In the beginning was The Hockey. And The Hockey was with the CBC. And The Hockey was the CBC.
This week's news that Rogers Communications will pay $5.2-billion for the main National Hockey League programming rights for the next 12 years, displacing the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, marks the loss of the CBC's most popular program. Hockey Night in Canada is one of the CBC's biggest money-makers, and also one of its biggest expenses. Under the terms of the Rogers deal, CBC will continue to carry HNIC for the next four years, but Rogers is essentially just borrowing the public broadcaster's airwaves. Rogers will pay the bills, have creative control – and keep the revenue. CBC head Hubert Lacroix put on a brave face, but he and almost everyone else who weighed in sounded as if they believed this is a crushing defeat for the corporation, and possibly a fatal one.
It is not. Losing hockey is the best thing that could have happened to the CBC. A national institution that long ago lost its way has been given the chance – possibly its last chance – to find its soul. NHL hockey, the most popular pastime in this country, doesn't need the CBC. And the CBC, if it's to be what a public broadcaster should be, doesn't need the NHL.
If the CBC did not exist, would we create it? And to do what?
The strongest argument for the CBC goes something like this: There are some public goods that the free market will not deliver, or will not deliver well enough, and so we create public institutions to do the job. Think of museums, libraries and parks. These would be very different without public support, and in some cases they might not exist at all. There's a compelling logic to taxpayer backing for the National Gallery of Canada or the Canadian War Museum, or hundreds of other cultural institutions and historical sites. The CBC is, in part, such an institution.
But what about the things that if we were designing a public broadcaster from scratch, we wouldn't want it doing? Consider the following hypothetical: Should taxpayer dollars be spent building a national network of cinemas showing the latest Hollywood movies? The private sector already does a pretty good job of running multiplexes.
And yet the CBC has often seen the television equivalent as a core part of its mandate. Popular American programs already filling the private airwaves – Jeopardy, Wheel of Fortune, reruns of situation comedies like The Simpsons, and lots of Hollywood movies – became a network staple. And hockey? Oh yes, and hockey.
Hockey is just about the most stereotypically Canadian thing you can put on television. It's also the most popular. That's not an argument in favour of hockey on the CBC – on the contrary, it's the best argument against it. That Rogers was willing to pay $5.2-billion for the rights testifies to the fact that NHL hockey is a ridiculously successful business, and putting those games on the nation's screens is the most competitive, in-demand entertainment in the country. If the CBC didn't exist, there would still be NHL hockey on TV; in fact, Rogers appears to be intent on showing far more hours of hockey, on more platforms, than the CBC ever did. The market works! NHL hockey needs a taxpayer-supported public broadcaster like a fish needs a goalie mask.
Hockey reveals what should have been obvious all along: Popular programming doesn't need taxpayer support. We don't need a CBC to compete with the private sector. We need a CBC that goes where the private sector isn't, doing important things that are necessary but may be less popular.
Consider arts and cultural programming – something that CBC television used to do a lot more of, and then in recent years stepped back from. Or educational and children's programming. Documentaries. Regional programming. Producing intellectually ambitious Canadian dramas and movies. CBC TV has, in recent years, overwhelmingly focused its efforts on competing with private broadcasters, going down-market, and aiming the same sorts of programs at the same audience. The strategy is an expensive dead end.
And as part of the quest to bring in more money, the CBC has also introduced advertising to radio. Over time, that step will likely push the often excellent CBC Radio One and 2 into making programming decisions that ape the moves of private broadcasters – just like the considerably less excellent CBC TV.
So here's a radical proposal to ensure that the CBC retains the spirit of a public broadcaster: Get rid of advertising. No ads on radio, no ads on TV, no ads on the website.
The bulk of the CBC's funding already comes from the taxpayer: Last year, it received a subsidy of $1.1-billion from the federal government. Only $330-million of the corporation's revenues came from advertising. And yet the chase for dollars consumes the CBC's energies, generates new expenses and compels it to produce programs that shouldn't be on a public network, undermining its public-service mission.
The CBC needs a rethink. Rogers and the NHL did it, and us, a favour. What if it stopped being a public broadcaster with private tendencies and became instead a pure public service? The CBC's most recent annual report is titled "Challenging the Status Quo." If only it would.