Now that the people of Quebec have settled on their future — opting to stay in Canada with their dismissal of the Parti Quebecois — what are we to do about our second biggest problem: the CBC?
The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation has been around since the mid 1930s, one of the world’s oldest, and arguably most successful, public broadcasters. It created the first national radio broadcasting system, and pioneered in television. At one time, the CBC was both competitor and regulator of the country’s private radio and TV networks. Today, it’s struggling to survive.
The litany of CBC problems is almost endless. Reduced government grants (albeit at a still healthy $900 million per year). Splintered audiences, divided between itself and three private networks and rendered almost invisible by the rise of cable channels and new off-broadcast operations like Netflix.
The outlook is so dicey that Andrew Coyne, the perceptive national affairs columnist of the National Post, figures there is no hope for the CBC but to “limp on, purposelessly, through successive ‘action plans’ and ‘reinventions,’ for no reason other than that no one can be bothered to do anything else — and because no one expects them to.”
This is due in part, Coyne says, to our having a government without ambition or ideas.
If those qualities are lacking in Ottawa, there is no shortage of suggestions elsewhere — including from this blog.
The problems of the CBC became critical at least as far back as 2004. CBC television was attracting the smallest audience in its history. Everybody has an opinion on what was wrong: too left-wing, too right-wing, too commercial, too boring.
That year, the powers that be thought one man, Richard Stursberg, might have the answers. He blew into the Mother Corp’s inner sanctum on Toronto’s Front Street with the force of a prairie whirlwind. He left in his wake a demoralized staff cowering in the detritus of a dust storm.
Stursberg has told the tale of his tempestuous time in The Tower of Babel: Sins, Secrets and Successes Inside the CBC (Douglas & McIntyre, 2012). He described his job as Head of English Services as the one “I had loved as no other in my life.”
It’s not a pretty story. Under Stursberg’s watch, the CBC locked out its employees, lost the TV rights to major global sports events (but not the National Hockey League), cut 400 jobs, fought the news department (“Fort News”) and won ratings success with new shows such as Little Mosque on the Prairie and Dragon’s Den. He also had terrible flops.
A new round of CBC navel-gazing has arisen following its loss of National Hockey League games to Rogers Communications, who shaped a $5.2 billion deal to take over broadcast rights. Bizarrely, Rogers is allowing CBC to carry Saturday Night Hockey, but will keep all the ad revenue, will pay CBC nothing, and will make it bear certain production costs. Another 600+ jobs wiped out.
Surely the time has come to redress the set.
The CBC’s most fervent boosters, the Friends of Canadian Broadcasting, says it’s time to cut loose from “political interference.” It says 83% of Canadians believe the CBC protects Canadian culture and identify; 78% tune to the CBC every week, and 81% believe the CBC helps distinguish us from the United States.
Back in 1965 a noted public servant, Robert Fowler, headed up a committee to look into how the CBC could better serve Canada. Its No. 1 conclusion: “The only thing that really matters in broadcasting is program content; all the rest is housekeeping.”
Now a myriad of ideas have been put forth on how to save the CBC. Some see it as a PBS North, sustained by viewer donations. Others, mindful of the ever-growing content brought to us through the Internet, would turn the CBC into a Netflix-style pay to view channel. Then there’s the Coyne alternative; to simply limp on.
Whatever form of technology the CBC might use to reach people, it’s essential that we hold on to this vital instrument of Canadian being. But at its most basic, the CBC should not be a commercial channel for the purpose of delivering, as is now the case, viewers to advertisers. Programs like Four Small Rooms and Recipes to Riches can be fun to watch, but they don’t belong on a public broadcaster. We need no more cheap comedies and simplistic reality shows.
The CBC must stay loyal to the minorities of viewers who wish to leaven their commercial TV with programs that inform, entertain, and appeal to niche interests; Canadian public affairs and news; quality drama, music and art, book talk and intelligent discussion of the world around us, superb children’s programming, all an antidote to the garbage of the Fox Network and Sun News.
Let the CBC keep commercials on its News Network; no advertiser dares tamper with Stursberg’s nemesis, “Fort News.” But free the CBC’s main channel of having to deliver seat bottoms to hucksters. Finance the CBC through public funding, viewer donations, and a surtax on the profits of private broadcasters. Let it be different, and let it help to shape our better understanding of ourselves and our place in the world.
It looks as if Canada’s public broadcaster, the CBC, is facing just as bleak a future as the auto industry.
It recently announced 800 layoffs following the disclosure by President Hubert Lacroix that the CBC faces a $171 million ad shortfall in its current budget.
Still, the CBC gets $1.1 billion a year in public money. Why then does it persist in chasing advertising dollars by airing such mindless U.S. shows as Jeopardy?
The CBC has always been caught between a rock and a hard place. It’s tried to serve two masters — to produce meaningful programs that contribute to our understanding of our country and our world, and to grab off a mass audience that will draw in more ad dollars.
The current economic crisis offers the CBC a great opportunity to reassert its purpose while casting off the suffocating blanket of commercialism.
Globe and Mail, March 30, 2009
The CBC’s mission is still fixed in law: to “inform, enlighten and entertain.” It can best do this, I argue, by providing programming that focuses on public affairs, culture, and education.
Take those initials — they add up to PACE — and you’ve got a strategy that offers a perfect solution to the network’s current dilemma.
The problem of the CBC is not difficult to define. It tries to be all things to all people. It dumbs down its programmng with mindless creations such as The Hour and The Point, in the hope of attracting a bigger audience. The idea is to draw in more ad dollars that will support the kind of mature, imaginative programming offered by The Fifth Estate and The National.
This kind of “cat chasing its tail” strategy just doesn’t work. Here’s what the CBC needs to do:
- Throw out all advertising from the TV network, as it’s already done from Radio.
- Drop all American entertainment shows.
- Combine CBC and CBC Newsworld into a single channel.
- Focus on creating (or buying) high quality, excellent programming that informs, educates and elucidates the world around us — public affairs, culture, education (PACE).
- Forget about ratings – concentrate on quality.
- Come up with a new budget that will allow the CBC to live within its means and meet its public service goals.
None of this is highly original. Two other networks — PBS in the States and TV Ontario in this country — provide models for what the CBC should be.
The history of the CBC is too important to Canada to be thrown on the ash heap of commercialism. Pick any aspect of Canadian life — original drama, literature, arts and culture, political analysis — and the CBC has done a superlative job in fulfilling its mandate.
Now, by continuing to mix its purpose, the CBC risks becoming just another anaemic commercial network.
With the commercial networks facing peril in the face of a declining ad economy, there is a great opportunity for the CBC to transform itself. Our public broadcaster should not have to go whoring after the disappearing ad dollar.
A billion dollars in public money — plus millions more that could be raised via viewer support, just as PBS does — are sufficient to ensure a solid financial basis for the CBC.
All of this is bound to happen. The problem is, with enlightened leadership it could happen right now. Otherwise, wait ten or 20 years. What a shame to keep dumping all that garbage on Canadians!