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Does Canada need the CBC on the "Information Highway"?

Public Broadcasting and the Internet

by Wade Rowland

© Wade Rowland

We have a robust reputation here in Canada for being "early adopters" of new technologies. And so it's no real surprise that about four million of us have dabbled with the Internet and fully forty percent of our households have a personal computer. Those of us who have Internet access spend more time surfing than we do sitting in front of or TV sets, and as a nation we spend more time on the Net than we do watching rented videos.

Inveterate communicators - we spend more time on the telephone than any other people - we seem to have taken to the Internet like ducks to water.

Foreigners find us eccentric when it comes to our obsession with national identity, but no true denizen of the Great White North will be surprised to learn that when the Gallup organization last asked, a majority of us (52.7 percent, according Gallup) confessed we were worried about the risks to Canadian cultural identity lurking in the long shadow cast by the new interactive, digital technologies dubbed the "information highway".

Sixty years ago, the nation faced similar good news-bad news prospects from the miraculous new technology called radio. Our parents and grandparents' generations, awash in a flood of American broadcasting that no physical barrier could restrain, responded by launching the CBC as a lifeboat for Canadian cultural identity. Later on, it was adapted to play the same role in television.

The question arises: do we need a CBC on the so-called information highway?

It is a question the CBC itself should be addressing as an urgent priority. Because there is genuine opportunity hidden in the coincidence of the rise of the new technologies, and the crisis of purpose that's paralyzed the seemingly rudderless public broadcaster.

The CBC was born as both a creator and distributor of programs in the 1930's.Then, as now, private broadcasters in Canada saw the quickest and easiest way to tap into the market here was simply to rebroadcast American content and sell Canadian commercials around it. By creating the Canadian Radio Broadcasting Commission (later the CBC) the government of the day intended to ensure that there would be a venue on the airwaves for programming of, by and for Canadians. And with one eye on the BBC in Britain, they designed a vehicle that would reflect a more diverse range of tastes than was catered to by the private American networks. As a public broadcaster, CBC was to be there to enrich our lives and enlighten us in ways in which commercial broadcasters either could not or would not.

Broadcasting, public or private, is by definition "point-to-multipoint" transmission of content. The station transmits programming through an antenna, and many receivers at remote locations pull in the signal. A program is deemed successful if many receivers are tuned in; a failure if few are tuned in.

The fly in the ointment is that "size of audience" is in no sense an accurate or reliable reflection of the value of the program being watched. It is capable only of establishing relative value, that is, value placed on it by viewers relative to their other viewing options at that time.

Programming of high artistic value or of genuine informational worth is not, generally speaking, mass market programming. It has a relatively small constituency. Only the obtuse, however, would argue that this means it has little real value. Nevertheless, in the world of broadcasting it means precisely that, because the only measurement of value is a relative one which pits Tom Stoppard against Aaron Spelling, with disastrous results for you know who.

Public broadcasting was and is, in part, an attempt to correct this flaw in the functioning of the market. The theory is that government assigns a value to worthwhile program content for which there is only limited demand, and it subsidizes its production and distribution from the public purse. In the case of the CBC, the assigned value is about a billion dollars a year, which is the annual government subsidy to the Corporation.

From the beginning there has been a healthy tension between public and private broadcasting in Canada, with each side claiming to be the truly democratic face of the media. The truth is, most of the democratic content was wrung out of both radio and television well before the first soap opera appeared on radio and certainly long before the first horse opera showed up on television.

In Empire of the Air, the companion book to the 1993 PBS series on the inventors of radio, Tom Lewis makes the argument that, while "...the telegraph and telephone were instruments for private communication between two individuals...the radio was democratic; it directed its message to the masses and allowed one person to communicate with many."

But if you think about it for a moment, it seems a peculiar idea: how does the picture of, "one person communicat(ing) with many..." fit with the image of democracy? Wouldn't a democratic medium foster two-way communication, the ability of the "many" to communicate with the "one" and with each other?

