Revisiting Public Service Television – Some thoughts on a UNESCO ICT@PSB production

I don’t know who to thank for it, but I was sent a DVD of UNESCO’s Revisiting Public Service Television – a series of seven films and documentaries illustrating how topics such as human rights, the fight against discrimination, freedom of expression, tolerance and peace can be approached by public service television.

I used a long-haul flight to the US to watch these compelling productions and think that in very different styles of narrative and film-making, ranging from animations to documentaries, they explore issues that are central to polity and society but are often under-represented in the domains of commercial mainstream media. For this alone, this is a DVD worth having in one’s library, not just for archival purposes, but to be used in workshops and discussions to instigate critical debate and discussion, and to larger audiences, to bring to their attentions stories of people one rarely hears or sees. the DVD includes:

# The Box, Pakistan, animation, 8 minutes
Directed by Zabreen Hasan

# The Children of Darfur, Denmark, fiction, 24 minutes
Directed by Camilla Nielsson

# Cualquier Ciudad, Colombia, documentary, 8 minutes
Directed by John Jairo de los Rios

# Village Nomade, Niger, documentary, 25 minutes
Directed by Mahaman Souleymane

# The Place I Call Home, Egypt, documentary, 49 minutes
Directed by Tamer Ezzat

# Mothers on Wheels, Argentina, documentary, 52 minutes
Directed by Mario Piazza and Monica

# Meena, India, fiction, 21 minutes
Directed by Jasmine Kaur and Avinash Roy

A PDF gives a description of the productions, while a webpage on UNESCO’s site also has information on the productions. The DVD is a product of UNESCO’s ICT@PSB project:

This project aims at putting information and communication technologies (ICTs) to the use of programme development on major societal and development issues such as human rights, peace, tolerance and the fight against discrimination by providing public service broadcasters in developing countries with training, production and distribution opportunities in these areas.

There are a few critical but hopefully constructive observations I’d like to make. Firstly, UNESCO is not unknown for high quality productions that grapple with social development, human rights, justice, reconciliation, peace et al. However, many of these productions rarely trickle down into local civil society groups for use in local process – they remain essentially high quality productions that are not used to full effect to strengthen local processes and change initiatives. I, for one, in over 5 years of working closely with media reform initiatives in national and provincial levels in Sri Lanka in particular, have not found a single local organisation that is aware of the wealth of productions facilitated by UNESCO on issues and initiatives that they are also deeply involved in. This is a pity and ultimately a measure of UNESCO’s impact.

Another critique I have is of a unnecessarily exclusive interpretation of ICT. For instance, these productions don’t have a wiki or blog based webpage of their own. In and of themselves, they are productions that are powerful and thought provoking. Precisely on account of this, but also because the cultural resonance of these productions and their messages differ, it would have been useful to create an iterative process of learning using these films – a webpage that encourage such a global discussions – a collection of experiences of viewing these films and of opinions of those who saw them – would have been a tremendously useful way in which to learn how the PSB productions help (or in some cases don’t) local processes for human rights and social justice.

Instructive in this regard is the VOR Radio website, with built in support for comments on the productions, so as to create a community of learning based on the productions archived on the site. Also instructive in this regard are websites such as Listen Up! – for instance, this film on the social construction of beauty has, at the time of writing, generated 35 reviews, which contain some really interesting feedback and commentary.

Listen Up!’s website is also notable for its web based streaming media – the UNESCO films are too long for streaming, but it may have been useful to have trailers that captured the core issues of each film uploaded to the web so that a person interested in the themes could get a gist of what each film was about.

I would also submit that ICT based PSB is not so much about the product, but about the content. It is also more than just a exposition of the content, but more about the dialogues based on the content. This DVD from UNESCO, and others like it, are touted as products but are incapable of transforming social and political agendas by by themselves. Moving away from a product mentality to a ICT enabled social dialogues based on the content is a useful paradigm shift that truly makes use of the synergies between ICT and PSB. In the case of the Revisiting Public Service Television DVD for instance, it would have been useful to not just limit a webpage to acknowledge its creation, but to use a “launch event” to showcase the DVD as the beginning of a larger, and I would submit more important, local and global dialogue on the issues that the productions highlight.

Because of the growing number of users, especially youth, who have access to mobile devices that can play video, it would have also been useful to have these movies in a digital format compatible with devices such as Apple’s iPod. This involves a deeper understanding of PSB in our digital age, where the emphasis on not so much on broadcasting, but on media & content production. While the DVD may be fit to broadcast, media consumption patterns bring to sharp relief that many consume media on the web and on portable devices – a DVD alone isn’t enough to capture the diverse opportunities for media dissemination that ICT engenders (which is one reason I prefer to use the term Public Service Media instead of Public Service Broadcasting).

As I’ve noted in an earlier post:

Public Service Broadcasting and Media in this respect gain added significance in our information age – to create pervasive information access and production architectures for those already familiar with media, but more importantly, to create ways through which the marginalised, disenfranchised and disempowered voices of peoples hidden in the hinterlands of our digital age make their voices heard in polity and society.

UNESCO’s Revisiting Public Service Television offers a compelling glimpse into how public service content will be produced and delivered in the future. But UNESCO barely captures the range of possibilities made possible by ICT in the promotion of public service content – one hopes that over time, such productions will be disseminated in more ways than just through DVD and that UNESCO, and others who produce similar content, will use them not so much as showpieces that only reside on the shelves of offices within the limited confines of the UN system, but as instigators of progressive dialogues and debate that strengthen democracy and are captured and nurtured using the myriad of social communications technologies made possible by the web and internet.

Related links:
Future of Media Report

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Joost « ICT for Peacebuilding (ICT4Peace) - October 7, 2007

    […] It also remains to be seen whether small, independent content providers will be able to access Joost’s programming platform, in the same manner as YouTube, which I feel would be necessary if Joost is to become a viable platform (wherever the bandwidth is available) for the dissemination of content founded on public service broadcasting values (and also as a viable replacement for the archaic video platform UNESCO uses). […]

  2. UNICEF and Google Maps « ICT for Peacebuilding (ICT4Peace) - August 13, 2008

    […] of its work and the challenges it responds to. In this it differs from many other UN agencies. Reviewing a production by UNESCO two years ago I noted, “UNESCO’s Revisiting Public Service Television offers a compelling glimpse into how public […]

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