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Notes for Remarks by Ian Morrison to the Calgary Rotary Club, Fairmont Palliser Hotel, Calgary

Oct 4, 2005

Thanks for your invitation. This year's centennial has been widely celebrated in Alberta and Saskatchewan, and throughout the country. Perhaps we have paid too little attention to another important centennial. One hundred years ago Albert Einstein published his special theory of relativity, and event that changed the world.

In the 1930s, when Einstein was at Princeton University, a large group of scientists challenged is theories in a full-page ad in the New York Times. The ad's headline read: "One hundred scientists against Einstein." When the press came out to Princeton to get a comment from Einstein, he told them: "I should have thought, had they been right, that one would have been enough".

It's a standard you can use to evaluate my comments today.

One person who influenced my life was the late Lois Hole, until her passing last year, your Lieutenant Governor. She was a member of the Steering Committee of the Friends of Canadian Broadcasting before her vice regal appointment, and I thought of her as a good friend. I recall her passion when she appeared before the CRTC in Edmonton in 1999 to tell the Commission how much CBC meant in her life.

A word about Friends of Canadian Broadcasting. It's a Canada-wide watchdog group for Canadian content supported by more than 100,000 Canadians – 2,600 of them here in Calgary. We keep an eye on all parts of the audio-visual system –– private and public broadcasters, the distributors, cable monopolies and satellite companies, the CRTC and the federal government. Today, I have been asked to reflect on public broadcasting.

The people of Canada control the future of public broadcasting. As the columnist Lawrence Martin wrote in The Globe and Mail a while back: "Canadians, as opinion samplings suggest, haven't migrated rightward in big numbers, only their printing presses."

At Friends of Canadian Broadcasting, we have also kept a close eye on public opinion about broadcasting issues, including public perceptions of the CBC, over the past thirteen years. It's all posted on our web site (www.friends.ca). Here, for example, is what Ipsos-Reid found while polling on our behalf in the week preceding the issuing of the writs for the most recent general election campaign:

  • 87% of Canadians agree that as Canada's economic ties with the United States increase, it is becoming more important to strengthen Canadian culture and identity.
  • 94% of Canadians want to see CBC survive and prosper.
  • 89% believe that CBC is one of the things that helps distinguish Canada from the US.
  • 85% would like CBC strengthened in their part of the country.
  • 9% of Canadians would advise their MP to vote for decreasing CBC's funding from current levels, 51% would advise maintaining it at current levels, and 38% would recommend increasing CBC's funding.
  • 94% of Canadians want to see the CBC survive and prosper.
  • 77% believe that CBC provides value for taxpayers' money.

CBC also scored well on qualitative measures. For example, in another recent poll, when English-speaking viewers were asked which television network has the most balanced reporting of news about Canada's federal political parties, 46% choose CBC's English Television Network, 25% choose CTV and only 20% choose Global.

Not bad data for an institution that some neo-cons describe as on its death-bed. As the late Dalton Camp once said: "Love it or hate it, CBC is our only national institution that still works".

How do we evaluate CBC as a public broadcaster? CBC Radio qualifies in spades. Its audience share for Radio One and Radio Two is about 12%, and about one-third of us use it at least once a week. It's certainly not perfect. The way it handled the Don Hill fiasco earlier this year in this province was not its finest hour. But it occupies a distinctive place on the radio dial. Even Canadians who don't listen often still respect it, and turn to it in troubled times.

CBC Television and CBC Newsworld have a smaller audience share than does CBC radio, about 9%, but when we focus on viewing of Canadian shows, as opposed to all the Hollywood stuff, they get 40% in prime-time. That's lined up against well over sixty other Canadian channels. And two-thirds of us use it at least once a week.

CBC Television derives almost half its revenues from commercials. It shows. Some of us think of CBC Television on occasion, and only partly in jest, as a wholly-owned subsidiary of the National Hockey League, or worse, Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment. The Flames appear to have a share. Of course, CBC-TV has had a seventeen-month break from its NHL fix, but starting next Saturday they'll be at it again.

I remember sitting in the basement of a Winnipeg hotel in the winter of 1999 when the CRTC was holding public hearings on CBC's network radio and TV licences, the same hearings as the one where Lois appeared. One of the women who presented said something I will never forget: "I think that two NHL games on a Saturday night is at least one NHL game too many."

CBC Television may not be an exemplary public broadcaster, but we don't really have any private television networks in this country either. All the so-called private broadcasters enjoy substantial direct and indirect subsidies: from Telefilm, the Canadian Television Fund, Income Tax Act incentives to advertise on Canadian channels and, of course, from the audience-building benefits of simultaneous substitution. All this on top of iron-clad protection from direct foreign competition. They work underneath a federal government umbrella, protected from the effects of satellite rain. So, it seems that Canadians have no private or public television broadcasters; only a quasi-public-private TV system.

CBC Television's dependency on professional hockey has been illuminated by the recent NHL dispute. Although professional sports occupy only 15% of CBC Television's schedule, they draw 25% of its audience and generate 40% of its advertising revenue.

