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A response to John Doyle’s “Is the CBC in Crisis or is Canada in Crisis?”

John Doyle’s column in The Globe and Mail today has some nice things to say about my Saving the CBC, for which I am grateful. As usual with Doyle, there is more there than immediately meets the eye, and I want to take some time before posting a detailed response. I think that we are in fundamental agreement about the CBC—it’s just that when it comes to finding solutions, he’s a pessimist while I’m an optimist. I think, though, that he has misidentified the larger problem he characterizes as the “crisis in Canada,” and it’s that issue that I’ll try to get at over the next few days.

Meanwhile, I do have one immediate correction to make. Doyle says near the end of his piece, “I don’t buy the argument that CBC must become an ad-free, sport-free, PBS-style broadcaster, left to struggle in earnest obscurity.” Well, neither do I.

Here’s an excerpt from a note I sent to him:

One quibble–nowhere do I suggest that the CBC should be turned into a “PBS-style broadcaster.” In fact, I say quite the opposite, that there is no reason why a properly funded public broadcaster cannot be as vibrant and popular here as they are all over Europe.

The dichotomy between quality and popularity that Stursberg, Stewart and their ilk are so fond of depicting, doesn’t exist. CBC radio proves in ample measure that it is possible for public broadcasting to be both popular and good. And as you know better than most, there are any number of examples of brilliant, and popular, TV being made by pubic broadcasters like the BBC.

As I note in the book, the role of a real public broadcaster is to make the good popular and the popular good–across genres.

“Responding to The Globe’s John Doyle,” part 2.

John Doyle’s column of May 7—“Is the CBC in crisis, or is Canada in crisis?”—is not so much media criticism as a nihilist tract.

The values of public service broadcasting, he admits, are “noble.” But, he says, “the days when the principles of public service and ‘civic duty’…mattered in Canada are over. There is outright hostility to them and to everything the CBC’s role as a public broadcaster encapsulates.”

He blames this sorry state of affairs on “a vast, disengaged youth population,” which, he says, is at the core of the problem. That, and a federal government that is actively hostile to science and culture.

”So much of Rowland’s arguments about the CBC’s role are based on ideals that are no longer held by individuals and the federal government. They were held, were noble, and now they’re crumbling or have evaporated entirely,” Doyle writes. “It’s just the way we live now.”

According to Doyle, the very idea of pubic service media is dead, and there is no point in trying to revive it. “It is more suitable and emblematic of our times that CBC continues to exist as it does—struggling for dollars, struggling to define itself, battered and fettered by the federal government, as so many of our once great institutions are these days.”

An observation made by the economist and philosopher Albert O. Hirschman, writing during the turbulent 1960s, seems a propos. According to Hirschman, reactionaries have three standard objections to any and all proposals for reform: “perversity” (the reform will make the problem even worse), “futility” (the reform will do nothing to solve the problem), and “jeopardy” (the reform will put some valued social gain at risk). Hirschman shows that these objections are “stupefying, mechanical, hyperbolic and often wrong.”

Doyle’s arguments seem to fall most comfortably into the category of futility. (There seems, in his view, to be no point in reform, and nothing of value left to jeopardize.) He laments in his closing paragraph: “So many noble ideals are so over.” A public broadcaster, he seems to be saying, is simply irrelevant in a country like Canada where the values of selfless public service are obsolete.

Hirschman wrote a ground-breaking book called Exit, Voice, and Loyalty in 1970, in which he suggested that when people find something to be unsatisfactory, be it a job, a product, or a nation, they have two basic ways of responding. They can offer constructive criticism (a strategy he calls “voice’), or they can walk away (the “exit” tactic). “Speak up or get out,” as he characterized the options in a later interview.

In economic theory going back to Adam Smith, the use of “exit” as a tactic in response to dissatisfaction is regarded as the foundation of the market discipline—the dynamic that results in steady upward pressure on product quality and downward pressure on price. Customers are always ready to cross the street (exit) to buy a competition’s lower priced or higher quality product, and the rejected firm must respond constructively, or die. In the life of nations, “exit” often means emigration. (Hirschman left Nazi Germany in 1933 and subsequently helped organize an escape route for other European Jews through Spain.)

Arguing against the tide of conventional economic theory, Hirschman warned that the “exit” option, for all its importance as a cornerstone of market dynamics, can be dangerous for several reasons. Sometimes it entrenches the status quo. For example, if repression’s most adamant critics choose self-exile, a dictator’s reign may be lengthened. Corporate wrong-doing may go unpunished if customers simply switch to an alternative. Public education may drift into decay if too many parents pick private schools. Transit service withers when people opt for cars.

And, he might have added, public broadcasting drifts into irrelevance, obscurity and finally futility when too many take Doyle’s advice and meekly accept that the values of corporate avarice and personal consumption are destined to triumph over the more altruistic ideals implicit in public service media—when viewers and listeners tune away to some commercial option or simply tuen out altogether rather than demanding the calibre of programming they and their fellow citizens deserve, and insisting that government provide the wherewithal to make that happen.

A new analysis of CBC audiences by Barry Kiefl of Canadian Media Research Inc. shows that our public broadcaster is experiencing the “exit” phenomenon in numbers that ought to have senior managers seriously worried. While radio numbers are holding up well, audiences for advertising-supported television are deeply troubling.

Kiefl’s analysis shows that CBC television’s audience share in prime time (among traditional TV options) averages about 5%. It is less than that in off-prime times, and even lower when all television viewing (over-the-air American channels, Netflix and other so-called OTT services, etc.) is considered. This is the lowest audience share in CBC’s history, Kiefl notes, adding:

There has been some public debate about whether or not the CBC is in crisis. The CBC’s latest [quarterly CRTC] report conforms that many programs on the main TV service of CBC, despite efforts to be more ‘popular,’ have fallen to audience levels not much greater than many specialty channels. Those who deny the crisis fail to realize that Canadians prefer Duck Dynasty to most CBC shows including the national news. The most important and costly CBC service has an audience crisis and CBC needs to respond to it. Is it time to rethink the role of CBC TV?

Hirschman’s point was not that the “exit” option is bad in all cases; he argued that a combination of “exit” and “voice” often proved to be the most effective and socially responsible strategy in responding to dissatisfaction.

Where the crisis at CBC is concerned, “exit” has made its point; it is time now for those who understand the value of media that serve the public interest as opposed to the interests of advertisers, to speak up.

Write a letter to your Member of Parliament. Let him or her know how much you value your public broadcaster, and demand that Ottawa get busy finding a strategy to preserve the institutions of public service broadcasting in this country.

The ideals and values that Doyle says are “so over” are in fact never over. Not in this century, not in any other. They are the aspirations that allow democracies to make their halting, inch-by-inch progress toward justice, equity, and compassion—a process that can only be called (however unfashionable it sounds) the ascent of civilization. We do make moral progress, though it often seems we move far too slowly to keep ahead of the dire consequences of our unexamined lives.

Public broadcasting exists to provide a public space in which the continuing process of developing new, progressive values and goals, and identifying the moral principles that are worthy of preservation, can take place. It does this in a media environment otherwise awash in the hollow propaganda of me-first individualism, corporate-sponsored consumerism, and the childish political discourses of ignorance and intolerance. It exists, in short, to provide high quality programming in an environment dominated by commercially-motivated mediocrity.

It exists to make quality information and entertainment programming freely available to everyone, regardless of their social or financial circumstances. Its purpose is to make popular programming good, and good programming popular, and in doing so to help disseminate, promote, and preserve the values that, we hope, will allow us to survive our own iniquity.

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