On Thursday, October 4th, MLI hosted its first Great Canadian Debate of the season, Resolved: Canada no longer needs the CBC. The opening statements from debaters Andrew Coyne and Mark Starowicz were published in the Ottawa Citizen. A video archive of the debate will be available courtesy of CPAC (details to follow). Read the opening statements below:
A flagship public broadcaster is no longer relevant in the digital age, writes Andrew Coyne
By Andrew Coyne, Ottawa Citizen, October 5, 2012
Editor’s note: Thursday night at the Canadian War Museum, in a debate hosted by the Macdonald-Laurier Institute, sponsored by the Ottawa Citizen and moderated by Michael Bliss, Postmedia columnist Andrew Coyne and CBC documentary programming director Mark Starowicz debated the resolution, ‘Canada no longer needs the CBC.’ Coyne’s opening argument is here.
This is not an argument about the quality of the CBC. It’s not very good, but not much television is. It is an argument about its necessity: whether, in the 21st century, we still need a publicly funded national television network.
The question of necessity is an important one. If we use up scarce tax dollars on things that could be funded in other ways, we leave less room for the things that can only be funded through taxes.
There was a time when the CBC was necessary. Television’s first decades were characterized by two things: one, with broadcast spectrum in short supply, there were very few channels; and two, there was no way to charge viewers a price for the signal they received, and to exclude those who did not pay from receiving it.
Broadcasters coped with the second constraint by selling advertising on their networks. But this had an unfortunate consequence. It biased programming decisions in favour of the largest audience — as if we’d held a vote on what to watch.
Because there was no price attached to television signals, there was no way for viewers to indicate the intensity of their preferences: whether they were very keen to watch one show and only sort of interested in another. All that advertisers knew or cared about was which show they were watching.
The result was drearily familiar: a lot of programs that all looked the same, all aimed at the lowest common denominator. You didn’t like that kind of programming? Tough. You took what the majority wanted. Critics wrongly assumed that was just how things worked, the inevitable consequence of entrusting culture to “the market.”
But this is not how most markets work, nor is there such a thing as “the market.” For any given good, there are many markets, for many different tastes. If I want a suit, I can buy the mass market one, or a more expensive one, or if my tastes are really rarefied, I can have one handmade. I don’t have to have what the majority wants. I can have what I want.
Hence the case for public funding — not to dictate people’s viewing choices, but precisely to mimic the diversity of choices on display in a well functioning market.
But now? Today, spectrum scarcity is no longer an issue: there are literally hundreds of channels. And not only can you pay for each channel, but in many cases you can pay for each program. The case for public broadcasting has collapsed.
You can see this in the kinds of programming on offer. The traditional, “free” networks are as bad as ever — worse, in fact. But on the pay channels, you can find programming to suit every taste, high or low, broad or narrow. It’s not true any longer, if it ever was, that the best programming is on public television. HBO, in particular, produces some of the finest shows in the world. It turns out a demanding, discerning audience — a paying audience — can be at least as good a partner in the artistic process as any granting agency.
At a bare minimum, then, I would put the CBC on pay. It could still be a public broadcaster, but one funded by its audience rather than the taxpayers. If its viewers are as devoted as claimed, they should be happy to pay. Or if it’s too much to ask people to pay the full cost of a flagship, all-purpose channel they might only watch a couple of hours a week, then it could continue down the path defined by CBC News Network, and divide itself into a constellation of specialty channels: CBC Arts, CBC Sports, etc.
That would be better for taxpayers, for viewers, and, I’d argue, for the CBC itself. Freed from dependence either on the whims of advertisers or the shifting winds of political favour, it could concentrate its efforts where they should be, on its audience.
And if this were 10 years ago, that’s where the argument would end. But in that time television has entered a second technological revolution, more profound than the first. With the advent of digital video and its distribution over the Internet, all of the traditional boundaries and definitions have broken down. Example: newspapers are increasingly in the video business, as CBC is increasingly in the print, or at least text business. Example: small independent, often amateur, video producers have acquired enormous followings online, while traditional broadcasters have seen their audience shares dwindle.
