Can the CBC become a local broadcaster again? Paul Adams
Apr 12, 2018
When I was a boy growing up in Winnipeg in the 1960s, CBC was a local broadcaster.
The most prominent CBC personality was not Earl Cameron, whose short national TV newscast at 11 p.m. consisted mostly of reading wire-copy, but a man named Bill Guest who hosted the morning Winnipeg radio show and the televised high-school trivia competition, “Reach for the Top.”
My mother had acted in nationally broadcast radio plays, in both French and English, produced in Winnipeg in the 1950s. And in the 1960s, there was a weekly country music variety show called “Red River Jamboree” that was seen across the land. (Halifax, similarly, produced “Don Messer’s Jubilee,” while Edmonton later had “The Tommy Banks Show.”)
In 1970, 12 years before “The National” moved to 10 o’clock as a full hour broadcast of news and current affairs, CBC Winnipeg launched the one-hour dinnertime news show called “24 Hours.”
In those days, the CBC was to a surprising degree a feudal network of baronies, and the regional directors were the barons. They had considerable autonomy in allocating their budgets and deciding on programming. In Winnipeg, whoever had that role was regarded locally as a significant social and cultural figure, comparable to the artistic director of the Royal Winnipeg Ballet or the head of the United Way. The CBC helped sustain and promote those other local institutions.
When Catherine Tait was appointed to be the new president of the CBC recently, she made a bold declaration about the importance of local broadcasting. “There is nothing more important than local stories and local news,” she said. “That’s what will tie us together going forward as a country. It is absolutely central to the democracy and the dialogue of the democracy in this country, so you can rest assured that it will be absolutely centre in everything we do.”
A great deal has changed at the CBC since my boyhood, not only at the corporation internally, but also in the local media environments in which the CBC operates. Most dramatically in recent years because of the deterioration in the number and quality of local newspapers. Is the CBC a potential saviour of local news and cultural content, or is it a threat to its ailing competitors? Of course, both those things can be true. It will be up to Tait and the CBC’s new chair, Michael Goldbloom, to bushwhack a path.
In the last half-century, waves of budget cuts and consolidations have transformed the CBC into a primarily national broadcaster. Regional directors have relatively smaller budgets and less control over them. Most stand-alone, regionally produced documentary and variety shows have disappeared.
Local news survived through it all, but barely in some markets, as it went through a bewildering series of Toronto-directed changes in format, length and broadcast times. At one point, CBC headquarters dictated that the local news shows in two of Canada’s most dynamic metropolitan areas — Edmonton and Calgary — be merged into one. You’d be surprised (CBC executives were) how little Calgary residents were interested in Edmonton news. The ratings were so low that a CBC cameraman joked to me that it would save money to shut down the transmission tower and hand-deliver VHS tapes to anyone interested.
Since the Trudeau Liberals came to power in 2015 and increased CBC’s funding, the broadcaster has been reinvesting in local news, particularly in digital operations. What this has meant is that at a time when local newspapers and private TV stations are shrinking their newsrooms, the CBC has been increasing its presence.
As Tait correctly said, local news is vital to democracy. Not everything happens in Toronto, Montreal and Ottawa. Someone needs to cover our city halls and legislatures, and if the private sector is doing less of that, having the CBC step up is important. In some markets the CBC has snapped up some of the very best local reporters, such as Joanne Chiannello in Ottawa and Bartley Kives in Winnipeg, who presumably took a look at their prospects in the newspaper industry and then jumped.
Let me be clear: traditional private sector news media are in crisis in places with almost no public broadcasting, like New Zealand, and in places like the United Kingdom, with a much more robust public broadcaster than our own. Public broadcasting is not the cause of the crisis.
But it would be foolish to deny that the CBC beefing up its news operations locally and offering its digital content for free accelerates the decline of its competitors. Most newspapers are trying to stave off doom by erecting paywalls for their online versions or tightening the ones they have. There was a time, not so long ago, when I could tell my journalism students to read a wide variety of local news sources. But let’s be practical: they’re students, and CBC.ca is free. That same logic applies to people who could afford to pay for news, but choose not to when it is also available, at high quality, for free.
There’s something else to consider, and it is possibly the most difficult turn on the path for the CBC to negotiate.
Local news has suffered in Canada, not just from cutbacks but from centralization. If you think of the newspaper industry over the last half-century, the transformation has not just been about contraction, though it is connected with it. When it was part of the old Southam chain, the Calgary Herald, for example, was still a Calgary paper, reflecting primarily the free market politics and culture of the oil patch and the ranchland. The Ottawa Citizen, however, was an Ottawa paper, reflecting the ambience of a public service town.
But under a succession of owners, starting with Conrad Black, then the Asper family, and more recently Postmedia, all the many newspapers in the country’s largest newspaper chain began to speak as a chorus, reflecting a similar ideological viewpoint, similar news choices, and endorsing the same candidates at election time.
A similar process occurred at the CBC as it grappled with cutbacks, though it was less obvious because the corporation does not take editorial positions. The CBC not only did less production at the local level, the decisions about what it did do locally were increasingly made in Toronto. Significantly, successful career paths often involved showing promise in the regions, pleasing the national bosses, and then ultimately moving to Toronto.
I believe the CBC should make a big push to fill the yawning gaps in local news and cultural production created by the decline of private sector providers. I think it should do so even though it will harm some of its competitors because doing nothing won’t save them. Local news is too important to the functioning of our local democracy and our local communities.
But I honestly doubt whether the CBC is capable of decentralizing its budget-making and decision-making after years of doing the opposite. Will the CBC make it possible once again for local broadcasters to mount programs that reflect local culture and pre-occupations? Can it transform itself so completely that more of the best and brightest at the corporation will think about making their whole careers in Edmonton or Halifax instead of migrating to Toronto? Will Tait and Goldbloom, having taken the reins, be prepared to loosen them?
We’ll see. If none of this happens, the CBC can still make a contribution locally, but it will never again be a truly local broadcaster. Just a national broadcaster with local operations.