Why CBC Needs Stronger Support

Canadian Speeches, May-June 2003 | Go to article overview

Why CBC Needs Stronger Support


Much stronger support for public broadcasting is seen as crucial to providing programs Canadians want, and Canada's ability to compete in the Information Age. Commercial television is geared to meet the needs of advertisers, not the demands of viewers. A stronger CBC is viewed as a driver that can also help strengthen private sector Canadian broadcasting. Canada's media sector -- newspapers, magazines, book publishing, films and broadcasting -- are called dangerously weak. Public support of television and film is seen as economically crucial as the decision to invest in nuclear energy or aviation technology was in the last century. Remarks to the Senate Transport and Communications Committee, Ottawa, April 29.

Most citizens don't understand how North American commercial television works. They think it's a little like a movie theatre. The owner of the theatre tries to get the best movies he can, to attract the most customers, and make his profit from selling tickets. The assumption is made that television is the same, with the only real difference being that we don't have to pay an admission price because that's been covered by the commercials. Like the film is the product of the movie system, so the product of television, it's universally assumed, is the program.

But that's not the economic model of commercial television at all. The product of commercial television is not the program. The product -- that which is being bought and sold -- is you. To quote Les Brown, the former New York Times writer who became one of the world's leading historians of the industry: "The product of commercial television is the viewer. The program is merely the bait."

Follow the money, which is usually a good idea. The exchange of money is not between the viewer and the network, it is between the network and the advertiser. The advertiser is buying "eyeballs" by the hundreds of thousands, from a network.

This is not a democracy. This is not one-person one vote. Certain demographics are far more valuable to the advertiser than others. A woman, 18 to 35, for example, is worth at least 10 people over 50. That's because the people in the 18-35 demographic still have their major purchasing decisions to make -- fridge, home, car. In the Toronto market, depending on the network, and the time slot, they maybe sold at $150 a thousand to an advertiser. But old goats like me, who's unlikely to make the same purchases, will be worth $ 7.50 a thousand. We are not all equal citizens in this universe. We are classified into complex grids and income categories with names like "Asian Heights" (meaning Vancouver Chinese gentry) or "Urban Nesters", meaning childless downtown professionals.

Some of us don't even count as citizens. A program can attract a million older citizens and never see the light of prime time. And all children have not gone to bed by 7 p.m. They're just not worth programming to in commercially valuable time. Have you also wondered why commercial television news is scheduled at six and at 11? To quote Les Brown again: "TV news is scheduled at the peripheries of prime time, where it will do the least possible damage to commercial revenue."

Now if you want men and women in the 18 to 35 demographic you design Friends or Sex in the City, or Survivor. If you want to attract the 14 to 18 niche, you design Dawson's Creek or Gilmore Girls. And, incidentally, that's how almost everyone on television aims out to be white and suburban with disposable income. The reason there's so few African Americans or Hispanics on prime time U.S. television, despite their proportion of the American population, is because they are not as desirable an economic demographic for the advertiser, as measured by disposable income.

Commercial television is part of the marketing and distribution system of the manufacturing economy, not part of the cultural production system. It's arguably the very engine of consumer distributing. …

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