Discussions of the CBC's future tend to focus heavily on English-language television: Should the CBC do reality programming? Should the CBC cut low-rated regional newscasts? Does advertising distort the broadcaster's public mandate?
The truth, however, is that the CBC has a broad, multilingual mandate delivered across multiple platforms and much of it established by law. While the CBC's parliamentary grant has been cut repeatedly since the 1990s, its parliamentary mandate set out in the Broadcasting Act has not been updated since 1991.
It's worth remembering:
- The CBC broadcasts in English, French and eight aboriginal languages on radio, television and various new media platforms. It is required to recognize the needs of minority language communities, which means broadcasting in both official languages right across the country. It is also required to make itself available by “the most appropriate or efficient means,” but there has been no new public money to cover the expansion of platforms nor the switch to digital transmission in 2011.
- The act requires the CBC to “reflect Canada and its regions to national and regional audiences, while serving the special needs of those regions.” Despite that brief, cuts to CBC services have often targeted the regions. Some critics have suggested the CBC is failing to live up to its mandate in this area; others think the broadcaster should get out of the regions altogether. Schemes that would see the CBC become a niche, high-quality national public service, a so-called PBS North, might require changing the act.
- The act requires the public broadcaster to strive for equal quality in French and English. In a more concentrated market protected by a language barrier, the French-language Radio-Canada can be exempted from many of the criticisms levelled at CBC TV. Part of a vibrant TV culture in which Quebeckers mainly watch shows made in Quebec, Radio Canada can effectively position itself as the public alternative to commercial television but at significant cost. The CBC does not distinguish among radio, TV and new media costs in its financial statement, but it spent about $690-million on French-language services in 2013, compared with about $920-million on the English side. Outsiders estimate the main French-language TV network costs about $400-million.
- Canadians demand the CBC be available from coast to coast, across a huge territory, but are paying significantly less for public broadcasting than the citizens of most industrial democracies. According to a 2011 study by the Nordicity consulting firm, Canadians paid $34 per capita annually for the CBC while the average was $87 – in a list of countries most of which are unilingual and geographically much smaller than Canada. Only Americans and New Zealanders spend less on public broadcasting; Japan, Ireland and France spend about double per capita; the United Kingdom spends 3 1/2 times as much, while Germany spends four times as much. And, because of spending cuts and population growth, the Canadian figure has dropped to $29.