Broadcasting as it is practiced today - or "point-to-multipoint" transmission of programming - is in no sense, neither metaphorical nor in practical, a democratic process. Television, like radio (and newspapers) is a "mass medium" only in the sense that it is accessible to the masses. This is of course quite a different thing than being a medium of the masses (as in "government of, by and for the people"), which television and the other mass media clearly are not.

It wasn't always like that, however. In its earliest years, radio actually was accessible to everyone. Plans for transmitters and receivers were published in magazines and anyone with a technical bent and a few dollars to buy components could put together a radio station.

There were no professionals... all radio was amateur radio, an art form which persists to this day in a much proscribed and heavily regulated form. I have, in fact, in front of me as I write a shoe box-sized piece of equipment with which I regularly talk to other amateur radio operators all over the world. With a relatively small expenditure, I could turn it into a television station, and many hams do just that. Anyone who cares to, can eavesdrop on our conversations.

Ham radio is a kind of phantom limb, a vestige of the possibilities held out by radio early in this century in its potential to be a medium for communication of and among people rather than to them ‹ in other words, a democratic medium.

But before that potential could be properly explored and developed the course of media history was forever altered when AT&T invented the first practical means of making money with radio.

In a system that would now be called barter, AT&T rented air time on its station WEAF in New York to an assortment of companies which presented programming on a "brought to you by" basis similar to what one sees nowadays on American PBS. There was "The Eveready Variety Hour" brought to you by Eveready batteries; music by the "Cliquot Club Eskimos" brought to you by Cliquot ginger ale and entertainment sponsored by American Express, Tidewater Oil and soon, Proctor and Gamble and Heinz.

Audiences and revenue were both tiny by today's standards, but it was a beginning. Very quickly, AT&T realized that it could extend its reach and thereby spread its costs over a bigger audience by linking stations together with telephone lines. Soon after that, Westinghouse, RCA and General Electric got together to buy out WEAF and set up a network of their own, which they called the National Broadcasting Company, or NBC.

That was 1926 and it marked the end of radio as an interactive or two-way medium accessible to the many, and the beginning of radio as a passive medium run by large corporations who controlled both the means of production and the distribution infrastructure. Very soon thereafter government regulation, not just in America but throughout the world, shut down the remaining vestiges of true public access to the airwaves by limiting the spectrum available for broadcasting and controlling the number of broadcasters through a complex and expensive licencing process.

By the 1930's you needed deep pockets and good political connections to get into broadcasting.

Which brings us back to the CBC. The fathers of public broadcasting in this country wanted to encourage quality programming and Canadian content, but they had no more interest in promoting widespread public access to the tools of programming on the airwaves than did their counterparts in commercial radio. The CBC's mandate was nationalist and maybe even elitist, but not democratic.

As was the case in private broadcasting, the one-way nature of the technology, as it had evolved, effectively barred the CBC from being an authentic national forum, a true voice of the people. Nothing illustrates this fact more clearly than the occasional attempts made by inventive CBC producers to override this constraint, sometimes out of genuine concern, and sometimes for appearance's sake.

During the last federal election, for example, and prior to that in the run up to the Meech Lake referendum and subsequently in the Quebec referendum coverage, CBC Television News imported audiences from across Canada to its Toronto studios to meet with politicians for what were called "town hall" forums.

In its obsessive sensitivity to political nuance, it selected the audiences with the help of a polling company, which used a demographic profile of the country to pick people who represented every aspect of Canadian society and every geographic region.

Hundreds of citizens were phoned, grilled and winnowed to produce the final groups, which were flown to Toronto. They were farmers and trades persons, lawyers and teachers, rich and poor, young and old, gay and hetero, black, white and yellow, liberal and conservative, aboriginal and recently arrived. They got, if they were lucky, ten or twenty seconds to ask a question of the invited politicians, provided they could catch the gimlet eye of anchor Peter Mansbridge.

With all the state-of-the-art resources at its disposal, this was as close to a democratic forum as CBC Television News was able to come. It did little to support the illusion of public participation, much less establish the fact.

With the boisterous arrival of networked, interactive multimedia, also called computer-mediated communication, the world is once again excitedly greeting an entirely new communications medium. And this one seems destined to become a meta-medium, overshadowing the rest and reordering our lives in ways we can only dimly foresee.

