In a new low for our public broadcaster, the CBC is launching a Canadian version of Family Feud in a bid to boost its advertising revenues by further dumbing down its schedule.
Making a shameless play for ad dollars is part of president Catherine Tait’s goal of making the CBC less vulnerable to the whims of federal politicians, some of whom don’t believe Canada even needs a public broadcaster. But by adapting for Canadian eyes a low-brow game show that isn’t remotely relevant to the CBC’s mandate, Ms. Tait may only prove them right.
As Ms. Tait told advertising industry executives in Toronto last week, the CBC is making “a renewed commitment to growing commercial revenue” in order to become “masters of our own destiny.” She was even more explicit in a speech last month to a Montreal business audience, saying: “We want to keep our diversified funding revenue model because we don’t want to be vulnerable to shifts in the marketplace and government.”
There are several problems with Ms. Tait’s strategy, not the least of which is that it flies in the face of the CBC’s aspirational goal of going ad-free. It is now clear that Ms. Tait, who succeeded Hubert Lacroix last year, never believed in that goal, despite paying lip service to it.
Family Feud Canada is set to occupy the prime 7:30 p.m. time slot on four weekday evenings this fall. The public broadcaster says it plans to leverage the game show’s popularity to promote other CBC shows. But what is the likelihood that viewers who tune in to a silly game show – it’s not Jeopardy, after all – will stick around for The Nature of Things, The National or Marketplace, shows that embody the CBC’s mandate rather than making a mockery of it?
As the CBC’s new head of English services Barbara Williams told The Globe’s Simon Houpt, “the factual fun format stuff is engaging, and it draws a big audience, and it brings people into our schedule, and from there you promote them into the other things they might not have known about – that’s how TV programming still works.”
Well, private TV programming, anyway. And Ms. Williams knows a lot about private TV, having retired as chief operating officer of Corus Entertainment last October. There, she programmed such edifying fare as Big Brother Canada, which was a big hit for Global TV.
That Ms. Williams was good at her previous job may not, however, be great news for those who think the CBC should stop competing with private broadcasters and focus on its core mandate.
What is clear is the current Liberal government’s move to inject $675-million into the CBC over five years, ostensibly allowing it to preserve its core news and public affairs operations, has not stopped the public broadcaster from encroaching further on the private sector’s turf.
The CBC and its French-language counterpart, Radio-Canada, together received $1.2-billion in public funding in 2017-18 fiscal year, compared with $1.03-billion in 2015-16. That same year, they generated $253-million in advertising revenue, a figure that rose to $318-million last year.
In all, CBC/Radio-Canada’s revenues totalled almost $1.8-billion in 2017-18, at a time when Canada’s private broadcasters and media outlets are systematically struggling to survive.
The public broadcaster’s advertising revenues fell 3.4 per cent in the first nine months of its 2018-19 fiscal year, to $181-million, with English-language conventional and digital advertising taking the biggest hit. The percentage drop on the English network was 8.2 per cent during the period ending Dec. 31, while advertising revenue at Radio-Canada rose 1.1 per cent.
Still, the CBC remains in much better shape than Canada’s private broadcasters, which are suffering far more from cord-cutting and the popularity of foreign streaming services such as Netflix. The CBC’s push to boost its share of the advertising pie constitutes nothing less than a existential threat for many private broadcasters.
If Ottawa wants to avoid seeing the private TV industry collapse in Canada altogether, it needs to get busy with its long-promised overhaul of the Broadcasting Act, which has not been revised in nearly three decades. An updated act would limit the CBC’s mandate to one of complementing private television and streaming services with programming that makes Canadians more informed and engaged citizens rather than mindless couch potatoes.
Family Feud Canada is the last straw.