Thursday, November 28, 2013

Quality Public Broadcasting as a Thing of the Past

In social democracies it has been the norm for the entertainment airwaves to be controlled and utilized by the national government. First radio and then television broadcast over-the-air were, everywhere outside the USA, managed by a government-sponsored and publicly-funded broadcasting authority. Even when private broadcast networks became legal and began offering their own programming to owners of receiving equipment, public broadcasting continued. Thus the major Commonwealth countries all still have a public broadcaster - the BBC, ABC, CBC, and so on.

These state-managed broadcasting authorities were initially organized around what has often been called the Reith Doctrine, after Lord Reith, the first Director-General of the BBC. Reith summarized the BBC's purpose in three words: educate, inform, entertain; this remains part of that organization's mission statement to this day.  This credo has also been adopted by broadcasters throughout the world, notably the donation-funded Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) in the United States. The term 'Reithianism' speaks to equal consideration of all viewpoints, probity, universality and a commitment to public service. This contrasts with a free-market approach to broadcasting, where programming aims to attract the largest audiences or advertising revenues.

What we have had in Canada since the turn of this century is the worst of all broadcasting worlds, a publicly-funded national broadcaster, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC), that has been ruined by managers who have attempted by abandoning Reithianism to compete unsuccessfully with our nation's private broadcasters.  Recently control of the broadcasting of our national sport, ice hockey, whose professional teams were a mainstay of CBC television, has been lost to a private network. This has prompted a long overdue howl of outrage over how badly the CBC is being managed and how far from quality broadcasting it has strayed.

While, as in the links above, much of the current umbrage is focused around televised programming, the same sins are true for the radio programming of the CBC and Radio Canada (its French language operation). It can be argued that radio is still as or more influential than television in cementing a sense of national identity across such a vast country (one only exceeded in size by the Russian Federation).  On CBC broadcast radio, talk has been dumbed down and professionally knowledgeable presenters replaced by 'celebrities', many of whom are barely articulate. Quality music like classical and jazz, once the mainstay of public radio, has largely been sloughed off to a morass of cheap and unexplained internet channels. Advertising commercials, long a mainstay of CBC TV, are now also appearing on CBC radio broadcasts, which used to brag they were 'commercial-free'.

Locally here in Southern Ontario educational and commercial-free TV is available still through a provincial government and donation-funded channel (TV Ontario) and from a PBS broadcaster just across the US border, one that also provides commercial-free and well-curated classical music radio programming.  What a shame that Canada's largest urban region should have to rely solely on our province's government and a US-based station for material that doesn't treat us all as airheads with virtually no attention span!


  1. Ian,your comments on the CBC are right on and compliment the op-ed column in the Globe this morning. Keep it up your blogs are most enjoyable

  2. I think you are being a tad unfair to the CBC, which actually has some great shows and a level of investigative journalism that is unparalleled at the other Canadian TV networks. There is some credit due to them. They might not be perfect, there may be lots of room for improvement and renewal, especially now that Rogers has bought off the NHL for hockey rights in Canada. Personally, I'm always glad for CBC when I watch the Fifth Estate, the National, Marketplace, and smart sit-coms (short-lived as they might be) like Michael: Tuesdays and Thursdays. On radio, I like Q with Jiam Ghomeshi, the Strombo Show, and enjoyed Ron Sexsmith's Playlist the other night. If the for-profit networks got their way, CBC would be gone and so would these kinds of programs.

  3. Michelle has nicely identified some of the finer things that can still be found on our national public broadcaster. During the disruptive years of the now-departed CBC top management, a group that chose to ape the for-profit sector, some quality programming surfaced as, indeed, it regularly does on the commercial networks.

    As a letter writer in today's Globe and Mail points out, much of the criticism of the CBC is not focusing on the core problem of its funding. A doctrinaire national government, one that sees public broadcasting as a vehicle for left-of-centre propaganda, has been starving CBC/Radio Canada financially for some years. This has forced the broadcaster to rely on advertising more and more.

    As a consequence the CBC has chosen to move down market and eliminate niche programming that it feels doesn't or won't attract a large following. These TV viewers are not generally those seeking enlightening or challenging programming of the type still to be seen on TV Ontario or PBS TV. Sadly much of our nation does not get TV Ontario or is too far away from the PBS transmitters in border states.

    The solution is unclear beyond going back to doing what most developed countries do and restore full tax funding. The British solution of a TV viewing fee won't work here - it survives for the BBC only because that public broadcaster is demonstrably a world-leader in broadcasting and in consequence makes a lot of money from overseas sales.

    While the distinguished TV critic John Doyle argues in today's newspaper that the advertising/public-funding mix is here to stay, for me he does not make a convincing case that it does or can produce distinctive and nation-building programming that speaks to what is best in its viewers and listeners. That needs serious dough plus a willingness to lead and not follow.

    It also requires the CBC's masters (our politicians) to accept that it is the quality of viewer and listener-ship, and not the number of them, that is the object of the exercise. Get back towards Lord Reith and leave the lowest common denominator category to the advertising channels.

    In a spread-out country like ours we have an obligation to thinkers and reflective persons who choose to live out in the boondocks to provide them with a minimum of local programming that appeals. Otherwise we perpetuate the city-centric view that bright people don't live in wilderness.


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