More Than Meets the Eye: defining “quality” in public service television

©2012 Wade Rowland

What do we mean when we talk about “quality” in television? Is there such a thing as a “good” television, or radio programming, in the sense of its having transcendent moral and aesthetic value? Is it possible for a program to be “good” even if its audience dislikes it, or is indifferent to it?

Or are these kinds of value judgements entirely subjective? Is it the case that if you like a program, it’s ipso facto “good?” If a program draws a large and enthusiastic audience, surely that rules out the possibility that it the program might be bad.

These are questions that have acquired some urgency in the context of the international campaign against public service broadcasters being undertaken by the powerful corporate owners of commercial media and their friends in government.

Defenders of public media argue, increasingly in vain, that public service broadcasting systems produce higher quality radio and television than their advertising-supported counterparts. It is unfortunately a position that tends to make them sound elitist and snobby: “Who are they to tell me that the program I adore is junk, and the one that bores me stiff is excellent? The nerve!”

But, generally speaking, public media supporters hold the media to a different standard of quality than their opponents (or those who are merely indifferent), and that’s a source of confusion in the ongoing debate between the two sides. When public media supporters make their claim for superiority they are almost always conflating two notions of “good:” one is the kind of moral/aesthetic judgment that transcends cultural environments and individual preferences; the other thinks of quality as value. And because it is public service media that’s being debated, “value” is thought of in terms of a program’s contribution to shared social norms and goals, so that a “quality” program would be one that promotes solidarity, tolerance, stability, democratic ideals, and so on.

In Europe, public service media supporters have a strong, evidence-based argument to make when they say that their kind of programming is simply better. It can be a cogent argument in Canada as well, but only where public radio is concerned. CBC television, most Canadians believe, routinely falls far short of the kind of excellence that’s possible in television. And so in Canada, the question most often asked in response to the CBC’s claims of quality, is a conversation-stopper: “If their programming is so great, why do so few people watch it? Where are the ratings?”

It trying to provide a rejoinder, the CBC in recent years (and particularly under the leadership of V.P. for English Language Programming Richard Stursberg) poured its dwindling resources into making television shows that drew audience ratings that were occasionally comparable to the mostly American content on the private networks. The programs, from police procedurals to reality shows (the CBC euphemistically calls the latter “factual entertainment”) are virtually indistinguishable from their American phenotypes in every respect except setting. In a series of valedictory interviews following his dismissal/resignation in 2012 Stursberg claimed to have succeeded in making CBC television truly popular, and the evidence he cited was ratings comparisons, both with the commercial competition, and with fare produced by predecessors in charge of English language programming, whom he disdains as élitist failures.

In other words, in responding to the jibe about inferior ratings, the CBC accepted the logic it’s based on. And that logic is that the best, or perhaps only way to judge the quality of a program is by adding up the number of people who watch it. The more viewers, the higher quality. Or as Stursberg puts it: “If not ratings, what?”

But the logic of quality=high ratings is false, from a number of points of view:

1) Audiences are able to select their viewing choices only from the menu that is placed before them by broadcasters, i.e. the broadcast schedule. That schedule is determined, in the case of advertising-supported broadcasters, by advertisers, not audiences. To the extent, then, that audiences are able to “vote” for their preferences by watching, they are picking and choosing among an artificially (and arbitrarily) restricted selection. What they would really prefer to be watching might well be something none of the commercial channels offers.

2) The level of consumption of a product says nothing about its quality, about whether it’s good or bad. It speaks rather to such considerations as price, availability, the absence of options, marketing success, and any number of cultural considerations. Ordinary common sense tells us that high quality does not guarantee high consumption, any more than low quality guarantees consumer rejection.

3) Even conceding, for the sake of argument, that high ratings is a reliable indicator of genuine popular demand for a program or genre of programming, it does not follow that high ratings=high quality. It is possible, even routine, for people to sometimes desire that which is not desirable—not good. And this can mean not good for the individual in question, not good socially, or not good in a more abstract, normative sense, or all three.

