Heritage Minister James Moore was playing good cop again this week, saying nice things about the CBC during an Ottawa scrum even as backbenchers in his own party were busy demanding to know what outlandish amounts Peter Mansbridge and Rick Mercer might get paid and organizing petitions calling for an end to public funding to the public broadcaster.
Is there “a role for a public broadcaster in Canada,” as Mr. Moore keeps saying? Or should government “get out of the broadcasting business?” – to quote Dean Del Mastro, the Conservative MP who has led the charge at the House of Commons ethics committee in an attempt to force the CBC to release various internal documents.
No surprise that Kirstine Stewart, head of the broadcaster's English-language services, acknowledged this week that the CBC is expecting cuts in the 2012 budget. The broadcaster is participating in a Treasury Board exercise that requires it to submit scenarios for 5- and 10-per-cent cuts to its $1.1-billion grant.
Cuts of that magnitude would deeply hurt an already underfunded broadcaster: Outraged critics use the $1-billion figure as a stick to beat the CBC, but it actually represents one of the smallest government contributions per capita granted to any Western public broadcaster.
Yet, as the CBC prepares for the knife, a larger threat may go unnoticed. Is the CBC – and public opinion – being softened not merely for budget cuts but for a complete rethink of the broadcaster's role that would eliminate much of its current activity? There are pressing reasons to reform Canadian broadcasting in general and the CBC in particular, and if the Conservatives applied some free-market, small-government ideology to that housekeeping, they could reduce the public broadcaster's role.
You cannot just “defund” the CBC in the way in which the back-bench petitions suggest: The Broadcasting Act gives the CBC a large mandate – to provide a wide range of programming in French and English with a mission to contribute to a shared national consciousness and identity – that it could not possibly fulfill if it were privatized. Indeed, privatization is largely a canard: At least in English Canada, there is a very weak business model for Canadian content on the airwaves; the commercial television broadcasters are protected from competing U.S. signals by regulation and, as CBC critics and competitors such as Quebecor's Pierre Karl Péladeau forget, they meet their own minimum Canadian content requirements with programming that is subsidized by both tax credits and grants. The CBC then brings a predominantly Canadian schedule to the mix, and gets the direct funding to do it.
No, if the government wants less CBC, it needs to redraft the Broadcasting Act – and there are many sensible reasons to do that. The act should be merged with the Telecommunications Act since broadcasting and telecommunications are increasingly indistinguishable from each other. The CBC needs to be subject to regular mandate review, and its governance should be restructured to end patronage appointments to its board and hire a chief executive officer who reports to that board rather than the distant government.
Meanwhile, the new legislation would let the government open telecommunications to foreign investment as it so clearly wants to do. But rewriting the act would also be the government's opportunity to reduce the CBC's scope, leaving it to fill in the blanks the private sector doesn't cover. Let CTV take Hockey Night in Canada off the public broadcaster's hands, while the CBC sticks with The Nature of Things.
This is the much-touted PBS North model – with or without charitable contributions from viewers – but it's a poor fit for Canada. In the most successful commercial television market in the world, PBS plays a very minor role by providing an alternative newscast, children's programming and documentaries. U.S. public broadcasting can define quality drama as anything made in Britain because commercial players such as HBO provide quality U.S. drama.
No commercial venture will provide quality Canadian drama without some form of subsidy, and a PBS North without the broad reach of programs such as Hockey Night in Canada, Dragons' Den and Republic of Doyle would be a pale shadow of the current CBC and largely irrelevant to most Canadians. But that is what they might get if the bad cops set Conservative policy on the issue and the Prime Minister's Office decides to spend some political capital writing a new Communications Act.
Polls show that most Canadians support the CBC and think its funding should at least remain the same, but many Canadians who appreciate PBS programming hold that up as the high-quality model the CBC should emulate. They should be careful what they wish for.
Kate Taylor is a feature writer for Globe Arts