The COVID-19 crisis has sternly tested the ability of public service media (PSM) to fulfil its basic remit. The need for information, education and, yes, entertainment is greater than ever. With trusted brands, universal access and experienced staff, EBU Members have been at the forefront of the effort to help society understand and come to terms with this ongoing challenge.
EBU Members were also forced, and managed, to pivot from one operational model to another, produce remotely, extract value from archives, and to quickly respond to the changed needs of their audiences. Necessity is the mother of invention, and there is much evidence of that in the roundtables, conference calls and Slack channels set up by EBU Technology & Innovation as hubs for the exchange of knowledge and ideas in response to COVID-19. Together with the Technical Committee, we are now looking at the new needs of PSM and at ways to turn the many lessons learned into permanent strategic advantages. Apart from the obvious challenges in production, there are larger patterns that have emerged during the crisis that are providing food for thought.
As the crisis reached Europe, the need for citizens to receive accurate and timely information became quickly apparent, throwing into sharp relief our ongoing discussions about the networks and infrastructure used to distribute media. It is starkly obvious that no single infrastructure can provide access to all essential services everywhere.
Whether for daily news or for urgent emergency alerts, we require reliable and sustainable communication and media distribution infrastructure. Broadcast and multicast, the latter with local storage capabilities, are essential elements for being able to reach 100% of the population on 100% of the territory. While less of an issue for fixed applications, where fibre optic networks are available, it becomes critical in mobility, where the use of a unicast-only strategy is unsustainable in terms of economics and resources.
Secondly, entertainment. We have each experienced the impact of “de-socialization” on human behaviour. Social interactions have been reduced to a minimum and are mediated as a virtual experience behind videoconferencing tools. We have learned to live with virtual events and won’t go fully back to where we were before. There is certainly an opportunity to reimagine here, offering smaller-scale distributed community entertainment.
When it comes to large events, the key ingredient to attract a mass audience will be the social dimension, that needs to be translated into a collective virtual experience. Previous attempts to transpose a physical experience – think about virtual museum visits – have not been successful, owing partly perhaps to limited image quality, but mostly because of the total absence of a social experience. These considerations should stimulate reflection around new entertainment models that could replace or improve the collective and social experience.
Turning to education, we have seen a large-scale experiment in home-schooling, where public broadcasters have quickly stepped in to provide new programming, often leveraging content from their huge audiovisual archives. Seamlessly integrating with national curriculums, EBU Members have opened a fresh path to a new hybrid model for school, where physical classes can be complemented by content from PSM. This experience should not be just a temporary one but should be the basis for a positive by-product of this crisis, contributing to the development of future European citizens.
We are also seeing a whole generation of students gaining an accelerated understanding in the use of interactive audiovisual tools. Tomorrow it will be even
more natural to train young generations to create and produce multimedia content and services themselves. PSM can play a role here, guiding these new creators and moderating the communities that will emerge.
However, perhaps most importantly, all this informing, educating and entertaining will be for nothing if we cannot reach the audience! We need to keep this uppermost in our minds, both ensuring that we pick the right mix of technologies to distribute our content and that the commercial arrangements ensure PSM are not beholden to gatekeepers. The crisis is creating opportunities for EBU Members, but we must ensure we are positioned to take advantage.