January 30, 2001
Saul enters CBC debate
Private TV 'in panic mode': Obsession with convergence will play itself out, author says
by Chris Cobb, with files from Barbara Shecter
OTTAWA - Author John Ralston Saul, husband of Governor-General Adrienne Clarkson, waded into the debate over the future of the CBC yesterday, describing private broadcasters as "dinosaurs in panic mode" and saying Canada needs a healthy public broadcaster now more than ever.
In a speech critical of media mega mergers and broadcasters' attitudes toward audiences, he said television underestimates the intelligence and attention spans of audiences. He urged the CBC to nurture its mandate and provide Canadians with the platforms to communicate with one another.
"The need for public broadcasting is greater today than it has been since the 1930s, '40s and '50s," he told delegates at Public Broadcasting in a Private Age, an Ottawa conference sponsored by Carleton University and the Canadian Media Guild. "Everybody who is smart in bureaucracies and governments around the Western world now knows that public broadcasting is one of the most important remaining levers that a nation state has to communicate with itself."
The 53-year-old novelist and philosopher said the most difficult problems in broadcasting are being faced by private TV and radio around the world, not taxpayer-funded public broadcasters.
"We are in a period of enormous uncertainty, but more a period of greater uncertainty for private broadcasters. Private, as we know it, is in the rapid process of disappearing. You can tell from the disorder in the private sector – the disorder of convergence and the multiplication of channels ... "
In today's Speech from the Throne, the Governor-General is expected to mention the CBC and possibly some specific government commitment to the public broadcaster's future. During the federal election campaign, the Chrétien Liberals made a vague commitment of support for the CBC's role of "linking Canadians to one another and reflecting Canada's diversity to Canadians and the world."
Mr. Saul said Western democracies are recognizing the increasing importance of having a public broadcaster with an arm's length relationship to government. On a recent visit to Germany he said he found an example of why.
"I was told that they have a major problem. There are so many American police and courtroom dramas on German TV that when police go out to arrest people they are saying 'You have to read me my rights' or 'I want trial by jury,' which has nothing to do with the German legal system at all."
Private broadcasters have a clear focus on profit with content "increasingly the filler," he said.
"I'm not insulting them, that's what has happened. And there are exceptions. There are some very good things happening in the private sector in Canada."
The only role for a public broadcaster, he said, is to deliver content: "Any attempt to make public broadcasting like private broadcasting misses the point of why the thing exists."
The current obsession with convergence, predicted Mr. Saul, is a fashion cycle that will play itself out.
"What you're watching in these gigantic mergers is the last desperate steps as the dinosaurs get bigger, bigger and bigger because they can't feed themselves. So the only way out is to eat more and more and there will be less competition and everything will be fine. In fact, the bigger they get the more impossible it becomes for them to survive."
Public broadcasters should stop being obsessed by ratings, which in a multi-channel universe have become increasingly irrelevant.
He also urged television to become more substantial and to stop assuming audiences are incapable of concentrating for anything other than brief periods.
"Say something interesting and people will stay with you."
Commenting on the speech, Gerry Noble, chief executive of Global Communications Ltd., which includes the Global television network, said: "Television is still very much defined as a sports and entertainment arena, with news and information ... as the third primary focus of what television audiences want.
"That's what the audience wants. Is this guy saying simply that's not good TV or it's not the television he wants to watch?"
A spokesman for CTV said the network would have no comment on the speech.
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