Critics say that HBO produces some of the best television shows made today. Amidst more and more cries about the decline of quality television programming, traditional networks struggle to keep pace with cable networks like HBO to produce top-notch programming, Networks like NBC, ABC, and CBS have struggled with inconsistent viewership and increased competition from the panoply of cable and satellite offerings, and are suffering for it.
Let me quickly set aside my personal preferences; I don’t like Friends, Seinfeld, Survivor, or most other shows that have been popular and critically acclaimed in the last ten years, enough to watch them. I’m not excessively scornful of them; good friends, people whose tastes and opinions I otherwise respect, do enjoy some of those shows. I enjoy South Park and The Simpsons, and with the advent of fraternity-based central entertainment servers, have turned saved episodes into an occasional study break tool. (I think their satirical acumen and social insights can be uniquely defended -- that’s a story for another day.) None of us at MIT have time to watch much television, but I appreciate the entertainment value such shows offer, and I appreciate that others get it from other sources.
Indeed, entertainment is of vital importance to society itself. It fills a key social role in a well-functioning, modern society, and is important to the entire public. It links us together: society revolves around entertainment, and relies on it to shape common beliefs, norms, and trends. A University of California Santa Barbara conference on entertainment reports that entertainment “has long been part of the heritage of the humanities, which seek--as Horace long ago said about poetry--at once to ‘teach and delight.’” Entertainment is “a structure of learning” that lets us “feel and know pleasure” via exchange with a person, an antique text, a new life-form, or an unfamiliar or troubling idea, and ultimately teaches us about the “pleasures and anxieties of exchange itself.”
Entertainment, then, is a vital part of society, and not one we’d want to leave in untrustworthy hands. Some would say that the profit motive could corrupt those who bring us our entertainment. Perhaps removing the profit motive from the production of entertainment could ensure its integrity. Since, according to the critics, HBO excels at delivering such entertainment, what if we removed their profit motive, and decided that everyone had to subscribe to HBO? It wouldn’t be hard; we could just say that anyone who owned a television had to pay, say, $150 a year in fees to HBO. Then we could ensure that the production of valuable entertainment programming was not left to the vagaries and vacillations of the market. In one sense, HBO provides a public good that the public should fund.
Enforcement would be manageable by employing multiple approaches to ensuring compliance. Substantial fines for owning a television without paying the fees would comprise a deterrence regime, making citizens wary of the risk of not paying. However, because television can be enjoyed so privately, some citizens might still attempt to avoid the fees, thinking that no one would ever catch them. Thanks to modern technology, vans with television detection equipment can be deployed to detect operation of a TV from a significant distance. If such a TV was found to be operating and no license was on record, investigation could be made, and appropriate fines imposed.
Such a funding system would ensure that society would always have a high quality source of entertainment, including the latest box office films, quality comedy programming, well-written dramas like The Sopranos, and so forth. Entertainment, so important to society, would be safe from harsh market forces, and could remain independent and objective.
Admittedly, the idea of forcing everyone to subscribe to HBO is completely absurd. But if you haven’t caught the joke yet, here it is: this is precisely how the British Broadcasting Corporation operates. Everyone who owns a television in the United Kingdom has to pay a licensing fee of just over 𧴜 (nearly $200) annually to fund the BBC. Enforcement regimes are remarkably harsh, and resemble those I described, including the ominous vans with detection equipment. Actually, they’re harsher than I described; since licensing enforcement agents are paid per violation cited, their enforcement falls most harshly on groups like lone parents, those who don’t speak English, the mentally retarded, and the elderly.
The idea is that because news is a vital social service, it should not be subject to market forces. But the BBC’s objectivity is not absolute. Some say that it’s great, some that it’s hopelessly politically slanted. Network anchors certainly had a hard time hiding their disdain for President Bush when he visited London last fall. The network also got into a lot of trouble for dishonest reporting on British Prime Minister Tony Blair’s government during the lead up to the Iraq war, and has since admitted their deception. Its competitors provide objective news coverage without government funding.
In certain crowds, a surefire way to induce sympathetic head nodding is to lament how bad the American media is, and to bash Fox News while doing so. Ultimately, American media stand up quite well alongside foreign media including the BBC, and American print media, especially the daily papers, set an international standard for excellence. The BBC and other foreign media are granted an elitist halo of excellence that they do not really deserve. But then, plenty of products from the UK and the rest of Europe are given the same treatment, so perhaps this isn’t that surprising. Really, it doesn’t matter how good the BBC is, nor does it matter how good HBO is. Everyone who owns a television should not be forced to fund them.