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Dr. Florian Oberhuber Quality Profile
Since many years Public Service Media are under more and
more pressure. Already in the 80ties Margaret Thatcher had
sought to abolish the license fee. As communications scholar
Christoph Neuberger argues, the constant critical questioning
of the legitimacy of its public funding is part of the essence of
public broadcasting: “As a broadcasting service committed to society, it must
face and react on public criticism, register the claims made there, take up suggestions
and legitimize itself by demonstrating its performance.”
As will be shown below, the “Quality Profiles” created by ORF in 2011 can be
understood as a form of productive institutionalization of a quality discourse
and as a control instrument. For all ORF media and programme areas, they
disclose general and genre-specific mission values and thus make quality
accessible to systematic evaluation and discussion.
For around three decades, there has been a systematic discussion in the
Europe about quality in public broadcasting and the role of the audience in
this context. Audience acceptance and target group adequacy, according to
the established thesis, form a part of quality. Quality can only be effective and
socially relevant if the content offered is received, understood, and processed
by the recipients. Quality in public broadcasting is therefore impossible without
the audience. The audience must therefore be taken seriously not only in
its role as a user, but also as a stakeholder, and must be included in efforts to
achieve quality.
At ORF, quality assurance is legally and institutionally anchored as a system
for ensuring the fulfillment of the core mission and, in addition to Programme
Structure Analysis and continuous, qualitative, and representative surveys,
includes ORF Quality Profiles instrument developed in 2011.
The ORF Quality Profiles define a catalogue of general mission values as
well as genre-specific characteristics that relate to the different conditions
and requirements of working practice in the individual programme categories.
It concludes specifies criteria for each program category from specific sources:
The ORF-Act, ORF’s editorial guidelines, social media guidelines, program
statute, and its code of conduct. The aim is to create a set of quality criteria
explicitly embedded in the editorial media production. For ORF these Quality
Profiles are a substantial part of an ongoing quality management and thus as
a continuous process that includes regular evaluation using audience research
methods, as well as optimization measures for the programmes.
In fact “Quality Profiles” create the basis for a Reality Check on PSM media,
making sure that obligations and regulations, public service remits and quality
criteria are taken care of in program production.
Since the fall of 2011, the SORA Institute has been conducting empirical
evaluation studies on the quality. For this purpose, the respective quality
profile is operationalized both as a standardized set of questions and as part of an interview guide, and the audience is asked in focus groups as well as
in semi-standardized interviews across Austria about the importance of the
quality dimensions and their fulfillment by ORF’s programs.
This open and dialogical approach allows a detailed insight into the audience’s
understanding and awareness of quality. The results are very promising for the
inclusion of users in the quality discourse and validate the result also found
in other studies, according to which the audience supports not only individual
performance expectations but also the legitimacy of broader social demands
on public broadcasting. In addition to this function for the social discourse on
quality, the Quality Profiles also fulfill a control function in ORF’s internal quality
management, by systematically collecting the perceptions and demands of
the audience and thus making them accessible for internal reflection, in order
to close any gaps between the theory, expectations, confessions and reality.
Eleven evaluation studies of ORF’s Quality Profiles have now been carried
out, and it can be said that the audience survey broadly supports the concept
of public service quality formulated by ORF in its Quality Profiles. This includes,
for example, diverse and comprehensible programming for all segments of the
population, a strong focus on Austria or serious information and consistent
quality journalism in terms of research and editorial work. 

Audience as a stakeholder

Due to massive disruptions in media economy and media perception PSM no
longer can’t expect to be accepted as given for granted.
The “Böckenförde theorem”, according to which the liberal state lives on
preconditions that it cannot guarantee itself, can also be applied to public
broadcasting. One of these prerequisites is the willingness of a society – or of
the relevant stakeholders – to engage in a discourse oriented toward the common
good, with key concepts such as quality and Public Value. It is precisely
this space of democratic understanding that has come under pressure since
the establishment of the Quality Profiles, due to political and social polarization
processes. It is based on the basic democratic trust of all participants in
each other’s goodwill. Where this basic trust gives way to a perception of other
members of society as enemies, discourse comes to a standstill, because the
arguments and facts of the other side are basically no longer recognized. The
discussion about public service gives way to a power struggle for control over
the media and the public. Erosion processes in the democratic sphere are empirically
evident, among other things, in the numerous comparative rankings
on democracy, which attest that Austria has taken significant steps backward
in recent years, for example, regarding a lack of transparency in government
action, and the influence of financially powerful groups on legislation, corruption
and media freedom. Regarding political culture, major representative studies
such as the Austrian Democracy Monitor conducted by SORA researcher
Martina Zandonella reveal a massive loss of trust. In the Democracy Monitor
2022, for example, satisfaction with the political system fell to just 34 % – a
drop of 30 percentage points compared with the start of the survey in 2018. Behind this is the experience of devaluation and exclusion in the bottom third
of society, and in the middle third the impression that privileged groups use the
political system for their own interests. This loss of trust goes beyond political
institutions. Jakob-Moritz Eberl, for example, uses data from the Austrian
Coronavirus Panel to show that parts of the population have also withdrawn
their trust in the scientific community and scientific knowledge. For example,
about a quarter of the population is of the opinion (September 2021) that one
should rely more on common sense and less on scientific studies. The media
are also affected by a general criticism of whitewashing, and in the Democracy
Monitor 2022, a majority of 59 percent agree with the statement that “politics
and the media are in cahoots.”
This change in the social framework also challenges the safeguarding of Public
Service Media quality. For, as Neuberger notes, the “substantial clarification
of public service expectations” is the indispensable basis for any operational
quality management. In other words, “business as usual” is a dangerous strategy.
On the contrary, the broader and more open the debate about the legitimacy
of public broadcasting is, the more likely it is to be countered by an imminent
erosion of its legitimacy. The traditional mass media are losing trust because
they are not open enough or responsive enough to society, as communications
scholar Otried Jarren put it, and he would like to see a broad debate on the future
of public broadcasting in Germany. After all, Public Service Media need corresponding
guiding principles. And these can only emerge from social discourse.
In view of the polarized political elites, the public and citizens are important
allies against the undermining of Public Service Broadcasting. In reaction ORF
has to open up and promote spaces for discourse, interaction and participation
wherever possible. 


From Quality Profile to Quality Check

To ensure that the insights gained in ORF’s Quality Assurance System are implemented in its daily media production, ORF has developed an additional element to ensure that reflections and objections as well as changes in expectations are incorporated into future programming. The ORF “Quality
Check” is a series of workshops with each of ORF’s main programme-
producing departments. Journalists and editors are confronted with the latest results of the ongoing ORF quality assurance process – in particular the evaluation of the respective quality profile. The goal is to discuss the ongoing media
production in a participatory process, to conduct a critical self-reflection and to derive concrete conclusions and, if necessary, objectives for future quality media production based on a strengths/weaknesses analysis. In the process, external
experts and colleagues from other ORF media departments participate in order to include critical reflection and in-depth analysis of particular aspects and current challenges.