On the whole, there seems room for optimism with this new vehicle of communication. If recent history is any indicator, it seems remarkably resistant to the kind of commercial and regulatory debasement that corrupted private radio and television and crippled public broadcasting in much of the world, including this country. And if anything, the future looks brighter now than it did as little as a year or two ago, when the future of these technologies was still, in Churchill's phrase, a riddle wrapped in an mystery inside an enigma.

In 1994, the Canadian information highway was going to be a toll road built by your friendly telephone company, on which you would be encouraged to drive rental cars leased from the same folks. In the Spring of that year, the Stentor alliance of Canadian telephone companies announced plans to supplement or replace much of its existing network of copper wires with fibre optic cables. This would ensure ample bandwidth for any and all digital applications from movies on demand to remote learning to custom-tailored stock quotations and newscasts. (An ordinary copper telephone line can carry a single, highly-compressed television signal. A single optical fibre can carry thousands of TV channels, and the fibres are normally bundled, making their capacity virtually unlimited.) By the turn of the century, Canadians were told, the telco information superhighway would be as ubiquitous as cable television nation-wide, and universally available in metropolitan areas even earlier.

At the same time, the telcos announced plans to get into the "content business", by which they meant providing interactive information and entertainment, along with proprietary data services for hospitals, schools, banks and other institutions. They also intended to get into the home shopping business. It was in content that the real money would be made, they knew, and they intended to corner their share of the predicted multi-billion dollar bonanza.

The cable television industry responded with alarm on all fronts, lobbying Ottawa to rein in the telcos' content plans and quickly cobbling together an information highway agenda of its own. It was based on the fact that whereas it would take years to upgrade the phone network to broadband status, the existing cable structure was in many locations already capable of carrying scores, even hundreds of television channels, with its coaxial cables and, in some places, fibre-optic trunks. There was lots of cable bandwidth already in place and the potential to quickly create a lot more.

Interactivity on the cableco highway would be extremely limited due to the small upstream capacity of cable (with its one-way amplifiers used to boost signals along the line), but in 1994 and early 1995, that was not a serious concern. Neither cablecos nor telcos were particularly interested in true interactivity in entertainment services they'd planned: their model was much like the traditional broadcast paradigm, except that viewers would have the power to make program selections and remit payment instantly. In 1994 both industries were still suffering under the delusion that video-on-demand would be the "killer application" for the info highway.

But by mid-1995, all of those expensive and carefully-honed plans were in tatters, shredded in the seismic eruption of the Internet"s World Wide Web. While corporate Canada and America was busy building its top-down business models for a lucrative new entertainment medium, the Internet exploded with sheer energy from the bottom up. Before anybody really knew what was happening, the World Wide Web, with its sophisticated graphic interface and vast content resources and authentic interactivity, had stolen the show. It did so simply by revealing the real potential of interactive multimedia.

For a brief period a two-tiered system seemed possible for the info highway; a narrow band, information-centred tier of text and graphics (the Internet) and a broadband, entertainment-based (and much more profitable) tier controlled by the cable and telco giants. So extraordinary, however, was the growth of the World Wide Web in both numbers of users and innovations in content delivery, that the issue was quickly decided in its favour.

Humbled telco and cableco planners went back to their drawing boards to come up with plan B, which was: if you can't beat 'em, join 'em. They are now concentrating mainly on providing high-speed access to the Internet (vis. Rogers' Wave and Stentor's Sympatico) and have all but abandoned the field of content provision to World Wide Web publishers.

Whether there is any near-term future at all for video on demand - movies and cable fare served up in digital form and thus randomly accessible - is arguable. Clearly, the computer is the appliance of the future where the peculiar intimacy of real interactive services is concerned. To think otherwise is to imagine a world in which telephones have loudspeakers instead of hand sets. If interactive services are delivered via the television set, the TV will perforce be equipped with a "black box" that will give it computer intelligence to a 486 PC, making the distinction between TV and computer, moot.

