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January 2007 Archives

The CBC shouldn't compete with commercial broadcasters and it shouldn't be dependent upon winning revenue-generating blockbusters like football and hockey in order to survive. If TSN wants to broadcast the CFL and The Grey Cup - let them. If Rogers Sportsnet, The Score or TSN want to bring us hockey on TV - let them. We need the CBC to bring us the programming that others won't.

There's an increasingly large void in Canadian programming as private broadcasters increasingly turn to cheaper foreign (i.e. U.S.) content. We need the CBC to fill that void. Instead, the CBC made a disastrous foray into the world of foreign content itself this past summer with the short-lived airing of the equally short-lived ABC reality show The One: Making a Music Star. The rationale behind this was that this would form the spring-board for a Canadian version of the program. If there was any doubt that the CBC was adrift, this move, which would have seen The National bouncing around the schedule (in parts of Canada), was clear confirmation. National news programming is as quintessentially a part of a nation's identity in the free world - and CBC clearly lost sight of the importance of this. Bumping the news for hockey or the Olympics is, arguably, acceptable, but doing so for an American reality show is completely beyond the pale. Furthermore, the CBC is not providing a service to Canadians by bringing U.S. reality programming into our living rooms -we've enough of that happening already. And the plan to introduce Canadian reality programming to the network is an act of desperation - reality programming is, relatively speaking, cheap to produce. Does it add value to our lives? Is it reflective of our national fabric? Will it have an enduring value as a legacy for future generations? The answer, I think, to all of these questions is a resounding "no".

While the CRTC contemplates the role of Canadian private broadcasters, and, possibly re-considers the 1999 move away from mandatory Canadian content spending conditions-of-license, one thing is clear: we are witnessing the end of television as we know it. We are moving into an on-demand world. In fact, I call 2007 "the year of on-demand". The concept of network-scheduled programming is going to increasingly give way to self-programming. While some on-demand delivery channels will fall under the jurisdiction of the CRTC, many won't, and government-mandated Canadian content requirements will become increasingly ineffectual soon.

Which brings us back to the CBC. The mandate of the CBC should be to produce content that is uniquely and distinctly Canadian - the content that no one else is producing. [In French Canada, this is less of an issue as French-language broadcasters commission and air much more original domestic content than is the case in English Canada]. That mandate must be clear, reasoned, viable, and in the interest of Canada and Canadians.

The economics of producing Canadian content are a challenge. Consumers today truly have a world of content from which to choose. Canadian content must compete against global content sources. There's no question that good Canadian content exists that is on a par with the best of the rest of the world, but it's becoming increasingly difficult to make money producing this. The Canadian market is small, and without foreign sales, it's very difficult to make a profit in the Canadian content business. Of course, the CBC's mandate isn't to make a profit and the CBC shouldn't be measured like a conventional business, but, like any business, the CBC can't operate at a loss. The CBC needs serious funding to pursue that mandate. The government - and Canadians - need to decide whether uniquely Canadian programming is important to us. Adequate funding must be a priority if we are to preserve our national identity by way of high-quality Canadian television production. Repeated funding cuts have stripped the CBC of the wherewithal it needs to fulfill this mandate. Restoring proper funding is the only way to ensure that we have a viable, relevant public broadcaster.

The CBC has proposed to the CRTC that it shut down most of its over-the-air transmitters rather than undertake the expensive conversion to digital transmission (or, even more expensive, operate simultaneous analogue and digital transmission facilities). In today's world, transmitters are an unnecessary expense that are of benefit to few at an enormous cost. CBC research shows that few in rural areas use the over -the-air signals, as satellite usage in these areas is very high. Perhaps surprisingly, CBC's submission to the CRTC says that most over-the-air television reception occurs in urban areas. As a result, the CBC proposes that only these areas would continue to be serviced by over-the-air transmission.

However, these are the very areas that are already best-served by alternate distribution mechanisms including cable, satellite, and, increasingly, IPTV from telephone companies. High-speed Internet, too, is readily-available in these areas and provides an increasingly-viable alternate distribution mechanism. So... in fact, the CBC should take things a step further and be allowed to discontinue all over-the-air transmission - it simply doesn't make sense for CBC (or other networks) to spend massive amounts of money maintaining or upgrading the physical plant for the exclusive benefit of a small minority of the viewing audience. While eliminating any transmission capability will certainly arouse the ire of a vocal minority, the reality is that over-the-air transmission is no longer necessary given that all Canadians who receive these signals can also receive the content via alternate means. [Note, though, that at the present time, satellite services don't carry all local stations (this, too, is part of the puzzle the CRTC is trying to sort out).]

