We spoke to the York University communication studies professor and former CBC manager about the report and his upcoming book on the history of public broadcasting in Canada.
By Chantal Braganza, Associate Editor
On July 20, the Standing Senate Committee on Transport and Communications released a summative report on the future of the CBC, with 22 recommendations distilled from two years of hearings from experts and top executives at the public broadcaster.
In the days since, the report has been described by the Canadian Media Guild, the CBC itself and even a member of the committee that produced the report as underwhelming, and in the case of Friends of Canadian Broadcasting, as outright hostile to the CBC.
We spoke with York University communication studies professor and former CBC manager Wade Rowland about the report and his upcoming book on the history of public broadcasting in Canada.
J-Source: Your 2013 book, How to Save the CBC, argues that we had about two years to find a way to make the CBC viable. We’re coming up on that deadline: how much progress have we made in discussing possible solutions?
Rowland: I think among the people I’m in communication with outside the CBC, there’s a strong consensus around what needs to be done that didn’t exist before…people ambivalent about the issue of advertising and financing and so on, and so they’ve solidified their positions to a degree of unanimity.
But at the CBC itself, I have no idea. I’ve worked there as a manager, and it’s opaque. It’s impossible as an outsider to have any idea of what’s gong on there. I know a lot of people who’ve retired from the CBC who have no idea what’s going on.
There’s this culture of “Don’t talk to outsiders,” and it comes from this culture of always being under siege. They’re their own enemies in that sense.
J-Source: Speaking of governance: about half of the 22 recommendations in the newly released Senate Committee report on the CBC relate to it. Does governance merit that kind of space in the report?
Rowland: I would have cheered if they got anything right. But what they’ve done is kept the board of directors appointed by the prime minister. And it’s the board of directors that appoints the president. So what you have effectively is a state broadcaster.
It’s crazy—it’s staggering to look at that report and consider all the hearings, all the money spent on travelling to produce this. I would have given a student in a public broadcasting course a C for that, because it’s not thought through.
I also think it’s important to keep the distinction between governance and management. Governance is everything from the board of directors and up; management is from the board of directors and down.
I don’t know which recommendation number it was, but where the report talks about CBC management keeping a tighter rein on their employees, bringing to mind the Ghomeshi scandal and all that. These things come and go, you can’t control human nature, but you can control how well management responds to it. I think management really is culpable in not keeping a tighter rein on people to make sure they’re not crossing the line.
J-Source: Only one of the recommendations looks at changes in external, non-CBC policy as a possible aid: updating the 1991 Broadcasting Act. Do you think there are others?
Rowland: It’s amusing that they tell the CBC to look for alternative sources of funding. That’s the government’s job—the very thing that they needed to be looking at during these hearings.
What are they thinking about? That’s what they were there to study. Don’t just pass it off to the CBC.
There’s a strong consensus, for example, on the notion of taxing the BDUs [Broadcast Distribution Undertakings] or putting a levy on BDUs. That would put us somewhere within shouting distance—depending on what the tax or levy is—to think about producing world-class TV programming and to produce radio broadcasting that fills 100 per cent of the day, instead of just part of the day.
I’m amazed that they didn’t look at some of those suggestions. Another recommendation is: What’s the argument for and against [commercial] ads? For me, the arguments against it are overwhelming.
J-Source: Having followed the hearings for this committee over the past two years, what’s your impression of what witnesses suggested, and what’s been recommended in the end?
Rowland: I have trouble taking the report seriously. To me it seems like a political document.
Art Eggleton’s minority report shows the contrast between someone who paid attention to the submissions and hearings at the committee’s meetings and the group who didn’t. It’s just sad; it’s a waste of time and money at a time when the CBC really could have used support.
They should talk about stable financing. [Eggleton’s report] discusses a five-year memorandum of understanding where the CBC gets funding for the next five years.
That sort of thing would have been useful coming from the senate, but there is no such recommendation there.
To me, it’s support for the status quo. Which is: starving the CBC and making it more into a state broadcaster rather than less. It’s the kind of thing you would expect from an ideologically bound inquiry, which is what this was.
J-Source: You have a second book on public broadcasting in Canada coming out in August called Canada Lives Here. Could you tell us more about it?
Rowland: In doing publicity and writing stuff for the support of the last book, which was really kind of an essay, it became clear to me that it’s not just students at university who really have no clue about public broadcasters in general. What is the purpose of a public broadcaster? Why should it exist in a capitalist society? Why should it exist when we don’t have the same thing in newspapers?
I wanted to go through the history of it, how public broadcasting evolved in Canada and what the future of it could be as we move forward. I think the need for quote-unquote public broadcasting is greater in the digital environment than it ever used to be.
People talk about the plethora of choice there is, but it’s all commercial choice. It’s all driven by ratings and page views, the way commercial TV was driven by ratings. There’s still the need for non-commercial production. It’s so hard to find what’s good. You can’t just switch to channel 6 and know you’re going to get a certain kind of noncommercial production that’s free of vested interest.
One of the strengths the CBC has is it’s such a well-known brand; they need to leverage that on the Internet, and they need to keep turning out great content…the kind you see on Radio One, but don’t see elsewhere much anymore.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.