For many progressives, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation is an article of faith, a touchstone of modern Canada. For many conservatives, the CBC is an object of scorn, an elitist bastion that should be defunded.
And so an ideologically driven debate about the future of the public broadcaster spins around and around, immobilized between piety and outrage. In the meantime, the CBC itself is engaged in mission creep, with a dramatic increase in government funding under the Trudeau Liberals allowing it to increasingly crowd out private competitors.
What’s missing is a calm discussion of how the CBC is executing its mission, whether taxpayer dollars are well spent, and above all, how the 86-year-old broadcaster can still be relevant in the 21st century.
In the broadcaster’s most recent annual report, the CBC says its mission, in part, is to “reflect Canada and its regions to national and regional audiences.”
By that measure, CBC English-language television is failing badly. CBC’s third-quarter report shows its share of the national prime-time viewing audience dropped to 4.4 per cent (excluding Saturday), down sharply from 7.6 per cent in 2018, and trending below target for the year. Or, to turn that around: 95.6 per cent of TV-viewing Canadians do not tune in to CBC’s English language prime-time programming.
Supper-hour newscasts in English-speaking markets are attracting tiny audiences. In Calgary, the CBC daily broadcast reaches just 20,000 people, on average.
As English TV audiences have been shrinking, the CBC’s annual government funding has increased, up nearly 21 per cent from 2016, to $1.24-billion in 2022. (That funding is for all of CBC’s operations, not just English television.)
The TV side’s dismal performance – and atrophying relevance – does not carry through to either English-language radio or the CBC’s French-language arm, Radio-Canada. Even while TV audiences shrank, CBC Radio has managed to increase its market share, which was already much healthier than the English TV branch.
English radio garnered a 12.8 per cent market share in 2018; so far this year, that share sits at 14.1 per cent. CBC morning radio broadcasts are often at or near the top of their markets: CBC Toronto nabbed a 12.3 per cent share in April; Montreal, 14.9 per cent; and Vancouver, 10.9 per cent.
Radio-Canada also has a stronger connection with its viewing public. Its TV viewing audience, already proportionately larger than its English-language counterpart, has grown since 2010 and has held steady since 2018, at just above 22 per cent of TV-watching francophones in Quebec. Radio audience shares are larger, with a 23-per-cent share of listeners.
CBC’s digital audiences have been growing quickly, in part because the corporation can draw on its billion-plus in funding from Ottawa. CBC as a whole had 24.2-million monthly average unique visitors in fiscal 2022, up from 14.6-million in 2016. Audience size is trending down somewhat in the current year, but CBC’s digital programming is widely popular.
And why not? CBC’s government funding allows it to give away its news programming online without additional charge, even as many of its private competitors attempt to build a base of paying subscribers. (The Globe and Mail has succeeded in making that transition, with 68 per cent of revenue coming from people paying for content. The Globe receives a small amount of government support through a federal labour tax credit, amounting to 1 per cent of expenses.)
The economies of scale that the CBC enjoys also give it an edge in competing with the private sector for online ad dollars; its digital ad revenue soared 56.5 per cent from 2021 to 2022, rising from $54.7-million to $85.7-million.
That rising tide of digital dollars is gravy for the CBC, but it represents a serious threat to struggling legacy media. The public broadcaster’s (sort of) free-news model is another headwind for the private sector. More handouts are not the solution; curtailing CBC’s ad revenues should be examined.
The economic landscape for the media has changed drastically in the last decade. The CBC is not the cause of those woes, but its drifting mandate is intensifying the pain. At the same time, Canadians have voted, by their actions, to move on from what has been at the CBC’s core, English television.
Two things are clear. The mandate of the CBC needs to adapt if it is to remain relevant, and that debate can only happen if Canadians get past the politicized debate about the broadcaster’s future.