Whatever shape the CBC takes, however, the critics agree that if the government is going to create Canadian content by supporting the CBC and bankrolling the Canadian Media Fund (which underwrites the cost of TV shows for all Canadian broadcasters, public and private) that material has to reach an audience. Canadian content needs a digital stage easily accessible to all Canadians.
“There is no point in Canada becoming a place where we are funding content nobody is accessing. It’s a waste,” Prof. Beaty says.
In short, if we want a future in which there are strong Canadian choices available on TV, radio, the Internet and mobile, we need the CBC to play a central role as producer, curator and aggregator, both generating Canadian shows and news itself and acting as the digital platform for independent work.
The corporation is already taking steps in that direction. Its current strategic plan calls for it to double spending on alternative platforms by 2015 to a minimum of 5 per cent of its budget. Its current TV programs are available online for catch-up viewing and its radio shows can be streamed live, as can all the programming on the CBC News Network. Its popular French-language Tou.TV service acts something like Hulu, offering not only current and historic Radio-Canada programs but also other public broadcasters’ offerings, some dubbed from English and some from the international French-language public broadcasting consortium TV5.
The rights to these programs are not free, however, and creating an English-language equivalent would be expensive. So would a CBC app that simply streamed CBC-TV live to your tablet or cellphone because of the complications of clearing rights to all the shows created by outside producers. The CBC is deeply concerned that the vertical integration of distributors and broadcasters – Bell now owns CTV, Shaw has Global, and Rogers has City – will squeeze the space for its content on mobile platforms, a fear it expressed strongly to the CRTC at a hearing in June.
The problem might partly be solved by technology already popular in Asia that turns smartphones into digital TV antennas, so that anyone can tune in to over-the-air signals for free without fancy apps or extra bandwidth charges for either the user or the broadcaster. It’s tempting stuff, although neither the CBC, which firmly believes the future lies in Internet delivery, not free-to-air signals, nor the CRTC have considered the implications.
Furthermore, bold visions of multi-platform access to programming paid for with tax dollars often bump up against the CBC’s financial realities: 18 per cent of its overall budget is raised by placing ads on its television networks. Like a commercial broadcaster, it can’t afford to give its programming away for free or to let its online offerings cannibalize its TV audience.
Money is one thing standing in the way of the CBC’s future. Canadians like to rant about the $1-billion in tax revenue they give the CBC, but the corporation is, in fact, one of the worst-funded public broadcasters in the developed world. At $34 per capita, Canada spends less on public broadcasting than any other developed nation except the United States and New Zealand. The broadcaster’s parliamentary appropriation has mainly stagnated or dropped over the past 20 years – by the CBC’s calculations, inflation means it has $433-million less to spend now than it did in 1991. It has never been given multi-year funding from Ottawa, and it is currently being asked, alongside numerous other government organizations, to make suggestions to the Treasury Board as to how it could cut 5 to 10 per cent from its budget.
Also, the CBC operates in a legislative vacuum: the 1991 Broadcasting Act that spells out its mandate predates the growth of the Internet and the organization has not had a licence renewal hearing at the CRTC since 2000. A hearing scheduled for this September was recently postponed to 2012; the suspicion among CBC watchdogs is that the government does not want to draw attention to the public broadcaster when it might be about to chop the budget.