Already many people are “cutting the cord,” abandoning both network television and cable in favour of online streaming video distributors like Netflix and Hulu. Now look forward a little. In a year, maybe two, Apple will bring out a new version of Apple TV, doing to television what it did to the music business. And if Apple doesn’t do it, somebody else will.
There aren’t going to be such things as channels — separate, sequential streams of programs you watch at a particular time. You’ll turn on your TV and see a screenful of icons representing your favourite shows. How far off is that? Consider that YouTube is six years old. Hulu is five. Netflix, in its current incarnation, is four. Boxee, one of the new breed of hybrid media services, is two. Which is to say not new, but old. And we’re still debating whether to fund a flagship broadcast network?
I’ve laid out why I think public funding of television is no longer necessary. But even if you don’t buy that, even if you think we still need public funding — does it make any sense to deliver it through one network? With all of its overhead, and all of its distribution costs? One tiny pinprick in an ever-expanding universe of television options? Or would it not be better to fund television productions, that could appear anywhere, on any platform, via any distributor? The Telefilm model, in other words — though I’d abolish Telefilm, too.
Change is coming. Change — vast, torrential, landscape-shifting change — is here. The only question is whether the CBC will get out front of it, or be dragged along and chewed up in its wake. There are a lot of good people at the CBC. No doubt Canadians will still want to watch the programs they produce. But Canada no longer needs the CBC.
Andrew Coyne is a national affairs columnist for Postmedia.
More than ever we need an honest player in the media universe to serve the specific needs of Canadians, writes Mark Starowicz
By Mark Starowicz, Ottawa Citizen, October 4, 2012
We needed it in 1932, when we were being flooded by the tide of American radio, and there were virtually no Canadian programs being produced. A Conservative prime minister, R.B. Bennett, rose in the House of Commons to say: “This country must be assured of complete Canadian control of broadcasting from Canadian sources, free from foreign interference or influence. … No other scheme than that of public ownership can ensure to the people of this country, without regard to class or place, equal enjoyment of the benefits and pleasures of broadcasting.”
The Canadian Radio Broadcasting Act of 1932 is the constitution of Canada’s cultural sovereignty, the declaration that the population north of the 49th parallel had decided it would have its own culture, cover its own news, produce its own programs.
We needed the CBC even more 20 years later when the next technological revolution, television, brought the second flood of American programming, and the Hon. Lionel Chevrier, minister of transport, rose in the Commons in 1952:
“It is perfect nonsense for anyone to suggest that private enterprise in Canada, left to itself, will provide Canadian programs. People who invest their money … will certainly invest it where it will make the most profit — by importing American programs.”
We needed the CBC in the 1970s when the satellite and cable revolution came, which defied any borders and brought in more American competition, and we need it even more today, in the digital revolution and the Internet age.
Every time there has been a technological revolution in broadcasting — cable, satellite, Internet — the same lobby gets up and says, “Oh, well, that’s it, we have all these choices, we no longer need the CBC.”
Why are they doing this? It’s not as if we’re preventing them from making hundreds of millions by importing U.S. programs. It’s because they don’t want the expense of having to produce Canadian ones. And they don’t want Canadian programs competing against them.
Private radio in Canada had to be forced to run Canadian music — the rule became that one third of the music had to be Canadian. God, how they howled, warning that Canadian music was third rate. Yet that simple rule created the flowering of the Canadian music industry and made possible stars like Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, and Gordon Lightfoot. In a 1971 speech, Pierre Juneau said Canada’s cultural identity was at stake. “To obliterate real works of the Canadian imagination is to obliterate ourselves.”
The rule in television became that 50 per cent of the content in prime time be Canadian. And on the private television channels, it is. Barely. Here’s how they do it: the CRTC’s “evening viewing period” is between six and midnight. So most conventional private channels run their news in the early evening, when everyone is having supper, followed at 7 by inexpensive Canadian programs like eTalk. At the other end of the night, they run late-evening news between 11 and midnight. In other words, where they will do the least possible damage to revenue from American shows.
