Canada Lives Here is a passionate and detailed defence of CBC’s radio and television service.

Wade Rowland, Canada Lives Here: The Case for Public Broadcasting. Linda Leith Publishing, 2015. Paperback, 240 pages, $12.23. 

By Steven James May

Wade Rowland’s 2015 Canada Lives Here: The Case for Public Broadcasting sees the York University professor and past senior manager for Canadian television broadcasters CTV and CBC returning to the evergreen topic of CBC/Radio-Canada as public-broadcaster-on-the-ropes and what to do (if anything) about Canada’s persistent love affair with American-made media. Consistent with his 2013 book, Saving the CBC: Balancing Profit and Public Service, Rowland continues to argue (among other calls to action) that:

  •  There should be no advertising on any CBC/Radio-Canada radio or television services,
  • CBC/Radio-Canada requires increased and stable multi-year funding,
  • CBC/Radio-Canada’s president and CEO should be appointed by the CBC/Radio-Canada board of directors and
  • Additional in-house productions are needed.

Rowland also digs into CBC/Radio-Canada’s role as a public broadcaster in the digital age, arguing that the on-demand nature of Internet radio and television delivery “cannot for the foreseeable future replace public-service broadcasting as a tool for developing and enriching social solidarity.” Citing television producer Richard Nielsen’s observation that broadcasting’s strength is in its ability to form a “congregation,” Rowland notes that whatever CBC/Radio-Canada’s role might be online, it will serve to complement/enhance the public broadcaster’s existing radio and television broadcast services and not replace them.  

Echoing the work of Marshall McLuhan, Rowland notes that “historically, successive new technologies of communication do not replace earlier technologies, but supplement them. Radio did not replace the telephone, television did not replace radio, and so on.” As such, Rowland argues that “whatever the CBC does on the Web, it should maintain its over-the-air, linear broadcast capacity for the foreseeable future.”

Rowland also highlights how this understanding has seemingly escaped CBC/Radio-Canada management in cases where, for example, past Executive Vice-President of English Services Richard Stursberg suggested that anyone missing the reduced amount of classical music programming broadcast on Radio 2 post-2008 should instead stream such music (minus any commentary traditionally provided by radio hosts) from cbc.ca—a feat that remains easier said than done for commuters accessing their radio via a standard car stereo.

Canada Lives Here offers a number of suggestions in terms of how CBC/Radio-Canada might serve the public interest in the digital age. Not inconsistent with Heritage Minister Mélanie Joly’s recent suggestion on CBC Radio’s q in December 2015 that CBC/Radio-Canada strive to be more like other media outlets (Joly’s own suggestion was for CBC/Radio-Canada to be more like Vice Media), Rowland feels that CBC/Radio-Canada could (with enough funding) match the type of “cinema-level quality” programming created by the likes of HBO and Netflix.

For Rowland, the future of television is a “medium that can bring theatre and spectacle into the home” and is a programming direction “where CBC ought to be aiming. This is where the public broadcaster’s sought-after audience-as-congregation can still be found.” Furthermore, Rowland argues that radio “can now make itself even more attractive by adding video to its repertoire” thanks to the combined elements of Internet delivery, the adoption of smartphones and other mobile media devices and reduced digital production costs. 

If, as Rowland seems to suggest, television is now to be cinema and radio is now to be television, it’s pretty clear how much soul-searching a public broadcaster mandated to provide Canadian radio and television programming and delivery requires.

In terms of online access to CBC/Radio-Canada services, one of Rowland’s potentially technologically tricky suggestions is that the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) “eliminate data charges for all downloads originating with the public broadcaster” in exchange for CBC/Radio-Canada ceasing to sell advertising. This suggestion, while provocative, sounds potentially onerous on both a technological and administrative level and may clash with Canada’s Telecommunications Act.

Rowland concludes Canada Live Here with a suggestion that the CRTC impose a “levy of five to seven per cent on the revenues of Bell, Rogers, Shaw, Telus and Quebecor” to be directed to CBC/Radio-Canada in lieu of the public broadcaster selling advertising to supplement its historically insufficient annual federal allocations. 

Rowland wisely predicts that these private sector companies would likely pass on such a levy to their subscribers as a fee (just as they did under the discontinued Local Programming Improvement Fund) and that subscribers would end up paying the levy as part of their monthly television/telecom bills.

It’s unclear how the proposed subscriber fee might jibe with Canada’s new CRTC-mandated skinny basic and à la carte television regulation that requires cable, satellite and IPTV providers (known as Broadcast Distribution Undertakings) to provide their TV subscribers with the option of basic TV service capped at $25 a month and/or to pick and pay for individual TV channels. Such a fee would, if implemented, see CBC/Radio-Canada regain a revenue stream akin to Canada’s long lost annual radio receiver licence fee and TV set excise tax.

This most recent book by Rowland on the topic of CBC/Radio-Canada succeeds at cutting through the hype of digital media while avoiding excessive romanticizing of the senior service’s past. The stated aim of Canada Lives Here is to make a case for the protection and rejuvenation of Canada’s public broadcaster, and Rowland offers up a passionate and detailed defence of the radio and television service.

Steven James May is a PhD Candidate (ABD) in Communication and Culture at Ryerson and York Universities. He is also a member of Humber College’s School of Media Studies & Information Technology faculty. May’s Twitter handle is @stevenjmay.