Privatization

Privatization
: There’s a discussion starting in the comments, below, regarding privatization of the BBC. I’m in favor of it for a few reasons — most obvious is that government control of media in any form is a conflict. But I also believe that the open market is a good thing for media — and, no, not because I’m a free-market freak. I earnestly believe that it’s a good thing for editorial quality because it ties editors to their market — aka, their audience. If the audience doesn’t want to buy what you produce, you fail. I’ve long held that circulation directors of newspapers and magazines should report to editors and that editors should be both accountable for and responsible for circulation.

  • http://www.papascott.de/ Scott Hanson

    I’m not very familiar with public broadcasting in Britain, but it sounds very different from the German system, which is decentralized and governed arm-lengths away from the ruling government.
    It’s still creepy at times, though. The public networks sometimes act as if they are chasing ratings, other times they disdain ratings. And since the governing board consists of institutions like parties, unions, big business and the church, the newscasts tend to report a lot about those institutions. And the public networks have no scruples about reporting (always favorably) about themselves.

  • paul

    Not to sound like a Right-wing nutcase, but I agree with Jeff about privatising for one simple reason–the pervasive Liberal bias in most of these public organizations.
    The BBC can at least be described as Liberal, at most anti-American. The Germans I’m not familiar with. NPR here in the US is not much better than the BBC (IMHO). It apparently is down to only 10% tax-payer funded, but most if not all of its contibutors, corporate and individual, are at the least Left-of-centre.
    That’s their agenda and their source of ratings (check out Bill Moyer some time). Sure, they chase ratings, but they chase them from mostly one side of the political wing.
    Network news competes with each other and cable news; CNN competes with Fox and MSNBC; NPR competes with talkradio and other news (and gets buried, I believe).
    But BBC and the government-owned mouthpieces all over the world compete with whom?

  • JohninLondon

    And don’t ever forget that the BBC costs us licence-holders a com[pulsory $160 each year for the BBC’s bloated budget of nearly $3 billion, plus the tax we pay towards our Foreign Office support of the BBC World Service.
    It would be relatively straightforward to privatise the BBC on a “tapering” basis of reductions in the licence fee, so that the new owners would have a forward cushion of revenue while they tightened up the BBC budget and started to charge for an encrypted BBC service.

  • Paul

    The founding ideal of the BBC is entirely aristocratic in temperament. The ignorant proles are to be led to a correct understanding of the world.
    So as far as progressive opinion is concerned, and old-school Tories, giving the audience editorial control of TV news would be a disaster. Who knows what weird and whacky ideas might gain currency; death penalty, etc, etc.

  • http://www.edlundart.com/ Bard Edlund

    well, i’m norwegian, but currently live in the US. in norway we have a broadcasting company (NRK) along the lines of the BBC though it works kind of like how Scott describes the German system (ie it’s not like the prime minister determines the programming). i can tell you that NRK has always been far superior to any commercial provider of television news. always. and in the US, all commercial news providers are infinitely inferior to the NRK news in norway.
    what do i mean by superior? i mean a broader picture, a DEEPER picture, a more serious picture, a less sensationalized picture of the world.
    why is this? because the commercial news providers are all about ratings and so their stories are consistently crime-related, or about fires or other “sexy” catastrophes.
    as an aside, i have never seen a national media so in line with government as the US media has been with the Bush administration.

  • linden

    as an aside, i have never seen a national media so in line with government as the US media has been with the Bush administration.
    Then you’re not paying attention.
    “Set the BBC Free! Privatize it!” I smell bumper stickers on every car in Britain.

