In eight years, Mélanie Joly has gone from reporting on a local Scout jamboree as an intern in Radio-Canada's newsroom to overseeing the public broadcaster as Canada's culture minister.
Ms. Joly's appointment this month as Minister of Canadian Heritage, which led a Radio-Canada host to launch an astute Twitter hashtag (#BeNicetotheInterns), not only marked the meteoric political ascent of the 36-year-old serial career changer. It also felt like glasnost at a public broadcaster that had spent a decade under the thumb of an oppressive Conservative gulag.
Stephen Harper made no effort to hide his disdain for a public broadcaster he considered largely a waste of taxpayer money, entrenched in its liberal bias and increasingly irrelevant as a cultural arbiter. Even CBC/Radio-Canada president Hubert Lacroix, who was named to the job by Mr. Harper and reappointed for second five-year term in 2012, seemed elated to see the Tories go.
"It has been a long time for me in this chair waiting for this moment," Mr. Lacroix said last month. "I finally have a person that wants to talk to us and has an interest in [the CBC's] future."
But does Ms. Joly want to talk to him? The new minister, who once worked under Mr. Lacroix during her brief stint as lawyer at the same Montreal law firm, has given no direct hints about whether the CBC chief will finish his term, much less get another. He implemented the Tory cuts that the Liberals vow to reverse and the CBC's unions have clamoured for his resignation.
Indeed, Mr. Lacroix did such a good job wielding the axe that he undermined the case for giving the CBC the extra $150-million a year in federal funding the Liberals are promising. The broadcaster has not released its financial results for the 2014-15 fiscal year. They must be tabled in the House of Commons, which has not sat since June. But it has released its results for the first quarter of 2015-16, and they show that the CBC is adjusting to a new normal that is only partly the result of Tory cuts.
The loss of National Hockey League rights (the CBC still broadcasts games under a transitional agreement with Rogers Communications, but does not get any advertising revenue) contributed to a 38.5-per-cent decline in the CBC's self-generated revenue in the three months to June 30, compared with the same period in 2014, a critical 90 days that included the Stanley Cup playoffs.
Advertising revenues at the CBC's English-language network collapsed by 70 per cent – going from almost $91-million in the June 30 quarter last year to less than $27-million this year. Advertising at Radio-Canada fell by 17.5 per cent, but, at $30-million, surpassed the amount earned by the English-language network even though the French market is three times smaller.
Still, the drop in advertising revenue was more than offset by a $105-million decrease in expenses. Professional hockey, it turns out, is expensive television and the CBC no longer incurs hockey's production costs nor pays for the broadcasting rights. Combined with Mr. Lacroix's job and programming cuts across the network, and the absence of any new cuts in public funding under the Tories, the CBC says it expects to "be closer to break-even" by the end of this year.
Only a small minority of Canadians, those for whom the public broadcaster is either a religion or source of income, notices any changes at the CBC – which raises questions about why it needs an extra $150-million. To restore supper-hour local newscasts to 90 minutes, when the CBC has long been a local news ratings laggard whose lunch is eaten by CTV affiliates and other private stations? To reinstate an in-house documentary unit, when the latter had long ago ceased producing distinctive and noteworthy content such as Canada: A People's History? To hire more celebrity hosts so that its public affairs programming gets even more personality-driven and similar to that of private broadcasters? To imitate private networks with more mediocre dramas and sitcoms that purport to tell Canadian stories but to which Canadians demonstrate their indifference by leaving the CBC with a 6-per-cent prime-time market share?
Ms. Joly is a champion of the CBC who streams her favourite Radio-Canada drama when she misses it on TV. But if giving the public broadcaster an extra $150-million merely allows it to go back to what it was doing before the Tories came to town, she will only be postponing its demise.