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Beyond Barriers

How should policy makers deal with the rapidly dissolving boundaries between media? Hans Maarten van den Brink, director of the Dutch Cultural Media Fund, calls for a focus on content instead of re-organizations.

Written by Hans Maarten van den Brink

The new government in The Netherlands forecasts hard times for publicly financed media and culture. It’s time for an integrated vision on public media policy. The old barriers between diverse policy terrains are rapidly dissolving.

In media policy and culture policy, similar developments are taking place. In the media, the distinction between electronic and printed formats is disappearing fast. Newspapers and magazines are increasingly active on the Internet, using image and sound; they see the provision of paid services online as vital ways to maintain and increase their financing. Broadcasting associations have been among the most important publishers of public magazines for years, while newspapers have been acquiring interests in radio and TV stations. More and more frequently, public broadcasters and commercial publishers collaborate with the goal of marketing publicly funded media productions. The monopoly on distribution has disappeared; there are now unlimited possibilities to spread content through digital means. Of course the wise prophecy that new developments reap rewards with less speed than expected, ring true here. But they’re still happening a lot faster than feared by the powers that be. Just five years ago, distribution and advertising revenue for newspapers was still on the rise. Just five years ago, YouTube was launched. Just twelve years ago, the founders of Google came up with a bright idea… In the Arts too, divisions between mediums are fading fast. That process has been developing for years, but the new electronic media has kick-started a pace for which the analogy “floodgate”, is an understatement. Heritage institutions (museums, but also libraries and archives like Beeld en Geluid (Image and Sound) and the Film museum) are on the point of releasing their entire assets for home consumption. They no longer need to entice people to their buildings, which now function rather as an added bonus to the digital core. Museums and theatre groups are increasingly acting as film producers themselves, creating content that can be enjoyed on TV and the Internet alike.

Writers and publishers are getting wise to the fact that they have to face the consequences of their circumstances, where poems are more often enjoyed ‘live’, than in the form of a printed bundle – and that the real conversations about books take place in communities of the literati. Books? The question is, how long will the printed book be the preference over the eBook? In film distribution circles, where the results of digital sharing have, for a long time been the most pressing issue, the question is; what kind of experience motivates a trip to the cinema. Hence the restaurants, the 3D glasses, the personal introduction, Q&A sessions, the marathons, and here and there the first hybrid film and theatre shows.

Artificial Boundaries

Does this mean that everything is new now, that all our old genres and thoughts have perished and we have to start from scratch? No, of course the traditional core of disciplines will remain. The telling of a good story with a beginning and an end, painting with oils, the monologue of a gifted actor that stops our heart as we watch in a darkened cinema. From the point of view of institutions and funds, these may well be the cornerstones of policy, so long as it is recognised that the parameters are no longer clearly defined. That there is a vast and exciting everyman’s land where artists are free of artificial boundaries. For both sectors, media and culture, it’s true that the developments are unstoppable – but also that they are nothing to be afraid of. But where they are publicly funded, issues do arise. And they appear – unsurprisingly, considering the influence of those same technological developments – to be remarkably similar. For both sectors, the government vocally expresses the need to create an “integrated policy”. For the media this means that printed and audiovisual media are seen as one and the same, something which the WRR and Council for Culture have been preaching for years. But it doesn’t happen.

