L’Affaire Arpin, Or the Case of the TV Czar Who Doesn’t Watch TV


 

There’s been quite a controversy a-brewing recently over some comments made by Michel Arpin, vice-chairman of the CRTC and therefore someone who has a lot to say about what gets on TV. One of the things he said recently was this comment in a December 2008 interview with Playback magazine:

What are your favorite television programs?

I’m a news and documentary consumer. I’m not that interested in televised fiction or even feature films. I would prefer to read a novel.

The comment was picked up by Denis McGrath, who wrote a memorable post about it and has been covering the controversy regularly since then on his blog. John Doyle of the Globe and Mail picked up on the issue, calling on Arpin to apologize for his remark, and prompting a letter to the editor where Arpin claimed that he didn’t name his favourite show because it would be “inappropriate” — something that doesn’t exactly square with what he actually said. (Generally, “I’m not that interested in televised fiction” does not translate into “I am interested in it but don’t want to talk about what I’m interested in.”)

In a certain sense, Arpin is simply following in a long-standing tradition of broadcasting czars who don’t really like the entertainment aspect of broadcasting, and consider television primarily an education/news medium that is cluttered up with too much fiction trash. This is the Newton Minnow Minow tradition, named for the FCC chairman who used the term “vast wasteland” to apply to anything on television that was even halfway fun. Minnow Minow condemned “game shows, formula comedies about totally unbelievable families, blood and thunder, mayhem, violence, sadism, murder, western bad men, western good men, private eyes, gangsters, more violence, and cartoons.” That pretty much sums up everything we like on television. So to hear Arpin state that he wasn’t interested in fiction TV was more surprising for the fact that he actually said it out loud, so bluntly, than anything else. (And let’s say he had said the opposite, that he mostly watches fiction shows but doesn’t watch that much TV news, because “I would much rather read a newspaper.” That would be just as bad, from the point of view of doing his job properly.) His attempts to pretend he didn’t say what he said are doing him more damage than the actual statement, since there are plenty of people in the broadcast-regulation world who feel the same way. They just know enough not to say it.


 
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L’Affaire Arpin, Or the Case of the TV Czar Who Doesn’t Watch TV

  1. I don’t know what bothers me most about this post: the revelation that yet another CEO-type is singularly indifferent to what he or she is managing (which is standard operating procedure) or an appeal by a uncritical television critic to celebrate trash:

    Minnow condemned “game shows, formula comedies about totally unbelievable families, blood and thunder, mayhem, violence, sadism, murder, western bad men, western good men, private eyes, gangsters, more violence, and cartoons.” That pretty much sums up everything we like on television.

    There examples of these things that represent the best of the genre and many, many examples that do represent a wasteland that makes you dumber the more you pay attention to it. I used to love television, but with the advent of “reality teevee,” and the ubiquitousness of infotainment, I gave up and realised that no one in the industry has a clue as to what they’re doing anymore.

    • Ti-Guy, just because these TV genres produce a lot of trash, it doesn’t follow that this is “an appeal to celebrate trash.” As Sturgeon’s law stipulates, every art form and genre produces a lot of trash; the point is to celebrate the good stuff (and the guilty pleasures). Name any great fiction TV show and at least one of Minnow’s terms (“totally unbelievable families, blood and thunder, mayhem, violence,” etc) can apply to it. But acknowledging that there’s a lot of crap on TV is not the same thing as the idea that fiction TV is inherently bad just by virtue of having violence or comedy or action or gangsters in it.

      • Ti-Guy, just because these TV genres produce a lot of trash, it doesn’t follow that this is “an appeal to celebrate trash.”

        Well, I don’t know. I read all of your posts (and I do like your blog), but I’ve yet to figure out if there’s any teevee you don’t like.

        I like critics who are critical. (in the true sense of criticism) and television needs to be dealt with far more critically than too many media observers are willing to be. Unlike a lot of people, I don’t see additional fracturing of mass media into more and more specialized niches, whether through the Internet or with speciality cable channels (which have gotten way worse than they were when they first appeared) a good thing at all. I’m finding myself increasingly only able to have conversations with people who not only like the same things I do, but who’ve also been exposed to the exact same media.

        We need more mainstream media to examine and report on the good, the bad and the execrable The industry itself isn’t able to figure those things out anymore, not without wasting a lot our time.

        • I’ve yet to figure out if there’s any teevee you don’t like.

