Must-carry TV (5): Starlight’s cash grab, advocacy research

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In post #3, I did some analysis of part of the national survey conducted by Canadian Heritage last fall and put into presentation form as Canadians’ Attitudes and Opinions Towards Canadian Feature Films (it’s taken from the full version that in report form goes by the name Canadian Books, Film, Music, and Periodicals Opinion Survey).

Today I’m adding a further critique of this kind of advocacy research, in the guise of the survey commissioned by Starlight for the current must-carry proceeding (they included both pieces of research in their application). Both surveys exploit similar tricks of the trade, with one big difference between them: the Starlight survey addresses the highly sensitive matter of price. But first…

Quick Web roundup

For anyone who’s following the current excitement in Gatineau, but hasn’t seen all the good commentary, here are three nice items that have appeared in the last couple of days:

* Cartt.ca has a report by Perry Hoffman entitled 9(1)(h) Hearing: Commission making it obvious that clearing the “exceptional” bar will be very tough (here behind pay wall). The interesting theme captured in the title is that Blais has made the criteria as tough as possible. Interesting take for me, since I’ve written that the criteria are flawed because they make it too easy for a particular panel to justify any decisions they want to make.

* Michael Geist is now at four posts and counting. Today’s comment argues – in a way suggestive of the Cartt.ca piece – that the CRTC’s criteria are deliberately and justifiably set very high. So high, as Michael says, it seems improbable any supplicant is likely to meet them, except maybe Starlight.

* George Burger wrote a biting op-ed in yesterday’s Financial Post headed Movie channel cash grab. My favorite zinger is Burger saying the Starlight cash grab is a dip “into the pockets of hardworking Canadians by people whose idea of hardship is having a suite on the Riviera without a sea-view.” Booyah!

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Before we leave this little roundup, I want to cite one remark from the actual hearing. The Hoffman piece at Cartt.ca quotes an astounding rationalization for mandatory carriage from Tuesday’s testimony. It comes courtesy of Stornoway Communications, applicant for the Fusion Television service:

… Fusion Television does meet the exceptional need requirement because it helps bring youth back to the TV platform. The company proposes to do this through an interactive TV channel that incorporates the social media conversation that Canadian youth are so engaged in.

Sure, and let’s bring back the dinosaurs while we’re at it. Have these people been living in a cave? Do they think the Internet is a fad that will finally let go of our young people so they can bring linear, must-carry, top-down TV back to life? Have they read the audience research? Take this current example: some US research shows viewership to streaming programs cannibalizes TV viewing – big surprise. Will that streaming audience suddenly drop the Internet and head back to TV? Not bloody likely.

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Another survey “proves” Canadians are dying to pay for more channels

Which brings us back to the Starlight survey. In this commissioned research, Starlight wades into the trade-off between patriotism and willingness to pay (survey report uploaded here). It’s a slick piece of work, with all the right trappings. Here’s how the researchers handle the all-important cost trade-off:

Would you support the CRTC adding [Starlight] to the basic services you receive via cable or satellite, meaning that everyone would have access to it and a charge of 3 cents a day would be added to your bill from your TV service provider? [my emphasis]

And the answer is… Yes! From no less than 70% of their online panel. As I’ve said previousy, even if numbers like these are an accurate reflection of what people are thinking at the time, they provide absolutely no guarantee of what viewers will actually choose to watch – especially when they’re confronted not with Canadian movies as an abstraction but particular movies on the screen, with their particular strengths and weaknesses. Yes, this kind of question gets asked all the time in marketing research. I’m not saying the methodology is unheard of. I am saying two other things…

One is that consumer survey results have costs and benefits in policymaking that aren’t part of the research models that go into selling cars and soapflakes. The other is a point that’s been made by a number of pundits. If so many Canadians want to pay every month for the rest of their lives for more Canadian movies, then why the hell does Starlight need mandatory carriage?

