The Toilet Paper

Defining the public value of public service media

Public service media exist because they provide value to the general public (who also happen to pay for them).

Talk show host with a small p*nis is angry about something
Some commercial “news” networks may have anchor management issues

Commercial media commonly argue that public funding allocated to public service broadcasters’ services on digital (online, mobile, streaming) platforms constitutes illegal state aid, because these new platforms are not explicitly covered in their public service remit. These attacks from commercial media against public service media have led the latter to adopt the notion of “public value”.

The British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) was the first to embrace public value as a core concept and rationale for its online and digital expansion. Other European broadcasters have since embraced the public value narrative as well. However, there appears to be little agreement on what public value exactly means, what it consists of, and how it is best created.

The authors of this week’s paper carried out a documentary analysis around the ideation of public value in European public service media legislation. This was done by reviewing state-level and regional laws, and examining the external and internal narratives of national public service broadcasters.

This resulted in the identification of 12 components of public value created by public service media:

  • Social engagement is about satisfying the audience’s information, entertainment and education needs, especially during times of need.

  • Diversity in programming – production sources and audiences – must reflect the diversity in territorial identity, culture, and languages.

  • Innovation is linked to the promotion of the information society, the development of creativity and useful interactive services, new techniques, and new forms of participation.

  • Independence from external (political and governmental) powers should ensure trustworthiness of public service media and result in neutral reporting.

  • Excellence is embodied in quality of the content, professionalism, and leadership.

  • Universality is about the guarantee that audiovisual content is available within the entire territory and can reach as many audiences as possible in terms of message decoding.

  • Citizen participation means that citizens from all social groups have the right to participate in the process of creation and broadcasting of content.

  • Media literacy is needed to ensure that citizens have a good understanding of essential issues for social coexistence.

  • Accountability, that is, a guarantee of transparency and economic efficiency. German and Finnish broadcasters also emphasise the importance of environmental sustainability.

  • Territorial cohesion is about achieving a common identity that goes beyond physical territorial borders. Special attention is paid to audiences in overseas territories or those that live abroad (diaspora).

  • Social justice is promoted by defending human rights, equality and victims of any type of violence.

  • Cooperation with other institutions, broadcasting organisations and audiovisual companies can stimulate regional economies.

These components were discussed in a focus group with 15 academics and practitioners in the field of European public service media.

While participants have a clear idea of what they expect from public service media, the group found it challenging to formulate a single definition of public value that is applicable throughout all of Europe. However, most participants agree that it probably has something to do with social utility, i.e whether public service media fulfil the needs of society.

The twelve components likely hold varying degrees of importance. Participants in the focus group suggest the following three levels of importance:

Essential value Excellence
Important value Innovation
Social justice
Social engagement
Citizen participation
Interesting value Media literacy
Territorial cohesion

It’s also interesting to look at what sets public service media apart from private media. Participants unanimously agree that public service broadcasters provide distinctive value. Current public service media are different from and complement private offers, for instance by covering important topics that are overlooked by privately managed media and maintaining credibility in an era with widespread misinformation.

Most experts believe that the twelve components of public value should not change, even if the context within which public service media exist (technology, society) changes.

Moreover, universality should be rethought as a priority; not only in terms of technological access, but also due to structural gaps created by paywall-based business models and personalisation.

Finally, one participant points out the need for supranational collaboration to compete with and the danger of blurring brands when content is shared through third-party platforms like YouTube.


  1. Public value created by public service media consists of twelve components, but is hard to define otherwise