  • balbulican

    I’m with Bard. In Canada, there is no broadcaster that even approaches the publicly funded CBC for depth and quality of news coverage.
    Broadcast media shaped exclusively by market considerations yield several unfortunate results:
    - a huge scramble to attract the highest spending sliver of demographic (as evidenced by the proliferation of “Classic Rock” stations catering to the ageing and nostalgic boomers);
    - editorial positions designed not to offend or alienate listeners/viewers, the actual “product” of commercial broadcasting.
    Do you seriously think that a for profit media corporation, accountable to its shareholders for generating dividends, will put journalistic standards above profit? Please.
    -
    - de-emphasis

  • The Kid

    The BBC could be chartered as for-profit or non-profit. The key is to make it work for its money, and the best way to do that is to cut off its generous revenue stream. (UK residents must pay an annual free [tax] on each TV set in the household.) If it had to ask for contributions it would be slightly more responsive to the public it allegedly serves. Today it has no need to be accountable because no one can affect its revenue stream.

  • paul

    Bard & Balbulican-
    You can have it both ways. Whoever wants to listen to the BBC, NRK or the CBC, then support it financially. When pledge week comes up, supporters ought to reach for their credit cards.
    Again, NPR in the US is 90% self-funding. You ought to like it–it’s “superior,” “deep,” not “sexy” at all, and its ratings suck. Funding comes from Liberal-leaning corporations, rich Democrats and many average to moderate citizens.
    And still it’s Liberal enough to carry the BBC five hours a night and be the whipping boy for many Conservative shows, although it doesn’t cost taxpayers as much anymore.
    What’s not to like?

  • linden

    Word to The Kid.

  • balbulican

    We do have it both ways, Paul. I pay for CBC through my taxes. Every time I feel a twinge of resentment, I tune in the stations I can pick up from New York state, and say a prayer of thanks for good public broadcasting.
    Do I sense that in your lexicon, “superior” and “deep” are bad things? I love the market-driven broadcast mentality…the philosophy that says Danielle Steele sells more than Daniel Defoe: thus only Danielle Steele shall be sold, and anyone who prefers Defoe is an elistist swine…

  • paul

    balbulican-
    Elitist swine…hmm. I was thinking more a Volvo white-wine and Brie cheeser.;)
    Fine. But what about your neighbor who may not feel as you do? It’s a matter of choice, it seems. Our elected representatives voted to limit the public radio budget. Canadians may not feel the same, but I just hope that all of you got to vote on the issue.
    And to be honest, our NPR’s newshour is deep in a good way on the issues, and I used to listen to it regularly. But I stopped listening (and contributing) when it took too much effort to interpret through their bias. And it pissed me off, actually. So with as little as I watch now, it would bother me to be subsidising someone else.
    Choice? No?

  • Vince

    Heh, I’m one of those Canadians Paul is talking about. I’m always amazed when I hear Americans talking about how biased CNN is against President Bush and the war on terrorism because it doesn’t hold a candle to the bias of the CBC.
    I have nothing but disdain for the network.

  • Vince

    Well, I suppose disdain is too strong a word. But I don’t want to support the CBC, or have any interested in what it has to say, except for Rex Murphy.

  • http://www.gpwgpw.blogspot.com Giles

    Taking the bait on the debate on the privatisation of the BBC, I tried to write a response, but unfortunately have come up with an article, which is so long it would f’up the board if I posted so click my homepage if you want to see a counter point.

  • murray`

    balbulican, suppose everything you say about the CBC is true. How does it follow that I (a Canadian resident) should be on the hook for your media preferences? If you really valued “depth and quality”, surely you’d be willing to fund it yourself, perhaps on a subscription or pay-per-view basis. What compelling public interest is there in forcing all taxpayers to subsidize a broadcaster few tune in to?
    I think you paint commercial media with too broad a brush, in any case. The CBC is hardly the home of original thought.

  • http://www.padawan.info/ Anonymous

    In France, the two best and most popular radio channels are public not private (1. France Info, 2. France Inter, both run by Radio France, the public state radio group). No one here would seriously say that are government driven, and their success with their audience over the years is a proof of their quality.
    On the TV side, the biggest public channel (France 2) is often bashed at beeing a “copy-cat in mediocrity” of the most popular private channel (TF1). The problem here is not with TV beeing public but trying to ressemble what the private sector is (attracting audience by *all* means).
    French public media have a charter that forces them to fulfill a public mission that has nothing to do with bringing value to shareholders and everything to do with providing a service to the citizens. This is not to say that public = good, private = bad programming. But it is a reality that the best thought-provoking programming comes primarily from public channels while the simply provocative programming comes primarily from private ones.
    Media are different everywhere, so I can’t generalize (which I shouldn’t do anyway, you bring your bit of salt).

