Public Service Media in the Age of SVoDs: A Comparative Study of PSM Organisations’ Strategic Responses


The arrival of SVOD services is having a profound impact on TV industries worldwide because SVOD uptake is not only changing viewing patterns, but also altering established industry norms: around programme funding and distribution, business models, as well as national policy regimes (Baschiera and Re 2016; Doyle, 2016; S Lotz 2017; Lobato 2019). In this changing environment, public service media (PSM) like the BBC in the UK, RAI in Italy and VRT in Belgian Flanders are among the ‘legacy’ TV players who still occupy a central, yet pressured place in the domestic media landscape, where they represent the chief mechanism through which national policy-makers seek to advance societal goals, such as universal access, programme range and diversity, and the promotion of national cultures.

This paper analyses how PSM in these three countries are responding strategically to SVoD services. Given PSM organisations’ distinctive funding regime, non-profit status, national roots and public service obligations, we expect their responses to be different from other legacy players, such as commercial broadcasters, Pay-TV operators, and independent production companies. Drawing on Philip Napoli’s framework for analyzing the strategic responses used by established media organisations to counter the threat of competitive displacement by new media (Napoli 1998), we ask: What strategies have PSM adopted for TV drama in response to SVoD? We take a comparative approach across these three markets, one that takes account of highly divergent contextual factors and the different sizes and public service legacies within these countries. By focussing on the BBC, RAI, and a smaller language market in Flanders, VRT, we explore how organisational (level and type of funding) and contextual factors (market size, language/cultural proximity, national policy regimes, viewing habits, and industry formations) shape the strategic responses observed in these three cases. Applying Napoli’s framework, to what extent are these PSMs, complacent, resistant, differentiated or diversified in their responses, and what are the implications for PSM?

In placing the analytical focus on SVoD services, we are mindful that SVOD represents only ‘one line of development within a wider ecology’ (Lobato 2019: 10) of Internet-distributed TV, which is complex and multifaceted in terms of services, platforms and business models. Focusing on curated content, made according to professionalised media practices we first conceptualise the role of Netflix and SVoD as a disruptive force before moving on to introduce Philip Napoli’s framework for analysing organisational responses to disruptive media shifts. Drawing on comparative media studies, including a strand of literature on small versus big media markets, we justify the choice of country and PSM-specific case-studies before discussing how consideration of contextual factors is necessary to account for variations in PSM organisations’ strategic responses.