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Commercial sponsorship and the news: can they be compatible on CBC?

© 2012 by Wade Rowland

In 2009 CBC television news, under prodding by the then-VP for English language programming Richard Stursberg, completely revamped its on-air appearance. The set for the flagship evening newscast The National went from a traditional desk and over-the-shoulder graphic arrangement to something borrowed from Star Trek: the Next Generation. What was intended to become a familiar stable of correspondents was selected and groomed to provide a more stylish and animated approach to their on-camera presentation. What had previously been an occasional use of faked throws from reporter to anchor and vice-versa, to give the appearance of live interaction, became de rigueur in the new show.

Huge background graphics screens were in perpetual motion, with text and colours drifting across the viewers’ field of vision while the anchor, inexplicably standing, or even strolling across the set, introduced succeeding items like a circus-tent ringmaster. All news programs are scripted: this one seemed to be choreographed as well.

The Toronto Star’s TV critic, Greg Quill commented:

CBC-TV’s … now-unseated anchor, Peter Mansbridge, plays a cross between a wandering, gracious maître d’ and — when he’s standing behind the new Plexiglas counter — an avuncular publican pressing messengers to unburden themselves…. What doesn’t sit well, however, is the surreal, theatrical nature of the new National. It’s less a news program than a piece of rehearsed drama. Characters step up to their marks — including retired general Rick Hillier, who bellied up to Mansbridge’s pristine bar to deliver a broadside about Ottawa’s ineffectiveness in backing up Canadian Forces in Afghanistan — to speak a part.

To completely renovate a national newscast in this way is an very expensive proposition and in 2009, the CBC was, as usual, coping with troubling financial uncertainties and revenue shortfalls. Why, then, spend a small fortune on cosmetics?

For Stursberg, it was part of a badly overdue modernization of a news operation that had not kept pace with its flashier counterparts in commercial television, where CNN led the way with its holograms and outsized graphic displays and roving presenters. Without that modernization, he believed, the public broadcaster would continue to fall behind its competitors in ratings, and eventually cease to be relevant to the taxpaying citizens who were its purported audience.

In retrospect, it was money ill-spent, not because of its lack of impact on ratings, but for more complex and interesting reasons.

I have argued elsewhere that commercial sponsorship of television programming leads to an inevitable downward spiral in content quality, a process sometimes identified as the Gresham’s Law of the media. Briefly, it works like this: because the business of commercial television consists of a market relationship between networks or stations and advertisers—that is, the selling to advertisers of a manufactured product called audiences—“quality” in this market is defined in terms of the audience. Advertisers looking for a “top quality” purchase seek out the largest audience (given obvious demographic considerations) at the lowest feasible cost. Because authentic quality, the kind of quality most of us have in mind when we say we’ve just watched a really good television program, is expensive to produce, the competitive drive to lower audience costs to advertisers inevitably leads to cost-cutting and a consequent a dilution in quality of program content. The market, however, sees this as a steady improvement in “quality,” that is, in efficiency of reaching target audiences for advertising at ever-lower cost.

To say that Gresham’s Law is an “inevitable” consequence of commercial sponsorship goes against the grain of most social-scientific thinking these days (too “deterministic”), but the word is used advisedly. In a world in which major media outlets are owned by a handful of mammoth corporations, the notion that profit might be sacrificed for public service in terms of authentically good programming, is literally absurd. Business corporations are supremely rational entities and require that every aspect of their operations conform to the logic of profit.

But corporations are also creatures of the state, and the state can regulate their behaviour. And where news is concerned, state regulation of broadcasters was a feature of the market in most Western nations throughout much of the twentieth century, up until the rise of neo-liberal economic ideology in the 1970s. In the United States, the emergence of neo-liberalism and, with it, deregulation, roughly coincided with the transfer of ownership of the largest three broadcasters, ABC, NBC and CBS. Deregulation meant relaxation or elimination of statutory obligations that had required broadcasters to maintain professional news operations and present newscasts of prescribed length at prescribed intervals during the broadcast day. The ownership changes placed the major networks in the hands of corporate entities that regarded news divisions as potential profit centres, and insisted that costs be reduced and revenues raised accordingly. At the same time senior network managers insisted that news programming be made more arresting and entertaining, so as to widen its audience, making it more attractive to a wider array of advertisers.

