Is Public Broadcasting Still Relevant for Canada in the 21st Century?

Aug 4, 2010

Harry Somers Lecture - Stratford Summer Music

City Hall Auditorium

Harry Somers LectureRemarks by Ian Morrison, Spokesperson - Friends of Canadian Broadcasting

When John Miller conveyed the invitation many months ago, the thought of declining did not cross my mind. The great Harry Somers! Stratford in August! And a topic on which I am passionate! I thought to myself: "Yes Sir, Yes Sir - three bags full!"

Harry Somers' career is stitched into the fabric of Canadian public broadcasting and the creation of a distinct identity on the northern half of the North American continent. In 1948, at the age of 23, Somers composed "North Country" for broadcast on the newly minted CBC Wednesday Night. My friend Walter Pitman, author of several books on Canadian musicians and composers, has described Harry's music as "imbued with Canadian patriotism". Walter considers Harry - along with Harry Freedman and Murray Schafer - one of the three greatest classical composers English Canada has yet produced.

His best known work, the opera Louis Riel, premiered at the O'Keefe Centre and EXPO 67 - the same year that CBC commissioned my favourite Gordon Lightfoot song The Canadian Railroad Trilogy.

According to his fellow composer and friend Norma Beecroft, "perhaps broadcasting helped develop his image and, in particular television, because Harry was something beautiful to look at, as well as to listen to". In the words of John Weinsweig: "everybody liked Harry. He was easy going. He carried no prejudice against anything or anybody. So people took to him". His remarkable life's work, his engaging personality and his contribution to Canadian identity - at home and abroad - make Harry Somers an ideal choice to honour with a lecture series. I congratulate Stratford Summer Music for this initiative.

I also want to acknowledge and pay tribute to a couple of Stratford friends: Gary Schellenburger, your Member of Parliament, Chair of the House of Commons Standing Committee on Canadian Heritage, who two years ago guided that Committee to an important report on Canadian public broadcasting in the 21st century [1] - and Ethan Rabidoux of CJCS Radio fame - the station where Lloyd Robertson got his start - who is one of two winners of the 2010 Dalton Camp Award, sponsored by Friends of Canadian Broadcasting. [2] Gary is in Ottawa attending the Conservative National Caucus, but Ethan is here with us today. The Dalton Camp Award, by the way, is a national essay competition on the link between media and democracy. You can learn more about it, and read Ethan's winning essay at "".

My topic is broad: "Is a public broadcaster still relevant for Canada in the 21st century?"

As a 'wet-behind-the-ears' first-year history student at the University of Toronto, I was assigned my first essay by the late Professor Bertie Wilkinson: "What is the significance of the coronation of Charlemagne?" I worked hard on that essay - reading all the available sources ­and submitted my piece with some trepidation. Wilkinson gave me a "C -" and told me: "You did not answer the question. The coronation was insignificant. Charlemagne had all the power. The Pope had no choice." Ever since, I have taken questions more seriously.

I recognize that CBC is not Canada's only public broadcaster. In this province, for example, TVOntario plays an important role, and other examples exist in several Canadian jurisdictions. But in my comments today, I have decided to concentrate on our national public broadcaster, and to focus on its English-language services. I also realize that CBC is not exclusively a public broadcaster. Since its inception it has relied on advertising revenues for a substantial part of its income.

It takes no more than a cursory review of Harry Somers' career - and that of many other Canadian composers and artists since the dawn of the audio-visual age - to confirm how 'relevant' the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation has been to enhancing Canada's identity and cultural sovereignty. In Walter Pitman's biography of Harry Freedman, he writes that "it is difficult for younger citizens to comprehend the central role that the CBC played in the early stages of Canada's cultural awakening in the late 1940s, '50s, and '60s. It was the CBC that commissioned most of the new works from Canadian composers that came to form the nation's collective repertoire, and without its intervention very little money would have been available for commissioning new music of any kind." [3]

Many of us with a memory span extending back into the last part of the 20th century will have our own recollections of CBC's great past. Here are a few of mine:

  • Pierre Berton's series The National Dream
  • This Hour has Seven Days
  • Barbara Frum & Mary Lou Finlay's As It Happens
  • Ideas
  • The great Knowlton Nash
  • Peter Gzowski's Morningside
  • Canada: A People's History
  • Intelligence

My Aunt Ruth once took me to a live broadcast of The Happy Gang. It's my earliest recollection of witnessing broadcasting in action.

