A Senate committee that spent 18 months studying the CBC and its place in the media landscape is recommending the public broadcaster explore alternative funding models, shake up its governance structure, be more transparent in its operations and air more amateur sports and high-quality arts.
In Time for Change: The CBC/Radio-Canada in the Twenty-first Century, the Standing Committee on Transport and Communications makes 22 recommendations it says will make the CBC more relevant and responsive. It also urges the federal government to update the Broadcasting Act, which, it notes, "was last revised in the pre-smartphone, pre-multi-platform era of 1991."
The report, from a 10-member committee that included seven Conservative senators, was immediately denounced by an advocacy group for reflecting Prime Minister Stephen Harper's "well-known hostility towards Canada's national public broadcaster." And a high-profile Liberal member of the committee split with his colleagues, issuing a minority report that called their study "a lost opportunity" whose mission was derailed by petty politics.
Among the recommendations, the committee suggests the CBC focus on providing services that complement, rather than compete with, private broadcasters. It urges the CBC to increase the "presentation of Canadian history and Canadian film" and "emphasize the broadcasting of performances by Canadian artists and cultural events, such as the Royal Winnipeg Ballet, the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, the Royal Nova Scotia International Tattoo, the Edmonton Opera, and the Orchestre symphonique de Montreal."
The official report also recommends "CBC/Radio-Canada air more amateur sporting events such as Canadian Interuniversity women's and men's sports, minor league sports, etc."
The senators, who travelled to England to study the BBC's funding models and programming strategy, suggested a so-called "external superfund" be created by setting aside a portion of the CBC's funding to pay for Canadian content "such as Canadian history and nature documentaries and high-quality comedy and drama, which could then be broadcast on CBC/Radio-Canada."
The Friends of Canadian Broadcasting watchdog group called that proposal part of "a thinly disguised cut to CBC's parliamentary grant that could never be implemented without a major contraction of the services that our national public broadcaster offers to Canadians every day."
In a pointed illustration of the divisions on the committee, Senator Art Eggleton broke from his colleagues to issue a minority report that called for the government to increase the CBC's per capita funding "to at least $40, which is approximately half of what other industrialized nations spend." (The CBC currently receives an estimated $29 per capita in public funding.)
He added: "To create more trust and accountability the Government of Canada should create an arm's length process or all party-parliamentary process for appointing board members. The selection process should be based on qualifications and experience in the arts and culture, journalism, business and broadcasting fields. Further, the President should have proven expertise in business and the broadcasting industry and be chosen by the Board and not the government."
Currently, CBC board members are appointed by the Prime Minister's Office, a system that has led to accusations of political interference. Many current board members had little or no broadcasting experience prior to their appointments.
Rather than a "debate about the future role and function of the CBC," Mr. Eggleton said, "the committee spent much time discussing sensational issues, such as the compensation of on-air personalities and alleged individual improprieties. Although important, these issues stretched the scope of the study and sufficient time was not devoted to the way forward."
The hearings unfolded against a backdrop of unusual turmoil at the CBC, including the Jian Ghomeshi scandal and questions about newscasters including Peter Mansbridge and Amanda Lang taking money from private companies for speeches and other appearances.
The committee's hearings were occasionally heated, with senators using the opportunity to buttonhole CBC executives on individual pet issues, forcing the committee chair to chastise members for wandering far from the study's mandate.
On one occasion, Senator Donald Plett, the committee's deputy chair, repeatedly pressed CBC executives on the cost of flying production staff to the Sochi Winter Olympics. He noted that the questions were fair since CBC News had reported on his own travel expenses. By his own admission, the reports had left him angry.