Perhaps you saw that clip from the CBC’s latest offering, as part of its mandate to “inform, enlighten and entertain” Canadians at the same time as it reflects “Canada’s various geographic, cultural and linguistic realities and identities” while protecting Canadian culture from the ravages of global – but I digress.
The show is called Family Feud Canada, and it is everything you might expect. The clip in question featured a contestant, asked to “name Popeye’s favourite food,” answering “chicken.” At last count, it had more than 2.2 million views on YouTube, or about a million more than the CBC’s top-rated regular program.
As it happens, the Canadian Broadcasting Corp.'s licence is up for renewal this summer. A public consultation process began in November, although it won’t really get under way until the launch of hearings before the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission later this spring. This ought to be the occasion for a long-overdue rethink of the broadcaster’s mission, in light of the abundant evidence that it has lost sight of it.
The CBC’s latest annual report tells a tale of dwindling viewership (English-language TV had a prime-time audience share in the last fiscal year of just 5 per cent, an all-time low, down from 9.3 per cent in 2010) and deteriorating finances (revenues, outside of its parliamentary grant, now cover just 28 per cent of expenses). But the real measure is qualitative.
Caught between two conflicting visions of its mandate – to provide programming catering to a mass audience, such as Family Feud Canada, on the grounds that all Canadians pay for it, or to fill the sorts of niches private broadcasters allegedly will not – the CBC currently succeeds at neither.
Of course, the CBC’s problems are hardly unique. Every network’s viewership is dwindling, as they fight for audience share against hundreds and indeed thousands of competitors. Is most of what is shown on CBC television bad, sometimes appallingly so? Yes, but so is most of what is shown on television generally.
Or rather, so is most of what is on free TV, the kind provided over the air or as part of basic cable, the legacy networks that have been with us since TV’s infancy. In some ways, TV has never been worse – all those inane game shows and reality programming – but in some ways it has never been better: Not for nothing do critics refer to the 21st century as a television “golden age,” from early 2000s shows such as The Sopranos and The Wire to more recent fare such as Game of Thrones or the extraordinary miniseries Chernobyl.
And the good stuff is all on pay: subscription channels, such as HBO, lately joined by streaming services such as Netflix and Amazon. A paying audience, it turns out, is also a demanding and discerning one, not only willing but eager to immerse itself in programs with complex storylines and ambiguous character, the sorts of programs that commercial television was once thought unable to provide.
Which is to say that the CBC’s problem is not so much that it is not fulfilling its mission, as that it no longer has any mission to fulfill. The television world into which it was born – a world with only a handful of broadcasters, in which it was technologically impossible to charge viewers for the programming they received – has vanished, utterly, and with it the raison d’etre not only of the CBC, but of most of the regulatory apparatus governing the Canadian television industry.
In that world, it was true, there was a case for both. Unable to make viewers pay to receive their product, early television instead relied on advertising: rather than sell programs to audiences, they sold audiences to advertisers. This biased the television market, unusually, toward the largest possible audience.
In most markets, consumers can not only express a preference for one product over another, but also register the intensity of the preference, through the price they are willing to pay for it. Free TV is not like that: Advertisers only want to know how many viewers are watching a given program, not how much they wanted to watch it.
So whereas with most goods you can buy pretty much any kind you like, no matter how esoteric your taste, so long as you’re willing to pay the price – not only can you select among the dizzying variety available on store shelves, but have one custom-made – early television viewers could only watch what most people wanted to watch.
Hence the “vast wasteland” of broadly similar, mass-audience programming of which TV’s critics used to lament – and that still characterizes much of free TV. And hence the case for public funding/regulation: not to supplant the market, but to repair it – to replicate the kind of diversity of offerings found in most markets.
But let viewers pay directly, and wonders bloom. Suddenly the market for television starts to look a lot like other markets. At which point the case for subsidy disappears. It was, after all, only a patch, like advertising, and an imperfect one at that. Like advertising, it resulted in programming that was made less to suit audiences than sponsors. Only in this case the sponsors were public rather than private.
The CBC, of course, is caught between both, depending as it does on a mix of advertising and public funds, which may account for some of its existential confusion. Some, mostly on the left, would like it to get out of advertising; others, mostly on the right, would like to take away its public funding. But surely the time is right to get rid of both, in favour of an HBO/Netflix-style subscription fee. That debate is already under way in Britain, whose Conservative government is thought to favour moving the BBC, funded until now by a tax on all television owners, onto pay. It is high time it caught on here.
The notion that, amid the technological revolution that is now reshaping the industry – when networks, and schedules, and even television sets are increasingly giving way to programs streamed, on demand, to your phone, or tablet, or computer – we should continue to beam a billion-dollars-plus in public funds every year at a single spot in the television universe, as if nothing had changed, is frankly quaint.
I realize that, as a CBC contributor, I might be seen as biting the hand that feeds me. But shifting to a viewer-pay model would be as much in the CBC’s interests as anyone else’s, freeing its employees to focus on pleasing their intended audiences, rather than their private or public paymasters. It could still be a public broadcaster. But it wouldn’t, and shouldn’t, be a publicly funded broadcaster.