CBC's coverage of the 1972 Canada-Russia hockey series is a landmark. Ten million Canadians can never forget the words and images from Moscow's Luzhniki Palace on September 28, 1972. When I recently tuned in to CBC's digital archives website, I felt a tingle of emotion when I heard the late Foster Hewitt shout: "Cournoyer has it on the wing. Here's a shot. Henderson made a wild stab for it and fell. Here's another shot, right in front. He scores. Henderson has scored for Canada!" [4]

So, there is little doubt that the assumption embedded within my topic in the words "still relevant" is correct and that CBC has carried forward into this century a glorious tradition, as well as a solid foundation. In the words of Gary's Committee in 2008:

"CBC... brings Canadians closer together and allows them to share their unique experience in North America. This is a huge task... as it has to operate over a very large geographic area while reaching out to a linguistically and culturally diverse audience. (The Committee) sees access to quality information that is free of commercial or political influence as essential to a strong democracy. CBC... must have a direct impact on the quality of life and the health of communities and the country, in the spirit of participatory democracy." [5]

A unanimous endorsement from a multi-partisan parliamentary Committee!

Even more important is the definitive endorsement from Canadian public opinion. Last year, FRIENDS commissioned a study from POLLARA, a leading public opinion and market research firm on Canadians' attitudes and expectations toward public broadcasting. [6] Here are some highlights:

  • 78% of Canadians tune in to some form of CBC programming.
  • 76% rate the quality of CBC programming as either excellent (14%), very good (35%) or good (27%).
  • 83% believe that CBC is important in protecting Canadian identity and culture.
  • 81% believe that CBC is one of the things that helps distinguish Canada from the United States.
  • 72% favour building a new CBC capable of providing high quality Canadian programming with strong regional content.
  • 66% believe that in order to survive and prosper, Canada needs the CBC.
  • 63% consider that CBC provides value for taxpayers' money.
  • 80% think that CBC is best suited to provide Canadian programming on television.

It would be difficult to find another Canada-wide institution with more solid public support than public broadcasting.

Notwithstanding this support, compared with most industrial democracies, Canada does not invest heavily in public broadcasting. Research published by the House of Commons Heritage Committee in 2003 compared Canada's public funding of public broadcasters with other Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development - often called OECD [7] countries - the largest and most developed industrial democracies - expressed for valid comparative reasons as a percentage of each country's Gross Domestic Product. In Canada, government support for public broadcasting was 0.08% of GDP. This means that of every $1,250 dollars generated annually in our economy, approximately one dollar goes from taxpayers to fund the CBC. The average in the 26 [8] OECD countries is one of every $714 dollars (expressed in the local currency). Among the largest investors in public broadcasting: Finland one in 357; the United Kingdom: one in 435; Germany: one in 526; Switzerland: one in 625; Japan: one in 770; Australia: one in 910 and France: one in 1,000.

Below Canada in this OECD list are only four countries: Portugal, Poland, New Zealand and - at the bottom of the list - the United States, which invests just one in every 10,000 dollars. Owing to our large share of mind for things American, Canadians tend to hold an erroneous and misleading notion of how much we support public broadcasting. By international standards, our support for public broadcasting is rather modest, to say the least.

I would like to take a moment to remind you of Parliament's mandate to the CBC, in Section 3 of the Broadcasting Act:

"The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, as the national public broadcaster, should provide radio and television services incorporating a wide range of programming that informs, enlightens and entertains. The programming provided by the Corporation should:

  • be predominantly and distinctively Canadian,
  • reflect Canada and its regions to national and regional audiences, while serving the special needs of those regions,
  • actively contribute to the flow and exchange of cultural expression,
  • be in English and in French, reflecting the different needs and circumstances of each official language community, including the particular needs and circumstances of English and French linguistic minorities,
  • strive to be of equivalent quality in English and in French,
  • contribute to shared national consciousness and identity,
  • be made available throughout Canada by the most appropriate and efficient means and as resources become available for the purpose, and
  • reflect the multicultural and multiracial nature of Canada." [9]

That mandate - enacted in 1991 towards the end of Brian Mulroney's term as Prime Minister ­- has been endorsed in 2003 by the Commons Heritage Committee, and again under Gary's leadership in 2008.

