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Turn the CBC into a Canadian Netflix by Jeffrey Dvorkin

Mar 26, 2014

Source: National Post

Can the CBC Be Saved?

Or, more to the point, should the CBC be saved? It’s a question asked in Canada about as often as “What does Quebec want?” and “When will the Leafs win the cup?”

Some feel the question is unnecessary. The CBC, say many Canadians, is a noble national institution, beloved by millions and worth keeping. In poll after poll, most Canadians say they support the CBC as our national public broadcaster.

Others think that the CBC is an idea whose time has come and gone, and is no longer needed in an era where every taste can be satisfied by the Internet, Apple TV, Netflix and the like.

A more useful question is whether public broadcasting more generally is still a valid concept in a digital environment. It’s the same question that is being asked in the United States (about PBS and NPR) and in the UK (the BBC).

Usually, the question arises most prominently when public broadcasting comes under financial pressure. And the CBC certainly has been going through some tough times of late. In January, the President of the CBC — who recently was forced to pay back $30,000 in expenses to which he was not entitled — sent a memo to staff warning of “dark clouds on the horizon.” Of greater concern, some high profile CBC TV journalists have admitted to taking money for speeches from business groups that have an interest in how they are covered by CBC News.

While audience figures are high for some CBC Radio programs, CBC TV ratings, especially for news programs, are languishing. Only the illustrious Hockey Night In Canada (soon to be part of the CBC’s glorious past) breaks into the top 30 weekly TV programs in Canada, according to BBM ratings. The question remains whether the CBC is still capable of providing a schedule of programs, especially on TV, that are appealing.

Supporters of the CBC say the problem is the relative lack of stable, long-term federal funding compared to other public broadcasters, especially those in Europe. Even with its $1.1-billion annual Parliamentary appropriation, the CBC ranks third lowest in per-capita government funding among European and American public broadcasters.

According to a 2011 study commissioned by the CBC, Norway supports its public broadcaster most generously with a per capita allotment of $164. The CBC, by contrast, is provided with just $34. (New Zealand comes in at second lowest, at $27. The United States trails everyone with just $4 per person provided to the Congressionally mandated Corporation for Public Broadcasting.)

CBC supporters say this situation is deeply unfair: The network has to provide extensive coverage over an enormous geographical area, including the Far North, in English and French (plus eight native languages), on radio, television and online.

According to the Broadcasting Act of 1991 (the last time it was updated), the CBC is obliged to provide programming that “informs, enlightens and entertains.” But how well can it do that on a 1990s-style budget in a digital age?

One of the criticisms of public broadcasting everywhere is its relentless earnestness — aka, the “Broccoli Broadcasting Corporation” syndrome. That is a reputation the CBC has deliberately attempted to throw off — especially for TV’s prime time schedule, which the CBC now fills with reality entertainment programs and sitcoms.

And some of these shows have achieved what they set out to do: finding new eyeballs and extending the range of viewers who choose to watch CBC Television out of pure interest rather than mere brand loyalty.

CBC Radio, meanwhile, has managed to increase the number of listeners by being distinctive and (almost) non-commercial. The same result has occurred with the BBC’s radio services in the UK.

In the United States, the ability of NPR to attract listeners and philanthropic financial support has been impressive. Focusing on news and information, and abandoning so-called cultural programming (classical music, jazz and drama) to local stations, NPR found that its audience tripled over a five-year period. It provides a form of public broadcasting that remains a unique offering in the American broadcasting landscape (which is otherwise overrun with nasty talk radio and repetitious top 40 hits). The CBC may be long overdue for a similar updating of what it offers Canadians.

NPR’s audiences have slipped slightly in the past year, but its two main news programs (Morning Edition and All Things Considered) are public broadcasting powerhouses — running either #1 or #2 nationally each week.

Also impressive is NPR’s website performance: The average age of an NPR listener is late 40s. But NPR’s typical website visitors are in their mid-30s, with more than 26-million downloads of content weekly. There may well be lessons for the CBC here.

Among the other ideas being proposed for the CBC: a more democratic and transparent way of appointing the president and the board of directors. Right now, the president is appointed directly by the Prime Minister through an order-in-council. There is no consultation with the public and there are no board members accountable to the public at large. This only serves to reinforce the impression that the CBC is not a true public broadcaster.

Could the programs be more original and less like commercial broadcasting? Radio achieves some of that, but CBC TV can be strikingly unoriginal. One suggestion for The National would be to cut back on the recitation of daily news events (most people are aware of what’s happened by the time 10 PM comes around) and to restore a form of explanatory journalism — the “why” and not the “what.” It used to be called The Journal.

Or an even more radical idea, and I believe the correct one:

Stop broadcasting the CBC altogether and move everything online. Take it off the air.

This is the so-called “Netflix Solution.” Eyeballs are going there anyway. Not only would it save $200 million a year in distribution costs, more importantly, it would finally force the CBC to make some long overdue, tough choices about how to serve Canadian audiences in the 21st century by replacing the present commercial dross with excellent and challenging programs.

© National Post