CBC has some experience with crisis. In the 1940s and '50s, the broadcaster had radio audience ratings larger than today's most popular television programs – the 10 o'clock national news had an audience share of 50 per cent. But by the late 1950s, CBC Radio was losing its audience, its role usurped by private popular music stations and television. By the late 1960s, CBC even considered shutting down its radio services.
Fortunately, CBC allowed some smart programmers to experiment. They realized there was an audience for intelligent, thoughtful and balanced news and information, coupled with programming that revolved around literature, arts and classical music. There was a substantial niche who wanted something more substantive than pop music, traffic reports and jocular hosts, interrupted by commercials.
The experiment was so successful that much of this programming still exists on CBC Radio. Today, about one in three Canadians is a regular listener and the national broadcaster captures about 15 per cent of all radio listening – not like 1950, but still substantial.
CBC listeners are extremely loyal. Regulars spend almost 400 hours a year listening to CBC. That's as much time as most of us spend at work in any given three months. By comparison, CBC's digital services barely measure up: CBCMusic.ca is listened to for about one hour a year by the average Canadian, and cbc.ca accounts for about three hours a year.
Curiously, CBC Radio has lately begun competing with private stations, employing pop music on its second radio network and a journalistic style that is starting to sound like private radio. Commercials have even crept in.
Why? One explanation is that CBC has made disproportionate budget cuts to radio, weakening the service and prompting some unsavoury changes. More than $50-million has been lost from radio's annual budget, which in net terms has been given to CBC TV.
Today, CBC TV is the service in a fragile position. It's just one among hundreds of channels, almost indistinguishable from private competitors.
It airs many of the same programs you find on private channels: Hollywood movies, pro hockey, the Olympics, news that increasingly mimics the style of private TV – and, until recently, American game shows. Most importantly, virtually all the commercials aired on private TV also appear on CBC.
CBC TV does have a much larger audience reach – about four in five Canadians are regular viewers. But few are loyal. According to CBC, its share of total viewing time is now about 5 per cent. The average Canadian spends just 35 hours a year watching, if you exclude National Hockey League games and foreign programs.
For decades, CBC TV has strived for a mass audience to attract advertising. But its revenue-driven strategy never delivered the mass audience, and ad revenues are less than they were 15 years ago. CBC's English TV ad revenues for 2012-13 will be less than $225-million.
In 2014-15, without the NHL, ad revenue will fall to barely $100-million. By comparison, CTV gets more than $750-million a year. Global TV gets more than $400-million.
The kind of ad revenue CBC TV dreamed of can be achieved only with programming that attracts regular audiences of 11/2 to three million viewers, including many adults between 25 and 54. But the only CBC programming achieving that has been NHL hockey, and now that's gone. The mass audience strategy should have been abandoned long ago.
Fortunately, Canadians are tolerant of this cherished institution and still support the idea of public broadcasting.
A public broadcaster is paid for by all – either through licence fees or grants from general taxation – and at some point in their lives, as with health care, all will probably benefit from it. Canada would be better off with an annual licence fee or a dedicated communications tax to finance CBC.
With or without a new funding mechanism, CBC must develop a new audience strategy. What could be its roles?
CBC Radio could return to what worked for almost 50 years and cease competing with pop music. It and CBC TV could go commercial-free and return to the high journalistic standards that have built the network's reputation.
CBC TV could finally get off the ratings treadmill, where it's been failing. Being free of commercials should spark some very creative ideas and experimentation. It would be surprised how many people crave intelligent, substantive news and current affairs and distinctive edgy, experimental drama and entertainment. It might reach somewhat fewer Canadians regularly, but audience share (and public support) could actually increase.
Barry Kiefl is president of Canadian Media Research Inc. and former director of research at CBC.