A public broadcaster at a crossroads: CBC moving forward

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It’s been a tumultuous week for the CBC — 650 jobs will be lost, services and programming will be cut, RCI will be no more save for the web. But as Belinda Alzner reports, this isn’t a first for the public broadcaster. It’s time for CBC to deal with the cuts it faces, and there is no shortage of ideas to help it do so.

 

Here is a sampling of headlines pertaining to the CBC facing cuts to its funding. Only one of them was written in this decade.

How will budget cuts affect the CBC?

Death by a thousand cuts?

CBC rolls back plan to cut regional shows, CBC local news cut in half

 “CBC to cut up to 800 jobs, sell assets

CBC cancels shows, slashes 88 news jobs

The last headline ran this week, when details began to emerge of how the public broadcaster planned to deal with a $115 million budget reduction over three years.

The other headlines ran in 1984, 1999, 2000, and 2009, respectively. It seems that history is saying that dealing with a budget cut is an unfortunate way of life for Canada’s public broadcaster.

The $115 million cut that CBC is currently being forced to deal with is a 10 per cent reduction of its parliamentary appropriation. This is a larger cut than the 7 per cent reduction the Department of Heritage—under which the CBC operates—received, leading advocacy group Reimagine CBC to suggest the CBC has been specifically targeted

To put public funding of the CBC in context, as of 2009, on a per capita basis, Canadian taxpayers were paying far less for public broadcasting than every other Western counterpart, with the exception of the U.S. and New Zealand, as this infographic from The Network shows.

To break it down to its most simple level: cutting $115 million over three years will amount to Canadians saving just over $1 per year per capita.

This cut will also amount to 650 jobs being lost, original programming being slashed by 175 hours (meaning, more re-runs in prime time), CBC News Network’s Connect and Radio’s Dispatches being cancelled, advertisements on Radio 2, in-house documentary production being cut, an elimination of drama programming on Radio One and RCI service being limited to the web.

According to a release from the Canadian Media Guild, which represents CBC employees, at least 88 jobs in news will be lost, resulting in increased cross-platform integration and a shift in the way national reporters are assigned to the network.

CBC Sports Weekend will have its focus narrowed to snow and ice sports in the winter only, and the group expects that the show will eventually provide less coverage of amateur sports. The show appears on CBC Sports, which, in a call with media last week, executive vice-president of English services Kirstine Stewart said was an important part of CBC. She noted that CBC Sports gives the CBC “a margin of profitability” which they then invest in other programming. This is despite reporting expenses that far exceed any other part of CBC English TV programming, coming in at over $150 million and is amid reports that claim Don Cherry costs the broadcaster $800,000 per year (which cannot be confirmed, as CBC does not publicly release employee salaries).

The parliamentary appropriation is not the entirety of the CBC’s sources of revenue, but it does constitute the majority of it.

Heritage Minister James Moore–who pledged to “maintain or increase” CBC funding in the days following last year’s Conservative majority victory–appeared on the George Strombolopolous Tonight show on CBC on Tuesday to speak about the cuts to the broadcaster.  "Cultural organizations also have an obligation to understand that because they've received government funding, they shouldn't always receive government funding," he said, prefacing that by saying more than half of the forthcoming job cuts were already in the works internally at the CBC, regardless of the federal budget. (To which, I would ask: Why would a government make itself look like the bad guy by imposing these cuts if they were already in the works? After all, a recent poll suggests the majority of Canadians are against cuts to the CBC.)

Even if Moore’s first statement is true, it isn’t as if the CBC has enjoyed stable funding throughout its history. This infographic, put together by Friends of Canadian Broadcasting, shows federal funding of the CBC over the last dozen years.

