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Undercurrents: A Cancellation At CBC TV Raises A Host Of Issues For The Future

By David South

Scan Magazine (Canada), April/May 1997

The screensaver on an Undercurrents researcher’s computer terminal bears a maxim that might strike a chord in a lot of CBC units these days: “Only the paranoid survive.”

The quirky media and technology show will fade to black at the end of March. Its cancellation raises a host of issues for a CBC deeply troubled by budget cuts, an ageing audience, a dearth of alternative programme concepts and an inability to plan for a future.

In the show’s pilot, Wendy Mesley – Undercurrents’ host and progenitor – set the tone for this accessible look at the relationship among technology, media and society: “Like it or not we are living in a wired world where OJ Simpson, Big Brother, even your bank machine, all converge … we’ll explore all the issues, the undercurrents of the information age.”

To those who loved it, Undercurrents was a program that satisfied a vital public need, and an ambitious concept for a public broadcaster that some say had grown a little musty. The show promised avant-garde production and investigative journalism that critically explored today’s new media and technology culture. Youngish researchers and producers were hired from outside the CBC. They brought with them experience and new ideas from specialty channels, TV Ontario and CTV. Some came straight out of journalism school.

Critical reaction to the first programs was mixed. John Doyle, a critic with the Globe and Mail’s Broadcast Week, lauded Undercurrents when it launched, calling it “a superb example of  solid CBC-TV journalism and original reporting.” Others were less flattering. The Toronto Star’s Greg Quill accused the show of “flirting with infotainment.” At the Vancouver Sun, Alex Strachan wasn’t impressed by a report on a weekend conclave of computer geeks in the California desert for a kind of Hackerstock. “It sounds interesting,” he wrote, “but it isn’t.”

What hurt more was schedulers playing musicial chairs with the show’s slot. Switching Undercurrents from Tuesday at 7 pm to Friday at 7 pm midway through its life left viewers confused and sent ratings plummeting just as network programmers were casting about for places to apply a whopping 30 percent budget cut. As a result, some feel the show never had a fighting chance.

In the end, it was the show’s precarious financial arrangement that killed it. Undercurrents was never funded from the general current affairs budget. Instead, it drew on a special reserve of cash created by the network. When it came time to mete out the cuts in December, the special funding bubble burst. Rather than cut further into the budgets of flagship current affairs programs, executives chose to drop Undercurrents.

Executive producer Frances Mary (FM) Morrison acknowledges that gratitude for her program’s special funding obscured a recognition of its fragility. “That was really our Achilles heel,” she says. “We were just this little orphan that didn’t have its own money. We weren’t adopted into the larger family.”

With the network funding gone, Undercurrents’ budget (rumoured to be over a million dollars per season) was nowhere to be found. Discussions about chasing a corporate sponsor went nowhere because the show needed more money than any sponsor could have provided. “It was never an issue of $100,000 or $200,000,” says Morrison. “It was the issue of our entire budget. [CBC] would still have had to come up with the rest of it.”

CBC TV’s news, current affairs and Newsworld director Bob Culbert and former current affairs head Norm Bolen both say they wanted the show to stay on the air but couldn’t find a way to fund it withou seriously hurting programs like The Fifth Estate, Marketplace and Venture.

Bolen, now VP of programming at the History and Entertainment Network, says it came down to choosing between The Health Show and Undercurrents. The Health Show won because it had a “bigger audience, a broader demographic and was bringing in revenue from sales of programming to the specialty channels.”

Mesley has another theory. “The majority of people who worked on this programme are not traditional CBCers… They can’t bump, they don’t get huge severance packages. Of course, if you want a future, those are the wrong reasons for letting people go.”

With its intensive focus on issues like the abuse of computer-morphed images, surreptitious “data-mining” of consumer purchase records, or media “freebies,” there’s no question that Undercurrents has met a need in this media-saturated world. But controversy over the cancellation centres on the age-old question of CBC and the youth audience.