The faulty formula equating ratings with quality is often concealed in a more general argument, that clams that public broadcasting ought to be allowed to survive only so long as it remains relevant: “How can we expect taxpayers to continue to squander public money on a service that nobody watches? The future of the CBC will be secure when Canadians find it relevant to their lives.” How are we to judge whether CBC programming is or is not relevant? Well, by ratings, of course. People watch what’s relevant to their lives; they give a pass to what’s not. This framing of the argument around relevance is of course “begging the question,” a tautology and therefore a useless scrap of meaningless rhetoric.

So we’re back to the original question: what are we talking about when we talk about quality in television programming? If the goal of public broadcasting is to provide quality content, how do we measure success or failure? If not ratings, then what?

One obvious place to turn for answers is to the people who produce television for a living, the artists and artisans who make a profession of television programming of all kinds. Research into professional attitudes to determining quality, gleaned through dozens of interviews and summarized by Irene Costera Meijer recently in The European Journal of Communications, boils the issue down to the following checklist:

1. Were the craft skills that went into the making of the program of a high standard?
2. Was the program adequately resourced?
3. Was it serious and truthful?
4. Was it relevant to the concerns of the day?
5. Did the storytelling touch the emotions?
6. Did it appeal to curiosity/provoke thought?
7. Did the program-maker have a clear objective? And push to achieve it?
8. Did the program–maker have a passion/commitment that gave energy to the program?
9. Was the program innovative, original, or adventurous?
10. How did the audience react to it—in appreciation as well as numbers?

What is noteworthy about these criteria is that they say almost nothing about audience size. Only the last of these questions implies that ratings may, at some level, be a necessary—though not sufficient—indicator of quality.

Admirable though this vision might be, to minimize ratings in this way is of little help to public television programmers who struggle to survive in the real world. It may be the case that in other forms of artistic expression audience size is completely irrelevant—so that a brilliant work by a genius composer or novelist may go unrecognized for years, or even generations. But public television must produce credible results in real time, because it is paid for by the public. In the real world of politics and public accounts committees and auditors-general, the public expenditure needs to be justified by some concrete indication of value.

Value is another of those slippery words that needs to be pinned down and parsed. There are at least two relevant meanings here. One is what we might call social or instrumental value; the other, moral value, as in that which is innately valuable or worth valuing. (The moral, classically defined, incorporates both aesthetics and ethics.) A compelling war bonds poster or a catchy advertising jingle might fit the definition of instrumentally valuable; a Turner landscape or a Beethoven sonata could be said to have innate moral or aesthetic value.

The purpose of public service broadcasting in any country is not just to satisfy the desires of individuals for information and entertainment, but also to foster social cohesion and to act as a civilizing influence. These are mostly instrumental values. At the same time, we expect public service programs to be of authentic moral/aesthetic/ethical quality as well. The mandate is to produce value in both instrumental and normative senses. In neither of these senses is audience size as important as: (a) a program’s success in terms of quality according to the list above or some other, similar set of professional and artistic standards; and (b) a program’s overall impact on national challenges and priorities—its social worth. In assessing public broadcasting, a connection needs to be made between quality and value.

The Nordicity research group has recently done some analysis along these lines, as part of a larger study called “Analysis of Government Support for Public Broadcasting and Other Culture in Canada.” In a survey of eighteen industrialized countries, the study rated the potential value of public service broadcasting across five areas of potential risk and benefit:

• population density (low density increases need for communication media to foster social cohesion);

•number of broadcasting languages;

• ethic diversity challenges/tensions;

• the size of the domestic or “official” language market (the bigger the market, the less perceived benefit from public broadcasting because of the many commercial options likely to be available);

• proximity situations (benefits are high where a country is adjacent to a larger country that shares the same language, or where it shares a language with a major cultural exporter such as the United States or Great Britain);

• the popularity of domestically-produced programming, as indicated by the number of such programs in the top ten viewership ratings.

In comparing the eighteen nations, the study ranked Canada at the top of the list of countries likely to benefit from—i.e., in need of—public service broadcasting. To put it another way, Canada was ranked first as the country where public service broadcasting was likely to provide the most value. The U.S., Japan, Italy shared the lowest ranking, as culturally cohesive, densely-populated countries served by a diversity of broadcasters in the dominant domestic language, and with little same-language competition from outside. The only countries that came even close to Canada’s rating were New Zealand and Switzerland.

