When music critics and public broadcasting analysts gather in a cavernous TV studio in downtown Toronto Monday, they can expect a splashy presentation about a digital music streaming service with no less than 40 channels. But the celebratory tone over the launch of CBC Music might be a bit forced: The public broadcaster is widely predicted to take a 10 per cut to its $1.1-billion grant when the federal budget comes down in late February or early March and moving radio music services online is a way to both save money and generate ad revenue. If Music Canada! is a bouncing new baby, old Radio 2, the CBC’s English-language music channel, looks decidedly sick.
As part of a government-wide belt-tightening process, the CBC was asked last fall to present Ottawa with two possible budget scenarios, cutting five or 10 cent over three years. The broadcaster cannot discuss the contents of those scenarios, but in a recent meeting with The Globe and Mail’s editorial board, CBC CEO Hubert Lacroix made it clear that he considers 10 per cent the most likely possibility.
“You’ll notice it,” Lacroix said.
Were it simply made in one place, a $110-million hit to the CBC would eliminate French radio or half of English radio services or remove more than a day’s worth of television programming from CBC-TV every week, said Karen Wirsig, communications co-ordinator at the Canadian Media Guild, the CBC’s main union.
While it is unlikely the CBC will target an entire service in that way, a $110-million cut would force the broadcaster to make visible changes to programming. In the 2000s, with both cuts and inflation eating away at its budget, the CBC streamlined its administration and sold off real estate; to deal with $170-million in lost ad revenue during the 2009 and 2010 recession, it made cuts across the board, eliminating 800 jobs and paying out $40-million in severance. Now, though, the cuts are expected to be vertical – in lower priority areas – rather than horizontal – or across all services. Lacroix calls this a “Sophie’s Choice” for the broadcaster.
That choice will flow from the CBC’s current strategic plan, which emphasizes going digital, putting Canadian content in prime time, and restoring or initiating services to under-served regions: Anything not in that plan is vulnerable, Lacroix has said. That is why many observers expect deep cuts to national radio, which does not fit within those priorities, and especially to music programming, which can be delivered more cheaply online by services such as CBC Music.
The new service will be a beefier version of its French-language equivalent, espace.mu, which Radio-Canada launched last June. Some critics have asked why the CBC is competing with iTunes, but like espace.mu, CBC Music will operate on a broadcast model not a retail one, offering streaming rather than downloads. Still, unlike Espace Musique, its sister radio channel, espace.mu doesn’t have hosts and carries ads, allowing the broadcaster to generate revenue from music programming.
Broadcasting veterans say the CBC is unlikely to axe an entire service, such as Espace Musique or Radio 2. While vociferous protests would let the government know people value the CBC, they would be unlikely to shift the government’s position and might backfire, spewing ill will at the broadcaster itself. Certainly, the abandonment of a radio frequency would seem too great a retreat. Rather, these services could be cut to the bone, including an elimination of all broadcasts of live performances, with online radio offered as the alternative.
Similarly, the CBC is committed to moving children’s TV programming online, arguing that is where most children watch shows these days. This would allow the broadcaster to rethink morning television schedules, replacing ad-free programming aimed at preschoolers with reruns of adult programming on which there would be ads.
CBC watchers also expect to see fewer special events, such as the multiplatform live coverage of the Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal’s inauguration of its concert hall last September. And, despite the commitment to under-served regions in the strategic plan, they question whether the broadcaster can really go ahead and open new radio stations in locations such as Kamloops, B.C. and Kitchener-Waterloo, Ont. as well as a new digital service in Hamilton.
“There is no more room for efficiency,” said Ian Morrison, spokesman for the public broadcasting lobby group Friends of Canadian Broadcasting. “Every dollar is going to come off the air or off the screen.”
With files from Guy Dixon
Balancing the Budget
Here are some educated guesses as to how the CBC might change if the national public broadcaster takes a 10 per cent cut to its $1.1-billion parliamentary allocation in the upcoming federal budget.
Hello corporate sponsors
The CBC shot down a controversial 2009 suggestion to consider adson its radio services, but the idea always has some advocates inside CBC management, according to a former executive who asked not to be named. One possible compromise would be to allow corporate sponsorship of radio programs, in the manner of PBS in the United States, so that a “brought-to-you-by” announcement would precede As it Happens or Ideas.
Hello (again!) Jeopardy and Wheel of Fortune
CBC executives have suggested they would like to cut the American game shows Jeopardy and Wheel of Fortune from the English television schedule, and the broadcaster’s strategic plan includes a commitment to keep prime-time Canadian. However, CBC watchers doubt that if a 10 per cent cut comes, the broadcaster could afford to drop these shows which bring in ad revenue and also drive viewers to the Canadian shows that follow them.
Good-bye Mamma Yamma
The CBC is already committed to moving some of its children’s programming online, as kids increasingly either watch TV on the Internet or record cartoons for later viewing. The lowest-budget online offering would include the cartoons that Kids’ CBC currently broadcasts but would drop the visibly Canadian portion of the show hosted by Patty Sullivan and Sid Bobb and starring such characters as Mamma Yamma, the talking yam from Kensington Market. Importantly for the CBC, the online move frees up space for more advertising on the daytime television schedule.
Good-bye Steven and Chris
Daytime lifestyle hosts Steven Sabados and Chris Hyndman were forced on an eight-month hiatus during the 2009 recession. Their daily show, Steven and Chris, offers recipes, decorating tips, craft projects and exercise regimes but it remains in danger of being replaced with cheaper content.
CBC News currently has 13 foreign bureaus, the most extensive network of any Canadian media outlet. Although the foreign correspondents travel widely in their regions, often work on multiple platforms and sometimes work in both official languages, the bureaus are expensive to run and the broadcaster has increasingly come to rely on sending out reporters from Canada as news breaks. One-person bureaus in places such as Nairobi might be closed; television and radio jobs in locations such as the Middle East might be merged, and larger bureaus in Washington and London might lose correspondents.
Editor's note: The CBC's new English-language online music service is called CBC Music. An incorrect name appeared on Monday.