Quebec City radio host Dominic Maurais pulled off a minor journalistic coup this week, when he not only aired an exclusive interview with Stephen Harper but also got the Prime Minister of Canada to mention the CBC.
Although the Liberals and the NDP have both promised to restore funding the Tories have cut, Harper never talks about the issue on the campaign trail. So, in an interview that aired Monday, Maurais asked him to explain why the Quebec group Tous amis de Radio-Canada is lobbying against him.
Harper replied that problems at the CBC are not caused by government cuts: There have been no cuts, he said. The problems are caused by a decrease in viewers, and that is something for the CBC to solve itself.
The first part of this is not true. Under the Conservatives, the CBC has been disproportionately singled out for cuts, taking a 10-per-cent reduction in the 2012 federal budget, to be phased in over three years. Layoffs have ensued.
The second part, an accusation that the CBC's real problem is a loss of its television audience – Harper used the French word téléspectateurs – is a particularly odd argument to make in Quebec. Check out the most recent ratings in the francophone market, from the week of Sept. 14. Most watched show? Unité 9, the Radio-Canada drama set in a women's prison. Radio-Canada aired 13 of the top 30 shows that week.
That's a typical week in Quebec: Maurais hinted at the incongruity of Harper's answer when he also asked why the Conservative Leader doesn't follow other campaigning leaders and make an appearance on Tout le monde en parle, Radio-Canada's widely watched talk show.
So what Harper must really mean is that all the CBC's problems can be traced to declining audiences for its English-language television network. Ignoring the audiences of Radio-Canada and of all the CBC's radio services, cable news networks and websites, to hone in on the disappointments of English television is pretty narrow, but it's typical of the way, in English Canada at least, the CBC is judged.
Lots of us who think public broadcasting is important would agree that CBC TV needs to be more successful, but to define that as the source of the broadcasters' problems is misleading. Part of the reason the CBC exists is to offer an alternative to big-budget American programming, which has always been more popular with English Canadians. The CBC can still score TV hits – episodes of its adaptation of The Book of Negroes, for example, were regularly drawing 1.5 million viewers last winter. But in a crowded marketplace in which all television is now competing with online offerings, it has lost not merely viewers but, more importantly, cultural significance.
While it does need solid numbers to justify its existence, it is not going to rebuild that significance by merely chasing ratings – and even if did, the additional income would not make up the hole in a budget in which ad dollars account for less than 20 per cent of revenues.
An underfunded CBC is in the midst of an awkward transition to a multiplatform and global environment in which its role as a producer, distributor, curator and aggregator of Canadian news and entertainment should become more important, not less. In part that's because it is going to become more difficult to ask private broadcasters competing with Internet television to fulfill that role.
Or should we just allow Canadian content and broadcasters, public and private, to wither in an on-demand, global market? While Harper's remarks gave the requisite nod to the CBC as an "important institution" (thus putting him in agreement with a majority of Canadians, according to various polls), his supporters have often suggested the private sector is perfectly capable of providing all the news and entertainment Canadians might possibly want.
Why do we need the CBC? That's a debate Canadians could have if the Tories ever engaged in an honest explanation of their cuts in a conversation that recognized the organization's failings and successes, and the challenges of the environment in which it finds itself. But the topic has now made its one-day appearance on the election campaign radar, and won't return again.