          Do you mean individual shows I don’t like, or kinds of TV I don’t like? Because I can name plenty of shows I don’t like, both the obvious (According To Jim, Kath & Kim, The Apprentice, The Hills) and less obvious (Six Feet Under, Law & Order SVU, all the CSIs except the original, Family Guy). I hate lots of shows. I may not write whole posts about how a particular show sucks, but I don’t write that many posts about how a particular show is great, either; I’m usually looking to say something else about some particular angle that interests me. But I think I’ve written my share of critical posts, like the thing about bad SNL sketches.

          But there’s no kind of TV I particularly hate. I think there’s good work in every field, including reality shows. And even the bad stuff can sometimes be interesting to look at for other reasons, for what they tell you about TV history or the way TV is made or how TV changes over time. That means that some of my posts about bad shows, past and present, are less “god, that sucked” and more “here’s what this show tells me about the way TV was, is or has been.”

          • I’m taking a broader view of television as a component of mass media than you are required to, which is probably not a good thing for me to be doing, but I can’t help it, since I’m required to.

  2. If I may play devil’s advocate here, I’m not entirely sure I want someone who loves tv to be in charge. For example, to be a hockey referee, you need to know and understand the rules of hockey, but you don’t necessarily have to be a hockey fan. In fact, a referee should remain dispassionate about the game, lest they be swept up into the emotions of it. I would imagine that the last thing a referee would want after reffing a game would be to go home and watch a hockey game.

    Certainly his comments are shocking, but a professional dispassion for tv may in some cases be a benefit.

    • Good point, but I’m not sure his comments really do show a dispassion for TV, since he acknowledges that he likes a lot of TV — just the “news and documentary” side of it. So you could argue that when someone likes only one half of TV, the news/education half, that could lead to him stacking the deck against the kind of TV he doesn’t follow, in favour of the kind of TV he prefers. Or maybe not, but that’s a danger.

      All of which means I probably shouldn’t have put “Doesn’t watch TV” in the subject line, though I think it’s too late to change it. He does watch TV, he just wishes, like Newton Minnow, that there wasn’t so much fiction on it.

      • Jaime, thanks for writing on this. The one point that’s most relevant on this, of course, is that Newton Minnow made that quote, I believe, in 1961 — just shy of fifty years ago.

        And TV in 1961 could not have been more different than it was today. The early attempts at highbrow stuff had faded, and other than news there really wasn’t much of quality on. Newton’s dismissive summation of American TV predated McLuhan, even. That’s how old that thinking is.

        There are those of us who decry the fact that Canada seems often to be caught in a time warp. New ideas and business practices tend to spread very slowly here. But this, I think, is ridiculous.

        Yet I’m not faulting you for quoting Minnow. On the contrary, he’s pretty much the perfect comparison for Arpin. Which is shocking and depressing, considering the speed at which everything to do with communications technology and content is changing.

        Questions like this, and White House email systems that don’t work, and Senators who can’t use computers are not small questons. We are nine years into the 21st century. The true forward thinkers talk of the creative classes. Everyone with a brain recognizes that some of the most boundary pushing, exciting content is happening on Television. TV’s moment now is analagous to the 70’s in film.

        And we’ve got a guy here, steeped in privilege, who sounds like a squarehead railing from the early 1960’s. It would be funny if it wasn’t so totally depressing.

        • Questions like this, and White House email systems that don’t work, and Senators who can’t use computers are not small questons.

          You forgot to mention Twitter. *snick*

          These may not be small questions (although I do believe they are, and I’ve been wired fully since the late 80’s) but where they’re aren’t questions at all is whether constant, break-neck innovation in media technology (that quite outpaces most people’s cognitive abilities) is necessarily good.

          • Whoa. Now if I didn’t know better I would say we were seeing the other side of media elitism here. Outpacing people’s cognitive abilities, hmm? Good for you there, smartypants.

            The “break neck innovation” in technology as being harmful is an argument you could have made going back to the telephone. “It outpaces most people’s ability to think on their feet, a letter or if you want something quicker, a cable is more than enough.”

            Pity save us from another wave of mass media studies students. Pretty much the first statement you make reveals a bias as outsized as Arpin’s:

            “I used to love television, but with the advent of “reality teevee,” and the ubiquitousness of infotainment, I gave up and realised that no one in the industry has a clue as to what they’re doing anymore.”

