It’s cartoonish

Neil-Macdonald“Truth be told, I don’t watch TV news. It’s cartoonish. I would no more sit and listen to Rosemary Barton than I’d watch the Polka Dot Door.”” So said retired CBC correspondent Neil Macdonald. He was quoted by Mark Bonokoski in an article in the Toronto Sun. I agree with him. Perhaps it’s an age thing … I’m in my late 70s and I grew up in an era when radio and television were willing and able to compete, almost head-to-head, with print journalism for analysis and often beat it for breaking news. The CBC, for example, had several “in-depth” news programmes in the q1950s and ’60s that treated major issues in the same ways that we expected from e.g. the Toronto Telegram and the New York Herald Tribune and the London based Daily Telegraph. Four things, it seems to me, changed that:

  • Screen Shot 2020-04-14 at 13.38.34CNN, the Cable News Network, arrived on the scene with a new business model which included a need to fill a 24 hour news day with something ~ both trivia and infotainment were born in response. CNN became the gold-standard for news during Gulf War I in 1990/91;
  • The rise of “the shouting heads.” TV had has the so-called “talking heads” since its birth ~ legendary figures like Edward R Murrow, John Cameron Swayze, Huntley and Brinkley and, above all, Walter Cronkite came into American and Canadian homes and personalized news and opinion. But, in 1982, the US Public Broadcasting System (PBS) launched a new “discussion” format, hosted by John McLaughlin in which journalists squared off on very partisan lines and a new format, the “shouting heads” replaced e.g. Martha Roundtree (Meet the Press) and Stuart Novins (Face the Nation) and their Australian, British and Canadian counterparts;
  • The Internet which made information, often questionable and unprocessed available without the filter of journalism; and
  • The return of the “quality” press. Newspapers weren’t idle. Some tried to emulate toronto-desktopTV with shorter, snappier stories ~ USA Today and the Sun chain in Canada, for example, but others went for even higher quality which, they believed, correctly, as it happened, TV would be unwilling or unable to follow. The “quality press” went national ~ think the Globe and Mail, and even global ~ think the Financial Times.

But,  now, the financial model which sustained magazines, newspapers and radio and TV for decades, even centuries ~ subscriptions and advertising ~ is no longer working. The Internet, especially, has been a major disruptor.

Networks and newspapers and content producers are scrambling for ways to provide Screen Shot 2020-04-14 at 13.45.04what consumers want ~ sports, news and commentary, and, above all, entertainment ~ at prices the consumer is willing to pay. Private advertising is the way for which we “buy” the content we want to watch, even on YouTube. How do CTV, Global and the CBC compete with e.g Netflix or Amazon for entertainment or e.g. the Hoover Institution or intelligence² for commentary and discussion? How can Canadian broadcasters and producers compete in a global market? And I think that is a key question, because, despite what Daniel Bernhard, Executive Director of the lobby group Friends of Canadian Broadcasting thinks, most Canadians, 90% of us I would guess based on the CBC’s audience share, don’t want exclusively Canadian content, Canadians want good quality entertainment and they don’t care if it is produced in Toronto by people from Halifax employing actors from Montreal and Vancouver. Canadians are willing to pay for what they want … and Netflix et al are willing to offer it at a reasonable price. How much room is left for local solutions? Not much, I think.

Screen Shot 2020-04-14 at 14.04.29Daniel Bernhard and officials in the Department of Canadian Heritage and in the CRTC seem intent on forcing Canadians to buy something they don’t want. That may happen but, in my opinion, it is doomed to fail. But entertainment is only one aspect of the broadcasting problem. It seems to me, from a very personal point of view, that governments and special interest groups …

Screen Shot 2020-04-14 at 14.06.51… are part of the problem, not part of the solution. The notion that government grants will “save” the news media is silly. Only a new, viable, long-term, private funding model will do that. Anything else leads us towards …

… and we don’t want or need that.

Canada is a grownup nation. Canadians can make choices about how they want to access information and entertainment, and about how much they are willing to pay to do so. Canadians do not need to be spoon-fed their news and opinions (or even their hockey games) by government agencies. There is a legitimate and, indeed, vital role for the government in allocating scarce resources: radio frequencies, for example, and, in some case, broadcast licences. There is no useful role for the government in regulating content, beyond the criminal code and a few laws that deal with e.g obscenity, bestiality and libel. And government money, given to the media, no matter how few strings are attached, is only a stopgap measure that delays much-needed business decisions.

It is not just TV news that is “cartoonish,” in Canada, it is the whole notion that, somehow, Ottawa can “fix” the media.

An independent, trustworthy media is an important element in our modern, liberal democratic society. For over 400 years newspapers have been published in Europe and North America ~ they were all private enterprises. Radio and television were developed by a mix of private and public agencies, they were, generally, broadcast as a mix of commercial and taxpayer-funded (by licence fees in the United Kingdom) services. The most successful models were private, even allowing for the generally high quality of the BBC’s programming.

Publicly owned and operated media, including broadcasting, can work … but only in a society where a broad range of private publishers and broadcasters can provide many alternative sources of services, especially news and commentary. A country like Canada needs a very strong cadre of private media outlets before it allows governments to publicly fund media outlets. The idea that there can be some sort of public-private-partnership seems wrong, to me.

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