Is CBC/Radio-Canada planning to return to advertising on their channels to make ends meet? We'll have to wait until April 4 to find out, when CBC plans to announce how it will deal with the 10 per cent cut that was handed to it in last week's federal budget, but as Anne Caroline Desplanques reports, signs seem to point to yes. (This piece was translated from ProjetJ by Rhiannon Russell.)

This story was originally posted on March 30 on ProjetJ. It was written by the site’s editor-in-chief Anne Caroline Desplanques and translated by Rhiannon Russell. With files from Belinda Alzner.

CBC/Radio-Canada:  Return of ads to radio?

See also: The future of CBC/Radio-Canada: awaiting the budget

The federal budget unveiled last week confirmed what’s been in the air for weeks: the budget for CBC/Radio-Canada will shrink by just over 10 per cent over the next three years. To absorb the cost, professor Pierre C. Bélanger of the University of Ottawa wouldn’t be surprised if the publicly-funded network reintroduced radio advertising. “I think that, to address this shortfall, Radio-Canada will become more aggressive through advertising revenue,” he told ProjetJ.

Though ads disappeared from public radio in Canada in 1974, “the context is no longer the same,” says Bélanger, emphasizing that two minutes of sponsorship per hour would save a lot of jobs. Estimating that this budget cuts will create nearly 700 layoffs in the country over the next three years, the Syndicat des communications de Radio-Canada(SCRC) itself admits that a return of advertising on radio is a possibility, reports Le Devoir. For the SCRC, it’s a threat, but for Bélanger it would be a lesser evil.

We’ll have to wait until April 4 – the date the directors of CBC/Radio-Canada will meet with their employees to inform them of ways to cope with these new cuts – to know the network’s future plans. But meanwhile, Bélanger, who’s also a former CBC/Radio-Canada executive, is taking note of the signs pointing towards advertising, including a restructuring of the Revenue Group, announced a day before the budget.

On March 28, the vice-president of French services, Louis Lalande, announced that Robert Trempe – who was behind the Revenue Group’s integration of the sale of content, content distribution, and advertising – would become its strategic advisor of income. “This isn’t a completely innocent gesture. They’re placing pawns,” says Bélanger.

In recent weeks, the self-promotional segments aired on the show C’est bien meilleur le matin in Montreal have also been moved from their usual half-hour timeslot (just before the news) to timeslots between interviews. In an email addressed to Nathalie Collard of La Presse in January, La Première Chaîne explained that this change was to ensure “greater fluidity.” But Bélanger sees instead openings for advertising. “They’re trying to change listener habits, to get him used to pauses at certain times.”

Would advertising make listeners flee?

As a specialist in media companies’ business plans, he explains that advertising on public radio could take the form of prestige sponsorship like “This show is brought to you by…” In this case, CBC/Radio-Canada would not be the only broadcaster to haggle over its airtime. Radio France, for example, broadcasts general interest messages and advertising on France Inter, France Info, and France Bleu. Its terms and responsibilities authorize 30 minutes of advertising daily.

Would a similar tactic make listeners flee Canada’s public network? A recent joint study by the polling firms Mediamonitor and Arbitron found that no, it wouldn’t.  Contrary to popular belief, only 1 per cent of talk radio listeners and 12 per cent of music radio listeners change the station during ads, according to the analysis that was conducted in the U.S.—where listeners hear an average of 8.9 minutes of advertising per hour.

CBC/Radio-Canada also published a study recently in favour of advertising. According to the document Why Advertising on CBC/Radio-Canada is Good Public Policy, “audience success and programming choices by public broadcasters are not directly linked to the presence of advertising. CBC Radio’s ability to perform well in audience terms is due more to its strong programming strategies and consistent budget support than the absence of on-air advertising,” the report states. This document was prepared for the public network in 2011 by Nordicity.

On this note, Bélanger, who headed the department of new media at CBC/Radio-Canada from 1997 to 2001, emphasizes that the public company initially chose not to run ads on its websites to distinguish itself from other online platforms. Nevertheless, it reconsidered doing so in 2000 without affecting its audience and the quality of content.

Digital-only local news

He is also confident that this budget cut won’t prevent CBC/Radio-Canada from investing more in the Internet in the coming years, as foreseen in its five-year strategic plan 2015: Everyone. Every way.

“While none of the friends of CBC/Radio-Canada are happy today, including myself, there’s still a billion dollars in the till. This budget is an unfortunate opportunity to reinvent the company and confirm the legitimacy of the five-year strategic plan. This is not an improvised plan. There is a very clear emphasis placed on new technologies and regions. They’ll go in that direction,” he predicts.

“They’re going to work even more on new technologies instead of transmission towers. I think that there are significant savings to be done there and that digital will contribute to the proliferation of regional services,” he continues.  CBC is already launching an all-digital experience in Hamilton: a site for local information that’s not supported by radio or television. The five journalists hired there will produce multimedia content that’s broadcast locally, but also on other platforms across the country when the subjects are suitable.

A former Parliament correspondent for CTV in Quebec, now involved with the group Reimagine CBC, journalist Kai Nagata is a fan of the all-digital shift, particularly in areas where private networks dominate. In these markets, the public network doesn’t attempt to differentiate itself by offering the best journalism; on the contrary, it tries to do the same thing as private networks, but fails to attract as large an audience, he noted in an interview with J-Source’s Belinda Alzner. In this context, “Why don’t you take these massive resources and try offering something of value that your private competitors don’t already offer?” he asks.*

 

Correction: Kai Nagata's quote was incorrectly translated. We regret the error.