Lastly, we need to consider whether the CBC is making the best possible use of its funds and revenue opportunities. While CBC TV has long been subsidized by advertising, CBC radio programming remains commercial-free and generates no revenue in return. The inequity between these two worlds seems illogical - why, on the one hand, is CBC television programming subsidized by advertising content (like most broadcast television) yet on the other CBC radio programming is delivered commercial-free and subscription-fee-free to consumers (unlike virtually all other radio content)? Yes, the CBC needs more government funding to survive and deliver on its mandate, but it must also act with fiscal responsibility and must pursue other available revenue opportunities that don't conflict with that mandate.

Passport, please

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So... as of yesterday, people flying from Canada to the U.S. need a passport. Next year, you'll need one for any form of travel (land, sea or air).

What is a passport, really? Well, if it is a bona fide document, it's essentially an assurance by one government to another that the bearer is a citizen of that country and it is, theoretically, an irrefutable description of the person that can be used by another government to ensure that the bearer is who they say they are.

I had a number of conversations today about geo-fencing on the Internet. What's geo-fencing? It's the practice of limiting access to sites and services based on the supposed location from which a person is accessing the Internet. I say 'supposed' because geo-fencing is a flawed technology that relies on often inaccurate or easily manipulated information. Even when it works properly and is not circumvented, geo-fencing only identifies from where the access attempt is being made - it tells nothing about who is attempting the access. Geo-fencing will block a Canadian travelling in Helsinki from accessing sites that he could readily access were he in Canada. The most common usage I've seen for geo-fencing is to protect media access from other countries. Canadian-based Internet users, for example, can't stream Studio 60 from nbc.com. Likewise, American-based users can't watch Studio 60 at ctv.ca. And if someone circumvents the system and does get the content from the wrong side of the virtual border - so what? The consequences are insignificant in the great scheme of things. The fundamental difference will only be in what advertising they see (which has minor related financial impact).

But what about content / data that has more serious implications? This got me thinking about electronic passports. Will the day come when we need one to establish our identity in cyberspace? Will someone surfing the web who wants to go to, for example, an American site need to present some sort of electronic equivalent of a passport each time they cross the virtual border? I know it sounds a bit far fetched, but stranger things have already come out some governments -- including the current U.S. administration. Wouldn't some governments love to control - and track - all access (domestic and foreign) to their portion of the Internet? We tend to think of the Internet as being without boundaries, or at least we do in the free world. In the current - and probably perpetual -- climate of global terrorism, though, is it really inconceivable that a government might create virtual border crossings to control (and track) cross-border cyber travel -- both inbound and outbound? And, at least to some extent, maybe that's not such a bad thing. If it makes sense to prevent undesirables from physically entering a country, does it not, perhaps, make similar sense, in this era of hyper-computerization, to prevent them from electronically crossing the border, too?

The upside of everyone having an irrefutable and infallable identification mechanism could be the end to the tens or hundreds of unique user identifiers and passwords we tend to have today. That one credential would serve as your identifier for every site you ever visit.

The scary downside of this, of course, for the honest and law-abiding citizen, is the huge loss of privacy. I wonder, though, if that may someday be considered the inevitable price of 'freedom'?

Apple TV

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I was asked last month to "name the moment/event in 2006 when you knew that prime time as we know it was going to be a thing of the past".

Here's what I wrote, and it's all about AppleTV, which was announced yesterday (although the product was code-named iTV at the time I wrote this):

For me, the defining event in the impending death of prime time as we know it came this fall when Apple pre-announced the product that is currently code-named iTV.

Why was this so significant? The writing has been on the wall for prime time for quite a while, and many technologies are already on the market that are contributing to this. These include Personal Video Recorders (PVRs) and the broadband streaming offerings from U.S. and Canadian networks that are now-common but were non-existent at the start of 2006.

