This article was first published in Le Temps on 23 November 2023.
Weakening public service broadcasting beyond recognition would not help commercial media and would harm Switzerland at a time when the news environment is becoming increasingly confusing. This is the message that Gilles Marchand, Director General of the Swiss Broadcasting Corporation (SRG SSR), is sending to the proponents of the “200 francs should be enough” initiative.
Five years after the Swiss electorate decisively rejected the “No Billag” initiative (71% against), which would have put paid to SRG SSR by abolishing the licence fee altogether, Switzerland is once again being asked to re-examine the financing of public sector broadcasting. This is something that should indeed be discussed, especially if the aim is to promote continuous improvement in the services provided to the general public.
But to be truly useful, such discussions need to be grounded. It is foolhardy to put forward ideas without defining the issues at stake, which are many and varied. Public service broadcasting is about informing and producing original content founded in our cultural diversity. Then there’s the question of expertise and jobs, many of which are highly specialised.
We’re currently witnessing an increasingly precarious environment for the entire media industry in Switzerland. Advertising revenues are melting away like snowflakes in the sun, lured by global streaming platforms that reinvest little of their money in Switzerland. It’s also becoming increasingly difficult to sell content. At the same time, we’re seeing social media fomenting unidentified outbursts in a stream of news that can’t distinguish between real and fake. And no one currently knows where the AI tidal wave will take humanity.
This is the complex situation in which the “200 francs should be enough” initiative wants to reduce the SRG SSR by half. A reduction of CHF 135 in the licence fee would result in a total shortfall of CHF 500 million, to which must be added the abolition of the corporate licence fee (as demanded by the initiative) and the impact on advertising revenue, since fewer programmes would mean fewer advertising slots. The total shortfall would be CHF 760 million, or 50% of SRG SSR’s budget of CHF 1,540 million. What business or public service can continue to operate when half of its budget has just been cut?
The Swiss Federal Council is also against the initiative, which is good news. However, in response to the initiative, it is also proposing cost-cutting measures that would also have a significant impact on programmes and staff, jeopardising the highly decentralised nature of SRG SSR. Reducing the licence fee (to CHF 300 annually), exempting more companies and abolishing inflation indexing would mean a budget cut of CHF 170 million, on top of the continuing decline in advertising revenue. For SRG SSR, this means a loss of CHF 240 million, the attrition of 900 jobs and a reduction in the variety of news, sports and arts programmes.
It is quite clear that a massive weakening of public service broadcasting would not benefit the commercial media in Switzerland either. Competition has an international dimension, especially since SRG SSR is not commercially active online.
So is it in the public interest to centralise SRG SSR’s production apparatus in a single studio, probably in German-speaking Switzerland? Is it really worth cutting back on the joint production of films that portray our cultural diversity and social realities? Would it be a good thing if Switzerland could no longer handle the broadcasting of major sporting events, which require state-of-the-art technical expertise? Would it be wise to destroy an entire private-sector ecosystem of production companies, technical staff and artists who work every day with public service broadcasting?
Asking these important questions in an honest way is not all presumptuous, as Mathias Muller, writing in Le Temps, seems to think. Rather, we want to openly discuss the real issues at stake. It’s easy to take an institution apart, but much harder to put it back together again – especially in a small, multilingual country made up of regions, each with its own demographic and economic firepower.
Of course, all organizations should regularly review their services and levels of efficiency, and SRG SSR is no exception. We made commitments in 2018 and we’ve kept to them, even if it has meant some upsets from time to time. We’ve already saved CHF 100 million, reinvested in programmes and services for younger viewers, and increased our commitment to co-producing films in Switzerland. We’re actively nurturing the public debate, across all languages and regions. We’re also central to the coverage of current affairs at national and local level, and recognized for our fairness and professionalism.
I therefore believe that the rapid dismantling of public service broadcasting would seriously damage the country’s ability to continue tracing its narrative, making its voice heard and showcasing its talents, including on the international stage. That’s why I’m convinced that Switzerland will reject this counterproductive initiative at the ballot box, once people have thought through the issues and considered the real consequences.