BilagBy Eric Antoine Scuccimarra
When I first arrived in Switzerland I was appalled at the level of paperwork and bureaucracy required to do even the simplest thing. When I first heard about the Bilag I counted it as another piece of red tape that needed to be dealt with here. The Bilag is a CHF 400 tax you have to pay to the government in exchange for the right to own any device capable of receiving broadcast signals - a TV, a radio, even a computer. I thought it was outrageous that you have to pay an annual fee just to have a radio or a TV - even if you don't ever use it.
After being here for a couple of years my opinion has completely changed. The Bilag is used to support the public radio and TV stations in Switzerlard, and I absolutely support that. It is a very small country and there are only 2 or 3 public stations per language, so the fees can easily support them all. The advantage is that the TV stations and radio stations do not have to support themselves with advertising, which means that they do not have to pander to the desires of advertisers or compete for viewers or listeners in order to attract those advertiser dollars. This is absolutely huge in terms of the quality of programming.
The difference between television here and how it was in the US is like the difference between, say, David Attenborough and Jeremy Kyle in the UK, or Judy Woodruff and Jerry Springer in the US. These examples also happen to be between public television, PBS or the BBC, and commercial television networks. The news is a perfect example - in the US the news is as sensationalistic as possible, full of stories designed to grab your attention at the expense of the quality of the content. The news is as dumbed down as possible in order to appeal to the greatest number of people, and everything is played up to be as dramatic and scandalous as possible. When there is a story that grabs people's attention, no matter how inconsequential or trivial it is, it is held onto for as long as possible. It is not unusual for the news to keep the same tabloid stories in the headlines for weeks on end, even if there are actual important things going on. Reporting on politics is even worse as the networks have realized that they can get more viewers by creating controversies and getting people as worked up about them as possible.
In Switzerland the news seems old fashioned and boring. They just report on the events in a calm, even-handed manner. It seems almost anachronistic compared to the bombast of American news. But the effects are noticeable. Here people can disagree on political issues without demonizing and vilifying anyone with a differing opinion. People with opposing viewpoints can discuss issues without resorting to ad hominem attacks.
The other great advantage of the Bilag is in the level of advertising in media. On the radio it is virtually nonexistent. On TV you may have 2-3 minutes of advertisements in between programs as opposed to roughly 20 minutes per hour interspered with the program in the US. Before I moved here I didn't realize just how pervasive advertising is in the US. Everyone is bombarded with messages that you need to own this brand or that brand to be the person you want to be, or that every time you feel the least bit hungry you need to fill up with a candy bar, or you can't be a good person unless you buy this product. It is amazing how much of the information people have comes from advertising. Free market economic theories are built on the idea of rational consumers making informed choices, but even if humans were more rational than we actually are, it would be impossible to make informed choices and judgements when the majority of the information you receive that is pertinent to those choices comes from corporations trying to convince that one specific choice is correct. The decisions, instead of being made on relevant data such as attributes and price of products, are instead made on the basis of which product has the most appealing advertising or brand identity.
It is my opinion that unrestricted advertising, if not the cause of, is at least a major contributor to many of the problems in the US - from political divisions to income inequality. Publicly funded media is an easy and effective remedy to these problems, as can easily be seen in any of the European countries with publicly funded media. In the early days of US television, networks were expected to run their news departments at a loss as a public service, in exchange for their broadcast licenses, and they would make up the lost revenue with entertainment programming. Tellingly, this was back in the days when the news was more like it is here in Switzerland - boring and straightforward.
Unfortunately I have no solutions to this problem. I don't see anyone in the US willingly giving up a penny of potential revenue no matter how great the societal benefits. I also do not see American consumers willingly trading their sensationalistic news, light on context and actual information, for more serious news. If they were PBS would have much higher ratings than, say, TMZ. I am just glad to be in a country where unbridled capitalism has not yet destroyed the utility of television and radio.