  • balbulican

    Vince: Choice, for sure. But the market takes care of that. CBC is one of many listenting/viewing options. For those who prefer Classic Rock (“ALL LAYLA, 24-7 RADIO!) there are a dozen channels competing. The public broadcaster is an intelligent alternative…not to everyone’s taste, and that’s fine.
    Murray, I do pay for my preferences in my cable package. But every Canadian who lives in a community of more than 300 gets CBC , by cable or off air. If the market defined distribution, no one north of the Hamelin line would have any media service at all. Period.
    I am very aware of their weaknesses (having worked for Mother Corp): but I’ve also worked on the private side. Programming decisions at CBC are made on the basis of the need to present a balanced and comprehensive broadcast service: programming decisions among private broadcasters are made to buy eyeballs for advertisers. Nothing wrong with that: but it doesn’t always lead to innovation.
    Critics of public broadcasting suggest that it renders objectivity impossible because broadcasters become beholden to government. Crap. This thread started because the BBC is clearly NOT towing the government line. The displeasure of a sponsor is a lot more likely to kill a story than a question in the House of the Commons.

  • JohninLondon

    Giles
    I liked the essay you have posted on your site – recommending a gradual approach to cutting the BBC down to size. I recommend it to others – here’s the link :
    http://www.gpwgpw.blogspot.com/

  • Vince

    Except it’s not balanced and I don’t want to fund it.

  • murray

    Thanks for your response, balbulican, but with respect, you’ve dodged my question.
    As I said, let’s agree for the sake of argument that the CBC has all the positive virtues you claim. That still doesn’t justify the fact that the Canadian public is forced to subsidize a broadcaster that few spend much time watching or listening to. (Full disclosure: I listen exclusively to CBC radio, sneering news hosts and all, but would be indifferent to its disappearance. I don’t have a TV.)
    It seems like you like the CBC enough to have others subsidize it on your behalf, but not to pay for it yourself. The CBC may have had a rationale back in the 50s, when there were only a handful of broadcasters, but today it looks archaic. You can get culture, sports coverage, or current affairs from dozens of different stations on the TV dial, from all sorts of perspectives, and the internet gives you access to a far broader spectrum of opinion than ever before.
    Again, where is the compelling public interest in maintaining a state broadcaster? What is the rationale for forcing me and Vince (and millions of others) to pay for your viewing pleasure?

  • murray

    Further to my post above, here’s an article from The Guardian arguing that the BBC (and by implication, public broadcasting in general) may have run its course:
    Does a mature liberal democracy such as the UK really still need an institution such as the BBC in its present form? It is, in effect, a self-perpetuating department of state but without an elected politician at its head. Like other departments of state, it is funded by taxpayers’ money, but unlike them it is guaranteed more money than it needs to do the job for which it has been created. Indeed it is more powerful than most department of states – certainly more powerful than the Department of Culture, Media and Sport…. And, unlike his power over other departments of state, the prime minister can’t simply break it up, reshuffle it, merge it with another department or replace the people running it.
    And:
    …the BBC has great creative strength across the whole range of programmes, and understands the tastes of many different audiences. And that strength is precisely why it can and should afford, in the digital world, to rely on our willingness to pay for it voluntarily.
    via Uncle at ABCWatch, a watchdog blog devoted to the Australian public broadcaster.

