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A Lame Senate Report on the CBC's Future

07/28/2015 12:37 EDT | Updated 07/28/2016 05:59 EDT
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Early in the twentieth century, the American journalist Walter Lippmann and the philosopher John Dewey butted heads over how a modern democracy could possibly govern itself, given that so few citizens had the time, ability, or inclination to study the complex issues of the day. For Lippmann, the only non-violent answer lay in governance by an intellectual and technical elite that would rule, in the public interest, on the basis of "manufactured consent," a consensus built around "necessary illusions" created at election times using the tools of modern propaganda.

Dewey was not ready to give up on the people, and advocated an enhanced public sphere. Here, citizens could learn about the issues from informed journalists, dramatists, artists and other impartial purveyors of information, and debate among themselves, forming a truly democratic consensus that would determine the outcome of electoral contests.

In the tormented history of the intervening century, both Lippmann's despairing views and Dewey's more optimistic outlook have had their moments of popularity and plausibility. But it is Dewey's confidence in people's ability to engage in critical, reflective thought and dialogue that is central to the idea of public broadcasting. It is the role of a public broadcaster like the CBC to ensure that public space, free of both state and commercial vested interests and their propaganda, is made available so that citizen-democrats can constructively tackle the difficult problems facing their nation. Private, commercial media may play a part in providing that democratic public space, but only a public broadcaster can be counted on to serve Dewey's informed and alert citizens, rather than the crafters of necessary illusions and the manufacturers of consent.

Forgive the history lesson, but this is the kind of broad issue the Canadian public had a right to expect would be seriously engaged when the Senate committee on transportation and communication set out in 2013 to plot a future for the nation's public broadcaster. The committee issued its report on the CBC/Radio-Canada last week, after a year and a half of hearings here and abroad. It has been almost universally condemned as, in a word, lame.

Recommendation 18 (of 22) is representative: it proposes that "CBC focus on showing high-quality programs that are unlikely to be offered by commercial broadcasters."

As someone who has spent a lifetime engaged in broadcasting in one form or another, I would argue that this includes just about everything, from news to comedy and drama. And that far from "discontinuing all in-house production of non-news and current affairs programming" (recommendation 21) the CBC must dramatically ramp up its production of authentic Canadian content in all genres.

Why? The answer is blatantly obvious (but a bit tedious). It goes like this.

Commercial broadcasters, whatever media platform they happen to occupy, exist to make money for their owners. The laws of the market economy dictate that if they don't succeed in that goal, they don't stay in business.

Commercial broadcasters, it follows, measure their success in terms of how much money they make.

Whether or not they make a lot of money is only tangentially connected with the quality of the programming they produce. Often, there is a reverse correlation, as with "if it bleeds, it leads" newscasts, crummy reality shows and drama saturated with gratuitous sex and violence.

What is directly linked to the financial success of commercial broadcasters is how well they please their advertiser-clients. This means gathering big audiences with a desirable demographic profile. These days, those audiences are assembled not just in front of television sets (or radios), but also via online databases where individuals' internet use is methodically tracked. Automated big-data processes pull together virtual audiences for advertisers, based on user profiles, and contextual advertising appears as if by magic everywhere from users' email to their favourite news sites, to social media.

If commercial media judge success in terms of making a profit, how do they measure quality? (Warning to senators: this is a trick question.)

To judge the quality of an industry's products, it's obviously important to know what the product is. The auto industry makes cars; customers make judgments about the quality of those cars.

The product the commercial broadcasting industry produces is audiences, which are sold to advertisers. Advertisers make judgments about the quality of those audiences, and based on those judgments decide whether or not to buy ad space. We already know what a quality audience is: it's as big as possible, and it has the right demographics.

Oh, and there's one other characteristic of quality in audiences that's important to advertisers, and therefore to broadcasters. And that is the cost, or selling price. Whenever the cost involved in assembling a quality audience can be forced down, both the broadcaster and the advertiser benefit.

It seems like a win-win, then, when reality programs replace more expensive scripted drama, or sensation-and-mayhem newscasts replace more responsible, but costly, journalism. But of course, there is a loser: the audience.

Oh, yeah. The audience.

The audience that is part-consumer, but also part-citizen. The audience that, as citizen, needs access to rational, responsible public debate in public spaces, as Dewey argued.

As the lives of individual audience members are enriched by their consumption of high-quality media, so is the collective life of the community. It's exactly the same argument that's been used forever to justify public expenditure on education at every level, and on public medicare.

Why, then, do so many of us, and not just Conservative senators, find it so difficult to accept the idea of spending public money (okay, "our tax dollars," if you prefer) to get high-quality media? After all, we benefit as individuals whether or not we watch or listen, because we end up living in a better informed, more civil, more cultured community.

Private broadcasters have argued for decades that it's only elitists who care about the quality of commercial programming. They like to accuse public broadcasting's advocates of pushing wall-to-wall ballet, opera, and professorial snooze-fests. They also like to claim that the quality of their programming, in the eyes of their audiences, is amply demonstrated by the fact that those programs get watched, sometimes by large numbers of people.

Their argument goes like this: Why do so many people watch our programs? Because they're good. How do we know they're good? Because a lot of people watch--the ratings tell us so.

Of course this is specious reasoning, proving nothing about anything. Audiences get to watch only what's on the menu, and we have no idea how often their actual preference would be for something else. Something better. Nevertheless our own public broadcaster, the CBC, has come to accept this formula both as a measure of its business success, and its success in producing quality programming.

It's time to end this perverse nonsense, to put CBC television back on the rails producing objectively high-quality programs to serve audiences both as citizens and consumers, enriching rather than impoverishing their lives.

We know how to accomplish this: the senate committee archives are stuffed with sane, solid suggestions, almost none of which showed up in the report released last week. Yes, it will cost some money, but what price do we put on the maintenance of democratic values, the spread of education, and the promotion of cultural literacy?

We can boost CBC funding to the average of OECD nations with a small tax on revenues of our big, integrated broadcast, cable and internet conglomerates--Rogers, Bell, Shaw, Quebecor and the others. We can reorganize CBC governance by appointing a board of directors of qualified men and women through an arms-length process (there are several well-tested options), and then have the Board hire the corporation president. This will take these appointments out of the hands of the Prime Minister's office, and thus help preserve the broadcaster's independence.

And above all, we can take the CBC out of commercial sponsorship, on all platforms, once and for all. Taken together these actions would provide both the necessary and sufficient conditions for rebuilding a public broadcasting service to make the nation proud.

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