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Television Ad-free CBC could serve as a rallying point for Canadian creativity

Excuse me while I massage my neck: I have been suffering a severe case of whiplash since Monday, when the CBC unveiled a plan to go commercial free.

Not so long ago, if you suggested the CBC cut advertising from its programming, both observers and insiders would pat you on the head and smile kindly at your naïve idealism. Received wisdom was that the CBC could not possibly survive without ad revenue, no matter what earnest cultural advocates or ponderous parliamentary reports might argue.

And then this week, in response to the Liberal government's review of cultural policy, the CBC boldly proposed that very thing. Clearly, chief executive officer Hubert Lacroix sensed an opportunity: After years of Tory cuts, the broadcaster is finally getting a sympathetic ear in Ottawa – and all TV ad revenues are in steep decline anyway. Lacroix seems convinced a commercial-free CBC might actually get replacement funding for the lost ad dollars: He is asking for $418-million.

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Leaving aside, for the moment, the political realism of the request, the plan is a good one. In an increasingly scattered but ever more Internet-dependent and globalized media environment, the country needs a public producer, curator and distributor to craft a powerful Brand Canada across all platforms, offering not only news, public affairs and documentaries, but also fiction, variety and arts programming. It needs an iconic institution to nurture and lead the cultural industries, a rallying point for Canadian creativity.

Freedom from commercial pressures would allow the CBC to focus on the best ways to achieve that rather than chase television ratings; it would make the broadcaster more distinctive, more nimble and more able to take risks.

Yes, CBC Television should continue to seek big audiences with populist shows – since all Canadians pay for the broadcaster. The chattering classes are always comparing CBC programming unflatteringly to the loss-leader stuff they enjoy on HBO or Netflix as though the 1.3 million people who tune in to the homey and hokey Murdoch Mysteries or the Quebeckers delivering repeated ratings hits to Radio-Canada could simply be ignored. Making broadly popular Canadian programs is a laudable goal, and freedom from the nightly ratings game should not free the CBC from the need to serve mass audiences.

But that freedom would also allow the broadcaster to do things that would distinguish it further from the commercial alternatives: It could experiment with quality programs that it believes in but do not immediately prove popular, do more counter-programming (point-of-view documentaries, performing arts shows) and work as a producer and distributor for Canadian film. Released from commercial TV schedules and formats, the broadcaster could better integrate content across platforms. It could offer ad-free streaming online that should attract younger viewers and import to television more of the programming vitality of CBC Radio (which remains commercial-free after the failure of a 2013 project to start selling ads there).

As Canada finds it increasingly difficult to maintain the walled-garden of Canadian content, the commercial business model – whereby U.S. shows, often simulcast, underwrite a smattering of Canadian drama and comedy – is at risk. The moment may come when the commercial networks will have to be cut loose from both their Canadian-content obligations and market protections: Leave them to figure out how to make money as a local broadcaster selling U.S. content to Canadians when Netflix knows no national boundaries.

In that environment, a distinctively Canadian and commercial-free alternative would stand out like a beacon. Critics of CBC sometimes argue that globalized media make the Canadian public broadcaster obsolete. On the contrary, the plethora of foreign choices makes it more relevant than ever.

The danger of the CBC proposal, however, is that the country and the government will seize on the idea while fudging on the money needed to make it work. Instead of creating a revitalized CBC that is both diverse and broadly popular, dropping ads might produce a much-reduced public broadcaster that is relevant to a tiny minority – a so-called PBS North. The sponsorship-based model on which PBS depends, which Conservative leadership candidate Maxime Bernier advocates, is deeply flawed. In Canada, it would create an elite broadcaster that was still subject to commercial pressures – the demands of sponsors can actually be larger and more direct than those of advertisers – while siphoning corporate money away from other cultural causes.

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If the Liberals do decide CBC can drop the ads, they need to make darn sure the public broadcaster gets the money it needs to do the job right.

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