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KONRAD YAKABUSKI

CBC needs to rethink its purpose, not just its programs Add to ...

Earlier this month, John Whittingdale rose in Britain’s House of Commons to announce a sweeping review of the BBC, promising a wholesale overhaul of the cherished public broadcaster’s mandate, funding, governance and programming.

“One key task is to assess whether the idea of universality still holds water,” the Culture Secretary told the House. “With so much more choice, we must at least question whether the BBC should try to be all things to all people.”

If the BBC, with its more than £5-billion ($10.1-billion) in revenue, global reach and dominant position on British television, is in need of a rethink, what can be said of the CBC?

Either Canada’s public broadcaster will continue to limp along – resisting calls to refine its outdated and overly broad mandate to reflect a multichannel, multiplatform universe – or it will admit that much of the programming on which it spends its scarce resources is redundant.

This is what a Senate report was getting at last week when it recommended that the “CBC focus on showing high-quality programs that are unlikely to be offered by commercial broadcasters.”

The committee called for more content showcasing Canadian history, more broadcasts of Canadian films and a review of how resources are allocated among various programming genres. It also recommended that the CBC “explore alternative funding models” to “minimize” its reliance on its annual grant from the federal government.

For this, the Senate report was summarily dismissed by the network’s defenders as a blatant attempt to justify further budget cuts at the CBC by a government that is hostile to it.

Former CBC president Tony Manera called the report “a blueprint for marginalizing” the public broadcaster.

It’s true the Conservative majority on the Senate communications committee has not been known as a friend of the CBC. Liberal Senator Art Eggleton released a dissenting report, rejecting the committee’s call for a portion of the CBC’s funding to be placed in a “superfund” to pay for non-news programming as a sly attempt to dilute its journalism budget.

“Some senators on the committee seemed skeptical of the CBC having a news service,” Mr. Eggleton wrote. “They questioned whether the CBC should get out of the news business because the private broadcasters also provide a source of such news.”

Indeed, the Senate report questions whether high-quality news is a “luxury” that can be maintained only by jettisoning other programming. The CBC, the report said, “must determine what to sacrifice to improve the news … above what would be offered by private broadcasters.”

Frankly, I’d be fine with sacrificing Dragons’ Den or Schitt’s Creek for a CBC more clearly focused on high-quality news and public affairs programming, along with history documentaries and BBC-calibre miniseries. That kind of CBC would fill a hole the private sector won’t or can’t.

It need not cost more and would quite possibly cost much less than the $1.8-billion the CBC now spends annually on all platforms and in both official languages (as well as in several native ones). The CBC spent a paltry $13-million on the rights to broadcast Canadian films in 2014, compared with almost $260-million on sports programming.

Yes, sporting events bring in more advertising dollars and Canadians apparently could not get enough Pan-Am Games coverage. But with more than a dozen sports channels in Canada, most owned by deep-pocketed Bell Media or Rogers, it’s fair to ask why the CBC is still bidding on big sports events at all.

The network angered viewers by referring them to its website to watch the gold medal baseball game between Canada and the United States. But that’s what happens when, in Mr. Whittingdale’s words, you “try to be all things to all people.”

Just don’t tell that to Hubert Lacroix. “I do not believe the answer is to become some kind of niche broadcaster limited to doing what private broadcasters will not do or have no business incentive to do,” the CBC’s current president told the Senate committee. “No other public broadcaster in the world is put into that kind of a box.”

That may have been true in the past. But governments all over are reconsidering the mandates of their public broadcasters in a world of endless consumer choice. In the BBC’s case, the question is whether there’s a place for The Voice or Strictly Come Dancing on public TV.

The question facing Canadians is whether there’s a place for CBC, period.

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Follow on Twitter: @konradyakabuski

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