Mandate and Funding of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation
Mar 21, 2011
Presentation to the House of Commons Standing Committee on Canadian Heritage
Ian Morrison, Spokesperson
Mr. Chair and members of the Committee: thanks for inviting Friends of Canadian Broadcasting to appear today! FRIENDS is an independent watchdog for Canadian programming on radio, television and new media - supported by 150,000 Canadians. FRIENDS is not affiliated with any broadcaster or political party.
You are studying the mandate and funding of the CBC, a subject near to Canadians' hearts. Since the early 1990s, FRIENDS has periodically commissioned public opinion research on broadcasting issues. You can see all of them in the "Resources" section on friends.ca, our website. I want to take a moment to summarize a recent survey we commissioned from POLLARA on "Canadian attitudes and expectations towards public broadcasting":1
- 88% of Canadians believe that as Canada's economic ties with the U.S. increase, it is becoming more important to strengthen Canadian culture and identity. (page 26)
- 78% tune in to some form of CBC programming each week. (page 19)
- 81% believe that the CBC is one of the things that helps distinguish Canada from the U.S. (page 25)
- 74% would like to see CBC strengthened in their part of Canada. (page 25)
And finally, here is a question that might interest a group of parliamentarians: "Assume for a moment that your federal MP asked for your advice on an upcoming vote in the House of Commons on what to do about CBC funding. Which of the following three options would you advise him/her to vote for? Decrease funding? (9%), maintain funding at current levels? (31%), or increase funding (47%)." (Page 43)
There's a message here: CBC is popular with Canadians - of all political persuasions.
FRIENDS has appeared before this Committee on several occasions to underline our strong support for the CBC's mandate as expressed in Section 3 of the Broadcasting Act.
In our view, a key point is the large gap between Parliament's intentions and what CBC delivers daily to Canadians, in particular the mandate to "reflect Canada and its regions to national and regional audiences, while serving the special needs of those regions".2 - and also the English Television Network's failure to "be predominantly and distinctively Canadian",3 especially in prime-time.
As you know, this Committee has been a source of valuable and comprehensive information about public broadcasting, for example the graphic from the Lincoln Report4 comparing public investment in public broadcasting in Western democracies as a share of the GDP:
These data show that CBC funding is near the basement - like the Ottawa Senators - with only Portugal, Poland, New Zealand and the United States investing less than Canada in public broadcasting.
So there's a disconnect between public sentiment and government investment, and this disconnect has become more severe in recent years. FRIENDS routinely tracks CBC's Parliamentary grant, factored for inflation, in order to identify changes in CBC's purchasing power. On friends.ca we have graphed these data over the past 21 years:5
Under each of the Mulroney, Chrétien, Martin and Harper governments, CBC has lost financial capacity. Canadians can hear and see the result of this gap every day. Regional programming is weaker and its reach is declining, more foreign content is televised in prime-time, and repetition of programs is increasing.
Ten years ago in prime-time, CBC's English Television Network broadcast 27 hours of Canadian programs and only one hour of foreign programs each week. Last year, seven hours of foreign programs appeared in prime-time - 25% of CBC's prime-time schedule! And this in the face of a recommendation from your Committee that CBC television should be 100% Canadian in prime-time.
Each of you will probably have your own anecdotes on the results of under-funding. Earlier this year, New Brunswick residents learned that CBC proposed to end over-the-air television transmission in Moncton and Saint John next September, leading to a storm of protest at the CRTC. A few years ago, residents of the Comox valley lost their over-the-air CBC Television signal after an antenna fire, and it has not been replaced. CBC seems to be backing out of affiliate agreements in several communities, including Peterborough and Kingston. Examples abound of parts of the country that are denied CBC services, all because of a shortage of money.
FRIENDS thanks this Committee for its recent recommendation "that CBC/RadioCanada's core funding be increased to an amount equivalent to at least $40 per capita."6 This would be a good first step to addressing the funding gap - raising Canada's per-capita support for its national public broadcaster to half the OECD average.
Your recommendation is popular with Canadians. POLLARA found that:
- 54% of Canadians support this Committee's recommendation that CBC funding should increase to $40 per Canadian.
- 20% believe your $40 per Canadian recommendation is too low.
