Several years ago, I by chance encountered a backbench member of Parliament who asked in a very straightforward fashion why we at the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) didn’t “do something” about CBC.
Mildly startled, I replied that if something was to be “done” about CBC, Parliament should just go ahead and do it.
But no one ever really does anything about CBC other than to either make it anxious about its funding, or make it happy about its funding and hoping that it will continue. These days, it’s mostly the latter.
The exception appears to be the commercial English-language TV world, where viewership of its evening news broadcast The National has plummeted. Alarmed reports abound that it has considered boosting primetime ratings through some form of programming based on serial murderer and rapist Paul Bernardo.
Elsewhere, things are going swimmingly. The commercial-free radio – to which I often listen for close to four hours a day – maintains sound ratings around its excellent locally-focused, apolitical and informative morning and afternoon drive shows.
In between, daytime programming is somewhat more social-agenda-driven, while the six o’clock news followed by As It Happens generally segues into an evening of programming that ranges from 21st-century sexual exclusion angst to pining for the halcyon days of the nation’s Spanish Civil War veterans and radicals.
Notwithstanding my unexplainable personal fascination with the content, this fetishizing of dreamy 1930s activism leads many conservative-minded people to call for an end to CBC.
But never mind that. Very few of us listen to evening radio.
Online is where it’s at. There, CBC/Radio Canada goes toe to toe with traditional broadcasters and newspapers fighting for readers, viewers, listeners and, most of all, dollars. That’s where it sows. And that’s where it reaps.
And that’s where, if something needs to be “done” about CBC – which, in both the online and television worlds, is a full-blown commercial operator – it should be done.
The nation’s television broadcasting world has forever been distorted by the existence of a publicly-funded entity such as CBC that competes not only for viewers but for advertising income. It has always been entirely unfair to the private sector that its own tax dollars are used to compete against it.
Publicly-funded radio may compete with the private sector for listeners but never for money.
About 40 per cent of Canada’s advertising dollars are spent online, making that medium by far the most dominant, followed by TV a good 10 points behind, then radio and newspapers. That means that by employing an aggressive online strategy, CBC now competes for a share of about 70 per cent of the advertising dollars at play in the market.
So newspapers, radio and other Internet platforms are now, in addition to television companies, paying taxes that subsidize their competition to their detriment.
Meanwhile, the newspaper industry queues shabbily at the public trough, sheepishly awaiting a $600-million federal handout from those it’s expected to report upon with neither fear nor favour, knowing that in doing so it has forever undermined the credibility of each and every one of its journalists.
As Andrew Coyne, one of the few commentators willing to risk his employer’s or the government’s wrath (see fear and favour above) stated recently:
“So far as we were relieved of the obligation to find willing readers, we would become even more pompous and self-absorbed than we are already. As the beneficiaries of a bailout ourselves, we could never again criticize any other industry seeking to be rescued from its own mistakes. God knows we would be in no position to lecture anybody on conflict of interest.”
So get CBC out of the advertising business on all of its platforms. Make its content available to other media for free within Canada so they can reap some of the investment created by their tax dollars.
That may do little to appease those who dislike CBC’s politics, but it will go a long way to helping ensure there’s room for other voices in the marketplace that don’t have to depend on the party in power for their existence.
Peter Menzies is a former newspaper publisher and vice-chair of the CRTC, and advises tech companies on regulatory policy (the views here are his own).