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Friday, August 25, 2006

By special request: Imagining a CBC-Free Canada 

Yay! I plan to use my share of the returned tax dollars to buy a video game.

Well, more seriously, Darren Barefoot asked a serious question: he was wondering how Conservatives (which, rightly or wrongly, he seems to be imagining as opponents of the CBC in general.

Well, I guess I'll do: pretty definitively conservative (both upper- and lowercase "C"), and I don't think much of the CBC.

When I started to think about this note, I came up with the first three good Canadian TV shows I could. The list was Corner Gas, Trailer Park Boys, and HNIC.

The first two air on CTV and Showcase, respectively. The third consists of content by the NHL, Cherry and MacLean, and whatever standard-def cameras they deem Vancouver worthy of. If the whole thing was moved to TSN, the main change I'd expect is that on Saturday nights, I'd have half a chance of seeing the Canucks play in HD. I'm pretty sure Don Cherry will be on TV no matter whose tubes the NHL travels to get to my eyeballs.

Regarding the absurd arguments around "media concentration," "lack of viewpoints," "Foxification" or Clear-Channelization, I can say only this: when is the last time you watched a TV newscast? Except for Greek-language newscasts while at my in-laws, I can't remember. Compared to the immediacy, diversity, accessibility, depth, and breadth of news from text-based sources (mainly but not exclusively online), The TV can't compete with text, because I (and almost certainly you) can read faster than a reporter can speak. For those rare moments which are decisively visual, the web is pretty good at moving short video clips these days.

So the CBC's entertainment shows are unmemorable, I don't watch anybody's TV news, it galls me that I'm paying taxes for this, and it has ads as well. What, exactly, is the argument in favour of CBC? What is the argument for the CBC that argues against a state-funded newspaper? As a marginal use of tax dollars, the output of the Corpse ranks somewhere between giving away Canadian flags and magazine subsidies.

I'd hesitantly concede that CBC Radio may be able to make a case for its existence, as a marginal-value proposition. It's much cheaper than the TV network, and I am an audience of one who is personally highly susceptible to the charms of programming consisting of classical music and talk radio. It's two of the three stations I'm most likely to listen to in the car (because I can't safely read while driving). That's not an argument for a subsidized radio network, it's more an argument that CBC Radio is attractive to a certain set of middle-class aesthetes. Thus Canadian unity?

So here's my deal for the CBC: give up on TV now, and you can keep the radio network and website until they start sucking.

Comments:
"What, exactly, is the argument in favour of CBC? What is the argument for the CBC that argues against a state-funded newspaper?"

The difference in barriers to entry, perhaps?
 
I've got your barriers to entry right here!

I'm not entirely kidding, either: web-distribution of certain types of video is moving from terrible to functional before our eyes, and a precious few are making a living at it. Even production-grade HD content creation has gone from really stupidly expensive to pricey hobby in the last few years: For what I spend on bike racing, I could be doing HD video.

Meanwhile, newspaper printing requires a whole level of infrastructure that video does not. The web is taking over newspaper functions either slowly or quickly, but if you want to put a piece of paper on my doorstep, it will cost you a lot more than getting a piece of video in front of my eyeballs.
 
My original comment had some dismissal of Youtube, which is AFAIK unprofitable at the moment, depends on the large-scale broadband adoption that certainly wasn't true even five years ago. Guess I shouldn't have deleted it.

Surely the Tyee, or 24 Hours, or Metro News, or Kevin Potvin's Republic paper indicate getting into the newspaper biz isn't absurdly impossible either.

But in any case, distribution isn't the only barrier to entry in the video world.

(All this said, I can't honestly say I watch much CBC or Canadian television at all. I do like Newsworld's "Passionate Eye" series on occasion.)

BTW, about ads: well, would you rather have the BBC's immensely higher taxation rate? Or PBS's telethons combined with ads-they-don't-call-ads?
 
What, exactly, is the argument in favour of the CBC?

I'm not sure if the argument in favour is the same as the legislated mandate of the organization, but it would a worthwhile exercise reading the Broadcasting Act of 1991 to familiarize yourself with the purpose of the nation's broadcaster, Mr Cousineau.

With those terms of reference in place, then can one ask whether or not the mandate is meaningful, achievable, relevant, etc. and whether or not CBC is doing what it says it should be doing.

That's perhaps a different discussion than, "I don't like their programming, it sucks, therefore it has to go."

In terms of the political stance with regards to "it bugs me that my tax dollars go into things that don't serve my self-interest," I suppose that's at the crux of a great deal of many political arguments amongst those of left and right wing persuasions.

