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Referendum: Will Switzerland's public broadcaster survive?

It's expensive and anachronistic in these times of streaming services: On Sunday, Switzerland may vote to abolish the license fee for its public broadcaster, which may spell its end. Alison Langley reports from Zurich.

On a brisk February day, a young student stopped briefly on her way to the gym to mull over how she might vote in Switzerland's referendum this Sunday on whether or not to abolish the annual license fee that covers about three-quarters of the budget of its public broadcaster, SRF.

"One colleague says vote yes; one colleague says no. It's very split," said Sabrina, adding she hasn't yet made up her mind how she will vote.

On the pro side of the argument, the food science major at Switzerland's Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich said the annual fee of 450 Swiss francs (€390, $477) every household must pay is too high; and she added that she never really watches TV or listens to the radio anymore.

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SRF, she says, seems to have good sports shows, but eliminate the fee and she is certain a private company would pick up the rights to sports programming. As for news? She gets that for free from the internet.

If the yes votes win, Switzerland would be the first European country to abolish mandatory license fees for its public service broadcaster; a move the Swiss Broadcasting Corporation (SRG) said could put it out of business. This comes at a time when studies from the Reuters Institute and the European Broadcasting Union show that independent public service media act as a moderating influence in an ever-polarized world and help to increase trust in mainstream media.

Who supports the referendum?

Backing for the referendum has linked two unlikely allies: the far right, who initiated the measure, and Switzerland's youth, like Sabrina, who don't see the value in a public broadcast service anymore.

Andreas Kleeb, who helped launch the #NoBillag campaign four years ago, doesn't buy the argument that public broadcasters are necessary for democracy. "Switzerland had a democracy long before radio and television existed," he told DW.

His group, supported by the far-right People's Party, started the campaign because it doesn't want to be forced to pay a media tax and because it feels SRG has become too reliant on a cushy budget with no incentive to rein in costs.

TV screens in Swiss public broadcaster SRF's control room (picture-alliance/Keystone/G. Bally)

Young people in Switzerland are increasingly turning their backs on public broadcasters

Slashing the financing of the public service broadcaster would pave the way for more diversity, he argued. Putting that money instead into the pockets of Swiss households would help spur the economy, he said.

All-powerful public broadcasters

Public service broadcasting dominates Switzerland's media market. With a budget of 1.6 billion Swiss francs (€1.4 billion, $1.7 billion), SRG runs 17 radio stations, 7 TV channels, and online productions in German, French, Italian, and Rhaeto-Romance, a language spoken by about 50,000 people in the Grisons in the eastern Alps. The company also has a news website in 10 languages.

The company says that some 87 percent of all TV viewers in the German-speaking part of the country will at some point in the week turn on SRF. And, RTR, the Rhaeto-Romance station, provides the only radio and television available in that language.

In addition to reporting on national, regional, and local news, SRG promotes Swiss culture in the fields of music and film.

In December President Doris Leuthard urged voters to reject the referendum, arguing that Swiss public media play a crucial role in supporting cultural diversity and political discourse in the country. "A varied media offering is important for a small, polyglot country like Switzerland with its direct democracy," Leuthard said.

A divided Switzerland

The run-up to the Sunday vote has become surprisingly emotional and divisive, including death threats against one "No" campaigner. And, although the latest polls show between 60 and 63 percent to be in favor of "No," it's still too close to call.

The outcome will likely depend on whether the "Yes" camp can convince young people to vote at a higher rate than the elderly.

That doesn't surprise Vinzenz Wyss, communications professor at Zurich University of Applied Science. "For a long time they (SRG) ignored young people," he said.

The average age of the audience for SRF is 60.8 years. That's 20 years older than the average age of a Swiss citizen.

Moreover, according to a recent study by University of Zurich on behalf of the Reuters Institute, some 45 percent of Swiss adults say they access news more from their smartphones than any other method. That's above average in international comparisons.

A critical appraisal

SRF editor-in-chief Tristan Brenn talking to students (DW/A. Langley)

SRF Editor-in-Chief Tristan Brenn has conceded that public broadcasters have to assess their role critically

"The debate has been worthwhile," Tristan Brenn, editor-in-chief of SRF, the German-language broadcaster, told DW. "It forced us to internally look at how we are doing and look at ourselves critically."

But the remedy might be hard to implement. SRG is limited by what they can and can't do on the internet or social media, where the young people are. On the one hand, to reach young people, SRG needs to experiment with new formats and forms of story-telling that appeal to younger audiences on social media. On the other hand they can't be seen as competing with commercial enterprises, Wyss said.

Even if NoBillag is rejected, the pressure on Switzerland's public service broadcaster is likely to continue.

Wyss says that might not be such a bad thing. "SRG needs to be accountable to its public."

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