A future for the CBC: multi-channel, subscription-based

On what to do with the public broadcaster

A future for the CBC: multi-channel, subscription-basedLast night on the CBC, we discussed … the CBC. (As, it seems, are a lot of people these days.) I got a little tongue-tied, possibly due to the effects of an unfortunate haircut, but here are the points I would have made if we’d had the time and I’d had the presence of mind…

– The CBC is caught in a perpetual dilemma: whether to be an elite service providing programs presumably too high-brow for the private networks, or a broad, inclusive service that draws the nation together around the televisual hearth. It has traditionally resolved this conflict by being neither. It has not produced consistently high-quality programming, and has seen its average audience share dwindle over the years.

– The current leadership has tilted strongly to the populist option, offering fare that is often indistinguishable from what’s on the private networks (what is Jeopardy!). While this strategy has broadened the corporation’s audience somewhat — ratings have been rising in the last couple of years, to 8.7% of prime time viewers — it has only made its existential dilemma more acute: If there was ever a case for public funding, it was to produce programming that the private networks wouldn’t.

– You could make that case in television’s technological infancy, when it was impossible to charge audiences directly for the programs they watched. Selling advertising was one solution to this problem. Public funding was the other, one that many people came to prefer as the failings of the advertising model became clear. That is, there was no way to measure the intensity of viewer preferences — how much they wanted to watch a show, not just whether they had the set tuned to it. So advertising buys, and therefore programming decisions, were biased to the median viewer, ie to the largest number of eyeballs. Instead of selling programs to viewers, television networks sold audiences to advertisers.

– This tended to produce a lot of very safe, very similar programming, all aimed at the same mass audience, and as such gave private TV a bad name — an example, it was said, of the philistinism of “the market,” viz. you and me. But in fact it’s not true of “the market.” It’s only true of TV. In most markets, there is an almost limitless variety of tastes served, from high to low, narrow to broad. You don’t have to take what the largest possible audience wants when it comes to, say, sweaters. You can buy a cheap mass-market sweater, or an expensive designer item. If your tastes are very particular, you can have one hand made.

– So the case for public funding (and, analogously, regulation) was not to supplant the market, but to create one: to replicate that diversity that exists in most other markets in the supply of television programming. That’s why it is so contradictory to have advertising on CBC TV: if there’s one thing that everybody should agree on, it’s that the Corpse has to kick the advertising habit.

– But public funding has its own problems. One, it has proved notoriously unstable: if advertising revenues expose the CBC to the ups and downs of the business cycle, public funding leaves it hostage to the whims of its political masters. And two, it insulates the network from any direct connection with the audience: if advertising finance biases programming to the largest audience, public funding obviates the necessity of reaching an audience at all. Rather, it too often serves the interests and values of the people who produce it.

– With the advent of pay-TV, and now pay-per-view and video-on-demand, that dilemma has been resolved: viewers can pay directly for the programs they want to watch.

– And passionate, paying viewers, it turns out, are the key to excellence. I can pull a dozen shows at random out of the TV listings, and I’d challenge anyone to say whether they were on private or public TV. The much greater signifier these days is between conventional “free” TV and the cable/pay channels, like HBO. That’s where the best TV is being produced these days, specialty pay channels catering to all sorts of different tastes, in a way that would once have been associated with public TV.

– So there is no longer any necessity for public funding, and lots of reasons to want to get rid of it — the first being its lack of necessity (logic suggests we should reserve scarce public dollars for those things that cannot be paid for in any other way. See Coyne’s Third Law: “government should only do what only government can do.”)

However…. Even if you still think there’s a case for public funding of TV, the time has surely come to reconsider the CBC model, ie as a full-service, “flagship” broadcaster. It makes no sense to aim all these public dollars at one spot on the dial, where they can be so easily avoided.

– So — a couple of alternative models to consider. One would just be to funnel all public funding through Telefilm, ie to fund programs, rather than networks, on the principle that we want to see “Canadian stories” (I don’t, but supposing I did) at any point on the dial, not just on the CBC.

– The other would be to put the CBC on pay, as Newsworld is currently. I don’t think you could get enough people to pay enough money to support the existing CBC network. But if you divided up the network into several specialty channels — Artsworld, Sportsworld etc — you could probably persuade people to pay the smaller fees they would presumably require. As a transitional measure, you could put these channels on the basic service tier, meaning cable (and satellite) subscribers would be obliged to pay for them, but with the understanding that at some point viewers would be given a choice whether to subscribe or not. It’s interesting in this regard to note the current management’s addition of several channels to the CBC’s portfolio.

– At the very least, subscription fees should be used to get advertising off the CBC. But it could and should also replace some or all of the funding it receives from the government. Perhaps there are some purely public services it performs that its viewers should not be asked to fund. But generally speaking there is no longer any public good case for public funding: that is for making everyone else pay so that the CBC’s supporters don’t have to.

– It’s traditional at this point to make an exception for CBC radio, and I suppose I could as well. It doesn’t take advertising, its audience seems to care more about it, and it doesn’t cost all that much. But satellite and internet radio is making the case for CBC Radio largely obsolete as well. You can find just about every conceivable form of programming on the ‘net, with lots of Canadian content. So I’d make the case for reforming CBC radio as well, though with rather less urgency.

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