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The Radio-Canada CBC building in Montreal. (Paul Chiasson/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
The Radio-Canada CBC building in Montreal. (Paul Chiasson/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

WADE ROWLAND

Without hockey, the CBC can become a true public broadcaster Add to ...

It’s happened. The CBC has lost the rights to NHL hockey. The loss may not come as much of a surprise, but nobody could have predicted that Rogers Media would purchase all rights, across all platforms, in all languages, for twelve years, for $5.2-billion.

CBC will be carrying Hockey Night in Canada for the next four years – a total of 320 hours of hockey programming a year. After that, presumably, it’s all over for the iconic program, and Rogers becomes the sole NHL broadcaster via Sportsnet.

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Those final CBC broadcasts will be under the editorial control of Rogers, with CBC providing behind-the-scenes production facilities and expertise. Rogers will sell all advertising spots, and keep all ad revenue.

CBC loses about $100-million in advertising revenue, but saves about the same amount in NHL contract costs, and an additional $25-million or so in production costs. (These, presumably, will be paid for by Rogers.) There will also be a saving of sales and promotion costs related to hockey broadcasts, of perhaps another $30-million.

On paper, this looks like a net gain for CBC of about $55-million a year – the former HNIC expenses of $155-million minus the $100-million in ad revenue now in the hands of Rogers. But remember, CBC in four years will have a 320-hour programming hole to fill.

Whether this is a good deal for Rogers is a concern for Rogers shareholders. Whether it’s a good deal for the CBC is a matter of concern for all Canadians.

What the deal means in practice is that the public broadcaster will be turning over about 40 per cent of its prime time air space during the hockey season to a commercial broadcaster, without retaining editorial control. What the CBC carries during those hours will be determined entirely by Rogers. There is some question whether such an arrangement is even legal, given the CBC’s public service mandate.

That’s for the CRTC to sort out. Meanwhile, the deal actually sounds like good news for public broadcasting, because it means that in four years – perhaps sooner – the CBC will be free of hockey.

And why is that a good thing? Because it moves the CBC one step closer to getting out of commercial sponsorship altogether, and becoming a true public broadcaster.

Without hockey and the 320+ hours of Canadian content it provides, CBC will now have to go back to square one and figure out what it is supposed to be. It has the opportunity, now, to make itself into what it should have been all along: a publicly-subsidized broadcaster serving its audience as citizens rather than as consumers.

The current corporate strategy has been to maximize advertising revenue. To do this, CBC must mimic private broadcasters in striving for higher ratings for its programming, often at the expense of quality, relevance, and public service.

The danger is that CBC programming becomes indistinguishable from commercially-sponsored programs on private networks, and many would argue that this is already the case. When that happens, justifying the annual federal subsidy of $1-billion to the public broadcaster becomes difficult, if not impossible.

The answer proposed by public broadcasting supporters has been for the CBC to get out of the advertising business completely. This would require, at minimum, a doubling of the annual Parliamentary appropriation, which could be financed through a targeted tax on media distributors such as Bell and Rogers.

Here is one sensible suggestion for how that might work.

There is plenty of room in overall broadcasting the system for a targeted tax on private broadcasters and distributors – Bell, Rogers, Shaw Quebecor – of between 5 per cent and 7 per cent. That would allow for a subsidy to the public broadcaster of upward sof $2.5-billion a year, which would put Canada close to the average of OECD nations’ subsidies to public broadcasters.

With the CRTC currently in the process of re-thinking the entire broadcast regulation environment and seeking public input, this may be the best opportunity in a generation to finally do something to rescue the CBC from oblivion, on both television and radio.

Wade Rowland is author of Saving the CBC: Balancing Profit and Public Service, and is associate professor in the Department of Media Studies at York University. www.waderowland.com

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