But the real core of prime time, when most Canadians are watching television is between eight and 10. So let’s look at an average week this fall between eight and 10 and see who’s running how much Canadian content. On CBC, 94 per cent of deep prime was Canadian. City TV was 18 per cent. CTV’s second channel was 14 per cent. Global, 7 per cent. CTV’s main channel had 0 per cent.
I repeat, CBC 94 per cent. We don’t have to be forced to run Canadian programs. It’s what the CBC is for. Programs like Heartland, Republic of Doyle, Arctic Air, Little Mosque on the Prairie. Programs that are rooted in Canadian places, with Canadian stories. Let’s broaden out from drama.
No longer need the CBC? Well, half of what we do is news and information. How will Canadian journalism, public discourse, our democracy, be improved by shutting down network programs like The National, the fifth estate, The Nature of Things, Doc Zone and Marketplace? How will democracy and discourse be improved in Quebec by killing Téléjournal, Découverte, Enquête and RDI, thereby yielding most French-language broadcast news to one conglomerate, Quebecor/Videotron? These English and French network flagships wouldn’t exist in a stripped-down subscription-only specialty channel universe that my opponent, Andrew Coyne, advocates.
Neither would CBC local and regional news. How will our lives improve by shutting down all the local newscasts in Vancouver … in Calgary, in Rimouski, in St. John’s? Newsrooms in 16 English and 13 French television stations across Canada, 36 English radio stations and 20 French, as well as news in eight aboriginal languages.
There is a dangerous concentration of media in this country. Newspaper and television stations have been bought up by a few huge, vertically integrated, conglomerates that control the creation of information and entertainment, as well as its distribution through satellite, cable and digital specialty channels, not to mention newspapers and magazines. And these conglomerates are vastly larger than the CBC. We are a significantly smaller medium player in the industry
Without the CBC, Canadian information and entertainment would be concentrated into five giant regional near-monopolies. Without the CBC, there would not be a single player of any scale that produces Canadian programming because that’s its mandate, not because it’s extracted from them as a condition for making profits.
At various times, Coyne has written that “recent years have already witnessed a sharp decline in the amount of time watching television” and that it “is losing market share to the Internet, DVDs and other competing claims on people’s time.” He’s wrong. Viewing levels have not gone down, they’ve been steady for 12 years. Television is not a sunset industry, or why would these conglomerates be vying to amass stations? What is happening is that people are using the Internet more and more, yes, but watching as much television as before on top of that. It’s like the home video revolution — it didn’t kill viewing in cinemas, it added to it.
Coyne has argued that the CBC should be replaced by “a constellation” of specialty channels, each charging a separate fee. So, effectively, shatter the CBC into a collection of fragments and charge specialty channel prices. This is the “condo” solution. Kick out the people living in a housing estate that’s owned by the city, convert the building into tiny condos and sell them at exorbitant rates.
CBC isn’t standing still on the digital revolution. On the contrary, it is the cutting-edge leader in bringing programming to new platforms, from Internet streaming to mobile phones. But we’re not going to abandon the 19 million people who turn to us each month and fragment ourselves into a hundred tiny, private and tollgated entities that don’t serve Canadians equally.
One honest player in the industry, Mr. Coyne. Let’s have one honest player who will produce news for more than profit, who will investigate wrongdoing, who will produce the history of Canada, who will serve people in the communities in which they live, even if it’s unprofitable, who will produce children’s programs not just for the toy industry, and who will nurture our music, our literature and our arts. And a player who speaks to the whole world, bringing Canadian stories to the new digital universe.
I’m all for choice. But if there are hardly any Canadian options on the menu, then it’s the freedom of false choices.
At home, we need a national meeting place. In the Global Village, sir, we are going to need an address.
Mark Starowicz, a writer, director and producer, is executive director of Documentary Programming for CBC Television.