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If the CBC doesn’t prioritize Canadian programming, who will? by Scott Stinson

Apr 24, 2014

Source: National Post

Despite the hand-wringing over a downsized CBC that has taken place after it announced the gloomy prospects for its budget this year, the significant news was not the elimination of more than 650 jobs which, though a big number, has to be put in the context of a company that employs almost 7,000 and is in an industry undergoing tremendous upheaval. Welcome to the media in 2014.

No, the weird stuff came later. After the public broadcaster’s executives outlined the specific departments that would be affected by the 2014-15 budget cuts, president and chief executive Hubert Lacroix spoke about the years beyond. “We are going to continue making choices,” he said, which is about the most innocuous way one could possibly say “there were be additional major cuts to come.”

The CBC of the future, Lacroix said, will become smaller still, “until we settle to a place where we have a financially sustainable model.”

That sounds ominous, though it’s not surprising. Aside from the general modern pressures facing broadcasters — more competition for eyeballs and advertising dollars — and the 2012 cuts to its public subsidy, the loss of NHL rights in November blew a hole in the CBC’s plans. Lacroix has now acknowledged what he went to great pains to avoid saying in the fall: Hockey Night in Canada was a tentpole of the CBC schedule, drawing in advertisers who spent elsewhere to ensure they also had exposure on NHL broadcasters. The degree to which the new arrangement — in which the CBC loans out its airwaves for four years so that Rogers can show its hockey broadcasts on the public channels — is fundamentally strange was explained a bit further when it announced its budget particulars. Heather Conway, the new executive vice-president of English services, said that of the major cuts to CBC Sports, hockey-production positions will be retained because those employees will work on the Rogers version of Hockey Night. The CBC, then, will loan out not just its airwaves to Rogers, a private media conglomerate, but its employees. In exchange, the CBC doesn’t have to pay to fill that airtime (and it doesn’t have to fire a bunch of hockey people.) If that deal sounds ridiculously one-sided, that’s because it is. It’s also what happens when one side has all of the leverage.

Rogers to CBC: “Would you like to carry some of our hockey content?”

CBC to Rogers: “How much would you pay us to do that for you?”

Rogers to CBC: “Nothing. And we would use your staff.”

CBC to Rogers: “Right, then. Deal.”

You might think that, given the unprecedented nature of this arrangement — for you can comb through the Broadcasting Act for a long time without finding anything about the suitability of the public broadcaster helping one private competitor at the expense of others — it would be time for the CBC’s executives to consider unprecedented actions. But, no. There is much talk about what the CBC of even five years from now should be, but the entity that gives it most of its funding is not part of that discussion. On that conference call with the company’s executives a couple weeks back, I asked Lacroix if there was any conversation between the CBC and its government masters over how it should proceed given its new reality, and what form a CBC of the future should take. I might as well have asked if Lacroix would like to eat his shoe. Such discussions would be inappropriate, he said. The upshot of his answer was that the government writes the cheque and the CBC will decide what to do with it.

His point about the independence of the CBC is well taken, but if ever there was a time for Ottawa to cast aside such concerns and get down to figuring out the purpose of a publicly funded broadcaster, this is it. It has been said countless times, but the “everyone, every way” mantra of recent years is woefully outdated. Why does, to pick just one example, the CBC need to produce local TV news in markets that already have multiple such newscasts? The executives respond: because it’s part of the mandate. But by that rationale, isn’t everything? And if that’s the case, then a new mandate is in order: one that specifies just what public need is served by a public broadcaster in an era that is utterly different from the one in which it was conceived.

Opinions abound, of course, on what a specialized CBC would look like. Radio listeners want more investment in radio, journalists think it should be focused on news and everyone likes to roll their eyes at the network’s television programming. Here’s the thing, though: a CBC that abandoned original television would crater the domestic industry. It is true that in recent years, the private networks here have churned out an unprecedented number of Canadian successes: Rookie Blue, Motive, Saving Hope, to say nothing of the major hits on the sci-fi-heavy specialty channels. But a lot of that production is the end result of CRTC rulings that required broadcasters to invest heavily in original programming as the price of the regulator approving various takeovers and mergers. That well will soon dry up, and conventional broadcasters will be back to spending only what they have to on Canadian productions, which is an amount equal to a certain percentage of their revenues. For all of the recent homegrown hits, it remains that the private networks still seem like they produce these series because they have to, not because they want to. (It is, after all, much easier to just buy the rights to a U.S. series that has the built-in benefits of the Hollywood machine already attached.)

The CBC, though, has at least been fully committed to making Canadian programming. And while, yes, too much of it has been middle-of-the-road fare, I have a hard time beating them up for that when they are competing for viewers. Seriously: have you seen what shows get the biggest audiences these days?

This space has argued before for a public broadcaster that gave up chasing eyeballs and instead focused on quality, daring original programming: precisely what the private conventional networks won’t do. That would cost money, though. An alternative would be to strip the subsidy altogether and let the CBC sort itself out entirely on its own terms: let the market determine where its strengths lie.

But a CBC that is counting its television pennies, with its plans to fill the holes in its lineup with reality shows, reruns and branded content, is the least desirable outcome here.

Perhaps the federal government doesn’t care if the domestic television industry loses its best champion. For the money it spends, you’d think it would.

© National Post