Update: This text was originally published in 2016, when the elimination of the so-called radio-TV tax used to fund the public broadcaster (TVR) and public radio was being considered. Since 2017, the national broadcaster and public radio are funded directly from the state budget. The arguments we made in 2016 regarding the issues with oversight, independence and securing adequate funding of the public broadcaster (TVR) remain relevant.
On the question whether the cancelation of the radio-TV license fee is a good idea, the Median Research Centre (MRC) position is “Now definitely not, while in the future it would be good only if there is a plan for replacing the fee with a financing method aimed at better supporting the independence and the development of the public service media (PSM) institutions.” Such a plan is possible only if it takes into account the regulatory structure in its entirety, starting with the weakest link, the stipulations regarding the dismissal of the board and the mechanism of parliamentary control.
The licence fee is just one element – and not the most crucial one at the moment – that can ensure the independence and performance of the Romanian public service media (PSM). More important now is the fact that the current legislation promotes the opposite of performance and independence, as we argued in a previous analysis.
At this given moment, Law 41/1994 in its current form – with or without the licence fee – does not guarantee in any way the editorial independence of public service media (PSM) and does not enforce any quality criteria. This is because in some essential areas the regulations are actually the opposite of the ideal model. More precisely, the Administrative 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 arbitrary decisions.
Such a mechanism of dismissal and parliamentary “control” does not allow the Administrative Board (AB) to act as a buffer between political forces and the editorial side – something that would be desirable. It also further discredits the management of the public media both in the eyes of the employees, who see the politicians as the genuine power vectors, and in the eyes of the politicians, who know they can dismiss the board if it becomes bothersome.
Consequently, it is not at all certain that a management operating under these circumstances could benefit from the existence of a direct governmental grant, when within the current institutional structure, the management already has no negotiating power to defend the mission of the PSM and the public interest. The law cannot lay down a grant amount that would be in place in perpetuity; all it can do is set up a mechanism to calculate the amount and to make decisions on funding, a mechanism that we have no information about at this stage, except that there will be one.
The current stipulations related to funding are far from the best, meaning the certainty and predictability of funding and non-interference from the government are not guaranteed.
Law 41 does not put in place a non-partisan, institutional and multi-stakeholder mechanism, linked to the evaluation of organizational needs, for calculating the licence fee amount and to enable raising it to allow public media to fulfill its mission. It is the government that decides. And as the radio-TV tax does not enjoy the support of the citizens and the public media no longer have the potential to disseminate political propaganda that they did in the 90’s, in 2003 the licence fee amount was reduced, and it has not been raised since. 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 EU Member States have a radio-TV licence fee. There are countries where PSM have direct funding from the government whilst remaining independent, as these countries (e.g. Holland, Finland) developed very precise funding allocation mechanisms, which do not allow for arbitrary decisions at the government’s whim.
Eliminating the licence fee without an alternative plan in place effective immediately – with adequate safeguards against arbitrary governmental decisions – may threaten our chances of ever seeing public media truly working in the best interest of the public.
The radio-TV tax is a significant symbolic element, that reflects the unique statute of the PSM and their direct connection to the public. It symbolises the importance of independence from the government, even if it is not an infallible safeguard that would work in isolation from other regulations.
Truth be told, once it is cancelled, the fee will be difficult to reinstate, even if by some chance PSM would meet certain quality criteria – something that can be achieved only with time. It would be really difficult because:
- The fees are not popular anywhere, and they are especially unpopular in Romania; quality does not guarantee the popularity of the channel;
- The brand image, which is currently rather lackluster, as well as the quality and the ratings (which are minuscule) may be restored only with 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 eliminated, this happened in the context of a broader strategy and vision. Either that or the countries in question experimented with several alternative scenarios. For example, in Serbia, the fee was revoked in 2010 and reintroduced in 2015, but the cancellation was time-limited from the beginning.
In other countries, like Slovakia, the fee was replaced by an alternative that is dubbed a “hypothecated tax” in the specialized literature, referring to revenue that is earmarked for a specific purpose. The fee is mandatory for the households connected to the electricity supply whether or not they own a TV set or not, with exceptions for certain socio-economic categories. It is also mandatory for companies, the amount depending on their number of employees. The change, occurring in 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 euro/month.
Another two countries, Spain and France, split the funding sources for public broadcasters, by introducing a fee that was controversial and contested by the European Commission, and which would be paid by telecom companies, who would thus contribute to the budget of the public media. At the moment, in France, the Parliament decides every year 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, the budget funding sources are split this way: over 70% comes from the income generated by the radio-TV license fee; 7% comes from the state budget; 8% comes from advertising and the rest from various donations and sponsorships.
Keeping the licence fee in Romania in the current form is not a guarantee of the independence and the quality of the work of 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 can be a textbook case of providing the government / parliamentary majority a lever to control the public media.
It is necessary to entirely rethink the TVR and RRA legislation, with a view to securing the operational independence of the public media.
Our analyses, based on criteria derived from recent studies, suggest the first thing that is needed is remove the possibility of arbitrary dismissals when the annual report is submitted and to ensure the efficiency, the transparency and the predictability of parliamentary control over PSM performance. This way, the duration and the predictability of the terms of the management could increase, the role of the Administrative Board as a buffer between politics and the editorial side could be enhanced, and the tasks of the Administrative Board and of the President-General Manager could be clarified.
A sustainable public media service can be secured only through a genuine process of rethinking the current set-up, a process open to the possibility of new institutional alternatives, even if we stay within the existing mode. But it is important to aim for a coherent institutional logic rather than tweaking or replacing isolated pieces, without making sure the puzzle fits together, such as rethinking the licence fee or including civil society or professional association representatives in the Administrative Board. Given that public media belong to everyone and are important for all citizens, the process needs to be as legitimate as possible. To this end, all parties and stakeholders should be involved, existing expertise – Romanian and otherwise – should be taken into account, and the citizens should be kept informed and included.
 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.