As CBC's shareholders, you and I have every right to ask how well the Corporation's leaders are implementing Parliament's intent. Any evaluation will be subjective, and Canadians may have 34 million opinions on this subject. Here's mine:

  • Predominantly and distinctively Canadian: Radio A, TV C
  • Serving the special needs of Canada's regions: Radio B, TV D
  • Flow and exchange of cultural expression: D
  • English and French: A
  • Shared national consciousness and identity: B
  • Available throughout Canada: C
  • Reflect the multicultural and multiracial nature of Canada: B

Before discussing some of CBC's shortcomings, I wish to pay tribute to several thousand dedicated and professional CBC staff who work tirelessly, often under difficult, even hostile conditions, to serve their audiences. My criticism is focused on senior management and the federal government, who share responsibility for CBC's shortcomings.

First Radio. A few months ago, someone leaked an internal CBC Radio National News Reporter Survey. You can find all the details on "". [10] The survey reads like a 'cry for help' from CBC Radio's dedicated journalists and provides evidence that senior management appears to be determined to make CBC Radio News more superficial, less intelligent and ever more dominated by CBC Television News when it comes to internal decision-making and resource allocation. Why is this happening?

One National Radio News reporter offers this simple and cogent explanation, going to the heart of the mindset of the current senior management at the CBC: "TV makes money and radio costs money. The concept of public broadcasting is lost." The survey was completed shortly after CBC management merged the news assignment process in which the story assignment desks for radio, online and television were brought together under a single structure, known as "the Hub".

The survey paints a picture of a creative team demoralized by decisions that have diminished the quality of its work, controlled by managers who do not understand radio. Let me read you some comments from the CBC Radio reporters. I am going to quote extensively because the quotations tell the story:

  • "There is no commitment to original journalism. Partly because there's no time for it. And partly because the TV news culture is more about agenda journalism and not wanting to miss something the Globe and Mail or CTV has."
  • "I think CBC has fallen down completely in its longstanding commitment to depth journalism."
  • "Our culture is dying. We've gone more to entertaining than educating or informing - I think we're losing what Canadians love most about us and becoming more like the privates all the time. Soon they'll be saying about radio what they've said about TV for years - why fund us if we sound like everyone else? Very, very sad."
  • "Radio culture is being washed away in this integration. We've gone from a culture that valued strong storytelling, and investigative, original stories to one in which we're pumping out content, feeding the goat. Quality, intelligence, depth no longer seem appreciated. Everything is puddle deep."
  • "There are no advocates for radio, radio culture, radio ideas or radio reporters anymore. We're totally on our own."
  • "Radio is being treated as TV without pictures. A voiceover from TV played on radio fails to paint any pictures and leaves our audience with less than it deserves."
  • "Radio is being dumbed down by reactionary, follow-the-paper journalism that seems to be the hallmark of TV. These days, it seems we're TV without the pictures. I also think diversity of stories has narrowed significantly because we do so many TV-friendly stories."

The following quotes focus on World Report, CBC Radio's flagship news program, which has recently retrenched to eight minutes:

  • "At the end of a World Report newscast, I often feel I really don't have a clue what's going on in the world.... It's bells and whistles, and a sense of urgency in tone, but with little real content."
  • "What kind of organization cuts the most popular program on the most popular service? It was one of the worst decisions and should be reversed."
  • "World Report as a whole is now more superficial, the journalism is less accurate, respect for language and creative writing is diminished and the format is formulaic."
  • "WR used to be the place to go for significant, important, original stories. Now it feels like TV-lite, or TV without the pictures."
  • "The bottom line is we're giving people less. You can pretend it's more by giving people more bites, but there isn't as much food on the plate. I didn't know we needed to go on a news diet."

