A fresh case for renewing the CBC: Analysis by Sarah Barmak
Jun 13, 2014
Private media’s own struggles portend to need for public network, supporters argue
Source: Toronto Star
The threat of new cuts to programming at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation have kick-started an old debate.
Questions of CBC’s worth to Canadians lurch to life each time a new indignity is suffered by our incredible shrinking national broadcaster. Early in April, the CBC announced $130 million in budget cuts and axed 657 full-time jobs — a move towards what president Hubert Lacroix called “a smaller, more nimble and more open public broadcaster.”
Further handwringing was prompted by watchdog Friends of Canadian Broadcasting’s May 22 report that service cuts are on the way when the CBC board of directors meet Tuesday and Wednesday.
In an age of seemingly limitless information and video — or “content,” in the parlance of the digital era — critics of the CBC charge we no longer need a taxpayer-funded source. Yet others believe the opposite, that as the business model of traditional media crumbles, a publicly funded news source is more crucial to democracy than ever.
CBC has denied more big cuts — including rumours the FM network, Radio, will become online only — are in store on Tuesday.
As it happens, the various sides in the debate have more in common than they think.
Conventional TV is in trouble. According to the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission, private Canadian broadcast TV lost just over $69 million before taxes in 2013 — more than twice as much as the loss in the year before — thanks to a sharp drop-off in ad revenue. The decline is leading traditional networks to spend less on programming, especially Canadian-produced content, the CRTC reported.
That’s an argument for the protection of the CBC, at least as a source of current affairs and analysis, says Jeffrey Dvorkin, director of the journalism program at the University of Toronto at Scarborough. As print media struggles and broadcast TV loses viewers as people get headlines online, the need grows for a broadcast and digital institution committed to providing deep coverage of the issues affecting Canadians that is sheltered from the shifts of the market.
Once a managing editor and chief journalist for CBC Radio, Dvorkin is now part of a group called Public Broadcasting in Canada for the 21st Century (PBC21), which has been working to develop a revamped funding and operating model to rejuvenate the network.
Meanwhile, news and current affairs is where the increasingly threadbare CBC can still compete, according to media researcher and PBC21 member Barry Kiefl. The head of Canadian Media Research Inc. (CMRI) submitted a report to the Senate Standing Committee on Transport and Communications in March arguing that the CBC is in “crisis.”
The broadcaster still spends a large sum on news, current affairs and long-form documentary, however — more than $200 million, or $5.71 per Canadian in 2012, according to CRTC numbers.
“I would certainly sign up for the view that the CBC is more essential than ever given the current environment,” says one supporter and former CBC manager, creative consultant Ian Alexander. He was chief of staff for CBC English Services, a Radio 2 host and deputy head of CBC Radio Music.
“We’re probably at the point where conventional private broadcasters are hurting. Media companies are making money on their distribution and mobile product, not on radio and television. It makes good sense to expect less of them and more of the CBC.”
Except that the CBC is making do with less. Its annual budget is just over $1.5 billion, about $1 billion of which is taxpayer-funded — roughly $29 per capita, per year, according to the network. That’s about one-quarter the price of a Canadian Netflix subscription. A 2011 Nordicity study prepared for the CBC that examined the public broadcasters of 18 major Western democracies found Canada’s has the third-lowest level of funding. Since that study was done, budgets have been slashed even further.
The problem, say many analysts, is that CBC-TV is a public-private mutant hybrid that is dependent on courting advertisers. If Canada funded public television as other Western democracies do, it would have a source of information, investigation, analysis, and even long-form documentary walled off from the uncertainties of the private media business model. The British Broadcasting Corporation, like many public broadcasters, is supported not by ads but by a relatively stable licensing fee.
A commercial-free CBC television (like CBC Radio) might be able to produce and show programs closer to the spirit of its mandate, stated in the 1991 Broadcasting Act, to reflect Canada to Canadians and contribute to the shared national consciousness. That’s not from a former CBC staffer, but from Heather Conway, the CBC’s executive vice-president of English-language services.
“If you are asking if the revenue we currently earn from commercials was to be replaced on a sustainable basis, then I think yes, we probably would do some programming in prime time that was less driven by the need to pay for it,” Conway said in an interview with the Star.
On the other side of the debate stands a chorus of critics calling to privatize the Mother Corp. CBC Exposed, an online campaign against the “arrogant, wasteful” broadcaster, argues its English and French services should be split off and sold. Both National Post columnist Andrew Coyne and Canadian Business editor-in-chief James Cowan wrote op-eds last month saying public broadcasting has no place in the digital era.
The conservative think tank the Fraser Institute has called more than once to cut CBC funding or sell it completely.
“Why are we asking the CBC to do things that private companies are doing in the same way?” asks Fraser Institute economist Jason Clemens. He doesn’t think that the shaky state of the news industry is a threat to Canadians’ access to reporting and information. “I don’t know another time in history when we’ve had access to this much information,” he says.
Clemens points out that much of what’s shown on CBC TV, from reality TV to Wheel of Fortune, is far from the idealistic view of its mandate. Many of the CBC’s most ardent supporters would agree with that diagnosis.
They would disagree on the cure, however. CBC TV’s decline in quality and desperate plays for a commercial audience, they say, are actually reasons to fund it fully. The problem is its public-private limbo. A publically funded competitor to private networks is too hobbled by the demands of the market to fulfill its mandate — or too tied to its ideals to really compete, depending on the way you see it. It’s bad for the public, which it fails to serve, and bad for the market, which it unfairly distorts.
The network’s loss of NHL broadcast rights to Rogers could ultimately be a blessing in disguise, forcing it to embrace a less commercial vision, says Ian Morrison, spokesperson for media watchdog Friends of Canadian Broadcasting.
Supporters caution that simply restoring CBC funding to 100 per cent isn’t the whole solution.
“You can’t just pour more money into the CBC and say we’ve got a great public broadcaster,” says Dvorkin. He argues it must expand its (already successful) push to become a digital news network, eventually leaving broadcast behind completely.
One elephant in the room: does CBC’s watchdog role perennially work against it? Morrison believes government cuts to the CBC are a sign its news division is doing its job of holding those in power to account.
Which leads to the question: Who, exactly, would pay for a revitalized CBC? Neither an increase in government support nor a household licensing fee seem forthcoming.
Dvorkin has an idea, however. A small levy of seven per cent charged to cable and satellite companies that would provide the CBC with over $1 billion in new funding, he says. If the network left the commercial market at the same time, its ad revenue would shift to private broadcasters. It would be a win for all parties, he says. Kiefl’s report proposed the model to the Senate, and Lacroix himself has floated the idea before.
“Unfortunately, the narrative of public broadcasting has been hijacked by people who are opposed to public broadcasting,” says Dvorkin. “Pride has gone missing at the CBC.”
CBC management may not seem proud, exactly, but Conway appears open to ideas about what to do — other than tightening the CBC’s belt until it vanishes.
“I would love a model that actually allowed the public broadcaster to invest in the future and be at the forefront of the rapidly evolving media landscape and perhaps partner with some of the private media companies to try new things, but that is just me dreaming, hah.”