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How to fix the CBC

Aug 21, 2010

The following op-ed appeared in the Ottawa Citizen on August 21st.

Polls tell us that CBC enjoys broad public support, despite the failings of its senior management. The abrupt departure earlier this month of an executive responsible for CBC's English language operations presents an opportunity for all of CBC's 34 million shareholders to reflect on what kind of national public broadcaster we need in the second decade of the 21st century.

Most Canadians would agree that CBC has seen better times. Earlier this century, great programs such as Canada: a People's History captivated the public imagination, building upon a rich tradition such as Pierre Berton's The National Dream and Peter Gzowski's Morningside. Lately, CBC programs have descended to a lower common denominator, often described as "dumbing down." In order to look forward, we need first to assess some of the things that have gone wrong in recent years. Here is a short list: CBC Television's audience share has dropped from 13 per cent to 10 per cent since 2004. CBC Radio Two has lost 20 per cent of its audience over ill-considered scheduling changes which confined world classical culture to a midday listening ghetto. CBC has lost to CTV the broadcast rights to the Olympic Games, the Grey Cup and curling. On the eve of a world recession, which depressed the volume and value of advertising dollars, CBC almost doubled its rights payments to the NHL while frittering away the rights to Dolores Claman's promotional tune for Hockey Night in Canada, arguably the country's alternative national anthem.

Recently someone leaked an internal survey of CBC Radio reporters. This report reads like a cry for help from CBC Radio's dedicated journalists and provides evidence that senior management appears determined to make CBC Radio News more superficial, less intelligent and ever more dominated by CBC Television News when it comes to decision-making and resource allocation.

Why is this happening? One reporter offers this simple and cogent explanation, going to the heart of the mindset of the CBC's senior management: "TV makes money and radio costs money. The concept of public broadcasting is lost." Another says, "We've gone more to entertaining than educating or informing. I think we're losing what Canadians love most about us and becoming more like the privates all the time." Referring to CBC Radio's flagship, and highly rated World Report, another reporter mused "What kind of an organization cuts the most popular program on the most popular service?" Despite the recent recommendation of the Commons heritage committee that CBC Television's 7 p.m. to 11 p.m. schedule should be "reserved for Canadian productions," CBC-TV has cut its prime-time Canadian schedule from 27 hours in 2004 to just 21 this year. What replaced all those Canadian programs in prime time? Wheel of Fortune, Jeopardy and Hollywood movies.

I would like to offer a suggestion to improve CBC's corporate culture. In recent years, CBC's top management has lacked prior experience in radio or television production, scheduling and marketing. Having people in charge who lack appropriate skills would be unthinkable in private-sector broadcasting, or in public broadcasters in other western democracies. How come? CBC's board of directors does not choose CBC's president. And the board cannot dismiss the president. Guess who chooses the president of the CBC? The prime minister. This is not a new development. It goes back to 1936. Stephen Harper appointed Hubert Lacroix as CBC president just as Jean Chrétien appointed his predecessor, Robert Rabinovitch.

In contrast, the director general of the BBC is chosen by the BBC's trustees, and those trustees can fire their director general. The BBC's process is the rule among public broadcasters in industrial democracies. Canada's process is an anomaly.

In its 2003 report "Our cultural sovereignty," the Commons heritage committee recommended that "in the interests of fuller accountability and arm's-length from government, nominations to the CBC board should be made by a number of sources, and the CBC president should be hired by and be responsible to the board." Two years ago, the Commons heritage committee also recommended that "CBC/ Radio Canada's core funding be increased to an amount equivalent to at least $40 per capita." As CBC's current parliamentary allocation is just $33 per capita, this recommendation would provide CBC with a least $230 million in additional funds and thereby offer the Corporation an alternative to excessive dependency on advertising.

By international standards, $40 per capita is a modest sum to fund a national public broadcaster. The average in OECD countries is $80 per capita. You get what you pay for.

Ian Morrison is spokesperson for Friends of Canadian Broadcasting, a watchdog for Canadian programming on radio, television and new media.