- And the balance, 26% of Canadians believe that your recommendation is too high. (page 33)
In our watchdog role, we keep close track of politicians' statements about broadcasting and cultural sovereignty. Our website is full of examples from years gone by - Liberal years - but today I want to focus on the current government.
Prime Minister Harper came up strongly on our radar when, as Opposition Leader in May 2004 he said: "I've suggested that government subsidies in support of CBC's services should be to those things that are not... do not have commercial alternatives." He then added: "When you take a look at things like main-English language television and probably to a lesser degree Radio Two, you could there (sic) at putting those on a commercial basis."7
In seeming contradiction, a few months later Harper said: "we would seek to reduce the CBC's dependence on advertising revenue and its competition with the private sector for these valuable dollars, especially in non-sports programming."8
In office, the Prime Minister has gone silent on this file, at least in public. But troubling signs have emerged from Conservative Party fund raising letters where public broadcasting has been featured. For example in September 2008, on the eve of the general election, Doug Finley, writing as Campaign Director of the Conservative Party, sent donors a "2008 National Critical Issues Survey" and promised "I will personally share the overall results and any comments with the Prime Minister". Question 5 read: "The CBC costs taxpayers over $1.1 billion per year. Do you think this is a good use of taxpayer dollars (or) a bad use of taxpayer dollars"?9
This context might help you understand our concern when we read in the transcript of your November 23 meeting the following question from Mr. Del Mastro to a Corus executive: "Maybe it's time we get out of the broadcasting business and get into investing more money into content? ... Maybe I wasn't clear enough. The $1.1 billion, plus a whole bunch of other stuff that we're investing into the public broadcaster, should we look at reorganizing that in some fashion so we could put more money into content?"10
Getting out of the broadcasting business sounds a lot like killing CBC Radio, CBC Television, CBC NewsNet, cbc.ca and their French-language counterparts. And this disturbing comment was coming from the mouth of a Parliamentary Secretary who has a seat at the table beside the Minister of Canadian Heritage.
We also noted that twice in Question Period Minister Moore was invited to dissociate himself from Mr. Del Mastro's comments, and he failed to do so.
As you know, last month Immigration Minister Jason Kenney was quoted by Canadian Press as saying: "The CBC lies all the time".11 Any one of these incidents could be written off as an isolated event. But taken together, it all adds up to a substantial concern: a government whose leadership may be out of sync with public opinion on Canadian public broadcasting.12
Eighty years ago, a Conservative Prime Minister introduced public broadcasting to Canada. I would like to conclude by quoting another prominent Conservative, the late Dalton Camp:
"Owning one national communications facility, such as the CBC, which owes nothing to Mitsubishi or General Dynamics or Krupp, is surely worth keeping. What we know about the CBC, in a world in which economics is power and so much power is out of our hands, is that the CBC would never willfully betray our national interest or sell off our Canadian heritage. And we are its only shareholders. When you hear people talk about reducing the role of the CBC, or selling off its assets, look closely at who's talking - it won't be a voice speaking for the people of Canada, but for shareholders of another kind of corporation."13
Thank you, Mr. Chair! I would be pleased to respond to any questions or comments.
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For information: Jim Thompson 613 447-9592
2 Section 3(1)(m)(ii) emphasis added.
3 Section 3(1)(m)9i)
4 These data are drawn from page 178 of the Lincoln Report, Our Cultural Sovereignty, published by the House of Commons Standing Committee on Canadian Heritage in 2003: http://www2.parl.gc.ca/HousePublications/Publication.aspx?DocId=1032284&Language=E&Mode= 1&Parl=37&Ses=2
6 CBC/RadioCanada: Defining Distinctiveness in the Changing Media Landscape", 2008. Published by the House of Commons Standing Committee on Canadian Heritage. Page 139ff: http://www2.parl.gc.ca/HousePublications/Publication.aspx?DocId=3297009&Language=E&Mode= 1&Parl=39&Ses=2
8 Speech to the Canadian Association of Broadcasters, November 29, 2004. http://www.friends.ca/news-item/6480
12 Additional troubling comments are available here: http://www.friends.ca/fact-sheet/252
13 The Toronto Star, July 12, 1995, page A17.