  • balbulican

    Sorry, Murray: I wasn’t trying to dodge your point. Let me try again.
    “The Canadian public is forced to subsidize a broadcaster that few spend much time watching or listening to.”
    The Canadian public pays for a public broadcaster for a few reasons. Without one, a rather large percentage of the country (including the three northern territories, and all provinces north of the Hamelin line) would have no broadcaster at all. No one makes money distributing signals north of the 100 mile-wide strip along the US border…so they don’t. Don’t know where you live, but I’m pretty sure it’s not Iqaluit, Thomson, or Rigolet. CBC means quite a bit to people outside the major met markets.
    The population and population density of the US are roughly 10 times that of Canada. That market can support an incredible range of services. We can’t…not enough people, too widely dispersed. CTV and the other private broadcasters stay profitable by buying inexpensive American programming and running it in prime time: but that does nothing for the Canadian film and TV industry. We don’t have the population base to maintain an original production industry without federal support.
    “It seems like you like the CBC enough to have others subsidize it on your behalf, but not to pay for it yourself.”
    No, I’d subscribe if I had to. By and large I think there’s enough good stuff on CBC and Newsworld to make it worthwhile. And as noted above…I AM paying for it. Like you.
    I’m not sure what all is out there…but which channels would you say provide news and current affairs from a Canadian perspective at the level of Newsworld? I can’t honestly think of one.
    As for being forced to pay for “my” viewing…we can all go through the main estimates and flag things we’d rather not pay for…for instance, I’d prefer not to subsidize the ex-privacy commissioner’s meal bills, or the Federal rescue package for the Ottawa Senators…but obviously enough Parliamentarians feel that maintaining a national broadcaster is still worth doing. And I agree.

  • murray

    Thanks for your measured tone, balbulican.
    CBC means quite a bit to people outside the major met markets.
    Right. And so the solution is…to force all Canadians to pay for their news and entertainment? How is this different from taxpayer subsidies of seasonal unemployment in the East Coast fisheries or the West Coast forests? Canadians who live in remote locations can pay for their own media if it means that much to them. How about a Northern Broadcasting Network?
    We don’t have the population base to maintain an original production industry without federal support.
    Somehow my homeland of Australia (with very similar geographic dispersion and an even lower population) seems to manage just fine, with loads of Australian content on commercial TV networks, on FM radio and in the movie theatres. There are content regulations (and insane media ownership rules) but Australians do tune in to homegrown talent quite willingly. If people valued Canadian programming, they’d willingly pay for it.
    As for your Newsworld question, I don’t know. Quite frankly, I don’t really care, since I get most of my news from the internet, the National Post, and the Globe and Mail, and don’t watch TV. But once more, if no CBC existed, and if Canadians really wanted a Newsworld substitute, I have no doubt that people would compete to provide one. Your argument implicitly assumes that the audience is insufficient to make such a program worthwhile, explaining the rent-seeking behaviour of CBC (BBC, ABC) partisans.
    You do pay for the CBC, yes, but much less than you would if the CBC was audience-supported. Furthermore, I agree with you on the examples of waste you mention, and I have no doubt that few parliamentarians are willing to challenge a public entity with a universal reach in both major electronic broadcasting media and aggressive special-interest group lobbies. I just don’t see how that constitutes a principled argument for the retention of the CBC as a taxpayer-supported broadcaster.

  • paul

    balbulican answered murray very well.
    Come to think of it, I had heard that argument–that one purpose for publicly funding is to reach out of the way places that aren’t profitable. Kind of like the railway lines, cable/dsl debates–outside of the big city corridors, for-profits don’t want to waste their time in the sticks.
    Maybe someone has some ideas, I don’t. Smells of socialization, though…