A summer music festival audience could be expected to have an enhanced interest in changes to Radio Two. As you know, CBC management decided to gut world classical culture on Radio Two in a format change almost two years ago. I use the verb "gut" advisedly. Essentially, classical music was squeezed into a five-hour listening ghetto from ten to three - when very many Canadians are not free to listen. FRIENDS spent several tens of thousands of dollars on three big protest and mobilization ads in the Globe and Mail over the week when the new format came on the air. Some of you may have seen them. Each featured a line drawing of a classical composer with a headline: "Wolfgang Amadeus Who?" "Ludwig van Who?" and "Johann Sebastian Who?" with variations on the following text:

"The classics are the foundation of excellence and creativity. Citizens in democracies like Canada expect their public broadcasters to transmit enduring values across generations. On Tuesday (September 1st), CBC management will confine classical culture and music to the mid-day listening ghetto, turning its back on more than one million loyal Radio Two listeners. As a public institution, CBC is accountable to citizens. The Broadcasting act says its mandate is to inform, enlighten and entertain. Speak up. Visit for additional information and options for action."

Of course, the die was cast. Since then, we have monitored audience numbers and have noticed a 20% decline in Radio Two's audience share, and most of this loss has occurred outside the ten to three period.

The September 2008 format change is just the latest in a long succession of decisions, whose origin was well outlined in an incisive article in the Globe and Mail on the occasion of CBC's 60th anniversary in 1996 entitled "A requiem for classical music at the CBC's 60th anniversary blues", by Jeffrey Anderson, who executive produced what he described as "serious music" for CBC Radio from 1977 to 1982: [11]

"There are many reasons for the decline of classical music at the CBC. One can blame government budget cuts, yet many of the unkindest cuts were self-inflicted. Perhaps 1958 marked the beginning of the end, when the CBC revoked a long-standing ban on broadcasting pre-recorded music during the evening hours - a ban that was intended to encourage live talent. But it all seemed to go out with a bang when the CBC Symphony Orchestra was killed in 1964, at the insistence of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, whose management felt that it wasn't getting its fair share of broadcasts.... Another factor was the shifting priorities of CBC's management. The advent of television, particularly news and public affairs programs such as The Journal, diverted money away from music."

Note the recurring references to "management". I will come back to that in a moment.

Now - television. To its credit, CBC Television increased its Canadian content in prime-time - that's the 7 to 11 time slot - from 1990 to the year 2000. At the beginning of that decade, CBC broadcast 22.5 hours of Canadian shows during the weekly 28 hours of prime time - in other words it was 80% Canadian during the period when most of its shareholders were free to watch. By the year 2000, CBC Television had moved that number to 27 hours of Canadian programming in prime-time - or 96% Canadian!

Since then, Canadian content in prime-time has retreated to 21 hours of Canadian programming - just 75% Canadian. Over the past season, CBC Television broadcast 16 foreign, most of them Hollywood movies in prime-time among more than 200 foreign movies it aired over the past year.

What led to this decline in prime-time CanCon? A decision by senior management to bid against CTV for the American shows Wheel of Fortune and Jeopardy! which CBC Television airs Monday to Friday from 7 to 8 pm. I understand that CBC paid more than $12 million annually for Wheel of Fortune and Jeopardy! only to find that advertisers are often unwilling to pay for their predominantly 50+ demographic.

Also, during the past six years, CBC Television has lost to CTV the broadcast rights to the Olympic Games, the Grey Cup, and curling. Fearing the loss of Hockey Night in Canada, we understand that CBC increased its rights payments to the NHL from $60 million per annum to more than $100 million in 2007, the year before the global recession caused a severe drop in advertising rates and volume - leading to a huge revenue shortfall. Shareholders are entitled to ask what would lead CBC to take such a decision and to lock in this obligation for six years?

My answer: inexperienced management.

The current President and CEO of the CBC, Hubert Lacroix, lacks prior experience in radio or television production, scheduling and marketing. So does Richard Stursberg, who runs CBC's English services, who was hired by Lacroix's predecessor. Having people in charge who lack appropriate experience would be unthinkable in private sector broadcasting. How could this state of affairs come to be?

CBC's Board of Directors does not choose CBC's President. And that Board cannot dismiss its President. Guess who chooses the President of the CBC? The Prime Minister. This is not a new development. It goes back to 1936. Stephen Harper appointed Lacroix, just as Jean Chrétien appointed his predecessor, Robert Rabinovitch.

