Fatal Attraction

The CBC’s Richard Stursberg and his romance with ratings.

The more I read of Richard Stursberg and his justifications for his controversial renovations to CBC English Language Services, the more I am convinced that he is—there is no way to say this nicely—on a fool’s errand.

My reasoning for this takes a little attention, just as it takes a modicum of mental sweat to understand the differences between cap and trade and a carbon tax. Maybe I am naive, but it seems to me that, given the seriousness of current issues facing Canadians across the board, we are more willing than we have been for some time to make the effort. So, here goes.

The fool’s errand is to try to shape CBC, our public broadcaster, into a vehicle capable of matching or exceeding the audience numbers posted by commercial broadcast media. Or, as Stursberg put it to Jennifer Wells in a Globe and Mail interview in June, “the biggest cultural challenge facing English Canadians is ultimately our failure to produce entertainment shows, Canadian shows that Canadians actually want to watch … We succeed when our content reaches and resonates with the broadest cross-section of the greatest number of Canadians.”

In revising the CBC television schedule in November 2006, Stursberg said: “We concluded that we had too many specials and mini-series. It’s hard to build loyalty with them … So now we are populating our prime time schedule with longer running series — series keep people coming back to the network, build loyalty and allow us to optimize our promotion.”

In that same speech, Stursberg proudly noted that CBC television has also undertaken its most extensive audience research project to date, “to determine what kind of programming appeals to different Canadians, and where we need to put that programming on our schedule to make sure that they are available to watch it when it’s on.” The research, he said, “has also informed our development process and we now do more program piloting and audience testing to refine concepts … In short, we try to get it right before we bring a program to air.” What is meant by getting it right in this context, he did not discuss, but the CBC has recently embarked on the production of a number of American-style reality television programs (which it calls factual entertainment) and pre-empted its flagship national newscast to air the premiere of one of them.

It is all about audience numbers. Ratings. However, for a public broadcaster to chase ratings as a measure of success is to pursue a chimera, a fictitious construct that has little or no meaning or relevance outside the spreadsheets of the profit-focused commercial broadcast industry. Ratings are an entirely inappropriate means of measuring the quality of programming, or its usefulness to its audience.

Ratings systems and services attempt to count audiences and have been around since the early days of radio, in the 1920s. They are based on a piece of fundamentalist dogma about capitalist market dynamics, which says that the market, if left unregulated, gives people what they want, in the most efficient way possible. As applied to broadcast ratings, the dogma means that if people watch or listen to a particular television or radio program, that proves they are getting what they want. A ratings blockbuster on CBC demonstrates that the corporation is providing the programming that Canadians want; if it were not, they would watch something else. This is the Stursberg logic, and it has a long history as a piece of unexamined conventional wisdom in the industry.

But academics and other industry observers have for almost as long been pointing out that this kind of reasoning is not logical at all—in fact, it is a logical fallacy, a tautology. Put it this way, and it becomes obvious: We know (from ratings services) that a lot of people watched Program X. Why did a lot of people watch it? Because it is what people want to watch. How do we know that it is what people want to watch? Because a lot of people watched it. This is like observing that in 19th-century Ireland a lot of people ate potatoes and concluding that they therefore preferred potatoes to steak. But there could be a host of reasons why people watched Program X, including, for one, that there was nothing better on offer. The simple fact that people watch or listen to something in no way demonstrates that it is what they want.

There is a further, more complex problem with judging program quality by ratings. Let’s accept for the moment that the fundamentalists are right and the market does give customers what they want by forcing suppliers to shape their products so as to respond to customer preferences and demands. In ideal conditions, in a perfectly competitive marketplace with lots of small suppliers and plenty of well-informed consumers, this is in fact largely true.

If we were looking at the broadcast market as one of suppliers and consumers of programming—that is, broadcasters and audience members—we might make an argument that it at least approximates those ideal market conditions, given the thousands of licensed radio and television stations and the millions of viewers and listeners. We might argue that the market democratically provides audiences with the kind of programs they vote for, by watching and listening. We might argue further that to interfere with this democratic process by making objective judgements about quality in programming, or by trying to educate audience tastes, would be to indulge in elitism.

But this is not how the broadcast market is structured.

The market that the broadcast industry has created consists not of audiences bidding for programming from a variety of program suppliers (broadcasters), but of advertisers bidding for audiences from audience suppliers—which is the role broadcasters play. If we can assume, for the moment, that this market is functioning well, then the result, according to market theory, would be that advertisers are able to purchase from broadcasters the best-quality audience (the greatest numbers with the most desirable demographics) at the lowest possible price. This is the economic dynamic that drives the commercial broadcasting industry. This is where the money changes hands—this is where the actual market exists.