            Really. Okay. Well, I’ve worked in and out of media for twenty years — in news, infotainment, documentary, factual entertainment, radio, comedy, reality, and drama. And I can say honestly that many of the people I’ve met doing these shows are among the smartest and most literate people I’ve run into anywhere. And some have been lunkheads. So? Generalize much?

            There’s an era of snobbery and too-cool-for-school to your approach that reeks of typical TV-hating middlebrow. I dare say that Weinman on a bad day’s got more interesting things to say — in criticsim or praise — than you’ve managed to muster here in your backhanded, passive aggressive jabs against an “uncritical critic.”

          • Good grief. Do you always react like that when someone suggests that media technology should be looked at from some angle other than unbridled over-enthusiasm?

            I can see why the whole thing has turned into a never-ending crap fest,. when the people involved in it are are brittle hysterics who launch a class war when faced with the mildest dissent. Frankly, this is what keeps making me think there is definitely something wrong going on, although one that has nothing to do with the content of the media and more to do with how people are being socialised.

            No wonder no one wants to pay for any of this stuff anymore.

    • A better analogy would be that the person in charge of all officiating, that is, the person who makes the rules officials must follow, be someone who doesn’t watch hockey. And when you put it that way, it shows why such a thing is a bad idea.

      • I don’t know what’s going on with the threading here.

        TI, you do realize that every word of your last post could be “ditto’d” to explain your reaction? “Brittle hysterics?” “class war?” Come on. Get over yourself.

        Your first volley here suggested that you were “required” to take a broader view of mass media… in the world of rhetoric, son, that’s “pulling a Moses on the mountaintop.”

        And as for your closer:

        “No wonder no one wants to pay for any of this stuff anymore.”

        That manages to be off-point, and overly general all at once. So a post about the specific power of words in an interview devolves to the most general of complaints.

        I’m amused. Really. And I manage to be amused without the *snick*, too. Healthy challenge of opinion is what leads to synthesis. But if you throw elbows and someone throws elbows back, you don’t throw a suck and go off in a huff.

        Or maybe you do. I don’t really know how you were socialised, after all.

        Have a good day.

        • TI, you do realize that every word of your last post could be “ditto’d” to explain your reaction? “Brittle hysterics?” “class war?”

          No. You sounded brittle and hysterical and you launched a class war. It’s not that complex a point.

          Your first volley here suggested that you were “required” to take a broader view of mass media… in the world of rhetoric, son, that’s “pulling a Moses on the mountaintop.”

          Was I even talking to you on that point? I think you might be having problems with narrative structure…*SNORT!*

          Gahd, I f*ckin’ love elitism.

          • Massive fail.

            Play it all back for the class. Let us know what the prof said, cochise.

          • Massive fail.

            Play it all back for the class. Let us know what the prof said, cochise.</i.

            Uh huh.

  3. Would it be ok to suggest that, in a 300+ channel universe, with choices from satellite to cable to internet to cell-phone video, the comments of any one individual is so meaningless that the very concept of a TV czar is ludicrous?

    • Sure. Just so long as you stipulate that it’s ludicrous to complain about the head of the Canada Food Inspection Agency saying he wasn’t really that interested in Canada’s food supply because he likes to eat out at high end restaurants.

      And while we’re at it, I’m sure you wouldn’t mind it at all if, say, the person in charge of appropriations for new books for Canadian libraries decided that they didn’t really care about novels. Cause there are so many books and places to get them, I mean, look at Indigo and Chapters.

      Very naive.

      • What is most terrifying about your wee little blurb, Denis, is the not-altogether-impossible concept of there one day being a single “person in charge of appropriations for new books for Canadian libraries.” May there forever be at least 50%+1 voting Canadians who find that idea unthinkable. Which, actually, brings us back to the folly of making it actually matter that there should be a single person who gives a damn about everything put out by every TV channel.

        As for equating an important public health role of government with all this other fluff, well…

        • I don’t get it. One person in charge of buying books = a terrifying possibility. But the idea of a czar, gatekeeper, whatever you call it, deciding what channels/services you are exposed to and having unlimited power to frame content… now exists. That’s the extent of power the CRTC has over the industry.

          And we just narrowly avoided having a single person, in the personnage of the Heritage Minister, able to decide what was “proper” when it comes to film and TV. (see, “Bill C10.”) So, books and the ability to control them, important, but images, no?

          What about internet content, then? Cause those CRTC hearings are about a month away.

