The emergence of broadcasting in the early 1900’s resulted in the development of different broadcasting systems throughout the world (Nesbitt-Larking 58). Britain and the US, two democratic nations with many shared cultural, economic, and political values, quickly developed remarkably dissimilar systems of broadcasting which became the models used by other countries as they struggled to develop their own systems (Emery 5). Most eventually followed the British model, opting for public broadcasting systems (Emery 7). Private systems similar to the US model thrived in others (Emery 7).
A few, including Canada, developed hybrid broadcasting systems, characterized by a relatively equal combination of public and private elements (Emery 8). In addition to the launch of different broadcasting systems, the early days of broadcasting also marked the beginning of an enduring debate about the potential of these different systems to strengthen democracy and foster democratic debate in a democratic society (Browne 9). This debate is a complicated one, offering no easy answers, and no clear path to a superior democracy (Browne 10). Two viewpoints have typically been represented in this debate.
They agree that an important function of broadcasting should be to nurture democracy and that a democratic society must have a broadcasting system which informs the public and provides opportunity for diverse interests to contribute to public debate (Browne 3). However, one view claims that democratic debate can only thrive in a public system of broadcasting, while the other favours a private system governed by free market forces, and both tend to see the differences between public and private broadcasting “in black and white terms (Taras 128).
The private US broadcasting system and the public British system offer some insight into the validity of these arguments. A third perspective would argue that control over broadcasting is too important to democracy to be left solely in the hands of either the state or corporate and commercial interests (Browne 379). The perseverance of Canada’s hybrid broadcasting system and the recent shifts experienced by both the US and the British systems demonstrate the strength of this argument.
A public system of broadcasting is a system that is non-commercial, financed entirely by public funds, accountable to the public, and aimed at serving the entire population (Browne 16). In 1927 Britain established the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) , an independent public corporation, as a public broadcasting monopoly (Emery 86). The British public broadcasting system quickly gained admiration and was imitated in other broadcasting systems throughout the world (Emery 87).
The BBC was funded by license fees paid by TV and radio users, which was sufficient to support program development and operation of the broadcasting system in general (Emery 631). Therefore, broadcasting in Britain was independent of corporate sponsorship (Emery 631). In theory, since user fee revenue was not collected by the government but went directly to the BBC, it was also independent of direct government control over funding (Emery 632). The contrast between this form of funding and either corporate sponsorship or government funding is clear.
Corporate sponsorship produces a decidedly corporate slant on content (Emery 633). The concern with direct government funding is that broadcasting may be reduced to a tool of government propaganda, as clearly occurred in the public broadcasting systems of several fascist and communist at that time (Emery 98). Supporters of public broadcasting claim that a public system is a guarantee that all segments of the public, including minority groups, are provided with programs that are impartial and varied, free of interference, comprising of information, education, culture and entertainment (McChesney).