Broadcast outlets exist primarily for the purpose of generating income from the sale of air time to advertisers, and they make no secret of the fact. The late Israel (Izzy) Asper, founder of the Canwest Global media empire based in Winnipeg, after acquiring a 20 percent stake in New Zealand’s TV3 in 1991, gathered 200 employees of the station in the cafeteria for a pep talk. “You’re in the business of selling soap,” he informed them. Patrick Le Lay, the CEO of TF1, France’s first commercial television outlet, was even more explicit: “TF1’s mission is to help Coca-Cola, for example, sell its product. Now, for a commercial message to be received, the viewer’s brain must be available to it. The mission of our programs is to make those brains available, to amuse them, to relax them between two commercials so as make them receptive. What we are selling to Coca-Cola is available human brain-time.”

What does this real-life market model mean for program content—which is the preoccupation of the audience, of you and me? For one thing, where issues of quality in programming are concerned, quality is defined not in terms of service to the audience, but of serving the advertiser. And what an advertiser wants in programming is something that will promote the sale of its products. Period.

This has been well understood from the early days of radio onward. As early corporate broadcasters such as NBC and CBS sought to address their responsibilities to shareholders by maximizing advertising sales, they created content that was amenable, by design, to advertising. Program schedules that had initially been heavy on high culture and educational themes quickly devolved into a standard format of comedy, soap opera drama, popular music, and minimal news and current affairs, all of which were designed to appeal to the broadest possible audience while avoiding instances in which commercial messages might seem out of place amid more challenging content.

Nowadays advertising is more frequently targeted to specific audience demographics, hence the existence of HGTV alongside Spike on your cable service. But it remains a cautionary industry truism, as Ben Bagdikian has observed, that “serious programs remind the audience that complex human problems are not solved by switching to a new deodorant.”

Given that the broadcaster wishes to supply desirable audiences for the market at the lowest possible production cost, what is likely to be the nature of the programming produced? Clearly, cost of production must be balanced against those qualities that make a program attractive to the desired audience. In a commercial broadcast operation a low-cost production will always be favoured over a higher-cost production that attracts much the same audience.

The customer/advertiser, as well, will want the lowest-priced option for accumulating the desired audience, in accordance with corporate fiduciary responsibilities to shareholders. Given that audiences have little or no control over the array of programming available (audience members are unable to vote for what does not exist), it is possible in this market, and therefore rationally mandatory, for the broadcaster to confine its output to lowest-cost options. No rational corporate manager is going to spend money needlessly.

As CBS programming executive Arnold Becker famously told Todd Gitlin, “I’m not interested in culture. I’m not interested in pro-social values. I have only one interest. That’s whether people watch the program. That’s my definition of good, that’s my definition of bad.” (There are exceptions to the rule of the lowest common denominator, which tend to prove the rule and are too complex to get into here. It should also be noted that subscription television channels, such as HBO, operate under a completely different business model, and produce a completely different kind of programming.)

All of this simply confirms the inescapable truth that business corporations in general and broadcasting corporations in particular are indifferent to the public interest. As rational economic agents, all publicly traded corporations are perfectly egoistic—they operate only in the interest of maximizing shareholder return, as they were designed to do. Corporate employees who fail to internalize this logic have short careers.

The CBC is, of course, a public broadcaster, which means that it has statutory responsibilities to serve the best interests of its audience and to serve the cause of broad national aspirations. It is not in business simply to make money, as are commercial broadcasters. But while CBC radio has been commercial free since 1975, CBC television, unfortunately, is required to fill roughly half its annual budget from advertising revenue. It is neither fish nor fowl, but a chronically dysfunctional hybrid. To stay afloat financially, it has to behave like a for-profit commercial broadcaster: that is, it has to develop programming that will please advertisers—not all the time, as commercial broadcasters do, but at least half the time.

That is the financial reality facing CBC managers such as Stursberg. But there is the further hotly debated issue of elitism, which is framed by the notion of market democracy I referred to earlier. In defence of his focus on ratings on CBC TV, Stursberg pooh-poohs the notion that a public broadcaster ought to have an educative role—ought to be concerned with lifting the level of audience expectations and demands, as a university does with its students. “We succeed when our content reaches and resonates with the broadest cross-section of the greatest number of Canadians,” Stursberg told the Globe’s Jennifer Wells. “I don’t know why people want to sort of say the CBC has some high-art role. I don’t quite understand that. The Canada Council is there to fund the high arts.”