In contrast, the Director General of the BBC is chosen by the BBC's Governors, and these Governors can - and recently did - fire the Director General. The BBC's process is the rule among public broadcasters in industrial democracies. Canada's process is an anomaly.

FRIENDS has recommended that the Board of the CBC should be chosen at arms-length from patronage and be drawn from a range of highly talented Canadians. And that Board should have the power to hire and fire CBC's President. And we are not alone in this view. Here is what the House of Commons Standing Committee on Canadian Heritage recommended in its 2003 report, Our Cultural Sovereignty: "In the interests of fuller accountability and arm's-length from government, nominations to the CBC Board should be made by a number of sources, and the CBC President should be hired by and be responsible to the Board." [12]

The 2008 Heritage Committee report on CBC's future recommended "that the Board must take a more active role in the process of the selecting the Board Chair and the Corporation's President/CEO. If the Board is not part of this process, it is difficult for the Corporation's President/CEO to feel a sense of responsibility toward it. The Corporation's governance is thus weakened." [13]

While we have made no progress with the Chrétien, Martin or Harper governments on this policy recommendation, we were encouraged by the responses of eight of the 11 candidates for the leadership of the federal Liberal Party to a question we posed - on this issue - and published their responses on June 22, 2006. The question: "Should the practice of political patronage appointments to CBC's Board be ended and should the Board be given responsibility to hire and fire CBC's President?"

For example, the current Official Opposition leader Michael Ignatieff, then a leadership candidate, responded as follows:

"The CBC board should be comprised of people who represent the best and the brightest in the Canadian media community. All appointments, at the CBC as elsewhere, should be merit-based and should strive to reflect Canada's diversity. The board should have responsibility for the CBC's President." [14]

We were also encouraged by a number of other recommendations of the 2008 Heritage Committee report on CBC's future: [15]

  • "The Committee recommends that prime-time hours, from 7:00 p.m. to 11:00 pm, Monday to Friday, on the CBC/Radio-Canada's television networks, should be reserved for Canadian productions."
  • "The Committee recommends that CBC/Radio-Canada devote a greater share of its programming to the arts (music, books, film, dance and theatre performances) and that these programmes reflect the cultural diversity of the regions."
  • "The Standing Committee on Canadian Heritage recommends that CBC/Radio-Canada's core funding be increased to an amount equivalent to at least $40 per capita."

This latter recommendation is constructive because CBC's current parliamentary allocation is approximately $33 per capita, and moving it to $40 per capita would generate an additional $230 million - a substantial increase. I am sorry to tell you that the Conservative minority on the Committee opposed the latter two recommendations. [16] As you may know, the Liberals, Bloc Québecois and the NDP constitute a majority on Commons Committees in the current Parliament.

This brings me to my final comments - about the government. I have it on good authority that no Prime Minister since Lester Pearson has been an admirer of Canadian public broadcasting - certainly not Mulroney, Chrétien nor Harper. But the current Prime Minister, unlike his predecessors, who disliked CBC's journalistic scrutiny, has betrayed a libertarian tendency in comments regarding public broadcasting, both in public and in private. As Leader of the Official Opposition in the month before the 2004 election, Harper made the following comment on CBC Radio after a closed-door speech to the Frontier Centre for Public Policy in Winnipeg on May 19, 2004. I will read from the transcript: [17]

JUDY MADDREN (CBC-R): What to do with the CBC appears to be causing some confusion in the Conservative Party. Stephen Harper has suggested government spending on CBC's English television channel and CBC Radio Two should be reviewed. But as Sandra Abma reports, the party's cultural critic says that's not on.

SANDRA ABMA (Reporter): At a press conference in Winnipeg on Monday, Conservative Party Leader Stephen Harper was asked by a reporter if he would scrap the public broadcaster:

STEPHEN HARPER (Conservative Party Leader): No I've suggested that government subsidies in support of CBC's services should be to those things that are not... do not have commercial alternatives.

ABMA: Pressed for specifics, Harper had a couple of targets:

HARPER: And I think when you look at things like main-English language television and probably to a lesser degree Radio Two, you could there at putting those on a commercial basis.  

