Maybe the CBC isn't so desperate for money, after all.
On Tuesday, the public broadcaster received permission to run ads on its Radio 2 and French-language Espace Musique services, an enormously controversial move projected to bring in $6-million to $10-million a year. The CBC told the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission, as part of a licence renewal hearing, that it needed to find alternative sources of funds in the face of another $150-million cut to its federal subsidy.
Loyal listeners and competing broadcasters lined up to attack the move, but CBC president Hubert Lacroix insisted it was necessary to fulfill the vision outlined in its five-year plan known as Strategy 2015. He told the CRTC bluntly: "Every single dollar that we can raise to protect content, jobs and to ensure that we can deliver 2015 is important to us."
Or not. Because one day before it learned the radio ads were a go, it was turning away cash from other commercials.
On Wednesday, the National Post reported that a $15,000 campaign advertising the paywall of its parent company, Postmedia Network Inc., had been pulled from CBC TV stations in Regina, Windsor, and Edmonton. Apparently, an employee in the digital department of one of those stations complained that the CBC, which has been investing heavily in its own online activities, shouldn't be promoting the services of a competitor. Alan Dark, the head of CBC's revenue group, explained to the Post that, usually, "we do not run advertising for assets that we compete with."
After years of being pushed to act more like a private broadcaster, maybe CBC is just doing what its critics suggested: sharpening its elbows and guarding its turf. Except that the National Post story noted the ads are still running on stations owned by BCE Inc. and Rogers Communications Inc., even though both of those companies operate online news operations that compete with Postmedia.
In fact, CBC has run ads for other broadcasters, including spots this year for Global TV's broadcast of the Grammys.
The move is part of a new and unseemly arrogance at CBC. Two weeks ago, as the Postmedia-owned Calgary Herald rolled out its paywall, staffers at CBC Calgary began attaching the taunting hashtag #nopaywall to the tweets about the stories they were chasing. Jen Gerson, a Calgary-based reporter with the Post, tweeted that the hashtag was "pretty gross," considering the more than $1-billion or so in taxpayer money the CBC receives every year. It "kind of reminds me of baffled trust-fund kids mocking those who had to pay their way through school by working at McDonald's," she remarked on Twitter. A CBC spokesperson said Thursday that "CBC Calgary realized it was not an appropriate hashtag for them to be using and the tweets were quickly deleted." (The Globe and Mail also operates an online paywall, introduced last October.)
And it appears to represent a strategic shift in the CBC's view of the media universe. As it expanded its digital activities over the past few years – beefing up its website offerings, developing CBC Music, a free streaming music service similar to those others are trying to charge for – the broadcaster argued strenuously that there was room for all. In January, the executive vice-president of CBC's English-language services, Kirstine Stewart (who recently left to work for Twitter Canada), told me: "We've never ascribed … to this exclusivity model that we're seeing in the digital space. The more content is out there, and the more that it's available – it's kind of a self-fulfilling prophecy – the more it becomes valued and actually used."
Most damning for the CBC, its newly competitive stance blunts its own long-standing argument that it offers services that are complementary to the rest of the market, something the private broadcasters can't or won't provide. After all, if its websites – which are free to use – fear competition from for-pay services, does the CBC really believe there's much difference between itself and the private companies, beyond the economic models? (And, if not, why are we funding it?)
When the CBC begins to air ads on Radio 2 later this year, will it refuse commercials for non-CBC streaming music services? Since it is moving more into live music sponsorship, will it turn down ads for concerts? What if newspapers, which are producing more video for their online platforms, want to put ads on CBC to spread the word?
On Tuesday, the CRTC put the CBC on a very tight leash, saying that if the broadcaster hopes to keep running ads on the radio services after 2016, it will need to reapply at that point and demonstrate its activities "have not had an undue adverse effect on advertising markets." Already, its fight against private companies for market share in the digital sphere seems to be gutting its desire to play well with others.