Founded in 1922, the BBC — British Broadcasting Company — has become synonymous with pioneering and high-quality journalism. To this day, it remains one of the most prestigious media corporations in the world, despite a recent wave of budget cuts. Inspired by the British example, Brazil’s EBC (literally the Brazilian Communications Company) was created in 2007, in an attempt to create a public television station not driven by commercial standards and focused on matters of the public interest. The EBC was also seen as a possible competitor to traditional media groups, which were seen as hostile by the Workers’ Party, in government at the time.

The EBC comprises two television channels, eight radio stations, and two news agencies. It provides important content about government programs to people who depend on it, but the company’s results are mixed at best. In the last 12 years, it has consumed over BRL 6 billion in current values. Its budget is now dominated by expenses with personnel and maintenance, giving the Brazilian BBC little room for investment. Worse than that have been the constant accusations of bias toward the government du jour—a criticism that has persisted under different presidents.

That is not to say that EBC hasn’t made strides. TV Brasil, the company’s main asset, has seen its viewing figures rise by 64 percent between 2007 and 2018, according to Kantar Ibope, the company which measures TV ratings in the country. But even with that increase, TV Brasil has an underwhelming share of 0.67 percent of Brazilian homes, which earned it its nickname “flatliner TV.” So much for being Brazil’s answer to the BBC.

During the 2018 presidential campaign, Jair Bolsonaro promised to shut down the entire operation. But since Mr. Bolsonaro has taken office, the administration has changed its tone towards the communications arm of the government—saying it is more about “rationalizing expenditure” rather than gutting the entire organization.

Three weeks into the current administration, and no one knows exactly what is going to happen to EBC. Not even its employees.

For Pedro Ortiz, a journalism professor at the São Paulo-based Belas Artes University, ratings should not be the only standard upon which EBC is judged. After all, the advent of the internet and online-shared videos has dramatically changed the way we consume audiovisual content. “If content is engaging, people will watch. But the way we measure the success of a publicly-owned television channel shouldn’t follow the criteria we apply for its privately-owned, commercially-driven counterparts,” says Mr. Ortiz.

brazil bbc ebc

The EBC was founded during Lula’s administration

But even if we hold EBC to different standards, results remain poor in comparison to investments. In 2018 alone, EBC had a budget of BRL 643 million—one-third of which was spent on salaries for its 2,024 staff members. In comparison, TV Cultura, a station owned by the São Paulo state government and famous for its educative and journalistic content, had BRL 94.5 million to spend between January and November 2018 (despite having BRL 156.5 million in costs). The BBC, meanwhile, had costs forecast at GBP 4 billion for 2018/2019 — almost BRL 20 billion.

For critics, the costs alone are reason enough to privatize the EBC, considering Brazil’s acute fiscal crisis.

“Brazil’s BBC” struggling for independence

But the main issue around the EBC is related to its editorial independence. Since its inception, under the Lula administration, the company had a dual role: while, in theory, serving as an independent news outlet, it was also responsible for the government’s official communication channels, such as NBR TV (which covers the presidency) and Voz do Brasil (a one-hour long daily program about government actions).

Last year, Eugênio Bucci, a journalism professor at the University of São Paulo and president of Radiobrás (a company that was swallowed up by the EBC), “all strategic decisions were made by members of the cabinet.” He added: “In Brazil, public-owned stations are pro-government—which is the antithesis of public communication,” he told Época.

Interview programs that got funded, for instance, had one thing in common: they were hosted by left-leaning journalists sympathetic to — and sometimes openly in favor of — Lula. With the government’s influence always present, TV Brasil quickly earned another inglorious nickname: Lula TV.

The trend did not stop after the Workers’ Party was removed from government. Several EBC staffers complained that news stories detrimental to Michel Temer’s administration were censored by editors — who in turn commented off-the-record that reporters had a clear pro-Lula agenda.

According to Professor Pedro Ortiz, the genesis of EBC’s troubles comes from its structure, being subjugated to the president’s communication department. “EBC is founded as a company that should belong to the public, but is directly tied to the government. For me, that’s a contradiction. One-hundred percent of EBC’s money comes from the federal budget, which means it relies totally on whoever is in charge.” As a state-owned company, it can’t have commercial advertising but, as Mr. Ortiz recalls, some partnership programs with private companies for cultural programs are possible.   

Michel Temer’s approach to the EBC was a cost-saving one. Last November, the company launched a voluntary dismissal program for its employees. But while restructuring is not fully finished, budget cuts have taken their toll. EBC headquarters in the states of Maranhão and Rio Janeiro are reportedly in poor conditions, disrupting programming schedules. In Amazonas, the National Amazon Radio, one of the main sources of information for isolated communities, didn’t work for seven months in 2017 due to a problem at an energy station, which was struck by lightning.

Despite all these troubles, Mr. Ortiz exalts the role of public communication and the EBC itself. “The EBC is not perfect. Yet, even the BBC, which is an example for the world, has its problems. EBC is in an initial trial period and has to be improved, not extinguished. We do need public communication, it is important to make a better democracy, but not a broadcast connected to the federal government. I believe that the EBC’s legacy is to bring this debate to the table,” he says.

Read the full story NOW!

BY Natália Tomé Scalzaretto

Natália Tomé Scalzaretto has worked for companies such as Santander Brasil and Reuters, where she covered news ranging from commodities to technology. Most recently, worked as an Editor for Trading News, the information division from TradersClub investor community.