It could well be that most video-on-demand will be delivered to households via direct broadcast satellites with their famously pizza-sized dish antennas. That would leave the telcos and cablecos in essentially the same business, that of pipeline to digital, multimedia content that is most usefully delivered in a non-linear, interactive form as it is on the Web. We'll know in a year or two.

For the foreseeable future, it would appear that the Internet and the information highway are going to be one in the same, expanding in capacity as cabling and switching infrastructures are upgraded.

We can call it simply, "the Net".

The question remains whether Canadians are justified in their fears that their cultural sovereignty is once again under siege with this new technology. Or, to put a positive spin on it, for the second time this century Canadians are being offered the opportunity to create a communications medium that will be an authentic expression of the nation"s democratic ideals. How can we best rise to the challenge?

As was the case with radio, the public issues to be resolved deal with access, and content.. Let's take content first.

Interactive multimedia is fundamentally different from conventional media because, while radio, television and newspapers are restricted to monologue, the Net allows dialogue. The "audience" can interact with the content, in real time.

The interaction can be complex, as in assigning a software robot (a "bot") to compile one's personal newscast from all the world's news sources, or it can be as simple as using "pause" and "rewind" functions while watching a movie. It could mean participating in a televised discussion group, or searching a National Archives data base, or taking part in interactive theatre. For most of us, it will most often mean chatting with a friend or relative.

The content itself is also different, because it is in digital form. It may look the same as conventional text or video on the screen, but its fundamental nature has been altered by the digitizing process. Digital media do not exist in linear time the way analogue media do: a movie or an item from a newscast is not measured in minutes or seconds, but in bytes. Text is not measured in column inches or pages, but in bytes.

What this means to the user is that everything is randomly accessible. You don't have to spool through 10 minutes of tape to get to the middle of a 20 minute newscast; you can go straight there. You can search text (or video, provided it's been catalogued) according to any criteria you might wish to establish, without turning a page. What is even more significant in the long run is that in the digital environment the search and selection process can be automated.

Because this new medium is two-way, it is possible to accurately assign value to the content it carries. Not just relative value as in TV ratings, but absolute market value in the sense of how much money people are willing to pay. On the information highway, every transaction is, in effect, a pay-per-view transaction and can be easily recorded. Users don't passively receive content; they request it and even shape it. Whether or not money changes hands, there can be an accurate tracking of demand. We will doubtlessly discover from this, - in fact the Web"s popularity has already shown - that we've been undervaluing the "quality content" niche (along with its profit potential). On television, its current value is close to zero, clearly an unrealistic figure.

While broadcasting, including public broadcasting, has to satisfy the entire range of public tastes over time on a single channel and winds up delivering a mostly uninspiring porridge, the Net, due to the nature of its technology, can actually be all things to all people.

Content designed specifically for interactive media will be even more distinctive than that adapted from conventional media. And perhaps this is an area where CBC can play a useful role as a risk-taker, a trend-setter and a benchmark for other producers.

One can imagine that a CBC television program like Marketplace might, on the information highway, become a daily forum for video conferences hosted by program personalities; an always-accessible consumer information database; a source of real-time redress for consumer complaints; a vast archive of video reports and complete programs from years past; a library of "how-to" video; a repository of helpful advice from people across the country.

The second key issue, access, is important because the Net will permit multi-point to multi-point communication, just like a telephone network does. Anybody can access anybody else on the Net.

The Role of the CBC here seems obvious. It could, with a little imagination, devise "program" content that would allow Canadians to interact with one another directly, in groups, regions or en masse in an almost infinite variety of ways.

For example, what would a news producer interested in promoting an interchange of ideas in the run up to a constitutional referendum do with a medium like this? Video conferences and other on line discussions are an obvious vehicle, moderated or otherwise, and could be run virtually continuously. Real town halls. A special archive could be assembled and placed on tap, in print and video. Academics and other authorities could interact directly with individual Canadians, as they do on radio phone-in shows. International experts and commentators could be available for video conferencing at scheduled times. Authorities could be recruited to answer specific questions about key documents. Producers could periodically assemble documentaries from the mass of material that would be accumulating on line. Music, painting, cartoons, poetry and computer art could be posted and made accessible. A rolling, opinion poll could be maintained, with great statistical accuracy....