But what makes the announcement of the so-called iTV product the defining event is that it promises to allow consumers to bridge the computer-TV set divide. Although it is already quite feasible to connect a computer to a TV set for viewing of streamed or downloaded content, it's often not a 'user-friendly' undertaking. Apple has built their name on making the complex simple, and I've no doubt that their foray into the interconnection of the computer-based world with the television set will do just that. Ultimately, it doesn't matter whether consumers turn to Apple's product, or a competing product... what matters is that Apple, a very trusted name in the consumer's mind, will show how easily the worlds of computers and television can be combined. Once that happens, the world of Internet-based on-demand content will open up to the masses in the comfort of their living rooms, and prime time -- and TV in general, as we know it -- will never be the same again.
The new media / interactive media world has matured to the point where it is now having a significant impact on the established media-world ecosystems. Indeed, long-established ecosystems are threatened, and long-established players must change how they do business - if they are to do business at all in the coming years.

New ecosystems are developing, with redefined roles for the distributors (mobile carriers, cable and satellite distributors), the networks and record labels (traditionally, the content aggregators), the content producers, advertisers... and the consumer. Content aggregation, once a task performed solely by the gatekeepers and the networks, is now a role unto itself, with companies from outside the traditional media value chain claiming major stakes in that world (for example, Google).

New challenges and new opportunities exist for everyone, including the huge media conglomerates, small niche players, and the individual.

Traditionally, content that reached a level of consumer accessibility was only a small subset of all content created - and gatekeepers, whether they be networks, mobile carriers, record labels, gaming console companies and the big game distributors - determined what content received exposure. Garage bands had few ways of finding an audience. Individuals had few means with which to share their thoughts. Gatekeepers have acted as the filter mechanism that determined what content ultimately reached the consumer. These gatekeepers include record labels (who determine what music to produce and distribute to radio stations and retail outlets), networks (who determine what programs make it onto TV schedules), mobile carriers (who determine what content is available on their 'walled-garden' decks), game console companies and big game publishers (who determine what content will be created for their consoles), and even government agencies (like Canada's CRTC, that determine which channels and content fill the 'air waves'). The role of the gatekeeper has, in part, been that of a filter that, for better or worse, determined what content was available to the consumer. But new distribution mechanisms are opening up an unprecedented array of content to the consumer, by-passing these traditional filter mechanisms.

However, having a world of content at their fingertips in and of itself does little for the consumer. Without some form of filtering, the choices are overwhelming and perhaps even paralyzing. Thus, new filter mechanisms have emerged to put order to the chaos - and, increasingly, do so at an individual level. These filters range from the highly personal (recommendations from trusted friends) to the quasi-personal (recommendations form within real or virtual communities) to the contextual (the Amazon-type approach that says "if you like this book, you may also be interested in this book" and are based, in part, on the buying patterns of others). Lastly, new ways to self-filter are changing the world, too. We can now view, and selectively apply, product and content reviews from complete strangers, not just in newsgroups or magazines, but also right there on electronic retailers' web-pages.

Accessibility to the consumer, too, was traditionally limited to a macro-level approach. Advertisers could target demographic groups that ranged from the very-broad (say Oprah's audience, or the fans of Desperate Housewives) to the only-somewhat broad (the audience of a gardening, car or cooking show). The relative scarcity of spectrum on radio or within conventional radio and television distribution mechanisms limited the degree to which niche audiences could be served with content and, thereby, limited how niche audiences could be addressed by advertisers. Because there are no spectrum limitations, niche publishing has been way ahead of other media. But that is changing, and other media are catching up - and advertisers have embraced opportunities that now exist to address smaller audiences, with well-defined demographic groups, and, increasingly, we'll see advertising cater to 'the audience of one'.

Mobile carriers and BDUs (Broadcast Distribution Undertakings - in layman's terms, cable, satellite and, now telephone IPTV operators) must accept the fact that they live in a different world now. Mobile carriers no longer have exclusive control over content. BDUs are no longer the only alternative to over-the-air content delivery.

Content producers must address multiple distribution platforms that require varying forms of content, must vie for attention of the consumer, and must compete with user-generated content. Paid content must compete with free content. If inexpensive or free content tells a compelling story, consumers have demonstrated that Hollywood-style production quality, with its inherent high price tag, isn't an over-arching criterion when it comes to consumer content selection.

Time Magazine's Person of the Year for 2006 - 'You' - is now at the centre of these new ecosystems. An unprecedented world of choice in all forms of media content, from radio and TV and recorded music to print and gaming, has empowered the individual in ways never before possible or imagined. The consumer is in the driver's seat and the consumer is no longer limited to content selected for them by others, and they are influenced by 'big media' hype to a much lesser degree than before in their content acquisition decisions.

The times they are a-changing, indeed. And it's all because of YOU!