William Watson: For an even less popular CBC, yes, eliminate ads

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William Watson: For an even less popular CBC, yes, eliminate ads
© Provided by Financial Post A view of the current logo of CBC in Edmonton’s downtown.

Should the CBC run ads? It depends on a number of facts, most of which are not firmly established.

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Is topping-up the CBC’s budget so as to free it from the necessity of selling $250 million of ads per year really the best use of public money? It’s hard to believe it is. Making CBC ad-free, as cultural nationalists have long demanded, seems a marginal sort of expenditure whose only saving grace is that many of the other things this government would do with the money are even lesser-value spending. Could we not buy the front end of an ice-breaker instead? Or a few guns for our soldiers? Or cut tax rates by a decimal point or two? Of course, in our system the government gets to decide and if no other party opposes it, and none seems ready to, ad-free will probably go through.

Will the private sector inherit the CBC’s ad money? It depends how advertisers spend. If there’s a fixed supply of ad money in the economy and Parliament says $250 million per year now can’t go to CBC, maybe it will all make its way to private broadcasters and newspapers instead. But maybe some CBC audiences really are unique, so there are no private substitutes. If advertisers are buying access to eyeballs and eardrums, and the eyeballs and eardrums don’t move away from CBC after the ad ban, does that mean advertisers will double-down on the eyeballs and eardrums provided by private producers, spending $250 million a year more on them? Not necessarily.

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Will CBC programming now be uninterrupted? Will we now get 14 more minutes of The National, for instance? (Second prize, two weeks in Buffalo, as the old joke goes.) Also not likely. The corporation and its unions will argue that unless there’s a net increase in budget, not just a substitution of tax revenue for ad revenue, they can’t expand airtime. And in cases where the goal is to re-sell programming to foreign operators, some of them commercial, CBC will want to build in gaps to accommodate foreigners’ ads. In Montreal, where I watch CBC TV, they obviously have trouble selling ads so instead we get tons of promos for upcoming CBC programming. That presumably will become the norm across the country. Enjoy!

Would banning ads ban something that’s dying anyway? I suppose people do still watch TV ads; if not, advertisers wouldn’t buy the air time. But in my household we watch virtually everything “on tape,” as the phrase still goes, even live sports, and zip through the ads. (If you start watching about an hour after puck drop, and skip all ads and both intermissions, you “catch up” to the live broadcast just in time for overtime, if there is one. Set your phone aside, though, if you don’t want to see the score.)

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Some advertisers have adjusted by making their ad the equivalent of a still picture, so you can’t miss it even on fast forward. Or they mimic the show: On the channel where I watch Jeopardy, one advertiser does that so you stop tape when you see the famous blue answer board on screen, only to find that you’re actually watching an insurance ad. I know it’s coming but it gets me every time.

Will CBC programming change if it goes commercial-free? That’s the $250 million question. A good thing about advertising is that it does follow audiences, so if you are getting some of your revenue from ads, you presumably have at least something of an audience (unless they’re government ads, which may be allocated according to other criteria than eyeballs).

If you are running a broadcast system, you presumably want it to be popular — in the sense that lots of people watch it. So advertising is a perfectly adequate way to support popular programming. And so are streaming and direct pay. If lots of people want to watch your service, we now have the technology — we didn’t used to — to get them to pay. For this sort of programming, the private sector works brilliantly. Whether indirectly through advertising or directly through subscription or sale, money can be made producing programming people actually watch. Lots of producers evidently are interested in making money. Which means that material that is popular and therefore potentially profitable can be left to the private sector.

It follows you should use public funds to support programming that is not popular — a job that, judging by its ratings, the CBC already does brilliantly. Of course, the point is not just to have a tiny audience but to provide some sort of public service that is not otherwise available. That could be discussion, debate or documentation — though of facts and issues that are of interest all across the political spectrum, not just on the Left, as is usually the case on CBC. In too many instances, moreover, the “public” benefit aimed at seems mainly to be jobs for the people supplying the programming, including various categories of “content-providers.” Our family’s main exposure to CBC entertainment is the annual New Year’s Eve show. There is no better way to enjoy songs you’ve never heard by singers you’ve never heard of.

Do we want CBC to have audiences? Or do we prefer it not have audiences? If the latter, all-tax finance will almost certainly do the trick.

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