I am not an anarcho capitalist (I'm not sure you are either, Ryan) and do not believe that the provision of social services should be a matter of voluntary private contracts. No, I concede that my tax dollars go to things I may never derive any personal benefit from. This redistribution of wealth and resources includes the CBC in my world.

And as one of your middle class aesthetes, I also happen to enjoy the CBC and its radio, TV, and Internet programming (ie: "No, they don't suck, so it should stay.") Examples: The National, CBC Newsworld, The Passionate Eye, Massey Lectures, Ideas, Radio 3 [podcasts anyone?], Rick Mercer, The Newsroom and at an earlier time in my life things like Kids in the Hall, Mr Dressup, The Friendly Giant, Fraggle Rock, Video Hits, etc.

I've found it to be "predominantly and distinctively Canadian" and in my above example, the CBC was able to "provide radio and television services incorporating a wide range of programming that informs, enlightens and entertains," thereby meeting its mandate in my eyes.

I also believe that in a for-profit, privately owned broadcast model a lot of that content would not have been produced and delivered. For profit models mean delivering low-cost content for high return. And with the largest producer in the world of low-cost media/information/entertainment content a mere 40km south from where I'm typing, why should we expect for profit media companies to behave any differently than other profit-driven organizations.

They make sneakers cheaper in China? Bring it on. Cheap media products from the USA? Here comes A-Team re-runs!

I've got 5 years of thinking about this stuff in university bursting at the seams here and there's no way I'm going to be able to get it out of my head and into your comment box in a coherent manner. Nor do I think I can persuade you on your aesthetic sensibilities. If you like Corner Gas and I think it sucks... well then... that's not a very exciting argument and I can recognize off the bat that there's probably better uses of both our time.

Off to bed before Northern Lights comes on Radio 1....
 
Man, this is why I love writing this. I may only have an audience of 20, but I have the 20 best readers around!

Gord: You are of course compelled to write this up on your blog when you can. I look forward to reading it!

I got as far as 3.1.d.iii in the Broadcasting Act before I melted down with impatient fury. I'm not an anarcho-capitalist, as you correctly guessed, but the phrase "through its programming and the employment opportunities arising out of its operations, serve the needs and interests, and reflect the circumstances and aspirations, of Canadian men, women and children..." came pretty close to making me buy gold bars and run up a pirate flag on the spot. I'll have to work through the rest when I'm not finishing my Barcamp presentation :(.

In the meantime, my other readers my savour the irony that Gord is the one who owns his own company, and I am the one who takes home a public-sector paycheck. And yes, I do burn with shame every day, thank you very much for asking. But the vacation time is great.

Andrew: you're right that YouTube has its issues (though I wonder if Google sidesteps same by already having lots and lots of bandwidth, and an AdWords-based business case for those videos). And it's true that five years ago, YouTube would have been impossible. Doesn't that mean that we needed CBC then but not now? Let the dismantling begin! You take HNIC, I'll work on the "Wind at my Back" reruns.

By mentioning stuff like the Tyee, you have seen through my evil attempt to blur the issues of production and distribution. It is pretty easy to get a newspaper set up at various scales, as you point out with your examples. But TV stations are easy to create, too: relatively new CRTC rules say, roughly, that if you want to put a new station on digital cable and satellite, they don't much care how you do that. And of course, you can just webcast or podcast and be limited only by the quality of your work.

This is great stuff! Far better, more thoughtful commentary than is happening on Darren's post, frankly! I love you guys!
 
Doesn't that mean that we needed CBC then but not now?

If you consider Youtube a viable replacement for Shaw Cable*, or Blogspot a viable replacement for the NYTimes*, then yes.

* examples only
 
Why yes...I think I do consider YouTube a viable replacement for Shaw Cable, though in fact I haven't had access to channel 4 since around 2001 (I'm a Starchoice subscriber).

As for the NYT, it frankly did not enter my consciousness in any regular way until after bloggery became a going thing: it existed as a thing I did not read, except on rare trips to the library. It is only its online presence which has ever made serious contact with me.

If anything, I have touched the paper edition more often since blogging became common than I ever did before.
 
Like I said, those were examples (of TV providers and newspapers, respectively), Ryan.

Also, what you say about blogs is totally missing the point. So blogs bring you to the NYT more than you used to go previously. That in no way makes them a replacement for the "MSM" the way some fevered bloggers think...

Youtube isn't remotely a substitute for the CBC yet. It might be, but then again, why not IFilm from three years ago? Why not public access cable and cheap camcorders from, say, ten-fifteen years ago?
 
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