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John Doyle: Television

‘False or misleading news’ only part of TV’s murky future Add to ...

Huge news pours forth in the TV racket – changes at the top at CTV, a new vice-chair of broadcasting appointed to the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission, and a proposed CRTC regulatory change to ease standards for radio and TV in terms of broadcasting “false or misleading news.”

What does it all mean? What does the future hold? In answering, one can only be imprecise. The TV business these days is a vast swamp of fear and loathing, pity and terror, and sports. Folks – that’s you the viewer, also known as “the eyeballs” – like live sports events on TV. Recent changes to the mechanics of measuring how many people watch TV in Canada indicate that we adore sports. We’d watch two houseflies compete onscreen if there was an underdog, lively half-time analysis and, of course, everyone else said they were watching.

Apart from the popularity of sports, nobody knows what the hell is happening. There exists a business, political, and journalistic imperative to figure out trends in TV and other media, predict change and speculate on success. But everyone is blundering forward, including those who speculate and those who spend money on potential success. We live in the most peculiar and exciting of times – old and new media co-existing in so many forms, technology shifting this way and that.

Will you be watching TV on your cellphone or iPad in two years? Or will Facebook deliver a show your friends recommend and you can all watch together online, chatting about it as you consume it? Of course, between the time I write this and you read it, somebody might predict that you’ll be watching highlights of the next Olympics on your wristwatch, and some start-up high-tech company is going to make billions on this. Everything is conjecture. Let’s assess.

1. At CTV, some accomplished TV execs are leaving. A new team will run the shop, buying and sometimes making TV shows in order to sell ads. Memos circulate about the need to “think holistically.” This, in the TV racket, no less. Good luck with that. What will CTV look like in the future? Probably not much different from now – but more bland, probably. More sports, certainly. You want a wild, imprecise prediction? CTV will acquire a lot more hockey, including the Saturday-night games. And more NFL. It’s the safest bet that BCE, the phone company that now owns CTV, could make. CTV/TSN has already acquired much more soccer to broadcast in the next few years. Sport is the only safe haven in this time of fear and loathing. And, finally, there is obviously one area in which the new BCE bosses trump the old CTV bosses: Blather. I’m speaking holistically, of course.

2. The new vice-chair of broadcasting appointed to the CRTC. That person is already known as “an inexperienced puppet of the government” in some quarters. That would be NDP quarters. The person in question, Tom Pentefountas, “failed on every count” if you examine the official criteria for the job, says NDP heritage critic Charlie Angus. See, Angus and others believe that the government is appointing a friend of the government, not someone with solid experience in broadcasting and/or the regulation of broadcasting. “This appointment stinks,” Angus said Monday, in case you were missing his point.

Heritage Minister James Moore sees the situation differently, as you can imagine. He describes the appointee as “qualified” and “an articulate bilingual gentleman from Quebec.” Oh, and “his education is outstanding.”

What does all this mean, apart from implying that Minister Moore is very droll? The CRTC’s future role is unclear, that’s what it means. The federal government has come to use it as a political football to kick around. It’s useful to this government to paint the CRTC as an anachronism, a mysterious outfit devoted to stopping consumers from watching TV and surfing the Internet for free. The government has undermined the CRTC’s credibility at every turn and has yet to figure out how the CRTC should function in the current ever-changing media world. It doesn’t know what to do with the CRTC, just as nobody knows how the future of broadcasting will pan out. As soon as it does, the government has its man on the inside.

3. The “false or misleading news” change. It’s a murky business, this one. And it’s a proposal – it hasn’t happened yet. While there is an argument to be made that language of CRTC regulations on “news” and “truth” must conform to the law of the land, there is no authentic need to open up this can of worms. In fact, even more than the appointment of the “articulate bilingual gentleman from Quebec,” this stinks.

Why? On CBC’s Power & Politics on Monday, Dean Del Mastro, parliamentary secretary to the Heritage Minister, got busy defending the government’s decision to push the CRTC on this. He waffled about the need for “divergent opinions” and made the extraordinary assertion that his constituents had been complaining that “free speech is under attack in this country.” Which puts us in mind of the alleged complaints about the long-form census.

What does it all mean? Say hello to the likely rantings and ravings of the upcoming SUN TV News channel, otherwise known, you can be sure, as “divergent opinions.” What it means is not that the government has seen the future – the success of a right-wing TV news channel is an unknown – but it has posited the kind of future it would like to see in TV news and punditry. A future filled with poisonous invective that still conforms to CRTC regulations.

Everything else is unknown. You know it, and I know it.

 

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