Digitization could help Latin American public media out of current crisis (third and final article of series)

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  • October 4, 2016

By Paola Nalvarte y Marina Estarque

Public media in Latin America have a tradition of serving the government of the day rather than the citizens, and therefore, have gained low ratings and little credibility.

However, for many experts on the subject, the digital age and new formats that accompany it, present a great opportunity for change with regards to public media and a possible solution to the crisis experienced by these media across the region.

In this third and final installment of the series on public media in Latin America, the Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas interviewed various experts and researchers in the field about the challenges for survival and sustainability faced by the public media in the digital age, and their abilities to produce digital content to increasingly fragmented audiences.

Not all experts consulted for this article are optimistic that new technologies can mean a positive change in the reform of state media into public media.

Advantages and disadvantages of digitization of public media

Everything indicates that the transition of the media form analog to free-to-air digital would have a positive impact on the right to freedom of expression in Latin America, said Gustavo Gómez, director general of the non-government organization Observatorio Latinoamericano de Regulación, Medios y Convergencia (Observacom) before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), at a hearing on April 5 of this year.

The result of this new technological support should contribute to a media system with more plurality and diversity of voices, making way for new operators both in the community, commercial and public sectors, Gómez explained.

According to Gómez, this migration to the digital platform, due to the compression of signals it permits, would make possible the entrance of more operators to the radio spectrum, which has always been characterized as scarce and limited. This, he said, could combat media concentration in the region,

However, Valerio Fuenzalida, a Chilean researcher specializing in media and a professor at the Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile, said that pubic media in the region continue to be characterized by low credibility and audience. This situation, he said, has become more accentuated in recent years due to political propaganda in its contents.

Additionally, social networks have helped people to obtain information from various alternative sources, meaning that digital technology makes it harder for public media to have faithful audiences, Fuenzalida explained to the Knight Center.

According to the Chilean researcher, this "accentuates the distrust in the public media," making the outlook for reforming public media and placing them at the service of the audience even more complex and difficult.

"Personally, I think this has to change, the crisis of public television is obvious, with channels that nobody knows why they still exist, with low ratings, without credibility," Fuenzalida said. The question to answer now is what services they provide to the country, he added.

One of the solutions Fuenzalida anticipates is that the public media produce more specialized and pluralistic content and stop being generalists.

"We must evolve from generalist channels to segmented channels," Fuenzalida said. He also explained that public television should be remodeled in the digital environment, having more channels available to audiences, as with cable, satellite television and via streaming on the Internet.

Reforming public means for the audience means having a plural public media, he said.

For Argentine socialist Silvio Waisbord, a professor and associate director of the School of Media and Public Affairs at George Washington University in the U.S., there is also the question of how to justify the existence of public media amid the proliferation of digital content.

"I think that the digital questions or poses more questions to public media. I am not sure that the public media have been able to develop a convincing argument about their usefulness, their necessity, in this situation," Waisbord said to the Knight Center.

Digital favors production of content, but does not necessarily change the editorial tone of public media, or drive a revolution that changes the relationship of the public media toward politics, Waisbord added.

"Technology is only a platform,and audience fragmentation and increased consumption of digital platforms mean that public media have other kinds of challenges, like maintaining an audience of important size, without being able to compete with commercial media because they have another logic,” Waisbord said.

According to the Argentine sociologist, it is difficult to build consensus on the mission of public media because of the "political volatility" that exists in the region’s countries, where public policies change rapidly with governments.

In this regard, Fernando Oliveira Paulino, a professor and director of communications at the University of Brasilia (UNB), said the ruling interests are still very present in the media of the region in general, both in public and private.

Paulino told the Knight Center there is a common problem of social order in Latin America. He explained that in the region there is not a culture of public communication, making it more difficult to develop public media.

It is very common that in the media, said Paulino, the concept of "public" is confused with "of the government".

Concerning the specialization of digital content in public media

A solution to the crisis of public media in corrupt Latin American governments would be, according to Fuenzalida, the plurality of the contents of these media, in a way that strengthens public deliberation and democracy.

Overall, the segmentation of content that Fuenzalida mentions, which can be adjusted to the reality of the public media in each Latin American country, consists of having news channels with open signal with a plurality of information, 24 hours a day, nationwide, overcoming the idea of newscasts with fixed slots.

He also proposed an entertainment channel where certain audiences feel themselves represented, as well as cultural channels and channels with educational content that are targeted to children.

However, there are still obstacles of economic, social and infrastructural natures, as well as problems with national access to digital technology in Latin American countries at this juncture of migration to free-to-air digital television.

According to Waisbord, public media in the region still need to justify their existence in an environment where the amount of diverse, digital content is already high, especially considering the differences and digital inequalities that remain in Latin America.

