Time for the CBC to take a big gamble by Paul Adams
Apr 15, 2014
On Wednesday night, the last-ever CBC production of the Stanley Cup playoffs will start. That will mark the beginning of the end of a public broadcasting tradition that goes back to 1932, when hockey first crackled over the CNR Radio network, jumping to television on CBC in 1952.
And the truth is, no one outside the CBC will really miss it.
I don’t mean there won’t be controversy about the new theme music, or George Stroumboulopoulos’ clothes, or the very existence of Don Cherry, when Rogers takes over the production of hockey next fall.
But it has been a long time since anyone could claim that CBC was more capable of broadcasting a hockey game than, say, TSN. Even to the extent that hockey plays a role in the national mythos, the private networks do their bit in cultivating the soppy, sentimental patriotism around the sport — along with an assist from the foreign-owned beer companies.
When Rogers snatched hockey away from CBC with its $5.2 billion, 12-year deal, no one suggested it would directly affect the CBC’s mission as a national public broadcaster. All the damage was collateral. CBC would lose ad revenue on Hockey Night in Canada, and the leverage to get ads for other programs. It would no longer have a prominent venue for promoting the rest of its schedule. It would have to find some new way of filling all that air time.
For quite a while, the prevailing attitude of CBC management has been that the network has to look first to its institutional interest — to its survival. What that means is devoting as much attention to attracting eyeballs as to providing original Canadian programming that no one else would produce. Often, the CBC fumbled as it attempted to do both.
A good example is CBC television’s flagship news show, The National, where I was proud to work back in the day. No private network would put an hour-long news and current affairs program in prime time.
And yet The National has suffered from waves of popularization, dumbing down its content in a quest to slow the decline of its ratings. The recent trend to Peter Mansbridge-led panels on politics, economics, health and social affairs is a welcome return to analysis and explanation. But the other night the show included a homeopath on its health panel, promoting a form of quackery the network has debunked elsewhere.
And don’t get me started on the Sunday panel — so vacuous it would make CNN’s weekend producers blush. (OK, I’m exaggerating. Nothing makes those guys blush.)
So, where to next?
The loss of hockey has resulted already in a cut of 657 jobs, more than a hundred of them in news.
In some ways, the CBC is just like every private-sector news organization these days, struggling to adapt to the crazy pace of change generated by the explosive growth in the capacity of fibre optics and broadband.
But unlike others, the CBC has one huge advantage: Even if it didn’t earn a dime in advertising revenue, it would still have an enormous amount of money to play with.
The CBC should re-orient its newsrooms as much to the web as to TV and radio. In fact, CBC could shut down its main English-language TV network and instead provide news programming to commercial channels for a fee, a little like ITN does in Britain.
The Friends of Canadian Broadcasting (of which I have been an occasional supporter) put out one of those annoying charts with a phoney Y-axis the other day. It rightly drew attention to the enormous cuts to the CBC’s federal funding, mostly under Jean Chrétien and Stephen Harper. But it also disguised the fact that the CBC continues to receive more than $900 million a year in parliamentary funding.
No government is likely to increase that substantially. But surely it’s enough money for the CBC to have more impact than it does — not by blending in but by standing out.
The English television network, which is where the CBC has a problem, is promising yet another re-think. I wish them luck, though like every re-think before, it will be hemmed in by entrenched interests (which includes dedicated programmers and avid viewers, by the way).
In my view, that still-huge, if much-diminished, government subsidy should allow the CBC to walk away from its existing business model in a way that no private sector news organization can do. The CBC should cease to be primarily a broadcaster and become a content company.
I’ll begin with news, which is what I know best.
I notice that as other news outlets erect paywalls, my journalism students gravitate increasingly to CBC.ca. Lots of people are doing that. The shift to smart phones and tablets also means the appetite for video on the web is expanding, playing to a CBC strength.
And yet, when was the last time you saw an online feature at CBC.ca that looked like it had the resources of, say, Marketplace or the fifth estate, much less Hockey Night in Canada? When the National Film Board of Canada mounted an impressive multi-media documentary on the history of the high-rise last year, it partnered not with the CBC but with the New York Times.
Right now, CBC treats its website as if it were an industrial by-product of the broadcast networks, like a slaughterhouse that sells off the bones for fertilizer and the hooves for glue. It’s an afterthought.
The CBC should re-orient its newsrooms as much to the web as to TV and radio. In fact, CBC could shut down its main English-language TV network and instead provide news programming to commercial channels for a fee, a little like ITN does in Britain. The CBC News Network would remain, but aim to provide distinctive, high-quality news and information that is deeper — if less popular — than its commercial competitors.
As for drama and comedy, as many people have pointed out, the difference in quality these days is not between public and private broadcasting, but between what viewers pay for and what they get for free.
Canada’s private networks are unlikely to invest enough to compete with House of Cards and Orange is the New Black. That’s why the CBC exists. And it should operate so that you can have access to high-quality Canadian programs regardless of whether you can afford a premium cable package.
Right now, with hockey gone, filling up 24 hours of television every day means spreading the jam much too thin on the toast. Freed of that responsibility, the CBC could produce fewer but better programs to be aired on other networks or streamed on the ‘net.
Such an ambitious renovation would be an enormous gamble. It might fail. It would require the acquiescence of a hostile government — at least until 2015. And it likely would require legislative change.
But the alternative is for the CBC to carry on doing what it is doing until it collapses into irrelevance.