The head of the CBC says it is preparing to end traditional TV and radio broadcasts and move completely digital, as audiences shift to streaming, but the move is unlikely to happen over the next decade.
In an interview with The Globe and Mail, Catherine Tait, president and CEO of the CBC, said the broadcaster is eventually preparing to shift all its content to online-only “in order to remain relevant.”
She said more and more Canadians are moving to streaming while the CBC is “sitting here loyally broadcasting over the airwaves.“
“If we’re going to be audience first we have to be digital first,” she said. “We get up every day and say, ‘What do our audiences want, and where are they?’ And they’re on digital in increasing numbers. And so if we are not there we’re no longer relevant.”
She also criticized the Conservatives’ call to defund the CBC, calling it a “slogan,” and expressed hope that Heritage Minister Pablo Rodriguez would scrap a Senate amendment banning the CBC from accepting sponsored content.
Ms. Tait said “the core audience for television is 55 plus, or like 65 plus, so young people and diverse newcomers to Canada … they’re online.”
Her comments followed the disclosure in December by Tim Davie, director-general of the BBC, that Britain’s public broadcaster is preparing to become an online-only service in the next decade.
Ms. Tait said in Canada the shift is unlikely to happen so soon as it requires “broadband ubiquity” to ensure that all Canadians – regardless of where they live or their socioeconomic status – have good enough internet to stream programs and films.
Ms. Tait hit back at the Conservative campaign to strip the CBC of public subsidy, saying its “defund the CBC” campaign was a tactic to solicit donations.
“They have an online fundraising campaign, which very specifically says ‘We’ll save you a billion dollars, please send in $20.’ ” In 2022, the CBC received $1.24-billion from the government – 66 per cent of CBC/Radio-Canada’s funding.
She accused Tory Leader Pierre Poilievre of inciting attacks on the broadcaster, saying, “There’s a lot of CBC bashing going on – somewhat stoked by the Leader of the Opposition.”
“I think they feel that CBC is a mouthpiece for the Liberal government,” she said.
On Friday, answering questions from reporters in the House of Commons about gun control, Mr. Poilievre accused a CBC journalist of trying to help the Prime Minister.
Ms. Tait said CBC/Radio-Canada is working with the same budget as 30 years ago – “so in real dollars, a third less.”
“Thirty years ago we did linear television and linear radio. And today we do those two things plus streaming Gem, plus streaming radio, plus the digital platforms that we do,” she said. “So we have completely tripled our output, yet we’re doing it with less money.”
As well as CBC Gem, which includes drama, it also has CBC Listen, which streams audio; CBC News Explore; ICI TOU.TV (Radio-Canada’s video streaming service); and Radio-Canada OHdio, a French-language audio streaming service.
“We don’t want to drag Canadians to digital. They are dragging us,” said Ms. Tait, who, before taking the top job at the CBC, set up the digital content provider iThentic. “We saw it in the pandemic, subscriptions to streaming go way up and those people don’t go back to conventional television.”
The Broadcasting Act specifies that the CBC should “provide radio and television services” so such a change may also require a change to the act.
“We are the only broadcaster in the system that has the obligation to serve all Canadians,” she said. “So that means rural audiences that may only have their television – we are not going to abandon them.”
She said even now some shows do better on digital platforms. She urged producers who pitch to the CBC, who want to “pitch TV shows,” to think differently and perhaps “pitch a podcast” instead.
Ms. Tait said the CBC had a “big win” at last year’s renewal of its broadcast licence by the regulator, the Canadian Radio-television and Communications Commission, when it came to recognizing Canadian content on the CBC’s digital arm.
“The CRTC for the first time in history said we’ll count your Canadian content obligations on your streaming platform,” she said.
She said she is watching closely this week whether Mr. Rodriguez accepts a Senate amendment to Bill C-11, which could affect CBC revenue.
The amendment said the CBC cannot develop or broadcast an “advertisement or announcement on behalf of an advertiser that is designed to resemble journalistic programming.”
The CBC already has paid content on some digital pages, though not on national news, and it is labelled as such.
Ms. Tait said the Senate’s amendment on CBC’s paid content was “odd” because Bill C-11 is “not the place for that conversation.”
“Do I think there should be a conversation about the financial model of the public broadcaster? Of course,” she said. “But that’s not the venue.”