The Syndrome

The previous cabinet argued that through taking a few incidental measures, partly on the recommendation of the Brinkman Commission and primarily in the realm of employment, the case for the printed press could be closed for a while. For public radio and television, a five-ear Concession policy plan was decided upon, which would prescribe in detail, all activities by the national broadcaster. Two new broadcasters with their roots in the Telegraph Group have been added to Hilversum’s already complicated media power structure. But even before the planned concession period is due to start in September, it appears that all stakeholders – government, Parliament, but also the higher echelons of the public broadcaster, agree that the current system is unworkable and that a lot less broadcasters should fulfil the public role. Doing something when you know it’s a bad idea: there must be a name for that syndrome. It seems to me it’s more important that politicians realise that the problems within the broadcasting system are the direct result of actions taken by those same politicians. So it seems unfair to penalize dissatisfaction with the system, by imposing cuts on public broadcasting. Does the parallel with the arts sector follow through here too? Broadly speaking, yes. It often seems that policy doesn’t follow art, but that art has to put pressure on policy. The outlined development of inter-disciplinary productions and use of multi-media have, to this end, often led to the creation of new institutions and new rules, rather than leading to the dissolution of barriers. Furthermore, people like to fight each other with legal means when it comes to attention and money. A gain for visual arts may mean a loss for film. Some art forms are more important than others when it comes to status quo. An arts policy which considers developments across all art forms, including their mediatisation, and only then looks at the most beneficial organizational structure, is something which could at the very least be recognized as worthy of pursuit. Compartmentalisation, the sectioning of policies which are in fact fully intertwined, keeping eyes closed to the real and the virtual – nobody should want that. The need is not for a huge new organization for the arts or broadcasters. Both have already been enormously over-regulated. Both sectors are becoming populated by people who fight hard and passionately against fees for genres which might be totally irrelevant in other parts of the community – excepting the odd opera singer or TV presenter.

Content for Organization

Politicians should be encouraged to assess programs and projects by the public media – radio, television and internet have increasingly blurred borders – on their content, rather than spending their time on the organization of the national broadcaster. The Hague should take some distance from Hilversum. It requires the discipline of the people in Hilversum to not keep appealing to that same Hague.

Instead of the current cycle of reorganization-funding cuts-on-reorganization, the next cabinet would do well to come up with an integrated vision of public media policy. What, in the realm of information, journalism, culture and perhaps entertainment, has such social value that is deserves public support? Assess that, and leave the rest to the professionals.

Fusion?

The arts world has a lot more freedom to re-organize itself. Yes, there are cold feet, but there are no sanctions for example on collaboration between diverse culture funds. The funds for the arts merged this year. There has been talk of a similar fusion within the visual arts for many years. But is such a long, and often energy-consuming process, really necessary? Informal discussion, less constricted focus on divided policy fields, and stopping the friendly fire on budgets are ways which offer improved efficiency. Not to mention the fact that they would give way to developments within the art world, which are always faster than the decision-makers can follow. A successful, small-scale example of such an approach is the collaboration between the BKVB Fund (Fund for Visual Arts, Design, and Architecture) and the Media Fund in the realm of games: from an artistic perspective they present an interesting new medium around which everything seems to revolve. So: rather a mixed, dynamic commission that can scout, evaluate, and develop standards, than first a regulation, an administrative structure or even, Heaven forbid, a whole new fund. A fusion? An exchange of assets? That can always come later, when collaboration becomes the norm. Does this approach generate profit? Probably, yes – in the same way that new ties between traditional traditional broadcasters and culture producers could generate profit. But although much good would come of this in terms of content, it would be a shame if it only happened under the pressure of budgetary cuts.

Network Functions

A recent report by the Dutch Council for Culture (Network of meaning, April 2010) attempts to identify the consequences of digitization on the entire culture, and comes to a similar conclusion. Institutions should have to go beyond servicing their own clientele (applicants / the public), to perform network functions between each other. Unfortunately, this advice doesn’t come with concrete recommendations for man, woman and horse. Like the Council, which at this volatile moment should be fulfilling a crucial role for the arts and media, while in fact it just remains silent on all fronts. The most powerful organization advising the government on the arts and media, whether the advice was solicited or not, generates advice by preference, neatly arranged according to the existing structure. Media policy was always arts policy. And so it is today – for internal as well as external reasons – more than ever. And not just because according to the opinion polls, the public broadcaster and the arts stand head-to-head in the top ten elected targets for funding cuts.

Shortened version of a piece written by Hans Maarten van den Brink commissioned by Kunsten’92. Hans Maarten van den Brink is Director of the Dutch Cultural Media Fund.