Morrison and Mesley both say they intended the show to appeal to a younger-than-usual CBC audience. But CBC executives weren’t convinced it was an audience the network could, or should, go after. According to Culbert, a youth mandate was something the production team brought to Undercurrents. “It started as a media ethics show targeted at a classic CBC audience. Nobody sat around one day and said ‘let’s invent the show that will go after younger viewers.’”

Bolen expresses a profound lack of faith in the under-30 audience. “People under 30 don’t watch information programming, okay? Let’s get that straight. I sure wouldn’t spend the rest of my life trying to get an audience that doesn’t watch a certain genre of programming. This is a business where you pay attention to reality. People under 30 watch trashy American sitcoms, which I’m not in the business of doing, and which the CBC isn’t in the business of doing.”

“I think that’s bullshit,” says Reid Willis, producer and director of CityTV’s Media Television. “People under 30 are interested in what’s going on in the media. The 20 to 30 group is more media savvy than the generation that preceded them.” But Willis thinks the lack of information programming pitched at a young audience is down to a lack of interest from advertisers.

Mesley and Morrison remain convinced Undercurrents did appeal to a younger audience, but felt it was sabotaged by the schedule shuffling. In the show’s first slot, Tuesdays at 7 pm, its average audience was 499,000. The biggest night came on Sunday, October 22, 1995 when a repeat aired at 9:30 pm got an audience of 865,000. But Undercurrents’ debut in the 96/97 season in its new 7 pm slot on Fridays was demoralizing for the crew. Morrison reports the audience for the season opener at 438,000 and 434,000 for a strong programme the following week.

She says the numbers built as audiences found the programme’s new location, peaking at 678,000 on December 6. According to CBC audience research figures, average minute audience for the 96/97 season to February 2 stood at 518,000 viewers.

“Friday at seven was not a good place for Undercurrents,” claims Morrison. “It’s an older audience. In fact the audience for Air Farce [which followed Undercurrents at 7:30] is quite old, surprisingly old. I was actually astonished to find out how old that audience was.”

CBC audience research bears Morrison out, reporting that the 18-34 demographic for both Air Farce and Undercurrents has been identical this season – a mere 14 percent of the total audience.

Fridays at seven is also a heavily competitive slot packed with overhyped American tabloid TV shows like Entertainment Tonight, Inside Edition, Hard Copy and A Current Affair. Morrison says focus groups told her that audiences in that time period surf around looking for stories they like and then switch around with no loyalty to a particular programme.

“People build a menu. We took a leaf out of the tabloid book in terms of our presentation in order to survive in the seven o’clock environment.”

Undercurrents’ jerky camera work and flashy graphics didn’t endear itself to everyone, a fact the show’s producers recognized early on. “I can point to stories where we sabotaged ourselves with stylistic extremes,” admits Morrison.

But Mesley bristles at accusations the show was all style and no content, or a clone of Media Television. “We are the antithesis of Media Television. Obviously everyone has adopted their style from rock videos.  But they get nearly all their video as handouts. We are not saying, ‘This is hip.’ We are not saying, ‘This is the latest consumer thing you can add to your collection.’ We are saying ‘Think about this.’”

Undercurrents’producers express pride in the show’s innovations. They cite its lead role in web page design at the corporation., its efforts at promoting a more playful visual presentation, and its success in promoting an acceptance of media stories elsewhere in news and current affairs. But what seemed to enliven everyone interviewed for this story was a love of the public broadcasting ethos, where stories are told because they are important, not because advertisers say they are important. Many of the young researchers and producers at Undercurrents had done time at the privates, and appreciated the freedom and extensive resources offered by the CBC. But they felt they had come to a CBC whose values were in peril.

“It will be like C-SPAN here,” quipped an Undercurrents freelancer who has done time at the specialty channels.

Others who thrived in the upbeat atmosphere at Undercurrents say they’re not too keen to look for work elsewhere in the CBC. One such is 25-year-old researcher Bret Dawson. “It’s not a happy place,” he says.

