On the question whether the cancelation of the radio-TV license fee is opportune, Median Research Centre (MRC) would answer “Now definitely not, while in the future it would be opportune only if there is a plan for replacing the fee with a financing method aimed to better support the independence and the development of the public service media (PSM) institutions.” Such a plan is possible only if it takes into account the legal regulations in their entirety and first of all, the weakest link, the stipulations regarding the dismissal of the board and the format of parliamentary control.
The licence fee is just a component, and not the most crucial one at the moment for the independence and performance of the Romanian public service media but the current legislation fosters the opposite, as we argued in a previous analysis.
At this given moment, Law 41 as it is, with or without tax, does not guarantee in any way the editorial independence and does not enforce any quality criteria. This is because in some essential areas the regulations are actually opposite to the ideal model. More precisely, the Administration Board (AB) and its President may be dismissed by the parliamentary majority every year, no matter their performance. There are no stipulations defining the form of the parliamentary control, while the existing ones even encourage the arbitrary.
Such a mechanism of dismissal and parliamentary “control” not only does not allow AB to act as a buffer between politics and editorial (the part that is wanted and needed) but further discredits the management of the public media both in the eyes of the employees (who see the politicians as genuine power vectors) as well as in the eyes of the politicians (who know they can dismiss them if they are bothered by AB).
Consequently, it is uncertain why a management like that could benefit from the existence of a direct governmental grant when within the current institutional structure there is no power at all in a negotiation from the stand of a defender of the mission and of the public interest. The law may not set up a fixed amount ad infinitum, but only an estimation and decision mechanism about which the only thing we know right now is that it will exist.
The current stipulations related to financing are far from being the best, meaning the safety and predictability of the financing and non-interference from the government are not guaranteed.
Law 41 does not presume a non-partisan, institutional and multi-stakeholder mechanism, related to the evaluation of the organizational needs, entitled to decide upon the fee extent, as well to make possible the increase of the fee so that the public media can fulfill its mission. The Government does. And as the fee does not enjoy the support of the citizens and the public media do no longer have the propaganda political substance from the 90’s, in 2003 there was a reduction after which no increase has been carried out. On the contrary, during the last years there have been four parliamentary initiatives to repeal the fee.
What happens in other countries?
Most of the countries within EU have a radio-TV license fee. There are countries who enjoy direct financing from the government and where there is independence as these countries (Holland, Finland) developed very precise mechanisms to allot the amounts within the budget, which does not allow an arbitrary decision ruled by the government.
The ruling out of the fee without an alternative plan applicable at once, which should rule against the governmental arbitrary, may be a threat for the odds of ever seeing the media working for real in the best interest of the public.
The radio-TV license fee is a significant symbolic element, that reflects the unique statute of the PSM and their direct connection to the public. It advocates the importance of the independence towards the government, even if it is not an infallible guarantee to be functional disregarding the other regulations..
Truth be told, once it is annulled, the fee will be difficult to be reintroduced, even if PSM would miraculously comply with certain quality criteria, which can be anyway achieved only in time. It would be really difficult because:
- The fees are not popular anywhere and they are especially unpopular in Romania; the quality does not guarantee the popularity of the channel;
- The brand image, which is currently rather jaded, as well as the quality and the rating (which is minuscule) may be restored only in time;
- As the newspapers have already discovered, once something is for free (on the internet), it is very difficult to convince even the most loyal clients to pay.
- Moreover, even if there are precedents in other European countries where this fee was annulled, this thing happened within a broader strategy and vision or the respective states experimented several alternative scenarios. For example, in Serbia the fee was revoked in 2010 and reintroduced in 2015, but the annulment was stipulated from the beginning as limited in time.
In other countries, like Slovakia, the fee was replaced with an alternative called in the specialized literature “hypothecated tax” (incomes with specific purpose) . This implies that the fee is mandatory for the households connected to the electricity supply no matter if they own a TV set or not (with exceptions for certain socio-economic categories) and for companies, according to their number of employees. The change from 2008 initially led to a reduction of the public television budget, but for 2017, the Ministry for Culture from Slovakia plans to gradually increase the fee from 4.64 euros/month to 7 euros/month .
Other two countries, Spain and France, divided the financing resources of the public televisions, by introducing a fee that was controversial and contested by the European Commission for the telecom companies that were to contribute as well to the final budget of the public media . At this moment, in France, the Parliament decides annually which quota of the radio-TV license fee, collected from any consumer who owns a TV set, goes to the budget of France Télévisions and which is the permitted volume from the advertising income . Therefore, their budget is formed by: over 70% from the income generated by the radio-TV license fee, 7% from the state budget, 8% from advertising and the rest from various donations and sponsorships .
Keeping the fee in the current form is not a guarantee for the independence and the quality of the public media, but the direct government grant concept, even if it could be more adapted to the needs, as long as it is arbitrary it may be a textbook case of providing the government / parliamentary majority a control trigger over the public media.
It is necessary to entirely rethink the TVR and RRA legislation aiming to obtain the operational independence of the public media . Our analyses, based on criteria derived from recent studies, suggest it is necessary to rule out first of all the possibility of arbitrary dismissal when the annual report is submitted and to ensure the efficiency, the transparency and the predictability of the parliamentary control over performance. Therefore, the duration and the predictability of the management mandates might increase, the part of the AB as a buffer between politics and editorial might be enhanced and the attributions of the Administration Board and of the President – General Manager might be clarified.
A sustainable public media service might be obtained only through a fair strategic process open to possible new institutional models even within the existing pattern, following a coherent institutional logic, not only isolated stipulations like the license fee or the presence in the AB of a few representatives of the professional / civil society organizations. As the public media belong to everybody and are important to all the citizens, there is need for a process able to ensure a significantly high legitimacy. In this respect, all parties and interests should be involved, the existing (not only in Romania) expertise should be taken into account and the citizens should be kept informed and this way engaged.
 Hanretty, C. (2012). „Public service broadcasting’s continued rude health”. The British Academy: London. http://www.britac.ac.uk/policy/Public-service-broadcasting.cfm.
 Telecompaper. (2016). „Slovak Ministry of Culture Increases Public TV, radio fees”. http://www.telecompaper.com/news/slovak-ministry-of-culture-increases-public-tv-radio-fees–1145524.
 Hanretty, C, Ibid.
 France Télévisions. „La contribution à l’audiovisuel public (redevance)”. http://www.francetelevisions.fr/contribution_audiovisuelle.
 The Guardian. (2015). „How public service broadcasting shapes up worldwide”. https://www.theguardian.com/media/2015/jul/19/public-sector-broadcasting-worldwide-bbc.
 „‘Model’ public service broadcasting laws generally specify long terms both for the broadcaster’s board members and for its chief executive (appointed by the board); bans or imposing conditions on the dismissal of board members or chief executives; long funding windows and autonomy over borrowing and subsidiary operations, and a specified but limited reporting relationship with parliament and with the executive” – Rumphorst, 1998, quoted in the 2012 report of the British Academy „Public service broadcasting’s continued rude health”, available at: http://www.britac.ac.uk/policy/Public-service-broadcasting.cfm.