Swiss citizens have voted overwhelmingly to continue funding public broadcaster SRG SSR though receiver fees payable by any household with a radio, TV set or other device able to receive TV. Some 71% of the vote in yesterday's so-called ‘No Billag’ referendum went against abolishing radio and TV licence fees (Billag is the name of the Swisscom subsidiary that collects the obligatory fee).
The current cost of a licence for radio and TV is SFr451.10 ($480.56) a year, or SFr 165 for a radio-only licence and SFr 286.10 for a TV licence. The fee provides three-quarters of the funding for SRG SSR.
Before the vote, the Swiss federal government agreed to drop the full fee to SFr365 next year, while SRG SSR management has introduced an efficiency drive to cut costs.
Switzerland’s TV and radio taxes are comparatively high, and the combined fee is the highest in Europe. Research for IHS Markit’s Channels and Programming Intelligence indicates that Denmark’s media licence is the next most expensive at DKr2509 ($415) this year. Austria’s €316 ($389) is the next most expensive, followed by Norway at NKr2768.60 ($354). The TV-only fee in Switzerland is the fourth most expensive.
The Swiss licence fee has increased by a relatively large amount (nearly 40%) over the last ten years. In contrast, Germany’s fee has increased less than 3% and that of the UK by 4%. Fees have actually declined in French-speaking Belgium and Italy.
Opponents of public broadcasting argue (among other things) that licence fees are a hangover from a time when public broadcasting was a state monopoly. In Switzerland and elsewhere, opposition also crystallises around populist suspicion of elites seen as being unfairly privileged and out of touch with ordinary people. Supporters generally base their arguments around value for money and the importance of a public service offering a wide range of services.
In Europe at least, public broadcasting has widespread political support. In 2007, the Council of Europe called on its member states ‘to guarantee the fundamental role of the public service media in the new digital environment, setting a clear remit for public service media, and enabling them to use new technical means to better fulfil this remit and adapt to rapid changes in the current media and technological landscape…’
Despite the outcome of the Swiss vote, the debate about public funding of radio and television is likely to rumble on, in an increasingly diverse media environment and political turbulence. The emphatic vote in favour of the fee will reassure public broadcasters that if they achieve the right balance, they can also find support from their public.