.