Fresh from a nice little trip to London to visit the BBC, the Senate committee on transport and communications was filled with interesting questions for CBC boss Hubert Lacroix and his staff at hearings in Ottawa on Tuesday. What's with Amanda Lang's speaking engagements, anyway? Hey, could you give us some more dirt on the Jian Ghomeshi scandal? Thankfully, this line of questioning was eventually ruled out of order as the committee recognized that debating the colour of the canvas on the deckchairs was distracting members from the more important job of rearranging them. Meanwhile, the good ship CBC sails on toward the iceberg.
When is this country going to have a conversation about the CBC predicated on the recognition of one central financial fact? By international standards, the CBC is appallingly underfunded. Five years ago, Canadians were paying $34 each for the CBC's services; today the combination of budget cuts and a growing population have whittled that number to about $29, and yet Canadians keep asking why the CBC doesn't do a better job. Standing around in the CBC el-cheapo noodle shop waving the $20 bill that will pay for dinner as though they some kind of big spenders, Canadians demand to know why Susur Lee isn't working behind the counter cooking up gourmet fusion.
Does the BBC offer Britons a better public broadcasting menu? One would hope so, since it receives almost eight times more public money than the CBC. The Senate committee, assigned to report on the future of the CBC's business, has explained that it went to London because so many witnesses raised the BBC as a comparison. No doubt there are all sorts of interesting lessons to be learned from how the BBC is approaching a multiplatform and global media environment, but if you want to take them home to the CBC there is only one thing you need to know and that is that the finances are not comparable.
In 2013-2014, the BBC received £3.7-billion – that's about $7.1-billion – in public funding from the £145.50 (about $280) licence fee that every British household must pay for its TV set. The CBC is receiving $930-million from Parliament in 2014-2015. If you want to judge the public commitment on a per capita basis, compare Canada's $29 to the $110 that a British citizen could be said to pay every year if you divide the total of licence fees by the population. (There are, of course, almost twice as many Britons as Canadians, so they have some economies of scale there.)
The BBC also raised another £1.3-billion independently, largely by selling its world-renowned programming to foreigners, an activity that enhances its brand. The CBC also raises more than a third of its income itself – in 2014-15, that revenue will probably come in at about $650-million – largely by putting ads on its TV channels, an activity that compromises its brand. So, at the end of day, the BBC is operating on a budget of almost $10-billion while the CBC is operating on one that is now dropping toward $1.5-billion. (I have pieced together the CBC's 2014-2015 numbers here, partly from Lacroix's predictions about where ad revenue is headed, because the corporation's government and ad revenue have dropped so much, the 2013-2014 numbers easily accessible on the CBC website aren't up to date.) I did find the BBC's 2013-2014 numbers on its website; I ran the British pounds through an online currency converter and I relied on Wikipedia estimates of the Canadian and British populations. I did not leave my desk in Toronto but I can tell the senators what the special sauce is: It's called money.
If a jaunt to London awakens the senators to that huge difference in funding, then maybe it wasn't a waste. Perhaps on their visit, they also noticed that Britain has only one official language and is located in a single time zone. Next thing you know, someone will tip them off to the existence of Skype.