Sunday, March 29, 2009

Public Broadcasting: More Elite = Better Journalism


One of the worst insults you can hurl at a public broadcaster is the accusation of
"elitism."

As the CBC and NPR struggle through the recession, questions are raised about the purpose of public broadcasting in this environment. For the CBC, it's a particularly sore subject since the CBC takes around C$700 million (US$550m) annually in support as allocated by the Canadian parliament.

NPR, on the other hand, takes almost no money from Congress. Around 1% of its annual budget of US$180m comes from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting for new program initiatives. PBS takes more because the economy of scale makes television a more expensive proposition.

So the CBC - radio and television, in French and English has long debated just how "popular" it should be to justify taking money from the taxpayers.

As my friend and former CBC colleague Karl Nerenberg says, "Some think CBC may have already hurt itself by being too populist. But it has always been a tails they win, heads you lose situation for CBC TV. If they focus on quality and do not get big audiences, they're too elitist and not worthy of public $$. If they try for bigger gross tonnage with more "pop" fare -- then, the response is: who needs to pay them to do what commercial broadcasters already do! In a way, CBC can't win."

The question is, who is accusing the CBC of elitism? And does the criticism have any value in this media environment?

Ironically, there seem to be two kinds of critics who attack public broadcasting as elitist. The first is from commercial broadcasters and their allies in the media who use the charge of elitism (or worse, even "left wing elitism") every time public broadcasting starts to win in the ratings.

The other charge of elitism comes from those producers of so-called popular programs who like things the way they are, and whose definition of success is derived from the commercial side of the street. But in a media landscape where so much content looks and sounds the same, that would argue for public broadcasting to be substantially different from the rest.

More significantly, some media analysts have claimed that around 30% of all media consumers are people who are significant contributors in the world of public policy. Doesn't the media in general and public broadcasting in particular have an obligation to give them the information they need to make informed decisions?

Or should we be satisfied with simply amusing ourselves to death, as Neil Postman so accurately put it?

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