ABMA: Jim Abbott, the Conservative Culture critic seemed bewildered by his Leader's remarks:

JIM ABBOTT (Conservative Culture Critic): There is nothing afoot at this particular point in time to be taking a look at funding issues with respect to the CBC.

ABMA: Abbott says over a decade ago, when he first came to Parliament as a member of the Reform Party, he and his Party believed the CBC should be privatized. But that has changed, and the Conservative Party has an appreciation of how the CBC fits in the Canadian Broadcasting landscape. He says, he made that message clear in a memo to the Party leadership just yesterday. Sandra Abma, CBC News, Ottawa.

Since he has become Prime Minister, I have heard Harper, in a less public environment, speak about the CBC in a manner that suggested to me that he has a personal hostility to public broadcasting, and given a free hand, would like to diminish its influence in Canada. That he has not attempted to do so - other than by making the inappropriate presidential appointment to which I have referred - indicates to me that he is well aware of the popularity of public broadcasting, as indicated in the data from the POLLARA survey I have cited.

Those data confirm that a substantial majority of Conservative Party supporters favour the CBC. I know from personal experience that many Conservative MPs also support public broadcasting and are not neo-cons, libertarians - or Republicans, for that matter . Harper's awareness of these facts may explain why his government increased CBC's parliamentary grant by 3.6% this year, at a time when many government departments' resources were frozen - including Canadian Heritage. Also, it is noteworthy that Harper goes to great lengths not to mention CBC in his public remarks.

Here are some more data from POLLARA:

  • Only 29% of Canadians know that Canada's level of public broadcaster funding is lower than in most other Western democracies.
  • When informed that Canada's public funding of the CBC is $33 per capita and that the average funding in Western democracies is equivalent to $80, 68% of Canadians agree that Canada's level of funding is insufficient to maintain a unique and vibrant Canadian identity and culture, and
  • 70% consider that Canada's level of public funding is indicative of the federal government's treatment of the cultural sector.
  • 63% of Canadians believe that Prime Minister Harper and the Conservative government are hostile to the CBC, and would like to diminish public broadcasting.
  • When informed of the Heritage Committee recommendation to increase per capita funding of CBC to $40, 54% of Canadians favour the recommendation and a further 26% think the increase is too modest. Only 20% believe the recommendation is too high.
  • When asked: "Assume for a moment that your federal MP asked for your advice on an upcoming vote in the House of Commons on what to do about CBC funding. Which of the following options would you advise him or her to vote for? Increase 47%, maintain 31%, decrease 9%, don't know 13%.
  • 86% of Canadians favour a non-political process for appointing CBC's Board, and
  • 87% favour an arm's length appointment of CBC's President.

So, public opinion is strongly of the view that public broadcasting is relevant for Canada in the 21st century. Public opinion is also a deterrent to those who would diminish our national public broadcaster.

I would like to give the last word to the late Dalton Camp, who wrote in a Toronto Star column back in 1995:

"Owning one national communications facility, such as the CBC, which owes nothing to Mitsubishi or General Dynamics or Krupp, is surely worth keeping. What we know about the CBC, in a world in which economics is power and so much power is out of our hands, is that the CBC would never willfully betray our national interest or sell off our Canadian heritage. And 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." [18]

Thanks for the opportunity to get this off my chest - and long live the Harry Somers Lecture, Stratford Summer Music and the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation!

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For information: Jim Thompson 613-447-9592

[1] "CBC/Radio-Canada: Defining Distinctiveness in the Changing Media Landscape"


[3] Pitman, W., Music Makers: The Lives of Harry Freedman & Mary Morrison, The Dundurn Group, Toronto, 2006, page 169.


[5] Op.Cit., Page 3.

[6] A study of 3,361 Canadians age 18 and over, considered accurate to +/- 1.69 % nineteen times out of twenty, in the field April 20/24, 2009.

[7] These data come from page 178 of the Lincoln Report, Our Cultural Sovereignty, published by the House of Commons Standing Committee on Canadian Heritage in 2003.

[8] The number of OECD countries has since increased to 32.



[11] November 2nd, 1996 edition

[12] Op.Cit., page 567.

[13] Op.Cit., page 125.


[15] Op. Cit., pages 139/144.

[16] Op.Cit., pages 178/184.


[18] The Toronto Star, July 12, 1995, page A17.