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Jeffrey Dvorkin

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Ad Free Public Broadcasting? Vive la France!


In English speaking countries, the debate over advertising on public broadcasting is a long debate. Many think that public broadcasting is an entitlement that should be funded by the government.

In the UK, the BBC is an advertising free zone with funding coming from a license fee paid annually by everyone who owns a radio or a television set. This is now up to £200 a year!

In the US, public broadcasting raises money from "underwriting." This is pubcasting-speak for restrained advertising. Plus of course, from viewers like you. There are important differences between public television and public radio, due to the economy of scale of the media. Public television relies more heavily on the Corporation for Public Broadcasting - the Congressional funding mechanism. Public radio much less.

In Canada, CBC TV has ads. CBC Radio does not. The annual government allocation is still around Cdn$1b.

In France, public tv has ads. Lots of them and often quite witty.

Last week, workers at French Television held a one day walk out protesting AGAINST the proposal by the Sarkozy government to eliminate all ads and to replace the revenue with an annual government allocation.

To my "anglo-saxon" sensibility, this protest seems counter-intuitive. Surely, our colleagues at French TV would prefer not to have their programming sullied by the commercial scramble for lucre.

"Au contraire," they say. The unions say that fewer ads would mean fewer jobs. The government's response is that French TV should be more like BBC TV. But the BBC must pursue the usual menu of reality entertainment and popular fare in order to justify the expensive license fee.

French TV is back on the air for now, but the issue is unresolved. And the question remains for all public broadcasters who chase ratings: is public broadcasting just commercial broadcasting that is government funded? And if so, why?

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