          Maybe you’re right. Maybe it’s fluff. But where exactly do you think those well-informed 50 % plus one are getting their information from? So long as their vote’s worth the same as yours, bud, I’d be careful about what you put down as fluff.

          • I will assume English is not your first language, Denis, and I will happily rejoin this conversation when you get more fluent. Until then, I hope you will, over time, reach the conclusion that I find it stupid that a government-appointed busybody should be fussing over our TV and our books. Good luck with the ESL courses.

          • Uhhh, I’m not sure Denis, but I think you just tried to continue your argument with myl by essentially agreeing with his central thesis. He essentially suggested we should get rid of the CRTC, and if I read your reply correctly your retort is essentially “What are you CRAZY???: What we need to do is get rid of the CRTC!!!”.

            Am I missing something?

        • Perhaps I can drive down the middle between you here. I think Denis is saying that, so long as there’s essentially a “TV Czar” it ought to be someone who cares about all aspects of TV. I’m not certain that Denis really understood the point you were making myl. In other words, I think his point is more “if there’s gonna be, then…” not “there must be…”

          Or, perhaps Denis really does believe that we somehow NEED a czar controlling our airwaves, and he really does bemoan the fact that there’s not one single individual in charge of acquisitions for every library from coast to coast.

          • OK, my comment above makes little sense now given Denis’ reply at 5:26 while I was still typing.

          • Yeah, I think I did misread what the guy was trying to say. But to be fair…it wasn’t exactly powerpoint clear…


            Great, here’s my first lesson plan for the ESL class:

            Statement 1:

            “Would it be ok to suggest that, in a 300+ channel universe, with choices from satellite to cable to internet to cell-phone video, the comments of any one individual is so meaningless that the very concept of a TV czar is ludicrous?”

            What this sentence seems to say is that one person’s opinion can’t mean so much because there is so much media our there.

            Although, from the context, it could perhaps mean that there is so much media out there that putting that much power in the hands of 1 man is the thing that is ludicrous.

            If the first interpretation is right, then you’re denying the premise of Jaime writing the article. You’re saying Arpin isn’t that important.

            Unless you’re saying he is, and that it’s stupid that he has that much power.

            Either of those two readings are equally defensible based not on what you thought, but what you, in fact, typed.

            Statement 2:

            “What is most terrifying about your wee little blurb, Denis, is the not-altogether-impossible concept of there one day being a single “person in charge of appropriations for new books for Canadian libraries.” May there forever be at least 50%+1 voting Canadians who find that idea unthinkable. Which, actually, brings us back to the folly of making it actually matter that there should be a single person who gives a damn about everything put out by every TV channel.”

            Same crit. Same struggle. One person in charge of libraries, bad. That’s clear. But “the folly of making it actually matter that there should be a single person who gives a damn about everything put out by every tv channel.” The folly here — are you referring to the folly of putting someone in charge, or the folly of thinking that there’s one person in charge?

            You see, it’s not clear.

            I chose to read the interpretation that you were saying that Arpin doesn’t really have that much power, therefore, not a big deal. So I counter. Then I do get lost a bit because I’m not entirely sure that’s what you’re saying — but you don’t exactly clarify.

            And then you go straight to the insults.

            The ESL joke, by the way, is one that I heard a whole heckuva lot in my decade of teaching post secondary. About 95% of the time, it comes from somebody who’s livid because they think people are too dumb to get their point.

            It was always fun to break into groups, put it out there, and watch the dude’s face (and strangely, always a dude….huh.) as they realize that the majority of people are having exactly the same clarity issue.

            That’s the point where you smile and say, “so, [name here], It’s your thesis that everybody in front of you is stupid/not paying attention/in need of remedial English?”

            This is fun. I’m gonna print all this out and use it. What a great example of how NOT to get your point across. Thanks for being so…um….clear.

          • Friendly advice, Denis: to protect your reputation as an esteemed educator in the eyes of your students, perhaps you could re-read the original allegedly naive statement. “Preamble, preamble, blah, blah, the very concept of a TV czar is ludicrous.” Hope that helps.

  4. Aw. Your concern truly warms me.

    What I’d probably do to my students is point out how this is a perfect case of why in media-based writing we try to go for snappy prose and sharply defined sentences that progress logically and punch one main idea each. To wit, the messy and ill defined:

    “Would it be ok to suggest that, in a 300+ channel universe, with choices from satellite to cable to internet to cell-phone video, the comments of any one individual is so meaningless that the very concept of a TV czar is ludicrous?”

