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Don’t make Radio-Canada subsidize the CBC by Konrad Yakabuski

Jul 14, 2014

Source: Globe and Mail

When the CBC recently unveiled its new five-year strategic plan, a document so comically Orwellian that the network should hire the consultants who wrote it to come up with a new sitcom, the elephant in the half-empty Toronto broadcasting centre went entirely unmentioned.

The plan, titled A Space For Us All, refers to the Crown corporation as CBC/Radio-Canada, as if the English- and French-language networks constitute one entity with the same audience and digital challenges. In reality, all they share is a board of directors and mandate imposed on them by the federal Broadcasting Act.

As the cuts keep coming, fans of Radio-Canada, one of the most watched public broadcasters anywhere, are starting to resent paying the price for the CBC’s failure to connect with Canadians. That resentment is likely to grow as the broadcaster faces an ongoing cash crunch and slashes 1,500 more jobs by 2020.

With the loss of Hockey Night in Canada, the only CBC program to consistently deliver big ratings, advertising revenues at the English network risk sinking below those brought in by the French side, which draws millions more viewers despite operating in a much smaller market.

The last time the CBC lost hockey, during the 2012-13 NHL lockout, French and English ad sales were nearly equal. During the final quarter of 2012, the CBC’s English services brought in $47.4-million, while revenues on the French side were $45-million. With hockey, the CBC’s ad revenues are usually double.

In April, however, CBC President Hubert Lacroix announced the merger of the French and English advertising departments, noting that “with the loss of hockey, the importance of self-generated revenue is even more important and strategic.” In the Lacroix jargon, the merger is part of sharing “our vision for a Canada-wide multi-platform offering with our business partners.”

Radio-Canada supporters fear it’s a money grab.

With the federal subsidy still shrinking at the hands of a hostile Conservative government, will a successful French network be subsidizing a bloated English one that fails miserably in its mandate? If that’s the case, CBC/Radio-Canada needs not one strategic plan, but two.

Both the French and English networks need to deliver more content online and on smartphones, of course. But most of that content will continue to originate on the television side. Overall, Canadians watch almost 20 per cent more TV than they did a decade ago, so the medium is hardly dying.

Here, the similarities end. Radio-Canada succeeds precisely because it can be all things to all people in a market that craves local content. Quebec elites complain that the French network has gone shamelessly down-market in recent years, but the truth is that it has always had a populist bent.

It still broadcasts some of the most original and popular dramatic shows anywhere. (The top-rated Unité 9, a moody drama set in a federal women’s prison, draws more than two million viewers.) The shows are mostly privately produced, but, like all Canadian-made shows, are heavily subsidized. Yet, they deliver significantly more bang for their buck than CBC dramas, which are set in Canada but stylistically American.

Radio-Canada has no such serial envy. It also finds room in its grid for weekly shows on spirituality, agriculture/environment, science and nutrition. The Charbonneau commission might never have been created without the work done by Enquête, Radio-Canada’s investigative reporting show.

The network also makes abundant use of its archives with Tout le Monde en Parlait (Everyone Was Talking About It), which looks at big news events of the past. It was created on the heels of the success of Tout le Monde en Parle (Everyone Is Talking About It), the talk show that remains a Sunday-night ritual.

Of course, Radio-Canada does a fine job promoting Québécois culture, but pays only lip service to its official mandate, which is to “contribute to a shared national consciousness and identity.” It is overly Quebec-centric, and should be taken to task for it.

Still, Radio-Canada works. The CBC doesn’t. It futilely chases ratings with American-style populist fare (wait until you see the fall lineup) while neglecting distinctive programming that English-Canadians can’t get elsewhere.

The CBC should probably be half the size, embrace the PBS model and emphasize public affairs. It can never be Radio-Canada. So why gut the French network trying?

© Globe and Mail