There is in fact no real boundaries to the possibilities because time, the great limiter in the analogue world of regular broadcast radio and television, is not a constraint in the digital world of the information highway. Nor will bandwidth be a scarce commodity. Content need not be presented the in linear, boxcar fashion of the broadcast media, but is rather made available in a series of discrete "sites", all of which can be available concurrently.Several video conferences and discussion groups could be taking place simultaneously, and at the same time data bases, archives and newly-produced programming would be continuously accessible.

The CBC would cease to be a broadcaster, "public" or otherwise, and would become a destination in cyberspace where Canadians could go to talk to one another privately or in public forums, hear and see the latest neighbourhood or national news, plunder CBC program archives, view new shows, say what's on their minds and expose themselves to the creations of their fellow citizens in a variety of media.

If that doesn't fulfil the CBC Mandate, it's hard to see what would.

Other roles can be imagined. The CBC could be a gateway to Canadian information resources, on the CompuServe model. It could build easily-accessible World Wide Web archives of Canadiana by digitizing and organizing content currently housed in musty libraries.

The Net is not an environment in which it makes sense to talk of imposing Canadian content norms through regulation. It simply cannot be done, since anyone with access to the Web's content is also, ipso facto, a potential content provider. This makes it impossible to control any aspect of content, short of what"s illegal. (The problem does not arise in the broadcast industry because broadcasters must be licensed by government and can be coerced into conforming with standards of various kinds. No sane person would propose licencing all Web content providers, since they number in the millions.)

The best that can be done on the Net is to ensure that Canadian content is there for those who want it; to make it attractive and easy of access. There is much of value that is beyond the resources and abilities of private individuals to post on the Net, and of no immediate commercial interest to the private entrepreneur. This is a natural area of interest for the CBC.

So, is there a place for the CBC on the Net? The answer has to be "yes" and in the end the reason for this affirmation of public involvement is the same as it was for the CBC's predecessor in the 1920's. Canadians want and deserve access to their own stories, their own history, their own culture. CBC gave that to them on radio, and, somewhat less successfully, on television. On the Net, it can help to provide these gifts in virtually infinite depth, breadth and variety: there is no practical limit to what is possible.

And on the Net, there is an even greater gift to be given - direct access to the thoughts and ideas of other individual Canadians as neighbours and fellow voyagers on the journey that is democracy. The CBC needs to begin exploring ways in which it can bring Canadians together in creative encounters, using this new interactive technology. In English, we call the person who puts together a TV program a producer. In French, the word is animateur. Animateur or animator is the role the CBC is uniquely suited to playing on the Net in continuation of its role as the country's leading cultural institution. It could be the Corporation's finest hour.

© 1996 Wade Rowland

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photo of Wade Rowland Wade Rowland is one of Canada's most respected literary journalists. He has worked for the Winnipeg Free Press, the Toronto Telegram and both national Canadian television networks: CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) and the CTV Television Network. Rowland writes and lectures extensively on the new media, ethical issues, and science and technology.

Rowland is the author of a dozen other books including Spirit of the Web, a popular history of communications technologies that was selected as Required Reading for 1997 by The Globe and Mail. Other recent books by Wade Rowland include "Ockham's Razor", published April 1999 by Key Porter Books, and "Galileo's Mistake: The Archaeology of a Myth" published October 2001 by Thomas Allen Publishers. He lives with his family near Port Hope and is a principal in the Internet-based corporation, Blue Cat Design.

Read bio of Wade Rowland.

Wade Rowland is available for lectures and readings. He can be contacted at the Blue Cat Design offices.

Learn about Wade Rowland's latest book Galileo's Mistake

Buy the quality paperback release of "Spirit of the Web" online. Read an excerpt.

Buy "Ockham's Razor" online at: Chapters/Indigo Bookstores. Read an excerpt.

Buy "Galileo's Mistake" online at: Chapters/Indigo Bookstores. Read an excerpt.

Other articles written by Wade Rowland:

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