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How are we gearing up for New TV and Radio Services?

Nov 8, 2011

ABU General Assembly 2011
The LaLit, New Delhi
Professional Discussion
2:00 pm, November 8, 2011

Remarks by Ian Morrison
Spokesperson, FRIENDS of Canadian Broadcasting

Thanks to ABU for the chance to contribute to this timely professional discussion!

First, a word of context, so you can evaluate my comments on "gearing up for new radio and television services".

FRIENDS of Canadian Broadcasting is an independent watchdog for Canadian programming on radio, television and new media. We keep an eye on the audio-visual system from a listeners' and viewers' point of view, including public policy, technological and societal developments. We are located somewhat to the east of Samoa. FRIENDS is supported financially by 150,000 Canadians, and we are not affiliated with any broadcaster or political party.

For almost a century, ever since the dawn of the radio age, my country has been inundated by the full force of American audio-visual culture. As you may know, exporting entertainment is now more important to the United States' balance of payments than its aerospace industry. Many of you will be familiar with the export of American cultural products - but we Canadians were the very first to experience these exports!

The concentration of our population close to the American border, and also, for almost 80% of us, a shared language, have exposed us to everything that Hollywood has to offer - ever since there has been a Hollywood.

As a result, English-speaking Canadians have long struggled to ensure shelf-space for Canadian choices on radio, television and now - new media. Two-thirds of what we watch comes from outside our country, principally entertainment programs from our southern neighbour.

Because we analyze country-of-origin data as a regular part of our content research, we also know that 98% of what Americans watch over-the-air is American in origin. [1] This means that a typical American might watch television for two weeks before seeing a single non-American program - whereas a typical Canadian will see two American programs each evening, along with programming from the rest of the world.

Our supporters are preoccupied with values. They see non-fiction programming as a bulwark for democratic participation, and fiction programming as fundamental to a sense of belonging and identity. Because Canada is a young and small country in the shadow of a much larger country to our south, and also because so many of our fellow citizens hail from cultures all around the world, Canadians value multiculturalism, and look to our audio-visual system to help newcomers experience and integrate in our society.

We are noticing increasing gaps between haves and have-nots in Canada. This is a major preoccupation, as is a decline in our electoral participation.

When FRIENDS evaluates our media system, we are interested in its capacity to respond to societal problems. We do not believe that media should be "driven by the rapid advances in technology". Nor do we believe that technology is "shaping the content strategies and services that broadcasters offer to the audiences". [2] Technology is merely a means to an end - it is plumbing, not water - and we consider technological determinism to be dangerous.

Broadcasters love digital television, not just because it saves money, but also because it builds relationships, hence brand loyalty, by creating a return path. Yet the digital divide has disenfranchised a minority of Canadians, many of them elderly and impoverished, by ending their effective access to free-to-air programming, and thereby cutting them off from information that enables their social participation. Of course they have a choice, but that choice is between reducing further their standard of living or cutting themselves off from their electronic community. (Theoretically, they could also move to India, where, as we learned today, public policy would ensure that they received the digital content without cost.)

In my country, listening and viewing times increase with age. Hence older people are the heaviest users, yet their value to advertisers is far lower than younger people, in part because youth are harder to reach. This can skew broadcasters' decision-making, with societal priorities diverging from economic incentives.

FRIENDS has sponsored public opinion research to gain insight into Canadians' viewing and listening priorities. If you are interested, they are all available at "friends.ca". Here are a few highlights:

  • When asked to express a preference between getting more channels, improving the quality of programs or having popular programs repeated more often, 57% of Canadians chose improving quality, 19% more channels and 17% program repetition.
  • 88% of Canadians agree that as Canada's economic ties with the United States increase, it is becoming more important to strengthen Canadian culture and identity.
  • 81% of Canadians agree that our national public broadcaster (the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) is one of the things that helps distinguish Canada from the United States.

I report these data, not because the specific results would interest you, but rather because such values indicators are examples of a compass to help assess the cost-benefit of various technological options, and to underline the public's priority for content over pipes.

Some new technologies are of universal benefit, such as time-shifting and podcasting, which enable a shared viewing and listening experience on a non-linear basis. Scottish ITV, for example, reports that Scots watch 33 hours of television weekly, 9% of it time-shifted.

Some technologies can have unanticipated and possibly dangerous effects, such as influencing brain plasticity or changing neurological processes: for example, shortening attention spans.

A recent New York Times article by Martin Lindstrom [3] tracked iPhone users through magnetic resonance imaging and identified that "the subjects' brains responded to the sound of their phones as they would respond to the presence or proximity of a girlfriend, boyfriend or a family member". While this is no doubt of benefit to Apple Computer, and there is no doubt that an iPhone is a "new and enhanced technology", it raises significant ethical questions, especially when iPhones are placed in the hands of children and youth.

In the same article, Lindstrom reported a telling anecdote: "This past summer, I gathered a group of 20 babies between the ages of 14 and 20 months. I handed each one a BlackBerry. No sooner had the babies grasped the phones than they swiped their little fingers across the screens as if they were iPhones, seemingly expecting the screens to come to life. It appears that a whole new generation is being primed to navigate the world of electronics in a ritualized, Apple-approved way."

The fast-growing phenomenon of hybrid television, where the Internet is linked to TV sets, presents many benefits to viewers, but at the same time, it contributes to much greater fragmentation of viewing as it multiplies choices, making it more difficult for broadcasters to accumulate and measure sufficient audience to amortize the cost of high production-value programming - which research shows is what viewers want.

I conclude with a few examples of values that provide a lens to evaluate technological choices.

In a geographically diverse country such as mine, the provision of local programming is inherently more expensive on a cost-per-viewer or listener basis than country-wide programming, or imported programming. One way to evaluate a new technology is to assess its capacity to reduce the cost of local programming.

Another issue is the tension between two competing values, on the one hand, delivering eyeballs to advertisers and on the other, delivering programming to citizens. (ABU's Secretary General referred to this tension in his report to yesterday's AGM.) One can ask where a specific technology fits on this continuum. The choice will seldom be value-free.

Finally, because the share of a country's resources available for broadcasting is necessarily limited - think of it as a broadcasting pie - when a decision is made to adopt an expensive new technology, what often happens is a concurrent, and perhaps ill-considered decision to reduce investment in another technology. In my country, radio has been impoverished in this manner, thereby reducing the supply of story-telling without pictures - a light, portable medium, which stimulates a different part of the brain.

My message is: let's keep our eyes and ears on the people who use radio, television and new media. Their values matter, and go far beyond entertainment and diversion. Their needs include the full panoply of human experience: learning, imagining, adapting, improvising, creating, loving and feeling. When choosing among new technologies, we should answer the question of how each will address our audience's needs.

This lens puts new technologies such as 3DTV and Wrap-around Sound into a new perspective.

Thank you!

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For information:  Ian Morrison friends@friends.ca


[1] These data are based on analysis of the content of stations broadcasting adjacent to the Canadian border.

[2] Both quotations are to be found in the ABU's description of this session.

[3] Martin, Lindstrom, New York Times, September 30, 2011: "You Love your iPhone. Literally."