  • balbulican

    “Right. And so the solution is…to force all Canadians to pay for their news and entertainment? How is this different from taxpayer subsidies of seasonal unemployment in the East Coast fisheries or the West Coast forests?”
    It’s not much different from both of those things. Canada isn’t a corporation operating a series of linked profit centres. It’s a political federation which subsidizes certain services deemed to be in the national interest. We’ve decided, for instance, that it’s in the national interest to subsidize a postal service so that you can mail a letter from Yellowknife to Nain as cheaply as you can from Toronto to Scarboro. Similarly, we’ve decided that it’s in the national interest to subsidize a national public broadcaster.
    I say “we”, because every federal commission on broadcasting in Canada, including those initiated by governments hostile to public broadcasting, reports that Canadians want a publicly funded national medium (most recently the Commons Heritage Committee on Broadcasting). So a simple “principled” justification for the CBC is…most Canadians want it.
    “Canadians who live in remote locations can pay for their own media if it means that much to them. How about a Northern Broadcasting Network?”
    I take it you are not a Canadian living in a remote location? Your point is fine for the folks who can afford satellite dishes…most can’t.
    Re Australia: a couple of points. As you know, ABC is a national public network, funded by taxpayers. There are also several other specialty services funded by taxpayer, including CAAMA, the Aboriginal network, and others. The Australian content on the “private” Australian networks is largely subsidized by the state through contribution agreements, tax and production credits: most of the revenue generated by the privates, as in Canada, comes from broadcasting low cost, high-sponsorship American programming.
    Your point is basically that if the market can’t support a service, the government shouldn’t. I think that view is one that distinguishes Canadians from our American brethren in a number of areas, including health care, broadcasting, state subsidized scientific research, and a host of other areas. I’ll stick with the CBC.

  • murray

    Canada shouldn’t be “a corporation operating a series of linked profit centres”, no, but neither should it be in the business of transferring wealth from all taxpayers so that a small minority can enjoy the dubious benefits of the CBC. I guess we disagree in that I don’t see broadcasting as being an essential service in the same way that postal and telephone services are (and even then, I’d support higher user fees for remote locations). Were I a Canadian living in a remote location, I would say the same thing–on principle.
    I don’t think the market is everything, but I am sensitive to opportunity costs, and I am utterly unconvinced that–given all the pressing demands on public funds–the CBC is in any way a good use of scarce resources. I accept that most Canadians may disagree, but that doesn’t alter my argument.
    I appreciate your points on Australia. Consider me corrected, though you’ll note I excluded the ABC from my list of Australian content vendors. Australians have a high demand for Australian content, and I believe that they would continue to do so in the absence of the governmental rules you mention. Canadian culture is much more moribund, in my view, and it’s quite possible that it would become even smaller in the absence of public broadcasting. Unlike you, however, I don’t think it’d be a great loss, based on current evidence.
    And yes, I’m way too familiar with the great Canadian invocation of Statism as National Identity. Some of us would like to change that. Fortunately for you, we’re highly unlikely to succeed. Thanks for the stimulating conversation.

  • balbulican

    “Canadian culture is much more moribund, in my view, and it’s quite possible that it would become even smaller in the absence of public broadcasting.”
    Don’t know about the “moribund”, but your statement suggests that we agree…public broadcasting promotes supports Canadian culture.
    Good chat. Thanks!

  • http://www.edlundart.com/ Bard Edlund

    “the Canadian public is forced to subsidize a broadcaster that few spend much time watching or listening to.”
    what are the numbers? i assume you are right since no-one is challenging your point about ratings, but as for Norway’s NRK, its ratings are very good despite strong competition. its new broadcasts are either #1 or #2, and much of its other programming also positions it as the number one broadcaster in the country. i believe German public channels have good ratings as well, and certainly the BBC scores high.
    as for the CBC; even if its ratings are low, some might argue that having the service is in the national interest, as balbulican eloquently proposes. in the US it is difficult to find support for such ideas, but it is nevertheless how a lot of people in other countries think.
    i agree it is debatable if public broadcasting is as important as healthcare or police protection etc, but i feel it is a legitimate idea to expand public services to include quality broadcasting. others may disagree, and that’s fine… but if you do accept the idea that a country benefits from a quality broadcasting alternative that is not controlled by corporations, then the argument of
    “let the people who want it pay for it” is somewhat shortsighted. i mean, this is pretty much how American healthcare “works.” in other words, the people who most need it don’t get it.

