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“Someone has done serious consideration”. With these words, a participant in an ORF audience discussion explained why he had chosen a particular ORF programme as a positive example of qualitative reporting. Audience discussions are one of the many measures that ORF regularly carries out for quality assurance. ORF users discuss the strengths and weaknesses of ORF’s programs with the program makers – and what the young person singled out as his personal criterion for good reporting also sums up an essential goal of this quality assurance: the audience can trust that ORF’s programmes are well-founded, serious and reliable, in the best sense of Public Service Media.
In order to ensure the quality and credibility of ORF reporting, ORF has – in addition to the ORF Act as a basis – imposed numerous guidelines and regulations on itself, starting with the editorial statutes, the ORF programme guidelines, the ORF Code of Conduct and extending to equality plans and youth protection measures. How and whether the implementation of these reporting requirements succeeds is checked within the framework of a comprehensive Quality Assurance System. This is prescribed in the ORF Act, whereby the concrete design is developed by the ORF and must be approved by the ORF Foundation Council. Every form of quality assurance in the media sector faces the particular challenge that the nature of reports, broadcasts or programmes cannot be clearly predicted before production, but is shaped by social processes and interactions – for example, in the interaction between interviewer and interviewee, between editor and the persons portrayed in the contribution, between presenter and show guests or between camera team and director.
Neither the initial situation nor the result of the production process can be completely controlled. Therefore, it would fall short to define media quality exclusively according to predefined parameters. The quality of a programme or a contribution is always defined by the subjective experience of its users – i. e., what they perceive as good, what they like to use, what they are satisfied with, also in contrast to other offers. For ORF, it is therefore of central importance to understand the users as part of this quality process, because only if the content offered reaches them, is used and understood by them, can the quality claim become effective. The ORF Quality Assurance System takes into account the users’ view of media products by integrating a broad spectrum of empirical audience research, and it ensures that the range of factors influencing the quality experience of media content, such as different needs, usage situations or previous knowledge, is taken into account. The ORF Quality Assurance System is carried out in an annual cycle, organized internally at ORF by the Public Value and Market and Media Research departments and implemented mainly in cooperation with external market research institutes. The programme structure analyses of television and radio, prescribed by the ORF law represent quantitative descriptions of the programme shares of the ORF television and radio programme.
The content-analytical, quantifying approach with evaluation categories that have remained stable over the years enables continuous observation of the proportions between the programme pillars – such as information, entertainment, culture, and sport. The aim of this measure is to ensure the balance of the content offered on ORF television and ORF radio. The Public Value Report as a further descriptive element of quality assurance looks – beyond this pure quantification – in more detail at the content and design of these programme pillars and documents the performance fulfilment of ORF’s core public service mandate on the basis of qualitative criteria: These are divided into several quality dimensions and performance categories, derived from the ORF Act, the ORF programme guidelines, the ORF guidelines as well as current requirements in society and media development. The other measures of the Quality Assurance System are audience-centered. Quantitative and qualitative approaches are chosen to give the best possible scope to the diversity of requirements on the user side. In the ORF overall survey, for example, the satisfaction of Austrians with ORF and its programme and content offerings are determined overall by means of a representative survey. In a similar way to the Programme Structure Analysis, the continuity in the questions over many years makes it possible to recognize changes in the evaluation of the ORF with the entirety of its offerings.
With the evaluation of the ORF Quality Profiles, the focus is placed on certain ORF content or specific subject areas and discussed in more detail with the users. The Quality Profiles are a kind of target that the editorial teams impose on themselves. They consist of general assigned values and specific characteristics that relate to the concrete, respectively different conditions and requirements of working practice in the individual programme areas. Within the framework of the evaluation, this internal ORF target image is checked for coherence with the audience by means of a survey, i. e., whether it is classified as relevant and fulfilled by the users. The respondents can go into detail in their evaluations and justify them in detail.
In the Audience Panels already mentioned at the beginning, selected audience groups are invited to enter dialogue with those responsible for the programmes in structured group discussions and to present their criticism, demands and expectations of the ORF programmes. Since 2011, a total of around 1,500 participants from the audience have been able to enter direct exchange with programme and station managers. This allows the audience to experience the general conditions under which ORF programmes are created, and ORF managers in turn receive input for the further development of their programmes and content. In addition, an annual expert discussion takes place, which deepens the dialogue between ORF programme managers and experts in the respective thematic area.
In this way, the experience and assessment of experts and scientists is given a broader scope. Finally, selected questions are addressed in the ORF annual studies. In the ORF Audience Council Study, the Audience Council, which according to the ORF Act can commission an annual representative survey of participants to determine the interests of listeners and viewers, focuses on a selected area of ORF offerings. Most recently, the audience’s requirements for fictional and non-fiction entertainment programmes on ORF were examined more closely and recommendations for the programme work were derived from this. In addition, the ORF commissions an annual Public Value Study, which refers to a special aspect of its scope of services and functional mandate and is intended to enable an in-depth evaluation, which, in addition to quality control, also provides a future-oriented and practical basis for the programme work. One example, from 2022, was in the topic area of “entertainment in Public Service Media”. The quality assurance measures listed provide a great deal of information and indications regarding the acceptance of the existing ORF offerings and programming. These results and findings are passed on internally to the programme managers and creators, discussed – and thus flow into the ongoing programme production and further development of the content. In addition to this internal communication process, results are also evaluated from the outside: according to the ORF law, the ORF Foundation Council has to appoint an independent, expert person to evaluate the results of all components of the Quality Assurance System.
For the period 2020 to 2024, this task has been entrusted to Ingrid Deltenre, the former Director of Swiss Television, and former Director-General of the European Broadcasting Union. She submits an expert opinion by June of the following year on whether the ORF has met the defined quality criteria and fulfilled the requirements of the Quality Assurance Act based on the reports from the Quality Assurance System. So far, the ORF has always been able to meet these requirements. Just as quality is not an end, nor is the assurance of quality – therefore the Quality Assurance System itself is also subject to constant critical scrutiny. Among other things, inputs from the evaluator as well as findings from regular workshops with all ORF departments and market and social research institutes involved in the process are incorporated into the further development. The broad structure of the Quality Assurance System offers the possibility of responding to social change and changes in media use through adaptations, to ensure that people can trust the ORF offerings even in times of change and new challenges – because “Someone has done serious consideration”.