On much-needed reform at PBS

The state of our public broadcasting services has long been considered problematic. The lack of intelligent and cultural content on Television Malta still makes PBS look like a broadcaster intended to serve interests other than those of the public it is obliged to broadcast to. Labour has promised to bring change and improve PBS but, until now, change has come only in very small doses which have hardly left any substantial mark.

Some progress has been made in respect to the fact that the newsroom’s editorial line, now coordinated by Reno Bugeja, is much less partisan than it used to be under the previous administration. This is not to absolve Reno Bugeja of any faults and neither do I want to imply that I would prefer his editorial line from others, however this must be inevitably accredited, given political interference in PBS is still perceived as a problem by the general public. The introduction of diverse journalistic talk shows was also a good step-forward, but the retraction of “Times Talk” from the schedule may be proof that this might change once again. Yet, the problems of PBS are not restricted to partisan influence and in fact, political intervention might actually solve some problems if done with a concrete and legitimate aim.

Let’s sit through a day of television brought to us by Television Malta. Most of the programmes we watch are shabby and mediocre and seem to have been packaged, presented and directed according to the Bad Italian Television Handbook. Mediocre talk shows during which nothing is actually said, dramas which sound like they have been scripted by a secondary-school student, and the news. Then on Friday night, there’s the regular and ceremonial promotion of ignorance and populism in the form of Joe “Peppi” Azzopardi’s Xarabank.

Indeed, it seems we are all in agreement that TVM needs more cultural and intelligent content and a quantum leap in the quality of artistic productions. What’s stopping this from happening is the inherent ideological culture in public broadcasting which considers and treats its potential audience as an uneducated mass and this despite the fact that in terms of education our country has made great advances.

Given this ideological perception, it is no wonder that even one of TVM’s rare cultural programmes presented culture and knowledge in a stupid way. As the ideology goes, the only way you could feed people minimal amounts of knowledge is by ‘keeping it simple and fun otherwise it wouldn’t be understood, let alone enjoyed’. Salvu Mallia’s programme used the ‘funny idiot’ deriding himself as he was confronted with new knowledge, resembling the typical, literary fool like Mastru Gerfex or Fra Mudest: a character endemic to a culture that perpetuates unlearning by essentially corroborating fun with ignorance.

But Mallia only happens to be a ‘culprit’ for the sake of my argument. He is not actually part of the problem, but a small and harmless fish next to champion and gold-medalist of the dumbing-down Olympics, Joe “Peppi” Azzopardi. Now, no one can deny that Xarabank is essentially stupid and even Joe Azzaoprdi, the presenter of the programme, himself admits this with a straight face and live in front of his audience. The mantra of Joe Azzopardi is to make a programme “of and for the people” which “anyone could understand”, and a programme in which everyone is allowed to say anything in public even if it is stupid or personal bordering on intimate. But how can you actually defeat a populist monster which justifies itself with simplistic notions of populism, whilst making lots of money in the process? You need political intervention to stop that, and yet, until now, no one has had the courage to do so.

If we were to allow the ultimate fulfillment of the principle that ratings and money justify public broadcasting content, then we might as well turn TVM into the most deranged service and make a cash cow out of it. You could argue that Xarabank is even more dangerous than pornography, when it directly promotes ignorance with its equal-level platform and tolerance to all opinions and kinds of discourse, whatever these opinions and discourses might be.

Now, of course, we live in a free society and we have the right to speak and say what we want, but if what you want to say is stupid, you don’t necessarily have the right to say it on primetime television. If you think that ‘we will get Ebola by eating fish which happened to eat dead immigrants’ in the Mediterranean sea then the best place for you is either a school or a mental asylum, and not on primetime television.

In principle, there is nothing which can really justify bad content on the public broadcasting service because as an entity it is self-explanatory: a public broadcaster should be of service to the people and to be of service to the people means it provides the public with news, knowledge and intelligent content and not waste its resources on entertaining one and all as if its sole aim is to produce one big loud circus.

I don’t believe people are stupid. Many Maltese watch local television because it’s the only thing they can watch in Maltese, so an increase in intelligent and cultural content at PBS can eventually increase ratings and viewership. This is not a pipe-dream – this is reality and the market proves it.

As people are increasingly spending their money on Netflix, cable and satellite television, as well as content on the internet, I find it hard to imagine that it would occur to anyone to pay for content similar to what usually airs on TVM. People are not as stupid as Joe “Peppi” Azzopardi would like you to believe.


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