Source: Ottawa Citizen
If you listen carefully, any day of the week you can hear the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. creaking under the weight of its financial burden.
A $115-million cut to its $1.1-billion federal subsidy, NHL hockey rights with a $100-million-a-season price tag, two expensive U.S. television game shows and pricey in-house TV drama productions — all of them wrapped in an unexpected recession — have cost the public broadcaster dearly.
On CBC Radio, listeners are encountering an increased number of program repeats and they are getting their news from national reporters — shared with CBC television news — who are “reporting” on stories hundreds, sometimes thousands of kilometres from their home base.
At the local level, critics say, a newly-adopted “if-it-bleeds-it-leads” approach has resulted in TV and CBC Radio newscasts replete with routine crime stories and fires of no particular importance.
Radio Canada International, once Canada’s voice to the world, is a shadow of its former self. A $10-million budget cut has reduced it to an Internet radio station and in the process cut its availability to swaths of the world’s population, including China, where RCI’s Internet site is blocked.
Last fall, in an effort to generate more revenue, the CBC asked the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) for permission to broadcast commercials on its upscale Radio Two and Espace Musique networks, a bid that is said to be opposed by most listeners and is certainly disliked by private broadcasters, who see it as a major threat and a slippery slope that would lead to the same on CBC Radio One.
CBC management predicts advertising would bring a modest return — $15 million to $35 million over seven years — but the advocacy group Friends of Canadian Broadcasting suspects CBC is likely lowballing the figure and says the music network’s highly-educated, affluent loyal national audience would be irresistible to advertisers.
At the CBC/Radio-Canada licence renewal hearing at the CRTC last November, network President Hubert Lacroix warned that if the regulator refuses its request to carry ads, it will have a significant impact on programming.
“We have no intention of closing those radio stations down,” he said, “but they will change in format and content.”
That might not go down well with listeners, either.
A few years ago, a Radio Two move away from all-classical-all-the-time caused a furor, lost the network 30 per cent of its audience, and to this day remains a hot-button issue for listeners.
The world of CBC budgets is complex, but before the latest cuts TV was getting approximately $861 million in taxpayer money and radio $315 million. That breaks down to $488 million for English-language TV, $185 million for English radio, $373 million for French-language TV and $130 million for French radio.
According to CBC figures filed with the CRTC, English-language radio has received a slimmer slice of the pie over the past few years, losing $5 million between 2011 and 2012 at the same time English TV was getting $24 million more.
Those figures, coupled with the anecdotal evidence gleaned by viewers and listeners, has convinced critics that CBC’s upper management is robbing radio to pay TV.
Radio is increasingly being made “the junior partner” by CBC brass, says Friends spokesperson Ian Morrison, who worries advertising will further affect the quality of radio programming.
“Commercials would turn Radio Two into a commercial broadcaster chasing audiences,” he says, “so programs would be chosen to drive audience share rather than following the CBC mandate to be distinctive. This deterioration is a threat to public broadcasting as we know it.”
CBC guards the details of its biggest TV expenditures, but sources within the organization indicate that its current contract with the National Hockey League, which expires next year, costs about $100 million a season, plus production expenses and fees for its on-air talent.
CBC’s recently expired five-year contract for the U.S. game shows Jeopardy and Wheel of Fortune cost an estimated $20 million a season, combined, but apparently did not generate the expected revenue. The network also spent about $75 million on TV drama and comedy programming, such as Republic of Doyle, Heartland and Mr. D., although foreign market sales have made Doyle in particular a revenue generator.
CBC-TV advertising accounts for about 30 per cent of English TV revenue, dropping slightly from 2011 to 2012 from $246 million to $245 million.
But Hockey Night remains the network’s big ticket item.
“CBC is addicted to Hockey Night in Canada,” says Morrison, “not because it makes a lot of money but because if it wasn’t there they would have to fill 400 hours of prime time programming.”
It also brings in large audiences, loyal viewers that would migrate to CTV-owned TSN if it were to outbid CBC for the NHL rights.
It’s the slippage in CBC’s journalism that concerns others, including University of Toronto journalism school director Jeffrey Dvorkin, a former managing editor of CBC News, and blogger Bruce Wark, a journalism professor emeritus at King’s College Halifax and former producer of radio news programming.
“Hiring freelancers to fill in the gaps or picking up a BBC report used to be standard practice,” says Dvorkin. “Now there seems to be a lot more CBC reporting from the wires, where instead of being on site (where the story is happening) they are basically doing a rip and read — taking copy from the news agencies and maybe picking up video and blending it all into an report and pretending its original journalism.”
Wark, who has been in a war of words with CBC News management sparked by coverage of the Oscar Pistorius bail hearing in South Africa done from Toronto by sports reporter Peter Armstrong, who used news agency and other remote sources to piece together his story — a process called “melts.”
“CBC should be more honest with its audiences about the effects of these budget cuts,” Wark told CBC News editor-in-chief Jennifer McGuire in an email, “and one way would be to make it plain in news intros that reporting is not based on first-hand observation, interviewing or gathering of facts.”
“In my day,” he said in an interview, “we would have refused to do it but because of the budget cuts the union has been weakened, reporters have been weakened and the CBC is battling to keep their ratings because that’s what has become important to them in big cities.”
Jonathan Whitten, executive director of CBC News content, says “melts” are not the CBC’s preferred or usual method of reporting, but he defended coverage of the Pistorius story.
“The Pistorius pieces were signed off from Toronto,” he says. “There was no visual reference to Peter Armstrong being there. I wouldn’t want to be seen as the defender of the melt but sometimes they do make sense for somebody like Peter who has sports as his beat and has been a foreign correspondent.”
Cuts made to foreign coverage have largely been in personnel reduction at foreign bureaus, adds Whitten, with fewer people multi-tasking: “It isn’t simply a matter of shuttering bureaus and reducing output.”
Dvorkin gives the broadcaster credit for creating national and local investigative units and “producing some interesting and worthy journalism.” He is less complimentary about local CBC newscasts, which he says are driving audiences away in a misfiring effort to increase audiences.
“CBC still has a good reputation but it’s being frittered away in the quest for ratings,” he said. “And it’s not working.”
McGuire says the aim in each city is to cover local and breaking news. She rejects the notion that local newscasts have become crime dominated but says audiences care about “personal security” issues.
“We have all kinds of research that tells us what the audience cares about and this is one of the things,” she says.
But Dvorkin says a study by the Committee for Concerned Journalists in Washington has shown that “decontextualized” crime reporting drives away the audience.
“It basically showed that crime reporting that doesn’t differentiate between why crime has happened and what the consequences are actually decreases audiences,” said Dvorkin, “because people don’t like to be frightened when they watch news.”
Unlike its local TV news shows, which have traditionally struggled against private competitors, CBC Radio remains strong and an audience leader in most of its markets, though during the past year, CBC Radio in Ottawa has shown some slippage.
Consultant Barry Kiefl, a former CBC director of research, says such a significant shift in resources and broadcast strategy should require public consultation.
The reason the CBC wants ads on Radio Two — and Radio One would follow, he says, is simple math: $54 million was cut from CBC Radio between 2009 and 2012.
“This isn’t just a decision of where to spend money,” he says, “but a strategic direction.”
© Ottawa Citizen