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Electronic Media and Industrialized Nations: A Comparative Study (1999)

Donald R. Browne: Electronic Media and Industrialized Nations: A Comparative Study. Ames: Iowa State University Press, 1999.

Reviewed by Keval J. Kumar, University of Poona, India.

Broadcasting systems in both the industrialized and developing countries have witnessed revolutionary changes during the last two decades. Cable, satellite, and digital technologies have indeed played a crucial role in such changes, but the major force for change has been deregulation and commercialization of the airwaves. The proliferation of private commercial channels, especially niche channels for news, sports, films, and business, have proved a real threat to public broadcasting systems worldwide. The long-established state-owned systems have been sidelined in the new competitive and commercial environment where the likes of Rupert Murdoch, Leo Kirch, Kerry Packer, Ted Turner, and Silvio Berlusconi call the shots.

Donald Browne's book documents these dramatic developments of broadcasting systems and practices in industrialized countries during the 1980 and 1990s, with particular analysis of five: France, the Netherlands, Germany, the Soviet Union, and the Russian Federation. The basic text remains his Comparing Broadcasting Systems, first published ten years ago.

The nineties were perhaps one of the most revolutionary decades for global broadcasting, especially in the developing world. The multinational media giants are now firmly entrenched in Asia, with China, India and Indonesia having liberalized their economies to allow foreign direct investment in telecommunications, computing, and the mass media. India now allows one hundred percent FDI in film production and advertising, and free access to television channels that are uplinked from abroad. Much of television software production is with these multinational private companies or their affiliates.

The change in the title of Browne's book suggests a clear shift in focus, from a comparative study of broadcasting systems worldwide to the "electronic media" in "industrialized nations." However, both terms are umbrella terms and encompass far too many mass media and also far too many countries. Technologies of convergence and digital compression have made have made terms such as "electronic media," "broadcast media," and even "mass media" obsolete. Furthermore, with the transformation of industrial societies to "information" societies, and with the large-scale movement of labor-intensive manufacturing and service industries to Asia, one questions the relevance of the term "industrialized countries" in the new millenium.

Browne's primary contribution is to the area of broadcasting history. His incisive historical comparative analysis of broadcasting systems of Europe and the emergence of a common system for the European Union (as seen in the document Television Without Frontiers) is an indicator of future developments in the vital areas of control, regulation, co-productions, programming, and scheduling. The EU has come together, for instance, to protect its cultural industry from the onslaught of imports from the United States, though as Browne argues, the economic factors take precedence (p. 454). He wonders whether the European Broadcasting Union (EBU) could serve as "supranational model" for region-wise public service broadcasting.

His nation-specific chapters (Chapters 2 to 5) on broadcasting in France, the Netherlands, Germany, and the Soviet Union/Russia form the core of the study. Each nation's radio and television service is analysed from a historical perspective. After setting out the beginnings and development of the national broadcasting service, the politics, economics, regulation, external influences, and programming that inform each country's communication policy are dwelled on in some detail. The concluding sections of each such chapter bring us up-to-date with recent developments in international cooperation and the new media. In each of these four nations the commitment to public service broadcasting has been the lynchpin of its communication policy for several decades, but in recent years such a policy has been under threat from both internal and external influences. Browne unearths and examines these influences, and points out their implications for national broadcasting.

In his concluding chapter, Browne takes a close critical look at some issues that can be compared in the different media systems across the world, and at other issues that do not lend themselves so easily to comparative study. Public broadcasting service (PBS) systems in industrialized countries, for instance, do have a lot in common. They are state-owned, run exclusively by the state, non-commercial, and financed by the state. They form what Jurgen Habermas calls the "public sphere." And yet, a close survey of PBS systems in the industrialized countries suggests that there are vital differences among them. The Netherlands actively supports a system based on an annual license fee, and airtime divided proportionately among the various religious, political, and other social groups that have a stake in the tiny nation's well-being. Germany has a system that is based on "laendes" (states) and on the strength of political groups, France on a national system that is linked to the Paris-based government, and the United Kingdom on a license-based system that is independent of government.

Finally, Browne explores the features of an "ideal" electronic media system, though he admits that "given the highly public, mass-oriented nature of the medium, the diversity of tastes likely to be exhibited by even one public in just one nation, and given the proliferation of electronic media services, it probably isn't" (p. 431). Much of course depends on the role the electronic media are expected to play in society. It would also depend on the relationship between government and the media, internal relationships in the media organizations, programming practices, and the strategies for paying for the "ideal" system. Browne, the media historian, warns against monolithic systems like the ones that prevailed in Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union; neither does he advocate the BBC nor the French system as ideal. The electronic public sphere does need to be preserved, but the question is which governments in power and which new media moguls are willing to let go and turn the airwaves over to the people to whom they rightly belong. 

About Keval J. Kumar

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