Digital transition and analog blackout

In Brazil, the channels TV Brasil of the Brazilian consortium of public media, EBC, and TV Cultura, of the municipal government of São Paulo, already broadcast in digital signal. However, according to Murilo Cesar Oliveira Ramos, a researcher at the Centre for Policy, Law, Economics and Communication Technologies (CCOM) of UNB, the problem is that many Brazilians at home receive only analog signal.

According to Ramos, it is useless to digitize public media in Brazil if many Brazilians still do not have access to fast and quality internet.

One of the measures taken by the Brazilian government to counter this problem is to distribute digital converters to families who are beneficiaries of the Bolsa Familia social program and who do not yet have a modern TV capable of receiving the digital signal, Ramos said.

The transition to digital in Brazil, according to a government ordinance of 2014, should take place by 2018, when the analog signal will no longer be used. However, municipalities in the country may only stop the analog signal when 93 percent of local households are able to access the digital signal.

According to Ramos, the current political situation in Brazil could threaten the digitization of EBC, especially, he said, because of the elimination of the Board of Trustees of the company in September, which removed the entity’s autonomy from the government.

In Peru, the migration to digital television, also called "analog blackout," should take place, by law, in 2020, according to the Peruvian journalist Hugo Coya, who was recently appointed CEO of the National Institute of Radio and Television of Peru (IRTP).

"In Peru there are no public media, only state [media]," said Coya, who assured the Knight Center that during his management all possible efforts to transform state media in Peru to public media will be made.

Concerning public media, the Peruvian journalist and writer said you can not make a public channel showing only one side of the information. "You have to show the two sides of the story, and questions to the government should also be introduced in the news, and where there is room, showing that we are a democratic pluralistic society, to demonstrate that freedom of expression exists. A television channel is a public service, because the state gives you the frequency that you can use. I think that's what has to be done,” he said.

For Coya, digitization is a great opportunity because it will allow a multiplicity of content, with a tendency towards specialization, which will lead to the fragmentation of audiences. In the case of channel 7 (the state signal), it already has four channels of digital signal required by law, and they plan to open a fifth channel that is devoted exclusively to culture, Coya explained.

Coya explained that in Peru "the digital signal is already [available], but its use is still limited because of a problem of the market, of access, because it does not have all the necessary elements. Not all television (sets) have the ability to receive the four signals, so we opted for a mixed system, meaning, we put [our additional signals] on cable, as if they were new channels."

Also in Chile, both at public and private media, the analog switch should occur in 2020, according to the Digital Television Act which has been in force since 2014.

Televisión Nacional de Chile (TVN), the country’s public media company, needs capital from the government that allows it to invest in the necessary adjustment for its digital transition, said Ricardo Solari, chairman of the board at the channel, to the Knight Center.

Solari said that, with capitalization funds from the government, as well as the improvement of the corporate system of the channel, they can achieve implementations necessary for the company to become a national and international network of digital television, with major internet capabilities.

"This way we can make the leap that we want to see for our channel and our stations in the coming decades,” Solari said.

Digital public media and their contribution to democracy

However, for the Mexican journalist Alejandra Viveros, director of communications for the Regional Office for Latin America and the Caribbean at the World Bank, the social importance of having public media lies in their freedom to explore a variety of content that are not usually covered by commercial media.

She referred to content related to gender issues, social affairs, the environment, among other topics.

In this sense, "public media have more freedom and [can spend] more resources in learning more about these issues," Viveros told the Knight Center.

Digitization and production of digital content can allow public media to find new audiences, Viveros said. But, she added, this poses a new challenge for Latin American public media, because not gaining access to these new platforms to spread content could mean they are left far behind.

Viveros also highlighted the role of social networks as new regulatory mechanisms ensuring that public media are more public than state.

"I am optimistic, because, although there is a risk that public media, for lack of resources, are falling behind in these new trends, I think it's a great opportunity to win new audiences, and to be more open and plural," Viveros noted.

Paulino also agreed that public media can become more open to society, and therefore, be more democratic, with digital resources. "The internet environment encourages greater participation than radio and TV," he said.

Latin America is experiencing a difficult economic situation, with two years of recession, and five years of economic slowdown, Viveros said.

According to her, there increasingly are fewer public resources. In this situation, she said, public media have to see how they can obtain the necessary resources to continue to exist, and to succeed in being more relevant so that they can reach new audiences.

For Fuenzalida, both national institutions and governments and universities, as well as multilateral organization, like the World Bank, UNESCO, Inter-American Development Bank and the Organization of American States, should support public media in Latin American countries.

"Public TV can not serve successive governments or the private groups that seize it. Here there is a major reform, which requires a great effort of many institutions, national and international," he said.

Note from the editor: This story was originally published by the Knight Center’s blog Journalism in the Americas, the predecessor of LatAm Journalism Review.