Is This Thing On?
The sorry state of our national broadcaster
The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s operating licence will expire at the end of August, and the Mother Corp is seeking a five-year renewal from the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission. “As part of the CBC/Radio‑Canada licence renewal process,” a November press release read, “the CRTC wants to hear from Canadians across the country to ensure that the content produced and distributed by the public broadcaster reflects the diversity of Canada’s population, while meeting its needs in both official languages.” That call resulted in hundreds of interventions from individuals and interest groups from across the country, and it’s not an overstatement to suggest that the future of our national public service broadcaster, established in 1936, has never been so uncertain.
As the CRTC mulls over that future, two distinguished communications scholars have marshalled the case that, at the very least, the broadcaster’s English-language television service, CBC TV, should be radically overhauled. In a crisply written, carefully annotated, and meticulously indexed new book, David Taras, of Mount Royal University, and Christopher Waddell, of Carleton University, argue that CBC TV’s program schedule should be abandoned entirely and replaced with news and information programming only. That would mean farewell to what is left of Canadian drama, children’s shows, variety, comedy, and sports. (In what is surely wishful thinking, Taras and Waddell propose that private-sector broadcasters, in dire straits themselves, take on the cultural responsibility of presenting Canadian programming in these areas.) CBC News Network, the all-news channel launched in July 1989 and available only to cable and satellite subscribers, would continue for the time being, but it would present only niche programming — Supreme Court decisions and detailed election coverage, for example.
With The End of the CBC?, Waddell and Taras draw a dramatic — if not entirely shocking — picture of CBC TV’s profoundly diminished and irrelevant role in this country. “The CBC is unlikely to survive for much longer against the assault of the new attention economy,” they write, “unless it takes on a different form.” When one considers the global media ecosystem, the radical changes they propose begin to seem like necessary triage.
And the bleeding is alarming. Consider The National: the flagship nightly newscast has lost half its audience since 1990, when a million people a night tuned in. By the end of 2017, viewership had begun to dip under 300,000, and by spring 2019, The National had half as many viewers as CTV National News. And when it comes to local news, CBC TV has long taken second place to the private stations; in some cities, its “audiences barely register.” All in all, the CBC is losing about half of its English-language television audience every two decades.
Perhaps as damaging as that ongoing loss is brand deterioration: the erosion of a distinctive identity that’s essential for any public-service broadcaster to justify its existence. English TV is now packed with commercials — even during newscasts — and with a programming schedule that has recently included Family Feud Canada, Wheel of Fortune, and even Coroner, it is difficult to make the case that CBC TV is different from any commercial channel, whether in Canada or in the United States.
Simply put, it’s no longer clear to Canadians what the CBC stands for.
The sorry state of CBC TV can’t be attributed only to bad management and bad public policy decisions, though Taras and Waddell pepper their book with plenty of examples of those. The main culprits are a dramatically changed media environment, the inexorable forces of globalization, and rapid advances in communications technology.
There was a time when CBC programmers could be confident that if they created quality content, it would find an audience. That was a period of “media scarcity”— limited broadcast channels and no internet. Today, even though CBC TV offers more Canadian content than any other broadcaster, audiences are either no longer interested in it — having been wooed away by the irresistible entertainment sirens emitting from Facebook, Apple, Amazon, Netflix, and Google — or unable to find it in the vast ocean of media choice.
CBC TV now exists in a world of “attention scarcity” and must compete with the FAANGs and other global companies whose multiple platforms and programming budgets simply dwarf its own. In 2018, Netflix alone spent six times the Crown corporation’s entire budget for original productions and twenty-five times CBC TV’s production budget. The FAANGs “have a collective wealth that exceeds all but six of the world’s economies,” Taras and Waddell point out. By way of comparison, the CBC’s annual earned revenue for 2018–19 was $490 million, down $83 million from the year before. This is in addition to the $1.2-billion parliamentary appropriation, which is “barely larger, in current dollars, today than it was in 1991.”
Media choice is now staggering. Globally, there are 3.5 billion Google searches a day, and more than 500 hours of video is uploaded to YouTube each minute. More than half of Canadians, 53 percent, subscribe to a streaming service. And then there’s Facebook, which has become the primary news source for close to 40 percent of us. “Some 20 million Canadians are on Facebook,” Taras and Waddell write, “and more than 60 per cent check in at least once a day.” The social media platform has even become an integral part of the CBC’s own delivery system, which means the broadcaster courts self-imposed “brand annihilation” with every click and like.