It’s not clear what, if any, programming will replace Undercurrents. If the current trend prevails, it looks like any new programming will have to survive on a smaller budget, generate outside income and prove it can draw in viewers in short order. Under those conditions, people at Undercurrents and elsewhere wonder how long CBC’s commitment to innovative new programming  can hold out.

CBC TV’s Undercurrents host Wendy Mesley. Scan magazine was published in the 1990s for Canadian media professionals.

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China Looking to Lead on Robot Innovation

By David South, Development Challenges, South-South Solutions

SOUTH-SOUTH CASE STUDY

Since the 1950s, science fiction has been telling the world we will soon be living with robots. While robots have emerged, they have been mostly kept to heavy industry, where machines can perform dangerous, hot and unpleasant repetitive tasks to a high standard.

But China is pioneering the move to mainstream robots in more public spheres. And the country is promising big changes in the coming decade.

Robots, strange as it may seem, can play a key role in development and fighting poverty.

If used intelligently, the rise of robots and robotics – itself a consequence of huge technological advances in information technology, the Internet, nanotechnology,artificial intelligence, and mobile communications – can free workers from boring, difficult and dangerous jobs. This can ramp up the provision of public goods like cleaning services in urban areas, or remove the need to do back-breaking farming work.

Robotics also offers a new field of high-tech employment for countries in the global South who are producing far more educated engineering and science students than they can currently employ. These students can help build the new robot economy.

China is considered to be in the early stages of competing with robot pioneers such as Japan, Switzerland, Germany, Sweden and the United States. And China still has a low penetration of industrial robots per population. In 2011 estimates placed the number of industrial robots in China at 52,290 (International Federation of Robotics) (ifr.org).

In the years ahead, China confronts a double demographic problem. It has the world’s largest elderly population, who will need care, and it also has a shrinking number of young people available to work as a result of the country’s one-child policy (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/One-child_policy).

Robots can help solve these problems.

China started its robotics research in the 1970s and ramped it up from 1985. It has already made significant progress manufacturing domestic robots for cleaning. The Xiamen Lilin Electronics Co., Ltd. (http://cnlilin.en.made-inchina.

com/) makes vacuum cleaners that are small round robots smart enough to return to their recharging stations when low on power. Another firm, Jetta Company (http://www.jetta.com.hk/home.htm), has built and sells the iRobot Roomba vacuum cleaning and floor-washing robots (http://www.irobot.com/uk/store.aspx?camp=ppc:google:products_roomba:G_790612075_1846279957_iRobot%20roomba:roomba_brand&gclid=CMiezMiG8a4CFc4LtAodYE3MKw).

For the heavy duty stuff, there is Ningbo’s Dukemen Robot, sold with the slogan “man, technology, robot”. The company manufactures arm-like robots for heavy lifting and lifting in dangerous or uncomfortable environments (dukerobot.com/ks/robot-manufacturers/).

A company called Quick specializes in making soldering equipment for manufacturing electronic components and sells robots that can do this with high accuracy and speed (quick-global.com/9-new-soldering-robot-1.html).

Other robotic advances in China include a robot dolphin that swims through the water measuring its quality.

There are also robots in development to do housework and help people who need assistance in the home like the elderly and the disabled. These robots can monitor a person’s physical condition and provide psychological counselling and search for, and deliver, requested items. One example is called UNISROBO, and is based on the Japanese robot PaPeRo robot (http://www.nec.co.jp/products/robot/en/index.html).

Still other robots can perform surgical procedures or even play sport, like Zhejiang University’s ping pong-playing robot (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4BtHYHi7trA).

Even more ambitiously, China is developing robots to send to the moon.

The push to introduce robots into the workplace and wider society is receiving considerable attention in China.

The Taiwan-based technology company Foxconn – well-known for assembling products for the American company Apple, maker of the iPad and iPhone -has pledged to deploy a million robots in its Chinese factories in the coming years to improve efficiency.

Some are forecasting that if China starts building robots on the scale it has pledged, then the world’s population of manufacturing robots will grow tenfold in 10 years.

