The Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) met again last week in its ongoing efforts to manage and improve our international broadcast operations. As both a public diplomacy practitioner and as a U.S. taxpayer, I have a keen interest in seeing that our limited resources for international broadcasting are spent as effectively as possible. As such, I have followed the long and ongoing debate over where and how we should broadcast, as well as how to measure the impact and effectiveness of our efforts with considerable interest. And although I have no deep expertise, nor can I offer any magic solutions, I do nevertheless think that we might usefully focus the debate by simply reframing the broadcasting challenge.
I fear that many of us (myself included) have misunderstood and over-simplified the challenges of international broadcasting. We tend to think of the BBG and the services that it oversees as roughly equivalent to conventional, commercial television or radio broadcasters like CNN, Fox, or even Al-Jazeera or CCTV. The danger in succumbing to that simple fallacy is that we then compare overall budgets and audience reach as if we are comparing apples to apples when, in actuality, BBG offers more of an assortment of apples, oranges, bananas, and other fruit.
In some limited markets, VOA or its sister services might have the means and licenses to broadcast directly and compete head-to-head with local broadcasters. Let’s call those “apples.” In most cases, however, the U.S. broadcasters partner with local affiliates who agree to carry U.S. programming on their own airwaves, sometimes on a contract-basis and in most cases, at no charge whatsoever. In those cases, the audience share is heavily dependent on the local affiliate, as well as the particular format, program, and time slot we agree upon. Let’s call these “oranges.”
But not all markets are created equal. In many countries, local affiliates are not permitted to partner with us at all and our own signals are blocked or jammed. Here the BBG and its services have had to explore creative means by which to deliver our programs, often over the internet or through other means depending on the local circumstances. We might call these “bananas,” “kiwis,” and “mangos.”
The precise mix of programming that we offer in each of these markets, moreover, differs depending on local demand and competition. In some markets we might choose a combination heavy on popular entertainment and lighter on news in order to attract a larger and younger audience. In other markets we might rely heavily on news and high-brow entertainment to reach a more elite and, perhaps, politically-influential audience. Both of these activities also fit within the VOA Charter, for example, which speaks of the requirement to “win the attention and respect of listeners.” Now instead of individual fruits, we have a range of different fruit salads.
Finally, even as the BBG and its services pursue all of these different broadcasting models, they are also faced with a media landscape that is being transformed by digital technology before our very eyes. Mobile and even smart phones will soon be ubiquitous around the world and internet and social media access will follow shortly after. The BBG – along with every other media player out there – is trying to maintain an appropriate balance of investments in old and new media formats while studying and adjusting to the evolution of media consumption habits in different markets.
The BBG reported recently that its services now reach a global audience of over 200 million people each week, but what does that mean given the diversity of markets described above? If we persist in thinking of the BBG and its services as a single, conventional, commercial broadcaster and use such aggregate numbers, we should simply be chasing audiences in large markets like India (where we actually cut most broadcasting services a few years ago). When we know that our target markets include smaller but critical countries like Afghanistan and Iran, why do we obsess over global market shares and total audience figures? Similarly, we spill a lot of ink in arguments and discussions comparing the BBG budget of $750 million to much larger amounts that China and Russia spend on CCTV and RT. Are the numbers at all comparable given our wildly disparate missions?
Having complicated the issue sufficiently, I will offer a few suggestions for areas that we should focus our attention on instead. First, where should we be? I think we all accept the fact that our resources are limited and that, as a result, we need to focus our efforts on the countries and markets that are most significant from a foreign policy perspective. This will also take into account the BBG standards and principles, of course, but those include first and foremost to “be consistent with the broad foreign policy objectives of the United States.”
Second, we should discuss what model or fruit or fruit salad is most appropriate or even possible for given markets. We are not trying to be CNN, but shouldn’t we discuss whether we are trying to be NPR, Sean Hannity, Jon Stewart’s Daily Show, reality TV, or some combination of them all? That in turn, will give us a better indication as to appropriate measures of success and effectiveness. In other words, we may not be chasing the largest audience numbers, just particular audience segments. Measurements should be adjusted accordingly. If the requirement is to reach younger audiences, we should not measure our efforts against audiences ranging from age 15 to death.
Third, I was delighted to learn that we have begun to explore deeper cooperation with other like-minded international broadcasters, sharing, for example, the costs and results of our research efforts. Might we not explore even closer partnerships on particular programs in specific markets where our interests coincide? How about jointly producing individual programs? Additionally, are there opportunities for the BBG to purchase and adapt U.S. commercial products or even partner with U.S. news organizations in our overseas broadcasting efforts?
The BBG and its services are not – and should not be – driven by a commercial desire for profit. Nevertheless, by framing them – either consciously or unconsciously – in the model of a conventional commercial broadcaster we run the risk of adopting global audience and budget-to-audience ratios as proxy commercial measurements of effectiveness. Instead, we should uncouple BBG performance from such measurements and use that freedom as a comparative advantage as we pursue our true objectives of advancing U.S. foreign policy and promoting access to objective news and information. In the end, we may find that the most effective ways of doing that involve targeting smaller audiences in particular markets or adopting all-digital internet platforms in others.
Fortunately, many of these conversations are already taking place. Let’s just not get distracted by the global aggregate budget and audience numbers, avoid conflating fruit salads with apples, and stay focused instead on what really matters here.