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.