Add to this the fact that Canadians, especially younger ones, have been cancelling cable television subscriptions in favour of online streaming. Unfortunately, CBC Gem, the corporation’s competitive response to Netflix, hardly registers with these cord cutters — its audience numbers are that low.
CBC TV finds itself in an environment that has been growing increasingly competitive for nearly two decades. Yet neither government policy-makers of the day nor the CBC itself has developed an effective strategic response. Even as the cost of producing programming has increased —“a billion dollars isn’t what it used to be”— government funding has been cut to the point that the CBC is now among the least publicly funded public broadcasters:
A 2016 study conducted by the Nordicity Group, which compared per capita expenditures on public broadcasting in 18 Western countries, found that Canada ranked a dismal third from the bottom, ahead of only New Zealand and the United States. Topping the list were the Scandinavian countries, Switzerland, Germany, and the United Kingdom, whose expenditures on public broadcasting were three or four times greater than Canada’s.
While some critics quibble with how the Nordicity study accounted for subsidies and tax policies, Taras and Waddell acknowledge, “Canada’s low ranking is unmistakable.”
At the same time, they are quick to clarify and repeatedly stress that the problem with the CBC is really a problem with its English-language television service. Other parts of the corporation are not doing so badly. English-language radio, for its part, is a remarkable success story. CBC Radio has actually increased its popularity throughout the digital revolution, in spite of repeated budget cuts in the interest of shoring up CBC TV and building various online services. Despite these cuts, CBC Radio “has a market share of between 15 and 20 per cent in most major centres, usually giving it the largest single share of the radio audience in those cities and surrounding regions.” With a commercial-free and well-rounded schedule that includes news and current affairs, along with programs about science, literature, music, and spirituality, CBC Radio has connected with a loyal audience.
The broadcaster’s French-language service is also doing remarkably well. While it consumes 40 percent of the corporation’s total programming budget (a much higher level of per capita funding than CBC TV enjoys), it earns 40 percent of all advertising revenue. In 2016–17, Ici Radio-Canada Télé had a prime-time audience share of nearly 21 percent.
Another success, albeit a qualified one as the user base is small, is the combined traffic on cbc.ca and ici.radio‑canada.ca. While the two sites “sometimes seem like neon billboards that do little more than advertise network shows,” they are also “among the country’s top news hubs,” attracting the largest digital audience of any Canadian news organization. As observers have pointed out, though, “the average Canadian spends less than three hours per year visiting cbc.ca out of the close to 400 hours that they spend online every year.”
And while Taras and Waddell make little mention of it, CBC Kids is a leader in children’s programming, with high-quality, commercial-free, non-violent shows that reflect Canadian values (including, dare I say, “niceness”). It rightly prides itself on offering a safe place for children and parents — something that’s by no means assured on YouTube.
The End of the CBC? includes a historically important and entertaining chapter on the broadcaster’s past glory and foibles. Taras and Waddell show how the French-language service, Radio-Canada, “helped give life to Quebec’s modern identity” during the 1950s: “Indeed, one can argue that it became a major catalyst for the political change that would transform Quebec during the Quiet Revolution.” As the historian Paul Rutherford has put it, “Radio-Canada offered to the Québécois a concrete, visible expression of their own unique places, past and present, and ways.”
During the 1995 referendum, Jean Chrétien angrily described the French-news service as a “boîte à séparatistes.” He was neither the first nor the last prime minister frustrated by the CBC. John Diefenbaker, whose relationship with the corporation is described as “vitriolic,” believed it “had been infiltrated by communists, was subverting public morality with indecent programming, and was trying to sabotage his TV appearances.” Pierre Trudeau threatened to “put a lid” on Radio-Canada and “close up shop.” The former Radio-Canada commentator worried the network had been taken over by “separatists” and a “sickness of spirit.” If necessary, he would “show people Chinese or Japanese vases instead of the nonsense they dish out.”
But perhaps the most notorious conflict happened under Lester Pearson. Infuriated by the hard-hitting journalism of the popular current affairs program This Hour Has Seven Days, with Patrick Watson and Laurier LaPierre, he had his office launch an inquiry. The CBC succumbed to the political pressure and cancelled the show. A public outcry followed, and the episode remains infamous in the annals of Canadian journalism.