    Five ideas in four clauses. First is basically dressing, so delete.

    “We have a 300+ channel universe. Those channels can be delivered by satellite, cable, internet, or cell-phone video [I’d probably also use “wireless, as it’s more inclusive].”

    The next sentence is really the bear, though…

    ” the comments of any one individual is so meaningless that the very concept of a TV czar is ludicrous?”

    First problem off the bat, of course — a common ESL problem…a lack of grammatical agreement. That adds to the aura of confusion. Consider instead:

    “the comments of any one individual ARE so meaningless that…”

    or
    “comment by any one individual IS so meaningless that…”

    From there, the rest of the clause: “the very concept of a TV czar is ludicrous” could still engender confusion. The point you are trying to make, it seems, is:

    “there are so many choices/ways to receive signals/one person’s comments are meaningless/so giving someone that much power is ludicrous.”

    the problem being that both the third and the fourth statement don’t really connect the way they should. There is ambiguity. And passive construction. And I’m not sure the argument completely tracks. To express the idea it seems you were trying to express, I would advise, using as much of your language as possible:

    “We have a 300+ channel universe. Those channels can be delivered by satellite, cable, internet, or cell-phone video.

    The choice of verb and sentence construction is important. And flipping the ideas you have would be stronger, and less ambiguous too.

    “Having one person as a TV czar is ludicrous. In a system that big, no one’s comments should have so much power.”

    That would certainly remove the ambiguity, and as a bonus, you still get to use one of my favorite words, “ludicrous.”

    The other logical mistake you make in your construction, of course, is that it has the appearance of a prima facie argument. “the comments of one individual is [sic] so meaningless…”

    But it’s NOT meaningless, in this case. I think this is, in fact, the root of the confusion.

    What you’re saying is that the comments of one individual SHOULD be meaningless.

    As it is, the comments of THIS individual [Arpin] are pretty gosh dang meaning-FUL, because he does, in fact, wield that power. Which he shouldn’t have.

    If only you’d chosen your words more carefully, we could have avoided all manner of confusion, and the need for testes-measuring jokes about ESL and embarrassing breakdowns of your ridiculously imprecise grammar.

    Try to divorce the emotion from it, friend, and walk through what I’ve written, and you’ll see that misunderstandings of this type are avoidable. Rather than get mad at me for a perfectly understandable misreading of your statement, look at the statement itself and ask yourself, “am I as clear as I could be?”

    In writing, when we get a “note” back on something the reader didn’t understand, a new or inexperienced scribe immediately swears and goes, “I can’t believe they bumped there/didn’t get that, etc.” The experienced writer looks at the construction and either clarifies, or tries to figure out why they bumped.

    Which leads to its own pleasures — like the amazingly neat circumstance that about half the time, when a joke doesn’t work — it’s not the punchliine you have to fix.

    It’s the setup.

    Thanks for your pique. It was interesting walking through for myself why I misunderstood your point. Be well.

  5. Yup: “comments… is” flubbed. Guilty as charged. To let you have the rest of the evening for whatever more personal pleasures you may enjoy, professor, I hereby plead guilty to assorted other typos and overly-hyphenated-phrases-to-try-to-make-some-attempt-at-a-humourous-point-but-that-surely-contravene-grammatical-law that you will find littered among my commentary here at Blog Central. I even typed “non-de-plume” once because the N is annoyingly right next to the M on the keyboard. All sadly true.

    But please accept this warning with all the love and concern an anonymous commenter can show via cyberspace. You show all this to your class, and you will deserve the “Dude! Chill!” nonverbal response. So, with that ounce of prevention offered up, I wish you a pleasant evening explaining to your kids why we have to take their future prosperity away from them. I haven’t worked up the courage for that yet, but I am not sure how to express it so a three-year-old would understand. Where’s a linguist when you need one…

    • No matter what you say to a university class you get the “dude, chill” from a portion of them.

      However, the ones who actually engaged on lessons just like the above are the ones now writing for a living. There’s several of my students out there. One of the best just got a job writing an HBO series and now lives in a swank apartment in New York. Not so shabby.

      Precision matters, whether you think it does or not. The guy who cares enough to be precise is the one who gets the swish contract. The point of communication is understanding. If you don’t write to maximize that, you’re a piker.

      So I’ll gladly take the eyerolls. Cause those aren’t the names you see on the screen, or the dais, or the hot list ten years on.