Wade Rowland teaches in the Communication Studies program at York University. His latest book is Saving the CBC: Balancing Profit and Public Interest.
If one can overlook for a moment the melancholy reality of 657 full-time employees soon to be out of work, CBC president Hubert Lacroix's announcement of the latest round of cutbacks at the public broadcaster leaves room for optimism.
Many of those job losses will come in the areas of sports (thanks to the Rogers/NHL deal), and sales and marketing, two mutually-dependent wings of the CBC that are at the heart of its current existential crisis. In announcing that the CBC would no longer be bidding for rights to any professional sports, Mr. Lacroix was simply fulfilling a necessary condition for the corporation's survival.
Pro sport, as Mr. Lacroix admitted, has long been bleeding the CBC's resources. In recent years, NHL hockey has been a net money loser, and the marketing department that counted on it for at least a third of its ad sales (and related bonuses) can now be cut down to size and function more appropriate to a public service broadcaster.
As long as CBC was saddled with pro hockey, it was unable even to consider taking the next essential step to its survival – getting out of advertising altogether so that it can position itself on television as being as distinctive and necessary as it is on radio.
In what was otherwise a sad, pro forma exercise – "I hate doing this," he said more than once – Mr. Lacroix made some of us sit up and take notice toward the very end of the 90-minute webcast, by musing about how that next step might be achieved.
He was responding to a questioner who asked, since ad revenue was tanking, whether CBC would consider adopting the American PBS model of soliciting funds from private and corporate to supplement its Parliamentary appropriation. He answered "no," arguing that donor funding was no more predictable or reliable than advertising. And it carried with it possible conflicts of interest, a problem PBS has had to deal with where news and documentaries are concerned. Good answer.
And then he said this: "We're looking right now at $230-$240-million in ad revenues and I'm not ready to put that in the wastepaper basket until somebody gives me stable funding, in some way…. In the UK they have a license fee every time you (buy) a television or are hooked up (to cable) – imagine if in Canada the BDU's decided to give us three or four or five per cent of whatever bottom line number, and they committed to that over years, maybe that could be something."
BDU's are broadcast distribution undertakings – cable and satellite television providers and, increasingly, Internet providers down whose pipes flow a multitude of radio stations and TV services like Netflix. Rogers, Bell, Shaw and Quebecor are the biggest, and their bottom line numbers are nothing short of awesome: well over $40-billion in combined telecom and cable/satellite television delivery revenues.
Warming to his subject, Mr. Lacroix reiterated that CBC is not at this time ready to forego advertising revenue, adding "if we were (ready) it would have to be replaced by something that's predictable, stable, and…"
At this point Heather Conway, executive VP for English language programming, interrupted him: "…and doesn't involve me handing out tote bags. It's bad television."
"Absolutely," Mr. Lacroix affirmed, to laughter.
So as I read it, CBC's senior management is on the record in four very positive ways:
– In publicly acknowledging that the advertising model no longer works in the new world of specialty cable channels, subscription services and Internet-based services like Netflix;
– In acknowledging that sports was an albatross that was largely responsible for the public network's near-fatal advertising addiction;
– In asserting that a PBS-style, pledge-drive model is not an option for CBC;
– And finally, and most surprisingly, by acknowledging in public that a funding option that might well work is a small levy on the breathtaking profits of the big cable and satellite providers.
Like a drug addict who's hit bottom and faces a choice between reform or extinction, CBC management has had to confront the fact that, in order to fulfill its obligation to provide distinctive programming of the highest quality, it must fundamentally rethink its business plan. Perhaps Thursday's town hall was a sign that it has at long last come to this realization, and is thinking in constructive ways.