Due to the four languages, the sophisticated federalism and the direct democracy, and – last not least – due to a booming advertising branch in the „island of wealth“, Switzerland’s media landscape has flourished and ripened to uniqueness during the last decades. So far, however, a comprehensive analysis of the media system of the country has been missing which would describe and evaluate adequately its peculiarities. Matthias Künzler (University of Zurich) has now closed this gap and compiled all the relevant facts and scientific insights which might help to understand the Swiss media branch as well as the financing and regulation of media in the country. Plurilinguism and being a small state have, however their price, as Künzler demonstrates: The media markets are heavily fragmented. This leads to high costs per piece in media production: Costs are fix – independently from how many recipients are using a media product. If the number of users is small, the „individual user will have to pay more for media content“, writes Künzler. And the „next door giants“ Germany, France and Italy are close and have a strong influence on media consumption and media development in Switzerland. For example, the market share of Swiss print media sold in the largest chain of newsstands in the country is less than 12 percent, while nearly 63 percent of the sold circulation stems from Germany, close to nine percent from France and more than three percent from Italy.
In television this is not much different. Foreign stations hit a market share among viewers which varies, according to language area, between 60 and 80 percent, and close to two fifth of the advertising expenses are won by foreign broadcasters. Künzler‘s book gives also impressive proof that researchers might be somewhat exaggerating if complaining of quality losses of Swiss journalism or even a decline of media diversity. Nevertheless, such criticism should not be silenced as it has happened recently when the two largest Swiss media conglomerates, Ringier and Tamedia, „engaged“ in unison in non-reporting about the annual yearbook “Qualität der Medien. Schweiz“ (“Quality of the media. Switzerland“) prepared by Kurt Imhof and 60 more researchers. Of course, also Künzler foresees the danger that in the future „the gap between pretension and reality in terms of media diversity” might become bigger. The high number of press titles will turn more and more into ‘make believe pluralism’ if the titles will be produced by fewer newsrooms belonging all to the same few publishing houses “, writes the author. As advertising revenues are dwindling dramatically, the future financing of high quality journalism will remain endangered, and there is also to be expected an increasing concentration in the media industry.
One might however argue with Künzler whether the „relevance of public broadcasting as well as partially license-fee funded private broadcasting as guarantors of a public service“ might really grow under such circumstances. Private broadcasters‘ share of the broadcasting fee is so small that one should not expect journalistic miracles. And the Swiss public broadcaster SRG is obviously fulfilling its public service mission better than many others of the scandal-driven public competitors in neighboring countries, given that even the legendary, once commendable BBC is suffering from irreparable reputation damages. Nevertheless, SRG turns online into a direct competitor of private newspaper publishers. Thus, its overwhelming dominance might become part of the problem which Künzler hopes to solve with the help of SRG: Quality journalism most probably won’t be financed online by income generated from advertising. Therefore, publishers have to meet the Herculean challenge of convincing users to pay for their online offers, while month per month for SRG the money is rolling in– a distortion of competition which needs to be corrected. Here, once again it becomes obvious that communications researchers frequently have difficulties in evaluating basic economic facts adequately.
Nevertheless: Künzler analyses very thoroughly the structures and the structural changes of print, radio and television. He also clarifies how public broadcasting in Switzerland differs from the larger competitors in the neighboring countries where political influence is much stronger. The author is condensing his material, focussing clearly on the relevant questions and presenting it in „digestible“ portions. The book is indispensible for everyone who wants to profoundly understand Swiss media and Swiss journalism.
First published in the Neue Zürcher Zeitung on February 26th.