Since then, Gresham’s Law has proved to be alive and well in commercially-sponsored news operations across media platforms. The transformation has bequeathed us, not merely dumbed-down newscasts across the board, but the aggressively mendacious Fox News in the U.S and its baby Canadian clone, the Sun News Network, not to mention a toxic cauldron of American talk radio stations. The competitive striving for market share in the news business has proved to be enormously socially destructive, especially in the spawning of ideological “news” niches where fact plays second fiddle to the rhetoric of the culture wars.

Authentic public service broadcasters like the BBC, ABC Australia, and many of their European counterparts do not rely on commercial sponsorship for revenue and therefore have the ability, and the mandate, to rise above all of this. Free of the fetters of the advertising market and its demands, they can focus on doing what’s right, rather than what’s likely to win audience share. And as a general rule, pubic broadcasters do in fact do a better job of providing news and information than their commercial counterparts. But what about the CBC, which, on television, is a hybrid creature supported roughly half-and-half by public funding and advertising revenue? CBC News is mandated to serve the public with the highest professional integrity, but it also considers itself to be in competition with commercial news operations, and its television newscasts are an important source of advertising revenue for the corporation. In other words, CBC television news is, perforce, up to its eyebrows in the ratings game.

This has led, most obviously, to the recent lavish expenditures on studio sets and what can only be called a program of glamorization of the news and its purveyors, including everything from clothing and hair styling to movie-trailer-style, voice-of-doom promotion. A focus, in short, on news-as-performance. The personalizing of the CBC’s flagship evening newscast on television in the figure of its presenter (grandiosely called “chief correspondent”) is a technique filched from corporate branding, and is expensive both in terms of salary and power relationships in the news production process. The anchor, willy-nilly and regardless of intellectual acumen or journalistic talent, becomes the 900-pound gorilla in the newsroom because he or she is the franchise, the immediately-identifiable corporate face of a profitable enterprise.

Any journalist will tell you that news is by its very nature a competitive enterprise. Journalists are motivated by the “beat,” by being, as CBS News used to boast, “first with the best.” The Washington Post’s Watergate exclusives led the New York Times to devote expanded resources to an energetic effort to match the competition and the result was good for the public. A similar, contemporary, case could be made for the continuing coverage of the robocall voter-suppression scandal in this country, in which a variety of news outlets, including the CBC and Postmedia, have challenged one another for the lead. This kind of competition is generally invisible to the casual observer, and its rewards are typically of the kind that only media professionals recognize and value. Nevertheless competition within and between news organization to be “first with the best” is healthy and productive of public good, and should be encouraged. It is competition for audiences, as in ratings competition, that is so corrosive to standards and values.

Thus, if we can imagine a new CBC which is free from commercial sponsorship, a question that needs to be answered is whether it is possible for CBC’s television news division to participate energetically in the competition for journalistic excellence within the industry, while at the same time avoiding the temptation to compete for ratings and he expense of integrity. It is certainly not difficult to imagine a first-class news operation whose programming does not do well in the comparative ratings game—the U.S. market provides an obvious example with NPR and PBS and their excellent but obscure news services, and Fox News, the ratings leader. By the same token, the BBC provides ample evidence that excellence need not be equated with invisibility; in fact the BBC’s leading position in its market and around the world indicates that genuine quality may well be rewarded with ratings success.

Another lesson to be learned from BBC News and its long and storied legacy is that the benchmark provided by such a market leader forces all of its competitors to strive for the same quality. Thus, ITN, the, which served Britain’s commercial networks, initially provided comparable quality, though in recent years it has fallen victim to ill-conceived attempts to inject more competition onto the business of providing news for the nation’s commercial broadcasters. In this country, CTV News for several decades after its inception endeavored to match or beat CBC television’s The National each night, making the most of inferior funding and a much smaller talent pool and having occasional successes. What had been healthy competition based on journalistic values became something else when the network hired a new president from outside the industry to “rationalize” its operations, and to turn the beleaguered news operation into a profit centre, following the path taken a decade earlier by the American networks.

The evidence leads to a clear conclusion, and that is that high-quality news production and the close attention to ratings and audience share that commercial sponsorship entails for CBC television, are not compatible. The reasons are more subtle than overt interference from sponsors or network sales managers, but they are nonetheless demonstrably valid.

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