Presentation to the CRTC on the licence renewals for the CBC’s French and English-language services

Nov 23, 2012

Text of Presentation:

Mr. Chair and Commissioners, my name is Ian Morrison, and I speak for Friends of Canadian Broadcasting, an independent watchdog for Canadian programming on the air and online. Friends is not affiliated with any broadcaster or political party – and we are supported by 175,000 Canadian families. People like these…

VIDEO MONTAGE #1  (1:03)

These comments come from eight town hall consultations across the country in recent months called The CBC We Want.  Although the participants are big supporters of public broadcasting, like all friends, they believe they have the right and the responsibility to offer constructive criticism.

Je veux souligner que lorsque nous critiquons la Société, nous ne visons pas les artisans talentueux qui créent la programmation, mais plutôt des politiques et des pratiques spécifiques de sa haute direction.

(I want to stress that when we criticize the CBC, it is not the talented people who actually make programs that is our target, but rather specific policies and practices of its senior management.)

The CBC we want is properly funded to do its job.  In poll after poll, a significant majority of Canadians say they support maintaining or increasing public funding for CBC.

We recognize that your Commission has no power to establish the CBC’s parliamentary allocation.  But we do urge you to send a strong message in your decision that the current level of funding is insufficient to discharge CBC’s statutory mandate.

Only four of 26 Western democracies spend a lower proportion of GDP than Canada on public broadcasting:  Portugal, Poland, New Zealand and the United States of America.

CBC has been singled out for disproportionate damage by the government.  From 2006 to 2015, total program spending will have increased by 15%, while spending on CBC will have declined by 22% – that’s a 37% gap, based on Budget and Treasury Board data.

CBC’s response to this financial crisis has been to replace declining public funding with more commercial revenue. This is a bad business strategy and also bad public policy:

  • It has not prevented deep cuts to CBC programs, services and staff.
  • It has not resulted in increased audiences or profit.
  • It has alienated core supporters.
  • And it has skewed programming and scheduling decisions.

This is why Friends is profoundly opposed to the CBC’s request for permission to bring ads back to some of its English and French radio services.

This is also why we recommend that the Commission look closely at alternative funding models for a less commercial CBC English Television – especially if next year the CBC were to lose the Hockey Night In Canada franchise that we estimate represents more than half of all of the English Television Network’s ad revenue.

And this is why our written submission proposes a number of specific licence conditions or expectations: commitments regarding the type of program content we believe is essential for a public broadcaster, such as documentaries, arts and culture, children’s shows, and regional reflection.

Like you, we wish it were not necessary to impose this kind of detailed regulatory monitoring and oversight. We understand the value of flexibility. However, we simply cannot support CBC when it asks you to “trust it” to do the right thing.  Recent past experience shows such trust would be misplaced.

Since the previous licence renewal thirteen years ago, the CBC has walked away from numerous commitments, and now wants to be let off the hook for many more. This must not be allowed to happen.

CBC says many of these decisions are financially motivated. They simply cannot afford to do these things any more.  We disagree.  We think it is a matter of choices. Does the CBC want to be a public service broadcaster –
or a commercial broadcaster that loses a billion dollars a year?
Unfortunately, the CBC has answered that question in its response to interventions, where it says – more than once – that it wants to be treated “like any other broadcaster”.  They’ve tried to backpedal on that this week, but their words speak for themselves.

Well, Mr. Chair and Commissioners – the CBC is not any other broadcaster.
The CBC is Canada’s national public broadcaster, with pride of place in the Broadcasting Act. It should act – and it must be treated – accordingly.

In the ongoing absence of a transparent, arm’s-length, professional system for appointing the Corporation’s Chair, Directors and CEO – an absence which Friends deplores – we are forced to look elsewhere for an appropriate governance model.

Friends would like the Commission to create a distinct regulatory regime specifically for the CBC. Failing that, we invite you to examine and recommend a system along the lines of the BBC Trust, which – while not without its flaws – does provide an independent means to ensure that key strategic decisions of the public broadcaster are scrutinized to determine whether or not they make a positive contribution to public value.

Under such a system, the CBC would not have been allowed to – for instance – unilaterally abandon the program format of Radio Two without an opportunity for public input.

Without such safeguards, we respectfully submit that proceedings like this are far less meaningful than they should be. The CBC is called on the carpet once every decade or more, and in between, apparently gets to do pretty much whatever it likes.

The CBC boasts about its many forms of public accountability. However, there is an important difference between simple reporting and real accountability. Friends submits that when it comes to actually listening to what Canadians want – and acting on that input – the CBC’s performance leaves a lot to be desired. 

The unfortunate result is that many of its strongest supporters are losing patience with the CBC. That would be a tragedy, as it would capitulate to those forces that are opposed to a robust and independent public broadcaster.

We need to turn this downward spiral around, by increasing the real and perceived value of the CBC to Canadians.

Commissioners: the idea of public broadcasting is too important to abandon.  We need to help CBC learn how to earn and deserve renewed public support – and then mobilize that support to advocate for resources to do its job.

I would be pleased to answer any questions. But first, I’d like to give the rest of Friends’ ten minutes to a few more comments from some of our – and the CBC’s – friends…


Related Documents:

The full transcript of the presentation, including questions, is available here.

May 28, 2013 — Blog Post: Comparison of CRTC decision to FRIENDS’ key recommendations
A concordance of policy recommendations by FRIENDS to the CRTC on the commission's review of CBC's broadcast licences.  

Dec 11, 2012 — Policy Brief: Re: Broadcasting Notice of Consultation CRTC-2011-379-6: Final Comments
FRIENDS submits final comments to the CRTC on several subjects: CBC Television - Balanced Schedule, Programs of National Interest, and Regional Production; CBC Radio 2 and Espace musique - Commercial Messages; and CBC Television - NHL Hockey.

Nov 27, 2012 — Policy Brief: FCB Undertaking #1, November 23 re: Forecast of Potential CBC/SRC Radio Advertising Revenues
FRIENDS presents information on projected revenues should the CRTC approve the CBC's proposal to introduce commercials on Radio Two and Espace Musique.

Nov 27, 2012 — Policy Brief: FCB Undertaking #2, November 23 re: Application of the BBC Trust Model in Canada
FRIENDS presents information concerning the BBC Trust model and its potential to address accountability issues at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.

Oct 5, 2012 — Policy Brief: Re: CRTC 2011-379: Licence Renewals for the CBC’s French- and English-language services
FRIENDS supports the renewal of CBC's various licences subject to a number of comments, recommendations and proposed conditions.

Campaign: The CBC We Want: National consultation on the future of public broadcasting in Canada