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TV subcribers in Canada are billed by the month (or longer), not by the day. But of course 3 cents a day sounds more like a bargain than a buck a month or $11 a year. Moreover, in this context, you won’t be seeing any other monetary trade-offs, such as the grim prospect the Commission might approve all 16 new applicants. If that were to happen, the poor sub who thought she was going to be paying 3 cents a day might be facing the prospect of paying 10 times that amount or more on her bill.

Another way of putting the 3 cents a day into perspective is to add up the amount of money the Starlight principals will collect over the standard 7-year licence term. As George Burger points out in his op-ed, as have others, all those Canadian movies we’re apparently dying to see have – almost without exception – been subsidized over the years to the tune of billions of dollars collected from taxpayers and TV subscribers. Burger adds:

So, instead of reaching into their pockets, and giving back to the system and the people that enriched them, and launching such a service on their own, at their risk, [the Starlight applicants] are going back to the well, seeking over $300-million over seven years. Based on the costs of delivery and markups by BDUs, that would cost Canadians over $700-million.

But the applicants’ poke at collecting the money is just pro forma anyway. The real pitch to the Commissioners lies elsewhere and gets far more attention. That would be the flag-waving, fuzzy-wuzzy bag of cultural goodies that make the survey respondents sound like they’d all love to volunteer to work as gofers on Canadian film sets, the better to boost the careers of our hard-working gaffers, actors and directors.

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The researchers were thus at pains to elicit as many feel-good pieces of wishful thinking as they could dream up. In an unusual ploy, they asked respondents to rate a number of cultural arguments according to how persuasive they found them. Here’s a sample of the propositions respondents were tested on:

  • When Canadian feature films are made this helps employ lots of talented people and creates economic benefits for the communities where the films are shot. [Note how they characterize people working on films as “talented people,” not plain old “people,”a nice exploitation of an unavoidable presupposition.]
  • Canadian actors can compete with the best anywhere in the world and a channel like this can help more of them succeed. [You can’t agree with the first part of this conjunction – of course we can compete, maybe leaving aside Brad Pitt and Julia Roberts – without also agreeing with the second part, making you a staunch Starlight advocate.]
  • Helping young Canadians get their creative projects in front of a larger audience is a great part of this proposal. [Ah yes, it’s the young people – how can you not be a supporter of the young people, or are you some kind of asshole?]
  • Canadians subsidize the production of Canadian feature films with our tax credits but these days they are often not shown to people, so a channel like this would allow our investment as taxpayers to work harder. [Don’t they mean make taxpayers work harder? Dear taxpayers, since you’ve already invested billions in us, why waste it by leaving our movies on the shelf? No opportunity to explore what is meant by “not often shown to people.” What does that mean exactly? Canadian broadcasters don’t carry Canadian content?]
  • Organizations like the Toronto International Film Festival are enthusiastic supporters of this channel and believe it will be good for the Canadian economy. [Yes – especially good for star fuckers, five-star hotels and chic restaurants where you couldn’t get a reservation at festival time anyway, let alone get into the champagne room.]
  • Regardless of whether I or other people might watch this channel, we should get behind it because of the opportunities it means for Canada to compete in the global entertainment market. [Can you believe 66% of these respondents agreed very strongly or strongly this argument was persuasive? Two-thirds of the population is apparently prepared to sit at home not watching this channel, content in knowing the Starlight executive team can compete well enough to get a Mediterranean view at the Martinez in Cannes. My God, we’re a selfless people.]

Quite apart from all the sophistry going on in these particular arguments, they collectivelyuncle-sam-maple-leaf-2 have a much greater shortcoming: they’re meaningless in terms of the real-world decision-making viewers undertake when they’re picking something to watch on TV tonight. The great unwashed public mostly don’t care about the nationality of the fare they pick – never mind whether they’ll be helping some young, upcoming director, or boosting the economy, or saving the broadcasting system from American cultural imperialists.

In other words, there’s a deliberate but meaningless connection being made here between social policy goals and what living, breathing Canadians are aware of, what they may or not be in favor of, and what they actually watch on the boob tube.

To cite one more zinger from George Burger: These hearings represent the point where greed and cultural policy intersect.

D.E.