Source: Toronto Star
If the corporation is to survive recent cuts, it will need to make several tough choices, including between serving the public at large or serving elites.
The CBC has historically been subject to conflicting demands. On the one hand, it is supposed to make popular Canadian shows for all taxpayers. On the other, it is supposed to make shows for elites. The corporation cannot do both – it has to choose between Battle of the Blades and ballet on TV.
In recent years, the CBC has focused on making shows for the largest possible number of Canadians. It has glowed brightly as a result. The audiences for CBC Radio are the largest they have been in history. CBC Televison’s prime-time schedule has performed better than ever before; for the first time, an overwhelmingly Canadian schedule has beaten the overwhelmingly American schedule of CBC’s great private competitor, Global.
When Canadians are asked how they feel about the CBC, they say it is more distinctive and of higher quality than ever. Canadians clearly think the CBC is finally on the right path. They do not want a CBC focused on elites.
Unfortunately just as the CBC is hitting its stride, darkness is gathering.
In the last four years, the corporation has been cut twice and will have to shed almost $300 million in expenses. Shows have been cancelled and the news has been cut back. Just as Canadians are saying yes, the CBC can’t move forward.
At the same time, its rivals at Global and CTV have acquired parents with deep pockets. They will, as a result of recent regulatory decisions, be forced to spend more in the areas that have traditionally been the preserve of the CBC. The corporation will not only have less money, its competitors will have much more.
If this were not enough, the CBC is in danger of losing its most lucrative property, Hockey Night inCanada. The private networks have said they may bid for the rights. If the CBC loses Hockey Night inCanada, it loses not only the profits associated with the show, but also 400-450 hours of prime-time Canadian programming – to be replaced by what?
Despite these challenges, there is little discussion about the future of the corporation. The CBC itself is strangely silent. When there is comment, it involves mostly grumbling that the CBC has lost its way, that there should be more ballet on TV.
We are at a dangerous moment. If we are not careful, we may inadvertently loseCanada’s most important cultural institution. We may see it crippled by forces beyond its control. In three years, if nothing is done, the CBC could shrink into irrelevance.
Fortunately the CRTC has decided to hold hearings on the renewal of the CBC’s broadcast licenses this November. If the hearings are properly conducted, the Commission will insist that the CBC explain clearly its strategy and how it proposes to deal with the tremendous challenges it will face over the next few years.
The commission – and indeed the Canadian public – should insist that the CBC be brutally clear about what it thinks needs to be done. It must answer the following questions:
1. Should the CBC serve the public at large or elites?
2. How much of the CBC’s budget should go to entertainment, kids, news, sports and radio?
3. Should the French side continue to get 40 per cent of the public subsidy?
4. Should CBC Radio’s local shows serve remote and under-served communities or major metropolitan areas?
5. Should the CBC offer a television news service? If so, how will it differ from the privates?
6. If the CBC loses Hockey Night inCanada, will it exit sports altogether? What will it replace it with?
7. Given the current financial problems, should the CBC put ads on radio?
8. What is the CBC’s digital and new media strategy?
9. What would the CBC do if it had more money? Another $200 million? Another $600 million?
10. What new powers and governance arrangements does the CBC need to compete in future?
The CBC needs to explain why it matters, what matters most and how it proposes to deal with the hard choices ahead. It’s no help to pretend that the CBC can continue to try to be all things to all people. Nor can the corporation continue to avoid controversy by ignoring the wearying contradictions that have long plagued it. What is required is a plan for the future that makes clear what the CBC can and cannot do, a plan that indicates where it will spend the limited money it has and what it would do if more money were available.
If the CBC were to be candid with Canadians, it could launch a much needed national debate on the future of our greatest cultural institution. It could make clear where the real choices lie and the implications of making them. It could – although it may seem unimaginable now – set the basis for a significant re-commitment to public broadcasting.
Richard Stursberg is a former executive vice-president of CBC English services and the author of The Tower of Babel.
© Toronto Star