In many ways, this timely and thought-provoking book is more about saving Canadian journalism than about saving the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. Taras and Waddell offer many good ideas about how our information ecosystem should change, not least of which is the notion of collaborative journalism. They suggest the CBC should stop seeing other news organizations as competitors and should instead share stories and resources in order to make quality coverage available to more Canadians. This idea, which is gaining traction in wider journalism circles, has the potential to help shore up Canada’s sinking media. And it’s one that might well be applied to Canadian content in general.
No one doubts that the CBC needs improved governance, better management, and better programming, including better journalism. But the idea that CBC TV should throw its full weight at journalism has a “baby out with the bathwater” feel to it. The corporation’s mandate, as set down in the 1991 Broadcasting Act, is to provide programming that “informs, enlightens and entertains,” with content that is “predominantly and distinctively Canadian”; that contributes to “shared national consciousness and identity”; that reflects “the multicultural and multiracial nature of Canada”; and that encourages “the development of Canadian expression.” Meeting those aspirations — even a pared-down set of them — demands more than just the news.
Canada’s elusive identity also springs from the imagination — from literature, drama, comedy, and music. Of course, CBC TV can’t serve as the font of all cultural expression, but surely it could play a meaningful part. And, yes, that would require more money.
Earlier this year, the federally appointed Broadcasting and Telecommunications Legislative Review Panel, chaired by Janet Yale, called on the government to reform and modernize the country’s entire broadcasting and telecommunications system. Eighteen months of consultations resulted in ninety-seven recommendations that included increased and multi-year funding for the CBC. The panel’s report also called for an end to advertising on CBC Television, starting with no commercials during newscasts. And, significantly, the report pointed the way for the increased funding of Canadian culture in general: it said the CRTC should be given oversight of foreign streaming services. That could result in the flush FAANGs paying taxes or licence fees, thus injecting new money into the system.
As the Friends of Canadian Broadcasting puts it, and as the CBC’s reliance on Facebook shows, the FAANGs “publish journalism produced by others without paying for it.” Even as they extract $8 billion in profits from this country, “they don’t pay a dime in corporate taxes.”
Taxing streaming services and securing new funding would be a start. But the CBC and Ottawa must also stop using audience ratings as the sole criterion of national and cultural worth. It’s an obvious point that we too often forget: the CBC is not a commercial broadcaster. Just try estimating “audience reach,” and you have an idea of how many Canadians interact with some part of the CBC in a given week or month. It is one of the few remaining public institutions that are truly national. It broadcasts in English, French, and eight Indigenous languages. In 2018, it operated twenty-seven conventional over-the-air television stations, eighty-eight radio stations, and “a large flotilla of websites.” Moreover, Canadians in different parts of the country use the CBC in many and varied ways; in some cities, it physically anchors the community with open houses, annual food bank drives, and public events.
The obsession with ratings — a commercial measuring stick exploited by advertisers — is misguided and has been a source of a failed programming strategy and falling morale for years. The CBC might finally realize that its strength is radio and develop a strategy to build on that strength. With the popularity of podcasting and the capacity of radio to truly drive local programming, it is a travesty that radio services have suffered disproportionate budget cuts over the years. Bring back radio drama, cut back on endless repeat programming, and create new productions that complement the arts, science, and political shows that are still intact.
Much has been written about the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on the future of Canada, with daily insights on how we will recover, as recover we will. Crisis presents opportunity. Contrary to what Margaret Thatcher once said, there is such a thing as society, and we are learning from this crisis that the marketplace alone does not build a society that cares for the well-being of its citizens. In so many areas, we require ambitious, creative, and disciplined public enterprise. And that means paying taxes.
For over thirty years, our public organizations — our public health, education, and cultural institutions, including the CBC — have been diminished and downgraded in the wake of the Thatcher-Reagan revolution. This can change. Canada can emerge from COVID‑19 with a greater recognition of our distinctive values and with a greater appreciation for the institutions that embody them. It’s not too late for renewal. While we should applaud Taras and Waddell for sounding the alarm and for challenging our leaders, we should collectively demand that “no” is the only acceptable way to answer the question they pose with their title.