It's instructive to examine what CBC did last season when NHL games were not available. You may all know the answer. They went out and bought a bunch of old Hollywood movies and put them on the air on Saturday Nights in place of Hockey Night in Canada. Movies such as Star Wars, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Gone With the Wind...you name it. They didn't cost much, and they can garner big audiences, and therefore please advertisers.

Friends of Canadian Broadcasting has analyzed what this meant for CBC Television's offerings last season. These data are interesting. In the three months from March to May 2004, CBC Television's prime-time schedule was 90% Canadian. One year later, CBC-TV's schedule had dropped to 58% Canadian. How could this happen?

Sports programs dropped from 35% of CBC's schedule in the 2004 three-month period to just 8% this year. Why? No Hockey Night in Canada, and no NHL playoffs. During that same three-month period in 2004, only 9% of CBC's schedule was movies, 4% was Canadian movies and 5% foreign movies. But one year later, during the NHL lockout, movies accounted for 32% of CBC's schedule. Fully 25% of the schedule from March to May this year was made up of foreign movies. If anyone is interested, I have all these data (PDF 44 KB) with me, right down to the decimal places.

If CBC carried on for a full year with only 58% Canadian content, it would run afoul of basic CRTC regulations for any broadcaster.

Two weeks ago Joe Clark told a packed audience in Massey Hall that "the CBC is one of Canada's few remaining national institutions, able to help us be more than we have been. We need it.... The custodians of that institution, on both sides of the dispute, may need reminding how much damage is being done by their continuing to dig in. It is not about their jobs or their authority. It is about our CBC. We should stop the damage before it is too late -- before the CBC becomes another wounded, incapacitated Canadian institution, unable to serve the nation which needs it."  I agree with him.

And Mr. Clark is not the only Conservative Prime Minister from Alberta to support public broadcasting. In the depths of the great depression, R.B. Bennett created the Canadian Radio Broadcasting Commission, which became the CBC. He did it to link Canadians from east to west to share their ideas and dreams in the face of a rising sea of radio signals from the United States.
Mr. Bennett's legacy is remarkable. From radio to television and new media in French, English and aboriginal languages, the CBC has spent seven decades living up to a mandate which the 1991 Broadcasting Act describes as an obligation to "reflect Canada and its regions to national and regional audiences, while serving the special needs of those regions." That's a tall order in a country of six time zones, but I believe that CBC does it rather well.

A few more numbers. According to the House of Commons Heritage Committee report Our Cultural Sovereignty, CBC operates 878 television and 698 radio transmitters. That's quite few, isn't it?

By international standards, CBC is not awash in funds. We tend to compare ourselves with the United States, where public broadcasting is but a marginal force. Per capita, the BBC receives more than twice as much funding as CBC. Here's a list of OECD countries that devote a higher percentage of their GDP to public broadcasting than Canada: Finland, Denmark, Norway, United Kingdom, Germany, Hungary, Austria, Greece, Sweden, Czech Republic, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Belgium, Japan, Australia, Ireland, Italy, France, Korea and Spain. Here's the remainder of the list, that are less generous than Canada to public broadcasting: Portugal, Poland, New Zealand and the United States. These data also come from the House of Commons Heritage Committee. Note that many of the countries that are more generous supporters of public broadcasting than Canada operate in smaller territories, have fewer time zones and with fewer official languages than Canada.  I conclude that by international standards, we seem to get good value for the money we spend.

Of course the CBC has warts. One of them is an out-dated patronage system where its President is appointed by the Prime Minister.  Unlike other corporations, CBC's board cannot hire or fire its CEO. Did you know that? In my view, this goes a long way to explaining the lockout, but it can easily be fixed by Parliament. Two years ago, the Commons Heritage Committee unanimously recommended a solution.

Members of Parliament from all parties proposed that the CBC Board be chosen from among the best and brightest Canadians, chosen at arms length from Prime Ministerial patronage. And they recommended that the Board have the power to hire and fire the President and CEO. That recommendation is sitting in the government's in-basket, and I imagine that following this unnecessary lockout, they may well dust it off. Certainly, they should.

This idea has been around for a while. In 1996, a review panel chaired by Pierre Juneau recommended to the government that "the integrity of the Board and the independence of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation would be enhanced if directors with known political affiliations represented the full political spectrum, and not just the governing party. We note that this pattern has been followed by successive British governments and has, in our view, helped to preserve the BBC's independence and prestige". This is an idea whose time has come.

As I have said, CBC is being run by people picked by the Prime Minister. President Rabinovitch spent much of his working life as an Ottawa bureaucrat. His background included almost sixteen years of service under Prime Minister Trudeau, and nine months under Prime Minister Clark. He rose to the rank of Deputy Minister of Communications. I believe he was on a list of three civil servants that Peter Lougheed asked Brian Mulroney to remove in return for Lougheed's support in 1983. Have you ever heard of the National Energy Program? Mulroney moved him to the position of Under-Secretary of State in 1985 and then out of the government.

