When he was running as the “true blue” candidate for the Conservative Party leadership last year, Erin O’Toole did not leave much doubt about what he thought about the CBC.
“We don’t need CBC Television. When I am prime minister, they will lose their funding,” Mr. O’Toole said in his 2020 leadership platform.
The then Tory leadership hopeful vowed to cut government subsidies for the CBC’s English-language television operations in half, with an aim to privatize the network by the end of a first Conservative mandate. The public broadcaster, he insisted, had outlived its usefulness in an era in which consumers had hundreds of channels and “lots” of Canadian content to choose from. Its subsidized digital news operations, he warned, were also threatening the survival of private local media organizations across Canada.
Since winning the leadership, Mr. O’Toole has toned down his rhetoric considerably and no longer boasts about his “true blue” credentials. Accordingly, the Conservative election platform released last month does not mention an immediate funding cut for English TV. Rather, it promises that a Conservative government would “review the mandate of CBC English Television, CBC News Network and CBC English online news to assess the viability of refocusing the service on a public interest model like that of PBS in the United States.”
The Corporation for Public Broadcasting, a non-profit organization created by the U.S. Congress in 1967, last year distributed about US$445-million in federal funding among PBS television affiliates and National Public Radio stations in the U.S. But public funding covers only a tiny portion of their operating costs, hence those annoying on-air fundraising appeals.
CBC and Radio-Canada, the public broadcaster’s French-language arm, receive about $1.2-billion a year from Ottawa. TV and digital advertising revenues, and subscriber fees for CBC News Network and RDI, bring in more than $400-million annually.
The Conservative platform promises to break CBC and Radio-Canada into distinct “legal and administrative” entities and keep the French-language operations intact, enhancing their mandate to promote francophone culture. The promise is aimed at winning – or at least, not losing – votes in Quebec, where Radio-Canada is a major player and ratings draw.
The frontal attack on CBC Television is aimed at the Tory base, for whom the CBC remains a hotbed of left-wing ideology, and at the silent majority of Canadians who rarely tune in to the public broadcaster, except perhaps for Olympics coverage or other sports exclusives.
The idea of CBC TV hosts being forced to shill for donations from viewers, such as those on PBS affiliates across the border, surely horrifies that shrinking segment of Canadians for whom the public broadcaster is a national treasure. But from a programming perspective, the CBC could do worse than to emulate the excellence of PBS, which remains relevant in a 500-channel universe precisely because it fills a gap unaddressed by private broadcasters.
CBC English TV, meanwhile, is becoming increasingly irrelevant to average Canadians despite receiving hundreds of millions of dollars in additional funding under Justin Trudeau’s Liberals. Investments in shows such as Family Feud Canada, which returns this month for a third season, have served to invite further scrutiny of the CBC’s mandate. Very little of what the CBC offers these days constitutes distinctive programming. Most of it is copied from private networks.
Even the Liberals have caught on to this problem. The party’s election platform promises to “update” the public broadcaster’s mandate with a view to ensuring it offers “unique programming that distinguishes it from private broadcasters.” Still, during their six years in office, the Trudeau Liberals failed to modernize the CBC’s mandate, unchanged since a 1991 overhaul of the Broadcasting Act. Their pledge to do so if re-elected should be viewed with skepticism.
The Liberal platform also pledges an additional $400-million over four years to help the CBC become “less reliant on private advertising with a goal of eliminating advertising during news and other public affairs shows.”
It is a worthy goal. But it is more likely CBC bosses would take the extra federal cash, continue to plead poverty, and increase advertising online and during non-news television programming. Indeed, private revenue generation has become the top priority under current CBC chief Catherine Tait, who has embarked on the slippery slope of offering corporate-sponsored content on the CBC’s digital platforms.
This kind of drift needs to stop. There has to be a better way. Turning CBC TV into a Canadian version of PBS – minus the on-air pledge drives, and with proportionately more public funding – should be an election issue.
A debate about the future of the CBC might seem like a luxury when there are bigger concerns weighing on the minds of Canadian voters. But sooner or later, the country needs to have that debate. It might as well be now.
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