Skip to main content

Kate Taylor

Today's forecast for Sydney, where it is already tomorrow, calls for a high of 26. That's 37 degrees warmer than it is in Ottawa right now.

I hesitate to mention this, in case the Senate committee on transport and communications gets any bright ideas for fancy travel plans, but still, it should consider Australia. I was mocking the committee last week because its members, who are undertaking a lengthy study of challenges facing the CBC, travelled to London earlier this month to research the BBC. The only thing you need to know about the BBC in a Canadian context can be quickly ascertained from its website: The BBC receives almost eight times as much public funding as the CBC.

The ABC, Australia's public broadcaster, is actually a more useful comparison. With a population of about 23 million, Australia is a bit smaller than English Canada and spends about $47 for each citizen on its public broadcaster, compared with Canada's $29. Australia doesn't use any fancy TV licence system imported from Britain: Its government gives the ABC a direct parliamentary grant of about $1.1-billion, not far off the CBC's $929-million, and it is currently cutting that grant – albeit much more gently than the Conservatives are cutting the CBC's. Australia's right-of-centre government says the cut is a necessary contribution to balancing the budget; the opposition says it is politically motivated.

So, we are in familiar, if more temperate, political territory here. What is different about Australia, however, is the broadcasting eco-system: The ABC is just one player in an environment where commercial broadcasters produce a great deal of distinctive and popular Australian programming. There is no Canadian equivalent to Neighbours or Home and Away, the 31- and 28-season veterans of a robust market for popular Australian television drama. Lead by the networks Seven, Nine and Ten, the commercial TV sector also produces a great deal of local reality and lifestyle programming, often replacing the U.S. franchises that Canadians watch with Australian versions. Of course, Seven, Nine and Ten feature many U.S. and British shows, but where CTV's and Global's programming schedules look like American clones, the Australian ones have a distinctive local feel.

In this context, the ABC can more effectively distinguish itself as a non-commercial alternative, offering more ambitious dramas, documentaries and public affairs programming while nurturing categories such as comedy and children's. Meanwhile, the CBC, often criticized by public broadcasting stalwarts for "dumbing down," has to be all things Canadian to all people. (At least in English Canada: Radio-Canada has a great deal more ability to distinguish itself as the public alternative to Quebec's vibrant commercial culture.)

Like the CBC, the ABC does a sideline in aboriginal language programming, but otherwise it has the distinct advantage of working in a unilingual country that is physically smaller than Canada and geographically isolated: It can focus its efforts on its public mandate, while the CBC is spread thin between the public alternative and the Canadian alternative.

Canadians, and their parliamentarians, are great at holding the CBC's feet to the fire, demanding to know what they get for their billion dollars. They don't often consider the rest of the broadcasting system which, according the Broadcasting Act, exists "to safeguard, enrich and strengthen the cultural, political, social and economic fabric of Canada" and to "encourage the development of Canadian expression …" That's the mandate of the whole system, not simply the CBC.

Nor do most Canadians remember, if they ever knew, that the commercial side also receives significant amounts of public money, because of the tax credits and production subsidies that fund Canadian programming wherever it shows up. So, one lesson to be learned from Australia is that we should not consider the CBC in splendid isolation, but also should ask what Canada's commercial networks have done for us lately.

The other thing worth considering is what happens next. Australia has succeeded in creating more culturally distinctive television because of its distance from both the United States and Europe. Australians watch lots of foreign programming too – the commercial networks there are studded with Hollywood shows and the ABC carries foreign programming more prominently than the CBC does – but they can take this content on their own terms: Neither the American networks nor the BBC are beaming competing signals directly into Australian living rooms.

Of course, Internet television changes that and Australia will increasingly look like Canada, a place where local content is often swamped by global content. Can Canada continue to ask its commercial networks to honour content regulations that are not being imposed on Internet services such as Netflix? Can new media be asked to contribute to Canadian production and distribution the way old media has? Maybe we should ask what they are thinking down under.