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Programming for the after-broadcast hours

Digitisation presents public service media offerings with many challenges at the same time. How these can be overcome, at least in part, is being researched by sociologist Jan-Hendrik Passoth in an interdisciplinary bidt project on "common good-oriented software development".

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Friday evening, on the couch. But the last episode of The Crown or another series from the nobility? Netflix suggests both. And it also offers a food documentary, because a fortnight ago you watched a professional chef for an hour. But today you’re in the mood for information, so take a look at ard.de. Here are the suggestions: Beethoven or an article about whistleblowers. Serious, interesting, but hardly tailored to the needs. The last programmes watched were Tagesschau and Tatort. Why aren’t the news and crime programmes that might interest you just as much displayed?

Jan-Hendrik Passoth deals with this question and its consequences. He is Professor of Sociology of Technology at the European New School of Digital Studies at the European University Viadrina in Frankfurt/Oder and researches in the bidt project “Coding Public Value: Public Good-Oriented Software for Public Media Platforms”.

Jan-Hendrik Passoth thinks broadly about the small question posed at the beginning: How can public service media offer their viewers appropriate content – and ensure that, in the best case, they still learn something that makes them responsible citizens? Passoth’s answer is: public interest-oriented software development. What sounds like a complex term is an exciting area of research with high relevance for democratic societies.

Public service media are subject to special, public service-oriented requirements. No one knows exactly what these requirements mean in the digital context.

Prof. Jan-Hendrik Passoth

For many years, Passoth has been concerned with what political problems arise from new technological developments. He has already carried out several projects with public broadcasters or, as he puts it with a twinkle in his eye, with “old institutions that are caught in the digital in their corset of regulations”. The sociologist says: “Special, public interest-oriented demands are made on public service media.” Meeting them has become more difficult because: “No one knows exactly what these demands mean in the digital context.”

That is why the research question in the bidt project, which Jan-Hendrik Passoth is conducting together with the communication scientist Professor Hans-Bernd Brosius from the LMU, Professor Wolfgang Schulz from the Leibniz Institute for Media Research in Hamburg and the empirical software engineer Professor Daniel Mendez from the Blekinge Institute of Technology in Sweden and fortiss GmbH in Munich, is: What would have to be done, starting with the development of software, to enable public broadcasters to adapt their offerings to the digital modern age?

Change through the Internet

To understand why this topic is important, it helps to take a look at media history. The task of public broadcasters is regulated in the State Media Treaty (formerly: State Broadcasting Treaty), where it is defined in such fine words as: “to act as a medium and factor in the process of free individual and public opinion-forming and thereby to meet the democratic, social and cultural needs of society”.

For decades, attempts were made to solve this through the design of the programme. The broadcasters had a quasi-monopoly: If a crime scene was about a racially motivated murder, it was not only certain that millions of viewers would tune in. There was also a high probability that one or the other would stick with a subsequent documentary about racism.

The first break with these self-evident facts came with the private broadcasters in the 1980s. At that time, the public broadcasters got a seductively colourful competitor.

But the real change came with the internet: With online services such as YouTube, Netflix, Amazon Prime, Hulu and Disney+, the broadcasters not only faced more competition with more tailored offers for each target group. The internet also destroyed linearity. This means that if you watch Tatort via streaming on Tuesday, you will no longer be lured to the documentary straight afterwards.

New tools for the digital world

This poses problems for public broadcasters: they have to define their goals more precisely as well as the way to achieve them. How do they manage to ensure that viewers not only choose what they watch, but also watch the feature film after the news and then a documentary that not only confirms their political world view if possible? And how do they do this so that viewers don’t switch off in annoyance?

Up to now, Passoth says, they have often just said what they don’t want, for example “just don’t have a polarising system like the big platforms”. But “how to do it differently is relatively undefined”. Theoretical and practical questions merge. “The whole history of media, for example, is full of attempts to define the term diversity,” Passoth says by way of illustration.

Such questions cause very practical problems for those who write the programmes: Should the documentary on the history of the Green Party come after the portrait on Robert Habeck? Or rather, to balance things out, a retrospective on Franz Josef Strauß?

In the past, says sociologist Jan-Hendrik Passoth, people tried to solve the demands on broadcasting through institutional forms. “Now we have to cast them in technical forms.”

Passoth and the project team of software engineers, media lawyers and communication scientists have set out to “provide tools for implementing the requirements of the State Media Treaty in a digital environment”. Qualitative interviews are currently being prepared with staff from the broadcasters’ research departments as well as those who, for example, build the software on which the individual media libraries are based. It will be about how they work, what problems they face in practice. The broadcasters are very open, says Passoth. Especially at the level of those who build the software, one notices that they “work and struggle with these demands every day”.

If you were to translate the mission into digital times, you would have to go much further away from the actual broadcasting principles, think much more in terms of non-linearity, about reconfiguring content and personalisation to play a role in a post-broadcast era.

Prof. Jan-Hendrik Passoth

What the methods and tools for the broadcasting staff might look like will be worked out over the next two years. “If you were to translate the mission into digital times, you would have to go much further away from the actual broadcasting principles, think much more in terms of non-linearity, about reconfiguring content and personalisation to play a role in a post-radio era,” says Passoth. He can think of suggestions on how to staff an oversight board for algorithmic systems. Or guidelines on how to classify existing content differently so that it can be played out more appropriately.

The development of software tools in a later project phase is also being considered. “The more we gather, the more successful the project will be,” he says.

A look at current headlines shows that the topic is urgent. Breaking up Facebook, disputes over broadcasting fees – who consumes what and when plays a role in togetherness and decision-making in democratic societies. To accompany this is one of the current challenges of the digital transformation. Passoth and the project team want to contribute to this. This may not make it any more likely that ARD, ZDF and Co. will be able to compete with Instagram and YouTube. But at least some viewers who usually only watch royal series will possibly be shown a documentary about the colonial past of the monarchies.

By Lea Hampel