Saturday, June 24, 2006

Why public broadcasting should remain public.

Some hack in the National Post argues that the CBC should be made into a pay-TV channel. About half the argument really hangs together. Certainly, the CBC shouldn't be run like a private broadcaster -- it shouldn't be contingent on having to suck up to advertisers in order to keep itself afloat, for it should be directed towards creating quality programming. However, this same argument tells against making it a pay-TV channel. Making the CBC a pay channel (or a series of pay channels) would, first, make the CBC completely elitist instead of genuinely public -- many thousands of Canadians simply cannot afford pay-TV channels; and, second, would require CBC management to suck up to pay-TV subscribers and providers instead of advertisers -- changing masters without disposing of masters altogther.

If public broadcasting's mission is to produce good television (which, plausibly, it is), it should not be beholden to any particular master -- neither the market, nor the public, nor pay-TV subscribers, nor advertisers. Instead, (1) its funding should be guaranteed. Also, in order to ensure that the CBC doesn't become entirely insulated from any evaluation,(2)it should be overseen by a board of people who are competent judges of good television. For example, The Canada Council for the Arts.

Of course, I'm not surprised to see the National Disgrace trying to covertly shove the CBC out the door, under the guise of cutting a reasonable middle course. Turning the CBC into a pay-TV channel would get it out from under the mandate of the federal government, and leave it free to fail to attract any sort of an audience, thus slowly failing and fading. The fact is, despite the patina of vague plausibility to the argument, there is no reasonable middle course. Either Canada is serious about having a public broadcaster which produces quality television -- television that needs to be made, regardless of how many people immediately want to watch it -- or Canada is not. If it is, then this broadcaster needs funding not tied to fluctuations in preference and money, it needs to be accessible to everyone with a TV set, and it needs to be held to reasonable standards (i.e., standards of quality not standards of popularity). On the other hand, if Canada is not, then we should not pretend otherwise, and just get rid of the CBC now.

Personally, the value of public broadcasting as a bastion against the onslaught of privately-funded, ratings-hungry pablum is almost self-evident. So, I favour (1) and (2) above. Both could be guaranteed by Act of Parliament, or simply dropped into the Constitution by amendment. (The Constitution already guarantees Catholic school boards (see s.93, if I read it correctly), so why not the CBC? Or universal health care, for that matter -- but that's another post.)

The point is, there's really no good argument for the CBC to chase ratings. But there's also no good argument to keep it dependent on pleasing people for its funds. It serves a valuable social purpose, regardless of how much money it makes.


Anonymous said...

Agreed. The problem is that most people (seemingly) don't really like quality television. I say seemingly because in the US we don't have any real quality news channels; PBS and CSPAN are the only ones which come close.

I personally think there'd be a strong market for a good TV channel which had people discussing serious issues with serious fact-checking. Too bad I can't raise the capital to get one going (would be easier to do it as an internet show). It takes mental effort to do such shows - people who are able to pull together that much thinking at one time are rare. So today we have news that is sensationalized, trite, and reactive.

ADHR said...

And then, of course, there's the vicious circle: since the news is sensationalized, etc. it creates a preference for even more sensationalized news, which results in greater sensationalism, which results in a greater preference, and so on.

I tend to think it's a matter of encouraging the preference for better stuff. To take a tangential example, a preference for low-fat, organic, etc. foods can be created in children if that's all they have access to. If this is a general model of preference formation, it then suggests that children, at least, can be trained to prefer better television.

Of course, then the problem of what to do with adults rears its head. Limiting their choices should only be done under pretty restricted circumstances.