The CBC appears to have traded one enemy for a host of others.
For many years, the public broadcaster and its supporters believed Stephen Harper’s government was their only true antagonist, in the way it kept the corporation in the dark about its financial future from one year to the next despite desperate and repeated calls for “stable and secure funding.”
But while the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s tussles with its government paymasters finally concluded last month after the federal budget outlined a specific financial commitment for the next three years, it suddenly has a clutch of new adversaries in the private sector who are pledging to fight its attempts to become more financially self-sufficient.
And the clashes it endures in that arena will set the tone for the CBC far beyond the next few years, as it faces a life of ever-dwindling government funds and a new media landscape that will reward players who are more nimble than the Corporation is commonly perceived to be.
Last week, on the very day CBC president Hubert Lacroix offered a broad outline of how its $115-million cut over three years would be implemented, private radio broadcasters issued angry denouncements of the corporation’s intention to apply to the federal broadcast regulator for permission to open up its Radio 2 and French-language Espace musique stations to advertisements and sponsorships for the first time since 1974.
Then on Thursday of this week, the CBC received a letter from a consortium of private broadcasters complaining that the Corporation’s recently launched free Internet-based CBC Music service presents unfair competition to their own for-profit streaming services. The collection of companies – including Quebecor, Cogeco Cable, the Jim Pattison Group, Golden West Radio and the fledgling Stingray Digital – charged that the CBC is benefiting from lower royalty rates due to its status as a non-profit organization.
Calling for the suspension of CBC Music, the consortium said that, “at a minimum, the CBC should be compelled to demonstrate how the CBC Music service is ‘predominantly and distinctively Canadian’ per its mandate under the Broadcasting Act.”
The blowback “was a surprise, in that the factual points they’re depending on, we disagreed with,” said Kirstine Stewart, the CBC’s executive vice-president of English services.
The group’s complaint echoes a common refrain in coverage by Quebecor’s newspapers and its Sun News Network that the CBC has strayed from its core mandate. But Stewart pledged the CBC would not shirk from expanding into services such as CBC Music, and noted there is a long history of private broadcasters fighting the Corporation’s evolution into new media.
“Remember 20 years ago, the challenge against CBC for entering the specialty channel market,” she said, referring to Newsworld and other cable services. “In this new world, to try to keep public broadcasting contained to old traditional methods of media seems myopic.”
At the same time, the new cuts will concentrate the CBC’s focus on its strategic vision, as outlined in its so-called 2015 Plan. In February, before the cuts were made official, Lacroix noted the plan included an entirely Canadian prime-time schedule, “signature programming” that strongly differentiates the CBC from the other two English-language national networks, and a commitment to setting up outposts in regions where the broadcaster currently does not offer local programming, such as Rimouski and Hamilton.
But if that sounded like a bold vision of an expansionist CBC, he followed up with a word of caution that is sending shivers through CBC staff and supporters. “Everything that can be linked to 2015 is going to be protected as much as possible,” he said. “Everything else is on the table.”
Even some of those core promises will not be honoured: the “signature programming” events will be cut in half, from 25 in the current season to perhaps 12 next year. And while some critics were hoping the cuts would spur a new boldness in programming, Stewart noted her choices would likely become more conservative. “Our flexibility in making one two-hour special like Canada’s Smartest Person goes away when you don’t have the budget to be doing things that are more experimental, and more one-offs,” she said. “We reduced the programming in areas that were more experimental like that.”
Which is why Stewart was talking up the importance of local programming after some of the specific cuts were announced this week. “We know that our connections to Canadians is not just on the international or domestic news we can bring them, but it’s very much what we can bring them in terms of what we do in our own backyards,” she said.
Still, viewers and listeners who have come to depend on CBC for a Canadian perspective on world affairs will be disappointed. And not just Canadians: Nine years ago, many Americans turned to CBC for coverage of the Iraq War that was not marked by U.S. chest-thumping, and the Corporation, like many public broadcasters, has loyal listeners from around the world.
One CBC Radio producer who spoke on condition of anonymity said the lack of concrete details about the layoffs to be announced in the next four months have left many wondering about the public broadcaster’s mission in areas where it has received international acclaim: “What now is our commitment to foreign coverage, and what’s our commitment to documentary-making, both on the TV side and the radio side?”
With a report from Guy Dixon
SOME KEY CUTS (SO FAR)
A summary of the most noticeable cuts at the CBC announced this week, as its English-language side scrambles with $86-million less funding and the entire CBC/Radio-Canada faces $115-million less over three years:
-- More reruns on CBC-TV, six fewer original shows will be developed, 175 hours of original TV programming to be cut this year
-- Fewer TV specials, a greater reliance on one-hour TV series
-- No more radio drama on Radio One, fewer live music broadcasts on Radio 2
-- CBC Radio One’s foreign news program Dispatches, and CBC News Network’s Connect with Mark Kelley cancelled
-- CBC-TV’s Sports Weekend will become only a seasonal show, concentrating on winter sports
-- 215 jobs to be eliminated this year in English Services, a total of 256 by 2015, 650 jobs in total throughout all of CBC/Radio-Canada over three years
-- 88 fewer jobs in CBC News
-- South American news bureau in Brazil and African bureau in Kenya closed