We can contrast that with the mission statement proposed for the BBC by its celebrated founding director, John Reith, writing in 1924. The role of a public broadcaster like the BBC, he said, was to “bring into the greatest possible number of homes … all that is best in every department of human knowledge, endeavour and achievement.” What was best would be determined, as it is in a university, by a continuous dialectic, an ongoing conversation among stakeholders, based on critical criteria as old as Plato and, now, as new as Blogspot.com. This is, more or less, the classical statement of elitism in broadcasting: that is, applying objective criteria of quality to programming rather than letting the market decide.

However, as I noted earlier, in the actually existing broadcast market, audiences are not the buyers or sellers, but the commodity being bought and sold. The market is set up to produce not the best possible programming, but the best possible audiences (in advertisers’ eyes). Therefore, in terms of economic theory, to inject some sort of objective quality criteria into program decision making is to tamper with the advertiser-broadcaster relationship. This relationship bears little or no resemblance to the theoretical ideals of perfect competition among many suppliers: it is a market, as we all know, that is dominated by a dwindling handful of monopolistic mega-corporations on both sides of the table. To interfere in such a market relationship can scarcely be called warping free-market dynamics: there is no free market. The whole idea of elitism is irrelevant here.

In fact, the whole idea of market democracy in media, on which the criteria of ratings success rests, is highly suspect, if not utterly bogus. A seldom-heard truth is that audiences cannot want what they do not know exists; put another way, they can vote only for or against the programming that is offered to them. Furthermore, experience with gadgets that offer audiences the chance to avoid the commercial content that now makes up about a third of broadcast content (gadgets such as the remote control, VCRs, personal video recorders) has clearly demonstrated that advertising content, at least, is definitely not something the audience wants—as a rule, they avoid it whenever possible. Still, it is what they get.

The notion that the market provides programs democratically while public broadcasting like the BBC or CBC Radio is somehow elitist is similarly problematic. In neither the public broadcaster model nor the commercial broadcaster model does the audience get involved directly in program development. In both cases it is assumed that the audience’s preferences will be expressed through its viewing and listening choices. The programs are developed and produced independently, under the direction of station or network management, or sometimes advertisers. In both cases it is a managed, top-down process. How, then, one might ask, is the commercial model less elitist than the other? Is content dictated by commercial goals any less elitist than programming dictated by public interest considerations? As cultural theorist Ien Ang observed in her ground-breaking investigation of audience research in television, Desperately Seeking the Audience, “what is … equated with ‘what the audience wants’ through ratings discourse is nothing more than an indication of what actual audiences have come to accept in the various, everyday situations in which they watch television. It says nothing about the heterogeneous and contradictory interminglings of pleasures and frustrations that television audiencehood brings with it.”

Market democracy in this sense operates much like political “democracy” in the one-party regimes of the former Soviet bloc nations or present-day Cuba or China.

What, then, can be the point of audience ratings services, and why do broadcasters pay so much money to support them? Why are Stursberg and his minions so obsessed by them? As far as I can tell, there is no rational answer to the second question, but the first can be explained in terms of simple economic theory.

It is the competitive marketplace for commercial sponsorship that induces broadcasters to produce the product (i.e., audiences) that the customers (i.e., advertisers) want. Since it is programming that attracts and assembles audience/product, individual audience members may be thought of as raw material from which a desirable, salable product is constructed. As a raw material, however, individual persons are somewhat less than desirable. For one thing, they lack the homogeneity or transposability that defines the ideal raw material in economic theory. (An example of the ideal might be wheat or freshwater or anthracite coal.) The broadcasting industry has solved this problem simply by constructing an identity for the audience that ignores individual, real-life idiosyncrasies of viewing and listening. “Television audience” is an artificial construct created by the industry as a response to its lack of control over the real audience. “Television audience” as constructed by ratings systems is a kind of synthetic product that can be bought and sold in bulk. It has no real existence.

It is a fact of life of institutions in general, and business corporations in particular, that they seek to control the mechanisms of their self-production and survival. The broadcast audience is, of course, in this category and therefore an object of institutional or corporate control. In plain language, the industry needs to control the concept of audience in order to present its product in the best possible light to the advertiser/purchaser, and it does this by creating—through ratings—a fictive audience that is both uniform and invariably satisfied. It is uniform because it is defined as such, and invariably satisfied because within this imaginary industry construct it always gets what it wants. (Audiences may be big or small, but they would not be there at all if they were not getting what they want, the argument goes.)

While it may be understandable why for-profit broadcasters accept this false but economically functional device, it is more than a little difficult to see how the pursuit of what amounts to a pipe dream is an appropriate goal for a public broadcaster with national social and cultural responsibilities. That is why Stursberg’s self-defined mission at the CBC seems to me to be a fool’s errand. And why John Reith’s possibly naive mandate for the BBC was a much better first approximation of the role of a public broadcaster.