Sunday, May 05, 2013

Karol Jakubowicz - The Polish Professor & Visionary

Karol Jakubowicz in 2008
Sad to discover, via Greg Lowe in Finland, that one of the great pioneers in reforming the way we think about "new media" has passed away on Sunday April 28th. I used to bump into Professor Karol Jakubowicz at both broadcast and academic conferences. He was always on top of the latest thinking. His powerful logic and excellent overview made him the go-to person for advice and briefings. He was always very approachable, willing to listen and then share a thought or reference that explained the possible next steps. 

He often gave keynotes on the future of public service media. 

Because, unlike many commercial and public service companies around the start of this century, he had a clear vision about how broadcasters could transform into cross-media companies. Karol understood changes that were going on in society, especially in European countries that were embracing democracy. And he realized that in the battle between commercial and public sector media, most politicians would not side with defending the public sector. 

Warsaw as seen from the top of Soviet-built Cultural Palace
For the EU, public service broadcasting has always been “a square peg in a round hole” of its audiovisual policy.

Karol's fingerprint can be found in many areas of media research across Europe.  He was a firm believer in public values. He had clearly defined the role that the public sector could (and should) play as society started to experiment with social media platforms.

I interviewed Karol several times in the late 1990's for the Media Network programme on Radio Netherlands/ He was an excellent source of news about the reason for the changes happening to broadcasters in Eastern Europe, especially his native Poland. He was an advisor to Polish Radio and TV. I remember having a long discussion about the thinking behind Polish Radio Warsaw, which broadcast in various languages including English during the Communist era. It's still around, though much smaller than it was then.

Jakubowicz was a regular visitor to Polish Radio and TV - remember Radio Polonia?

Our paths crossed again in 2006 when he presented a keynote presentation at a European Broadcasting Union meeting in the centre of Amsterdam. 

He called the talk - Public service media. The start of a new beginning or the beginning of the end?   The paper was later published in various versions, and it is still on line. ( I've taken some passages from this work in the notes below)

Karol was one of the first to understand the seriousness of the threats coming from the long-standing campaign by commercial broadcasters towards national and European Union policy-makers. They wanted to limit the growth and power of the public sector using several strategies. These included:

  1. An “arrested Public Service Broadcast evolution” strategy. This would ultimately lead to the marginalization and obsolescence of PSB, culminating in its disappearance. Stick just to broadcasting: Commercial broadcasters argued that their public service broadcast colleagues should remain precisely that. They should not be allowed to move into new technologies like the Internet or Mobile. These platforms were seen by commercial broadcasters as their next frontier and growth area. But because revenue models were not established, they demanded as little competition as possible. Commercial stations also called for a “clear and precise definition of the remit”, so as to get a detailed legal definition of public service media in its most traditional form (generalist, universally accessible broadcast channels). This legislation could then be used to block any change of the remit and means of delivering it. This prevented the move by the public sector into thematic channels, and the use of new technologies not immediately accessible to all.
  2. A “harmless PSB” strategy, which demands that existing public service broadcasters be reduced to redressing market failure by providing programming commercial broadcasters found unattractive, and thus turn them into a niche broadcaster serving an elite. These also included calls that public broadcasters be prevented from running advertising (some countries like the Netherlands allow advertising on public channels). There were also demands that production of “PSB content” should be financed by a separate fund. Independent production companies could bid for commissions alongside the existing public broadcasters, so that PSB organizations did not monopolize funds or production capacity. In effect, this was like the Channel 4 model in the UK.
  3. And finally there was a “PSB no longer needed” strategy, following on from the previous one. This was based on the argument that so much “PSB content” can be found in the programming of commercial broadcasters, or is/can be produced by independents, that PSB organizations as such are no longer necessary. 

Evidence of these three strategies can be found in over 30 complaints lodged with the European Commission by the private sector during the period 2003-2005. The complaints question any new development in the public broadcast sector, whether in terms of programme profiles of particular services or of the use of new technologies: anything beyond the 1960's model of “one-size-fits-all” traditional generalist channels addressed to the entire population of a country. (think of national TV channels like Nederland 1 or BBC 1).
In short, this approach – which Karol termed “economic liberalism with a human face” – would result in a process of marginalization and the slow death of public service media. And he was spot on.

A more effective path

Karol was an advocate of a different approach which said: everything is legitimate if it serves the remit in ways that are effective and relevant to the public. 

Whatever the market may offer, the community still has a duty to guarantee the provision of electronic media services 
  • free from purely profit motives 
  • content tailored to special public needs and interests.

This means drawing up a vision of a society we want to live in and the kind of service that public media provides to that society.

In fact he foresaw, in 2006, the discovery by the commercial sector that "Profit without Purpose is a recipe for disaster". We heard that from Elizabeth Murdoch at the Edinburgh TV Festival only last year.

2006 was a time when Facebook had only just started. Karol saw this as the emergence of  “a digital commons”. 

"The high growth in social networking sites, and other areas of user-generated Internet content, is not a one-off, short-lived phenomenon. Many industry observers believe this could signal the next stage in the “democratization” of the Internet. Consumers are no longer merely “end users” of information. Services are not just provided by a restricted number of hosts/content generators. Consumers are becoming generators themselves. 

The emergence of “conversation” in mediated electronic communication marks a new stage of social communication. Of course, we should not get carried away. Historically, media development has been cumulative, rather than substitutive, so broadcasting  is unlikely to disappear in the information society: Internet TV will not replace traditional TV for a considerable period of time. 

But future trends may include the inability of some free-to-air channels to survive, or the inability of electronic media to provide much meaningful local content. 

This is exactly what has happened in the Netherlands and several other European countries.

One public TV channel is effectively going away, as Nederland 3 and the regional networks combine. 
And local content in the form of hyper-local sites is of a very low standard. That is partly because the hyper-local sites are just volunteer-run offshoots of the local paper and there is no integration with the local radio/TV stations like you see in Brazil). 

Karol Jakubowicz pased away on Sunday morning, April 28, after an illness related to the life-long complications of his general health since birth. His is survived by his wife MaƂgorzata Semil. Public media has lost a visionary, a brave man with a great sense of humour.

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