  • Dave G.

    First, to Balbulican, who laments that “We don’t have the population base to maintain an original production industry without federal support.” Canadians have a huge market directly to their south – the U.S. If Canadians produced good quality films and T.V. shows, they’d find a very accessable market ready to buy their offerings. We’d even watch French movies if they ever produced any good ones (which they do, once every 10 years or so).
    As for the debate on public vs. private ownership of BBC and CBC, it seems that everyone is looking at it in purely black and white terms – either it should be subsidized or it should be privatized. I think there is an alternative that has the potential to create a new and unique institution serving the people far better than those entities currently do.
    Democratize the BBC and CBC. By that, I do not mean that the Board of Directors should be voted on, although such an idea has promise. There are ways in which a true diversity of viewpoints can be achieved: liberal, conservative, and “other”. Allot time for each ideological group to run their own programs, issue their own commentary and interpretations of the news, and even critique each other’s news delivery and analysis. The great fault, it seems to me, is that these institutions get a bias (liberal, socialist, and anti-American from what I can see) and stay that way. They do not represent all the people whom they tax. They are not inclusive.
    Americans had a rallying cry leading up to their revolution: “No taxation without representation”. The same principle could be applied to publicly owned television and radio. But instead of getting rid of the taxation by privatizing them, why not find novel ways to broaden the represention? Not only would it likely curb the ideological excess that has become commonplace, but I think it might make things interesting enough so the viewership gets a big boost, too.

  • john o’donoghue

    Does no-one else find it ironic that the BBC is deemed a state broadcaster – and therefore evil – when it is justly famed for standing up to the Blair government, as it also did to the Thatcher govt. the Wilson govt., the Macmillan govt…..
    Pure evil. [/sarcsam]
    It’s worth

  • balbulican

    “If Canadians produced good quality films and T.V. shows, they’d find a very accessable market ready to buy their offerings.” Thanks, we do: the proliferation of specialty and digital services, both in the States and world wide, has been pretty good to us. But…American audiences (excluding the Art House set) tend to prefer American product, not surprisingly.
    From your comments about the democratization of CBC, I suspect you haven’t actually seen very much of their programming. I personally find the range of views represented pretty diverse. The left, of course, sees the CBC as a hopelessly right wing institution, while the right is sure that the network is infested with Bolsheviks. Since they manage to piss pretty much everyone off at one time or another, I figure they must be reasonably diverse.

  • murray

    And I thought I was done with this topic :).
    Bard Edlund: You’re quite right to call me on the issue of ratings, because on reflection, I realize that they’re not material to the principle of whether or not governments should subsidize state broadcasters. But if ratings are as high as you say, surely that proves that those broadcasters don’t need public funds?
    Public broadcasters do generally come at issues from the Left, which is natural given the arts/humanities backgrounds of most state-funded media personnel, and although it bothers me, it’s not really that relevant to the issue of whether they should exist at all. A publicly-funded conservative broadcaster would be no better.

  • http://www.edlundart.com/ Bard Edlund

    thanks everyone for a good and polite conversation. murray:
    if ratings are as high as you say, surely that proves that those broadcasters don’t need public funds?
    if you look at it from a purely financial perspective, then yeah. but therein lies the problem. public funding means the broadcasters don’t need to please advertisers, which in turn means less of a focus on winning the ratings and a stronger ability to create quality programming. and that is my whole argument for public broadcasting vs commercial broadcasting.
    from a financial perspective, “Bad Boys II” is doing better than “Winged Migration.” nevertheless, there is an argument to be made that “Winged Migration” is a product of higher quality. taking this back to the tv arena; not everyone will agree with my quality assessment, but without public broadcasting, we are left with a market in which 99 “Bad Boys II” products are made for every 1 “Winged Migration.” with public broadcasting, depending on the market, the distribition can be more like 70-30.
    in other words, public broadcasting offers a quality choice that wouldn’t otherwise be there.