Small nations, small public broadcasters and the acquisition of international content: Pressure on the free-to-air model, by Karen Donders and Hilde Van den Bulck

Public broadcasters, so most scholars and policy-makers would argue, have a task to inform, educate and entertain people. They should strengthen national identity and social cohesion mainly through investing in both the internal and external production of local content. There are many discussions about the longevity of this public service remit, especially in light of the digitization and internationalization of media markets.[1]

Having said that, little attention is paid to how public broadcasters acquire content in the international marketplace, often to fill parts of their schedule, but also with an eye to delivering public goals regarding pre-school television, historical documentary and arts programming, amongst others. In particular public broadcasters in smaller countries have insufficient resources to invest in all these niche public service genres. Therefore, acquisition can be a viable solution to this problem.

But how important is acquisition for public broadcasters? How do they acquire content? And are practices in this market changing for better or worse?

A recent study of the acquisition practices of 6 public broadcasters in the Netherlands, Ireland, Denmark, Norway, Sweden and Flanders (i.e. the Northern part of Belgium) reaches some interesting conclusions.[2]

1) Acquisition is more important for some public broadcasters than for others: The proportion of acquired content (in relation to broadcasted hours) varies considerably depending on which public broadcaster we are talking about. The table below gives more detail about these differences. It is noteworthy that in both the Netherlands and the United Kingdom (the latter based on secondary data) little foreign content is shown, whereas in Ireland, for example, over 67% of all broadcast hours is categorised as acquired content. While there are budgettary reasons for acquiring foreign content (which in general is less expensive than domestically produced content) other reasons for this acquisition strategy are given: audiences have a preference for foreign movies; small countries with powerful language neighbours often import more audiovisual content from these neighbours; there is limited domestic production in specific genres; and the quality of, by means of illustration, historical documentaries produced by the BBC is higher than the quality of domestically produced, lower-budget programmes.


2) Dominance of volume and smaller deals with few output deals: Most public broadcasters rely on some volume deals – these are significant deals for a number of years and for a certain amount of money. Between 60 to 80% of acquired content can be traced back to deals such as these with 5 to 10 distribution companies including Endemol and BBC Worldwide. Next to these big deals, there are numerous contracts that concern just 1 or a few programmes. Although there are some exceptions, most public broadcasters do not engage in huge output deals with American studios. These deals involve a broadcaster acquiring multiple runs of, mainly American, series’ and films for a given market on an exclusive basis. It also involves a library, that is ‘older’, content. Although private broadcasters compete heavily for these deals, most public broadcasters feel these deals are beyond their remit. Indeed, output deals come with, for example, fourth or fifth runs of American crime series. Public broadcasters find scheduling this type of genre difficult especially when the program is in fact somewhat outdated. Even though the rest of the package might be very appealing, they have issues with not using parts of the library content that comes with the package. After all, they would pay for this with tax payers’ money.

3) From a buyers to a sellers market: Things are changing in this market. Most importantly, broadcasters are no longer the only buyers. For example, over-the-top players and cable distributors are now interested in acquiring content as well. This is mainly in the areas of drama and film. The public broadcasters we talked to admitted this changes the game from a buyers to a sellers market. They find it difficult to compete with players that are often active on an international scale (or at least in multiple countries) and have deeper pockets. As a result, they do no always succeed in renegotiating deals which they’ve had in place for decades.

4) Universality of content under pressure: As a consequence, and regardless of the bargaining position of public broadcasters, this results in a decline in the accessibility of content a situation which is likely to continue in the future. As American studios and distributors like Endemol and also BBC Worldwide strive to maximize revenues from the international distribution of content, they must deal with providers of pay-TV services. The offer of BBC premium channels at a monthly subscription is no exception and models like these will be explored further. This means people have less access to this content on the basis of the old(er) free-to-air model or, at least, will have to pay if they do not want to wait a year or more to see their favorite content on a television or other screen.

5) Public broadcasters play the game, but should they really? Our research also shows that all public broadcasters have both acquisition and sales departments. These work relatively independently from each other. Both departments play along with the rules of the market, however, that market is by no means friendly towards the goals of public broadcasting. For example BBC Worldwide can decide to sell its drama to the highest bidder and makes public broadcasters wait for a year or even two before they can broadcast this highly valuable and appealing content. Should these public broadcasters still buy massive amounts of pre-school content and documentary? Would it not be a better option to co-invest in these niche genres together? The somewhat provocative question is whether public broadcasters should really play by the rules of the international acquisition market? We think not. They should work together at the level of co-financing and pre-financing of content, while some legal inventiveness can overcome possible competition law issues in this regard. Exploring such a strategy would result in the production of high quality content that remains accessible thus benefiting citizens in the long run.

Needless to say the number of cases studied is limited and all concern public broadcasters that are, regardless of the small scale of the countries involved, rather well-funded in comparison with public broadcasters from several Eastern and Southern European countries. It is fair to assume, though, that the reliance of both public and private broadcasters in these countries on foreign content is even higher and, hence, the trends and threats described above might be even more pertinent.

[1] See for example: Donders, Karen (2012) Public Service Media and Policy in Europe, Palgrave Macmillan; Burri, Mira (2015) Public Service Broadcasting 3.0: Legal design for the digital present, Routledge.

[2] The complete results of the study can be found on Donders, Karen and Van den Bulck (2016) Decline and fall of public service media values in the international content acquisition market: An analysis of small public broadcasters acquiring BBC Worldwide content. In European Journal of Communication.


Prof. Dr. Karen Donders lectures at the Vrije Universiteit Brussel. She heads the policy research unit of the research center SMIT (Studies on Media Information and Telecommunication).

Prof. Dr. Hilde Van den Bulck lectures at the University of Antwerp head of the Media, Policy and Culture Research Group

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