Wade Rowland is the author of Saving the CBC: Balancing Profit and Public Interest. He teaches in York University’s communication studies department.
The CBC’s strategic plan to shift priorities from broadcast to digital services and outsource virtually all but news and current affairs programming is, on the whole, a sensible strategy – from a purely business perspective. It saves money by reducing production and distribution costs. Shedding more jobs will further enhance the bottom line between now and 2020; as many as 1,500 positions will be eliminated in the plan announced Wednesday.
The thing is, however, that the public broadcaster is not a business in any conventional sense. It exists not to make money or to satisfy financial goals, but to fill a public need – one that is not being served by private media outlets. The CBC is a public good, like the school system, like medicare, like our universities and colleges, our public museums and galleries.
In a world of commercial sponsorship of media, both broadcast and online, the CBC’s purpose is to serve its audiences as citizens, rather than as consumers. Its purpose is to create news, information and entertainment that’s judged for its creative, intellectual and artistic integrity, rather than its ability to attract large audiences that can be sold to advertisers.
What CBC management has delivered is not a public broadcasting strategy but a business plan, one that further distances the corporation from its public-service mandate.
For example, most people who study digital online media recognize that one of its impacts is to atomize audiences. Where traditional broadcasting creates a kind of congregation, a community of interest, the fragmented, specialized nature of Internet content tends to encourage individuals to focus on their own established interests. There is certainly a place for this, but it runs counter to the community-building remit of public broadcasting.
Another example: Nowhere in Wednesday’s in-house town-hall webcast, nor the accompanying documentation, was the issue of whether the public broadcaster ought to be carrying advertising even mentioned. The best of the world’s public-service broadcasters (PSBs) carry no commercials. Their involvement means engaging in the ratings game, which pushes programming toward the lowest common denominator in tastes and interests. This is why commercial-free subscription television services such as HBO and Netflix, like true PSBs, tend to produce superior programming.
One of the reasons why CBC is anxious to accelerate its shift to online services is because that’s where advertising revenue is moving. It hopes to cash in on the bonanza. But a reliance on ad revenue from online services is just as corrosive to PSB values and goals as it is in conventional TV and radio, for the same reasons.
If 70-odd years experience with the CBC to date proves anything, it’s that the public broadcaster can’t serve two masters. It should leave commercial sponsorship to the private media, which exist to serve advertisers, and it should focus on its public-service mandate exclusively.
Can the CBC survive without advertising revenue? That’s like asking whether the public school system can survive without corporate sponsorship. Of course it can – as long as that’s a public priority, as it ought to be.
At present, the CBC receives an annual parliamentary appropriation of about $1.34-billion. This puts Canada third from the bottom of the list of OECD nations’ support for their PSBs. A subsidy of $3-billion would boost us to around average. That level of funding would make it possible for the CBC to produce television programming matching the highest international standards, and to continue to finance an exceptional radio service while providing online services as the market – rather than internal balance sheets – dictates.
A dedicated 5 per cent to 7 per cent impost on what the CRTC calls Broadcast Distribution Undertakings – the big, vertically integrated and enormously profitable Internet/wireless/telephone/broadcast providers like Bell, Rogers, Shaw, Quebecor – could bring CBC funding up to a level that would allow it to properly do its job of providing an alternative to commercial media.
It could put the CBC back in the business of being an authentic public-service broadcaster, beholden to no vested interests, commercial or political. It’s what the country needs and deserves as a culture and a community – more so than ever in the evolving digital era.