The study is fascinating, and well worth reading in the original. Among many startling statistics: in almost all of the eighteen nations studied, domestic programming accounted for 10 of 10 or 9 of 10 of the top ten rating positions. In French-speaking Canada it is also 10 of 10, while in English Canada it is 1 of 10!

The study suggests, in other words, that although Canada ranks far higher than other, comparable, countries in being likely to benefit from public service broadcasting, our investment in the area is well below average. The average subsidy paid to public broadcasters by eighteen Western countries surveyed by Nordicity in 2009 is about $87 per head: in Canada it’s about $34. (Norwegians pay about $164 a year; Danes pay $142; in the U.K. it’s about $111 per capita; Australia $44.)

Judging from this, Canadians seem to get very good value for money from their public service broadcaster. Nevertheless, between 1991 and 2009 the federal government’s expenditure on CBC/Radio-Canada rose by only 8 percent, while federal spending on other forms of culture went up by 71 percent. (Total federal spending, excluding national defense and debt interest payments, rose 83 percent.)

In the same period, federal subsidies to private, commercial broadcasters were up by somewhere between 48 to 59 percent.

It will come as a surprise to many that Ottawa subsidizes private, commercial broadcasters. But it does, partly in the form of advertising-substitution regulations that require broadcasters to replace American ads in U.S. programming they purchase with Canadian advertising. This is a bonanza for the Canadian broadcasters, which purchase programs for a tiny fraction of their production cost, and charge full commercial rates within them. In 2007 the value was estimated to be a high as $300 million annually.

And then there’s Section 19.1 of the federal Income Tax Act, which prohibits Canadian businesses from deducting, as an expense for income tax purposes, any advertisements on foreign broadcasters that are “directed primarily to a market in Canada.” The policy was implemented half a century ago to prevent American border television stations close to large Canadian urban centres from draining off advertising dollars with cross-border broadcasts. The value of this federal subsidy to Canadian commercial broadcasters was estimated in 2007 at $120 million a year.

Another massive subsidy comes in the form of a CRTC policy known as simultaneous substitution or signal substitution. When an American and a Canadian network are airing the same programming at the same time, the policy requires Canadian cable and satellite television providers to substitute the Canadian broadcaster’s signal for the American. This is why for instance, Canadians don’t get to see the American Superbowl ads, and why ABC-produced programming appears on CTV with the CTV logo embedded on the bottom right corner of the screen. The broadcast industry’s own estimate (in 2007) of the value of this subsidy is $200-300 million a year in increased advertising revenues that come with exclusive carriage of popular American programs.

Commercial broadcasters can also apply for program development and production subsidies from the federally-supported Canadian television production fund (recently re-branded the Canada Media Fund).

All in, federal subsidies to Canadian commercial broadcasters total something in the neighbourhood of $800 million dollars a year. This is within shouting distance of the federal subsidy to the CBC, which in 2011 was about $1 billion.

I have described elsewhere how advertising-supported television is trapped in a market dynamic that ordains mediocrity. Advertising-free public broadcasting,
because it escapes this ineluctable market dynamic, at least has the opportunity to rise above mediocrity, and even to achieve excellence on a routine basis. Assuming the requisite skills and talent are available, the only thing that stands between public television producers and this kind of brilliance is money. High-quality programming is expensive to produce.

Add to this the evidence that Canadians apparently get very good value for the tax dollars spent on their public service broadcaster, and it is difficult to understand why such an enormous subsidy should be given to private networks whose main business is re-broadcasting American network television with Canadian commercials. Why subsidize low quality? Why spend tax money where it produces inferior value? It doesn’t make sense.

Evaluating quality in television programming is something production professionals do all the time, using criteria that are widely accepted across the industry. These judgments are regularly reinforced by contests like the Emmys, the Edward R. Murrow Awards, the Peabody Awards, the Geminis, the Golden Globes, the British Academy of Television Arts’ BAFTAs, and scores of others. Value, however, is territory less explored. The criteria used in the Nordicity study are a good starting point for tackling this chore. Establishing national consensus on value provided by CBC/Radio-Canada would be a giant step toward putting our public broadcaster’s future on a firm footing. It can be done, and the place to begin is to ensure that everybody’s speaking the same language when they speak of quality in television.

©2012 Wade Rowland

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