CBC President and CEO Hubert Lacroix said last week that the government has shown no interest in updating the broadcaster’s 1991 mandate to reflect the current media climate—a fact that prompted the broadcaster to introduce its five-year plan, 2015: Everyone. Every Way last year. But though the programming and staffing changes made in response to the budget cut were made in a way that will hopefully still allow the CBC to fulfill the goals set out in this plan as well as its 1991 mandate, Lacroix told employees  that moving forward, the “plan will be closely monitored and adjusted as required,” as there are many things that may change—ad revenue, the real estate market, and/or access to the CRTC Local Programming Improvement Fund.

The CBC has survived all of the cuts it has faced in the past—the most drastic of which aren’t on the chart above, having come in the 1980s and 1990s by the Mulroney and Chretien governments—to exist today, but further cuts may push it closer to a line of commercialization that it has staggered around for years. This would make it an easy target for critics moving forward, and there are some out there now who see this as an opportunity for CBC to re-invent itself in a way that is even more ambitious than its 2015 plan.

Kai Nagata has been vocal in his criticisms and suggestions for the CBC—a former employer of his—at Reimagine CBC, The Network, and his own website. He noted that the CBC is in a unique position compared to the private broadcasters to innovate its television programming in a new media landscape, and that becoming more commercial to compete against its private counterparts is counterintuitive.

“It doesn’t, to me, make any sense to try to bend the current mandate to try to compete directly with the private broadcasters,” he said in an interview with J-Source. He continued, questioning why the CBC was pouring money into newscasts in urban markets that don’t offer anything different than the Global or CTV broadcasts. “They’re trying to do the same thing, with the same resources, same format, same delivery … It strikes me as a bit frustrating.”

“I think there’s efficient ways of filling [the CBC] mandate to bring value to Canadians and bringing something that’s different to the media marketplace that isn’t going to be provided by CTV or Global—or at least not while the status quo holds,” Nagata said.

According to a 2006 Ottawa Citizen article, found on canada.com, this commercialization of the CBC has been on Stephen Harper’s radar since he was the Leader of the Opposition. As he is quoted as saying on Nov. 29, 2004:

"English language (CBC) television has tended to become more commercial, more in direct competition with private television and more driven to use American programming to attract advertising dollars — an approach which does not appear to be successful. We should seek to reduce CBC's dependence on advertising revenue and its competition with the private sector for these valuable dollars …" 

But it seems it is now Prime Minister Harper that has further pushed the CBC toward the model that Conservative Leader Harper was so critical of. The Canadian Media Guild, which represents CBC employees, sent a memo to employees last week to address the cuts, which it says indicates a furthering of this commercialization.

“No part of the organization is spared from the effects of the cuts and we fear CBC will be less responsive and innovative in meeting the needs of Canadians,” said Marc-Philippe Laurin, president of the CBC branch of the CMG. “This budget cut, following years of cuts and underfunding, is clearly pushing the CBC further toward a commercial model.”

Movement in the direction of a commercial model has been criticized and theorized as merely giving ammo to those who wish to dismantle the CBC, as it is known, entirely. The argument being that, one day, a government could say that a public broadcaster that fails to differentiate from private broadcasters is not one worth funding. As John Doyle, The Globe and Mail’s television critic wrote in a column last week, the CBC has failed to defend itself and stand up to the repeated attacks on it. As he writes:

The thing to remember is that Our Glorious Leader doesn’t watch Canadian TV news and only cared about the CBC as a symbol. The CBC had the chance to make him, and Canada, care more, and failed. So suck it up, and move on. It’s a defeat in a war and it’s not over. Gird yourself, CBC. Get serious, do better and become worth defending.

There are no shortage of opinions being shared about how the public broadcaster can, as Doyle says, “do better.”

Reimagine CBC has been soliciting ideas from Canadians to foster a national conversation about how the CBC can better fulfill its mandate given the budget it has been allocated. The ideas are diverse and come from everyone from average Canadian citizens to editors and journalists. Reilly Yeo, managing director of OpenMedia.ca and one of the founders of the Reimagine campgain, told J-Source that they will publish a report in the fall that encapsulates this conversation.

