European public television networks are facing a double challenge: financial sustainability and adaptation to the digital ecosystem. Every country has its own model, and while the Spanish version is not the most expensive, it has faced the most severe funding cuts. A study headed up by the University of Santiago de Compostela has revealed that the cost of the public audiovisual service – both on a state and regional level – is below the European Union average. Public network RTVE and its regional equivalents cost €38.90 per inhabitant, compared to the EU average of €66.90.
In terms of the cost per household, or if state television funding is measured according to GDP, RTVE lags behind its EU counterparts. Households in the rest of Europe pay an average of €156.20 a year for public television, compared to €98.80 in Spain, and which is paid for indirectly through taxes. The average cost of public audiovisual services in the EU is €2.40 for every €1,000 of GDP, while in Spain that figure is as low as €1.70.
The study, supported by other Spanish universities, also analyzed the impact of the economic crisis on the sector. Spain, it concluded, has come out worst from the recent years of recession.
Public television in Spain lost 35.5% of their budgets between 2010 and 2014
“There is a clear disadvantage,” explains Santiago Negrín, the general director of the Canary Islands’ public broadcaster and president of the Federation of Organisms of Regional Radio and Television (FORTA), which groups together 11 regional corporations. “The cuts have had a very particular effect on television,” he adds. “In general, the audiovisual and cultural world have always suffered.”
The figures back up his claim. Taken together, public television networks in Spain have lost 35.5% of their budgets between 2010 and 2014. The cuts have also had a large impact in Cyprus, Portugal, Poland and Ireland, although the biggest victim has been Greece. The government of Alexis Tsipras closed the public television system in 2013 as a cost-saving exercise, although it began broadcasting again two years later.
In Spain, the crisis saw the closure of many regional channels, as well as far-reaching budget and staff cuts. Valencia‘s regional Canal 9 channel stopped broadcasting at the end of 2013, while Telemadrid implemented a layoff plan – known in Spanish as an ERE – that affected two-thirds of its workforce. “The sector has suffered, but it has managed to hang on,” Negrín explains.
Spanish regional channels have seen budget cuts of 19%
One of the effects of the cuts has been declining viewing figures. “It has been shown that the audience of public television depends directly on the level of financing,” explains Enrique Laucirica, the general secretary of FORTA. And he confirms that in the Nordic countries and the east of Europe, where these channels are better structured, they are leaders. “In the south of Europe, where the financing model is more unstable, the crisis has had a greater influence and the audience has suffered,” he adds.
During the period 2010-2014, Spain‘s regional channels have seen budget cuts of 19%, while in other equivalent neighboring models, financing has increased. In Germany, for example, regional channel funding rose by 8.5% during that period, while non-state Belgian channels grew 3.5%, according to the same study.
Negrín accuses politicians of ignoring public television channels. “If they take away their financing, they are taking away the identity of these territories,” he argues. Some of these networks have been accused of marginalizing their mission as a public service and acting in the interests of the regional party in power at the time. “Politics lives among us and also in the private media,” says Negrín, who insists that “there is no media that is more subject to controls, whether it be by the unions, newsroom committees or parliamentary bodies.”
To comply with their public service objectives, the FORTA channels call on their respective parliaments to introduce stable financing plans, clarify the impact of a second so-called “digital dividend” and establish guidelines so that all state-run channels are guaranteed a presence on paid-for platforms. They also call for measures that would avoid the restriction of competition in the advertising market in the face of the dominance of Mediaset (Telecinco, Cuatro, Factoría de Ficción, Boing, Divinity and Energy) and Atresmedia (Antena 3, La Sexta, Neox, Nova, Mega, Atreseries), which act in Spain as a de facto duopoly.