Time for the government to re-evaluate CBC’s mandate and funding by Stephen Maher
Jun 27, 2014
Source: Windsor Star
It was sad to see a smiling but moist-eyed Leslie MacKinnon arrive at her farewell party in Ottawa on Thursday.
MacKinnon decided, reluctantly, to take a voluntary layoff after 35 years of fine work at the CBC. A hard-working storyteller, MacKinnon brought a unique and thoughtful sensibility to her reports, so it’s sad to see her go.
And it was sad this spring when Linden MacIntyre decided to leave the Fifth Estate, voluntarily taking a layoff so that the cuts would have a well-known public face.
It was sad to hear that Radio Canada’s hard-hitting Enquête had to cut staff. Enquête proved it is worth every penny of its budget by uncovering so much corruption that the province had to call a public inquiry.
There will be similar sad moments across the country in the coming years as CBC cuts 1,500 jobs. Well-known local broadcasters are going to be pushed out, or jump to spare their younger colleagues.
There will be angry denunciations of the government for not providing enough money, and that’s fair enough, but we should remember that there have been too many sad going-away parties in newspaper offices and private broadcasters in recent years.
The Internet is remaking the media landscape. Google and Facebook have gobbled up the revenue streams that used to go to newspapers and broadcasters, which is problematic, since Google and Facebook don’t convince corrupt engineers to spill the beans on taxpayer ripoffs.
But the CBC has problems that go beyond declining ad revenues. In 2012 the Tories cut $115 million from its annual subsidy, reducing it to $1 billion. In November the CBC lost Hockey Night in Canada, which had provided a foamy stream of beer-ad revenue that will never come back.
The corporation went to the government, cap in hand, seeking a one-time cash infusion to help it cope, but Heritage Minister Shelly Glover was unmoved. The CBC, she said, must stay “within its existing budget.”
So this week CBC President Hubert LaCroix gave the public and employees the bad news. Job cuts and real estate sales across the country. Local supper hour news programs will be cut to half an hour. In-house documentary production is history. The corporation will stay in the comedy and drama business, and aggressively seek revenue from mobile phones.
LaCroix tried to make it all sound happy and exciting. “Today we bring the next chapter in our journey to reimagine the public broadcaster,” he said.
Not everyone was convinced by his happy talk, and employees and critics called for his resignation. LaCroix, they say, is helping the Conservatives starve the CBC into irrelevance. As its budget falls, it will become less relevant to Canadians, public support will erode and it will die.
Stephen Harper is dedicated to shrinking government and reducing taxes. Many in his base despise the CBC.
But the prime minister is also a pragmatist, and he knows that taking a chainsaw to the CBC might cost him votes, so the Tories have instead used a filleting knife, trimming here and there.
But now that the CBC is really stuck, there will be no bailout. The same goes for Canada Post. In both cases, the prime minister may be pleased that market forces are reducing the scale of a public institution that competes with private companies.
But nobody else is going to do a lot of what CBC does. I don’t think it matters who broadcasts hockey, but only the CBC is likely to broadcast The House, Cross-Country Checkup, The Mercer Report or Tout Le Monde En Parle.
Most of the money in the Canadian broadcasting, film and publishing industries is made by reselling foreign products, so making money on Canadian products is difficult. That’s why we should have subsidies.
But the whole system is falling apart. The subsidies are too small for the CBC to meet its mandate. Canadians are abandoning cable for streaming video. The CRTC may lose its ability to nudge private companies into producing Canadian products.
The CBC’s mandate says that it should “provide radio and television services incorporating a wide range of programming that informs, enlightens and entertains.” That comes from the Broadcasting Act, which was passed in 1991, when the CBC’s budget was $1.7 billion.
There’s nothing in that mandate about delivering news stories to mobile phones, a key part of the CBC’s new plan. That makes me nervous, since newspapers are desperately trying to make money from that. How can we do that if subsidized CBC reporters are giving away what we’re trying to sell?
CBC, in survival mode, must seek revenue where it can, but it’s past time for the government to re-evaluate its mandate and funding level, and figure out what role the CBC should play in the Internet era.