A letter sent in February to Reimagine CBC from Bill Chambers, CBC’s vice president of brand, communications and corporate affairs on behalf of Hubert Lacroix, indicates that the broadcaster will be receptive to the suggestions that the group will put forth. “We will continue to keep an eye out for the insights that pop out of your idea factory and look forward to reading the final report,” he wrote.

Nagata has worked in television at both CBC and CTV (his public explanation for his resignation from the latter last summer sparked much debate in the media) and is now a writer-in-residence at The Tyee. His idea, submitted to Reimagine CBC, is for the broadcaster to back away from television and move more toward the beckoning light that is the web.

When I spoke with him, Nagata pointed out that television is a passive experience, and that the web begs for engagement. A move to more online journalism would work to make journalists more accountable, he says.

“You learn way faster when you’re critiquing your own process…otherwise you get into a groove,” he said. “I think a good visual journalist would get a lot out of the process of responding to and explaining, rationalizing the process of their craft.”

With the exception of sports, there is an increasing trend of programming being watched on-demand, and getting news stories via social media. This is reflected in the corporate plan summary for 2015: Everyone. Every Way which says, “many younger Canadians, particularly those under 25, have thoroughly embraced the on-demand world.” This plan also says that they expect news stories to make the on-demand shift more quickly that other programming.

As it stands now, only 2.5 per cent of CBC’s programming budget is dedicated to its digital services online. They are seeking to double that by the end of their five-year plan. But is that enough?

The Tyee’s Crawford Kilian takes Nagata’s idea even further, saying the CBC should be transformed into the "Canadian Webcasting Corporation." No more TV. No more radio. Just the good ol’ web. He writes:

Many Canadians already follow news and music online. As current technology becomes entrenched and almost universal, today's radio sets will become as quaint as manual typewriters. That big new flat-screen TV will seem pretty dull if it isn't linked in some way to the web.

Granted, much of CBC's online content isn't original; it's been created in big, expensive TV and radio facilities and simply ported over to CBC.ca. But digital technologies offer cheaper ways to produce as well as present CBC's news, documentaries and drama.

According to CBC’s 2010-2011 annual report, CBC/Radio-Canada websites received 7.5 million unique visitors per month during that fiscal year, despite such a modest investment.

Numbers like this excite Nagata, as he says it means there is a lot of potential in the web in terms of economies of scale. “The level of efficiency is actually very high and the amount of infrastructure that they’ve invested is actually very low.”

The issue for the CBC is that as it stands, nearly 20 per cent of Canadians are without broadband Internet access. And a public broadcaster that would be unable to reach that many of its customers—and taxpaying customers they are—is unacceptable. Though, the Financial Post reported last year that the CRTC expects all Canadians to have access to broadband by 2015 due to a number of projects that are currently underway. Whether that will be achieved remains to be seen.

***

To reiterate: Facing a massive budget cut is nothing new for the CBC. And it’s not a move unique to Stephen Harper, or Conservative governments, even. As Doyle so eloquently pointed out in November: Every government hates the CBC

The issue is now how they deal with the cuts. Uncertainty is abound: Will a further commercialization of the CBC reduce it to nothing more than a shadow of a private broadcaster and lead to its eventual demise? Will a drastic digital shift alienate the older generations and marginalized populations that turn to CBC for news before other broadcasters? Is the answer something else entirely?

The CBC’s mandate was last updated with the Broadcasting Act in 1991. It has not had a license renewal since 1999-2000. It was set to begin the latter process in June, but it has now been delayed indefinitely to give the broadcaster time to make plans based on the new budget. The Canadian media climate has changed drastically since then.

Perhaps a conversation about the role of public broadcasting and what Canadians want their public broadcaster to look like can help facilitate those two processes. And maybe the national conversations that are happening online at the grassroots level—at no cost to the CBC or the Canadian taxpayer, of course—are a good start.

 

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