China is also broaching one of the trickiest aspects of robotics – getting robots to interact with humans.

The tricky bit in robotics is getting interaction with human beings right and to avoid the experience being intimidating or frightening. One sector that is already ahead in experimenting with this aspect of robots is the restaurant business. One robot being used in restaurants sits on a tricycle trolley laden with drinks. It cycles from table to table in endless rotation allowing customers to choose drinks when they like.

The first robot restaurant started a trial run in 2010 in Jinan (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jinan), the capital of Shandong Province. The hot pot restaurant uses six robots to help with the service. The restaurant has also given itself the perfect name for this new approach: Continental Robot Experience Pavilion. Adorned with robot posters, the restaurant is 500 square metres in size and can seat 100 diners.

Diners at the Continental Robot Experience Pavilion are greeted by two ‘female’ “beauty robot receptionists” dressed in uniforms. Inside, the six robot waiters serve the customers. There are two to deliver drinks and two to serve the small tables and two to serve the big tables.

The robot comes to the table and takes the customers’ orders for food dishes and drinks. The robots, designed with sensors to stop them moving when they sense something or someone in front of them, are able to handle 21 tables and deal with the 100 customers at a single sitting.

The robots have proven so effective, the restaurant’s staff can stay focused on administration and providing assistance. The cooking is still done by human beings.

This trial run is designed to test the concept and the novelty of having robots attracting customers, the restaurant’s manager told the People’s Daily Online.

The plan is to increase the number of robots to 40 and also to have robots do cleaning and other tasks.

“They have a better service attitude than humans,” said Li Xiaomei, 35, who was visiting the restaurant for the first time. “Humans can be temperamental or impatient, but they don’t (the robots) feel tired, they just keep working and moving round and round the restaurant all night,” Li said to China Daily.

Resources

1) The Robot Report: It boasts compiling more than 1,400 robotics-related links and is about “Tracking the business of robotics”. Website: therobotreport.com

2) The Robot Shop: Bills itself as “The world’s leading source for professional robot technology” and sells online all the parts, kits, toys, tools and equipment to get any enthusiast or small and medium enterprise working with robotics quickly. Website: robotshop.com

3) Robot App Store: Sells ‘apps’ or software applications to expand the capabilities of robots. It also operates as a store for application developers to sell their robot apps to others. Also has information and resources on how to get started making robot apps and making money from making robot apps. Website: robotappstore.com

4) Roboearth: Funded by the European Union, RoboEarth is an online, open source network where robots can communicate with each other and share information and “learn from each other about their behaviour and their environment. Bringing a new meaning to the phrase “experience is the best teacher”, the goal of RoboEarth is to allow robotic systems to benefit from the experience of other robots, paving the way for rapid advances in machine cognition and behaviour, and ultimately, for more subtle and sophisticated human-machine interaction. Website: roboearth.org

5) Robotland: A blog writing about the “visions, ideas, innovations, awards, trends and reports from leading robotics research and development places in the world”. Website: http://robotland.blogspot.co.uk/

6) China Hi-Tech Fair: Running from 16-21 November 2012, the Fair is a great way to see the latest developments in robotics in China. Website: chtf.com/english/

7) Singularity Hub: A cornucopia of robotic resources and news on “science, technology and the future of mankind”. Website: http://singularityhub.com/

Cited in Studies in Intelligence, Autonomous Systems in the Intelligence Community: Many Possibilities and Challenges, Vol. 59, No.1 (Extracts, March 2015).

Studies in Intelligence, Vol. 59, No.1 (Unclassified articles from March 2015).
Autonomous Systems in the Intelligence Community: Many Possibilities and Challenges by Jenny R. Holzer, PhD, and Franklin L. Moses, PhD in Studies in Intelligence Vol 59, No. 1 (Extracts, March 2015).
Autonomous Systems in the Intelligence Community: Many Possibilities and Challenges by Jenny R. Holzer, PhD, and Franklin L. Moses, PhD in Studies in Intelligence Vol 59, No. 1 (Extracts, March 2015).
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