He showed up in Montreal and served in Charles Bronfman's empire until Prime Minister Chrétien appointed him President of CBC in 1999. Prime Minister Martin extended his appointment by three years last November. When asked to advise on that appointment, the Liberal and Conservative members of the Commons Heritage Committee voted "Yes", the Bloc MPs abstained and the lone NDP member voted "No".

Rabinovitch likes to call himself a businessman, but I'm not sure you and I would call him that. He decided to lock out his 5,500 non-Quebec employees on August 15th. He has previously used the same technique in Quebec. Did he consult the government beforehand, or his Board of Directors? I don't know. None of them are acknowledging publicly that he did. I do know that following Carole Taylor's resignation in March to pursue elective office in British Columbia, the government has not yet appointed a successor as Chair.

In September, six months later, they proposed a new Chair, but that person has yet to be appointed. During the period leading up to and during the lockout, Rabinovitch was serving as President, CEO and Acting Chair. To the government's discredit, only two of the CBC's current Directors, other than Rabinovitch, have more than one year's experience.

At Rabinovitch's side is an Executive Vice President he recruited last year. His name is Richard Stursberg. He worked under Rabinovitch for many years in the bureaucracy and then spent some time in subsidiaries of the Rogers and Shaw empires before accepting a patronage appointment to head Telefilm four years ago. When Rabinovitch appointed him, the Globe and Mail asked me to comment. All I could say was: "I can't think of anything good to say about him." He's the number two guy at the CBC. Neither he nor Rabinovitch has any programming experience.

I have a serious point in relating all of this. The patronage governance system has consequences for the effectiveness of CBC's management. These are the people who brought us the lockout and they've lost a lot of credibility as a result of their blunder with groups who count: CBC's creative talent and the listening and viewing audience. They proved utterly incapable of stating their side of the case in the recent dispute. Yet there's no way to remove Rabinovitch and company without compromising the independence of the CBC as a public, rather than a state, broadcaster.

Do I think that governance reform is in order? Yes, I do.

The recent lockout has demonstrated what a Toronto Broadcasting Corporation would look like. And the farther people live from Toronto, the less they like it. Many northern Canadians have told me that the lockout made them feel completely cut off from the rest of the north, as well as from their fellow Canadians.

People who live outside the Montreal, Ottawa, Toronto triangle - that would be about 75% of us - are in a good position to judge the central-Canada bias of the CBC. The staffing cuts of the late 1990s took place disproportionately outside that triangle. You might be interested that fully half of the 5,500 employees locked out for seven weeks live in the Greater Toronto Area, which has less than 20% of Canada's population. The staff cuts of the 1990s were much more severe in Vancouver, Calgary, Edmonton, Regina, Winnipeg, Windsor, Halifax and St. John's than in Toronto and Montreal. More and more of us believe that CBC is becoming a Toronto Broadcasting Corporation. And we do not want Toronto controlling the future of public broadcasting in Canada.

As you know, most of our TV programs come from far away: from Toronto, for example, or more often from Los Angeles. There's nothing wrong with distant information and entertainment – as long as we balance it with at least a modest share generated from "here". And that's what's largely missing in Calgary, Vancouver, Winnipeg, Halifax and St. John's today, as well as large parts of rural Canada, including, for example, more than a million people who live in northern Ontario.

Our private radio and television stations are less-and-less involved with local information, music, and entertainment. When we turn on our television sets at night, we learn much more about life in Los Angeles or Miami than we do about life in Calgary, Montreal, or Fredericton. In peak-viewing periods, there is nothing from Alberta available on CBC Television. The same applies in other parts of Canada.

This is a serious matter for us and for our children. A typical twelve year-old kid today has watched twice as many hours of TV as he or she has gone to school. And 80% of that TV is foreign stuff. Our kids are learning far more from television about life in Miami and Los Angeles than they are about life in Calgary, Winnipeg or Halifax.

Robert Rabinovitch did respond to the Heritage Committee's request that he submit a plan to re-build CBC's local and regional capacity. His plan was tabled in Parliament by Heritage Minister Liza Frulla in February. It was a good beinning. How has the government responded? There has been no response in the ensuing eight months.

We need our national public broadcaster. We should be fixing it, nurturing it and building it. I'd like to conclude with a quote from the late Dalton Camp in whose memory Friends of Canadian Broadcasting has created the Dalton Camp Award. Ten years ago, in a newspaper column, Camp wrote about CBC: "We are its only shareholders. When you hear people talk about reducing the role of the CBC, or selling off its assets, look closely at who's talking – it won't be a voice speaking for the people of Canada, but for shareholders of another kind of corporation".

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Ian Morrison is Spokesperson for the Friends of Canadian Broadcasting

Related Documents

October 4, 2005 - News Release: Make the CBC President Accountable
FRIENDS calls for reform of patronage process used to appoint CBC president, additional funding for CBC local and regional programming.