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Show courage: Make the CBC accountable by Pierre Karl Peladeau

Apr 6, 2010

Source: National Post

With technology becoming an ever more pervasive element of daily life, an integral part of the way people communicate, get information and get entertainment, the CRTC's job as a regulator is harder than ever, with existing regulatory systems undermined by the relentless spread of new means of communication and a borderless universe. The CRTC's chairman has shown some determination and a keen understanding of the issues facing Canada's broadcasting industry today; under his lead, the CRTC has taken the bold step of allowing conventional broadcasters to negotiate fees for the value of their signals with cable companies and satellite providers and of leaving CBC out of this new scheme. Criticism of the CRTC's decision to allow only private over-the-air broadcasters to negotiate and collect fees, a privilege specialty channels have enjoyed for 20 years, is unwarranted.

However, the most surprising reaction was the indignant outcry from CBC's upper management, which complained bitterly that its services were being compared disadvantageously with those of private broadcasters. But how could the CRTC have acted otherwise? CBC/Radio-Canada already has four revenue streams: a $1.1-billion annual appropriation from Parliament, money from the Canada Media Fund, carriage fees for the CBC News Network and RDI (which some people suspect are being used to finance CBC news services) and money from the Local Programming Improvement Fund. Together, the funding comes to almost $1.3-billion. Plus, CBC collects close to $350-million per year in advertising revenues, bringing the total to almost $1.7-billion. If the CRTC, the courts or the government were to grant CBC still more by forcing cable companies and satellite providers to pay a fee for its signal, that money would come out of the pockets of consumers and/or private enterprise. In the current economic environment, it would be utterly unreasonable to impose this additional burden on taxpayers.

Most industrialized countries are reviewing the future of public broadcasting. Some governments lay down detailed terms of reference for their public broadcasters to make sure they do what citizens expect and deliver programming different from that of the private broadcasters. In Canada, this is not being done. The CBC's practice of buying high-priced U.S. programs like Beautes desesperees ( Desperate Housewives dubbed in French) and Jeopardy, yielding no local economic or cultural benefits, represents a permanent encroachment into the private broadcasters' territory.

Furthermore, the CBC has launched the Tou.tvwebsite without consulting the industry, a move that jeopardizes Canada's broadcasting system by providing free, heavily subsidized television content on the Internet without concern for the revenue losses that may result, not only for the CBC but also for other stakeholders, including writers and directors. The unaccountable CBC has even used every imaginable manoeuvre to wiggle out of full compliance with the Access to Information Act, a law it itself readily invokes in carrying out its own legitimate mission to inform citizens. The future of the CBC and its pre-eminent role in our broadcasting system should be up for review. The Corporation's funding is tied to its mandate, as stipulated in the Broadcasting Act. Just as the CRTC acted courageously in its recent decision, Parliament should now rethink CBC's direction and funding and make it accountable in the same way as other Crown Corporations.

Pierre Karl Peladeau is president and CEO of Quebecor Inc. and Quebecor Media Inc.

© Financial Post