The Canadian Broadcasting Corp. likes to say it unites this country. But last month, it unintentionally brought together disparate elements who rarely see eye-to-eye, and now it's probably cursing its own success.
For two weeks, the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission listened to arguments from friends and foes of the CBC as it considered the broadcaster's application to renew its licence. Dozens of organizations appeared to plead their special interest, including advocates of on-screen captioning and critics of the CBC's resistance to making its operations more transparent.
But one issue proved a lightning rod: the proposal to allow advertising on its Radio 2 service. And if the complaints about it were correct, the complainants' solution – to keep Radio 2 ad-free – didn't go far enough.
The CBC needs to ban ads entirely from all of its airwaves.
Why? First, some background. Fans of CBC abhor the idea of ads on radio. At a press event held by the Friends of Canadian Broadcasting a few days before the hearing, actors Gordon Pinsent and Eric Peterson, and the bestselling author Vincent Lam, argued passionately for the need for a commercial-free space.
During the hearings, a spokesperson of a grassroots organization called I Love CBC Peterborough, radiating the sort of cultural elitism that rubs anti-CBC types (and even some of its fans) the wrong way, framed the issue this way: "Radio 2 leads us beside still waters and into green pastures," she said. "It's a comfort through the long solitary hours and a support for the necessary focus. Commercials break concentration. Ads would end Radio 2. Those who most rely on Radio 2, people doing creative work, could not listen."
The Canadian Association of Broadcasters (CAB) – that is, a lobby group whose members depend for their survival on selling airtime to concentration-breaking advertisers – predicted that their profit margins would dry up if CBC were permitted to enter the advertising market. Rick Arnish, chair of the Jim Pattison Broadcast Group, noted that CBC Radio 2 pulls in more than 2 million listeners weekly. "When you have a potential audience of 2.1 million listeners, (CBC) can go to the advertising community and say it's a one-stop shop." That, he said, could devastate stations in the smaller markets – the very "regions" that form the backbone of CBC's public support.
To be sure, many of the private companies paid tribute to the public broadcaster as it currently exists. Shaw Media called the CBC "a unique programming service within our system, with a distinct mandate."
And other private broadcasters implicitly acknowledged that the CBC provides a vital public service. The CAB said that if the public broadcaster's radio services were permitted to accept ads, "the diversity they provide is unlikely to last, as the incentive for commercial gain would likely motivate a change from their current formats to more commercial-oriented programming." In other words: there are gaps in the market that can only be served by a government-subsidized service.
The private broadcasters are right to be nervous: permitting commercials on CBC Radio will almost certainly distort the ad market, depressing ad rates and squeezing profit margins.
Which is why the private broadcasters need to band together and call for the federal government to strip the CBC of the right to sell commercial airtime on TV, and scuttle the notion of selling ads on radio, too. But with a catch: they must also insist the government increase funding of the CBC by about 40 per-cent – up to, say, $1.4-billion – and guarantee the stability of that funding for the next decade.
That's because, to some people, permitting commercials on CBC-TV was the original sin of Canadian broadcasting. The CBC, after all, was the original national broadcaster, launching a network in 1952.
When private broadcasters came along, beginning with the collection of stations in the early 1960s that became CTV, they were handicapped in their ad sales: By virtue of its government subsidy, CBC could easily undercut airtime rates. That meant CTV couldn't invest in original Canadian programming as much as it might have liked, so it turned to U.S. programming.
In a twist of fate, then, the CBC's presence likely led to more U.S. culture imported into Canada.
Fifty years later, the private broadcasters are still making the same argument. Quebecor Inc. is perhaps the CBC's fiercest large critic – through its attack dogs in both its TVA television network and its Sun Media newspaper chain – but others grumble constantly about how the public broadcaster's subsidy tilts the field, making it harder to both sell ads and buy U.S. programs.
But now the CBC's main TV services are almost entirely free of foreign programming. Another few hundred million dollars might get the network entirely out of the competition for U.S. shows; it might even clear the way for the private broadcasters to finally make their long-awaited move on the crown jewel – Saturday night NHL games.
Canada's broadcasters are masters at marketing. Imagine what they could do – for themselves, for the CBC, and for a free market – if they got behind the cause of a public broadcaster that is truly publicly funded.