THE CBC: IS IT WORTH IT?
( In which a casualty of private broadcasting, defends the Mother Corp.)
In 1974, I discovered what 24 hour daylight, was all about.
I was a 19 year old summer student, working in the high-Arctic town of Inuvik.
I hated it.
Not so much the 24 hour daylight, as the disorienting reality, of living in a corner of Canada that is really a world of its own.
One of the few things that kept me sanely connected to the Canada I knew, was CBC Radio, broadcasting on Anik1.
Every morning, “The World at Eight” would reassure me, that the isolation, tundra, and gravel roads of the North West Territories weren’t the end of the world; just the outer fringe.
The memory of this snapped to the forefront of my mind, after a phone call from long-time print journalist, and 900CHML radio host Scott Radley.
Knowing that I’d recently been bounced from a private television station that declared bankruptcy, ( blaming the collapse of a federal funding program ) Scott was wondering how I felt about the Liberals throw 675-milllion dollars at the CBC, in their latest budget. Surprisingly, I’m all for it. Not only that, but I completely agree with the decision to end the Local Programming Improvement Fund which reportedly shoveled five to eight million dollars a year, into the coffers of my former employer.
The Fund after all, was not really doing what it was originally intended to do.
Most of the money went to large private corporations like Rogers, Shaw and CTV GlobeMedia to support secondary stations in cities like Kitchener, London, and Barrie; the 14 station Global television network, and Toronto’s OMNI and CITY TV stations.
Giving millions of tax dollars to wealthy private companies for their operations, is crazier than funding the CBC. After all, those weren’t the “ Local “ stations originally envisioned by the fund, and really, there were but two independent stations left in the country; Employee-Owned CHEK TV in Victoria, and allegedly bankrupt CHCH.
Should there be a national fund for two stations? I don’t think so.
The CBC, on the other hand is required to compete, with private broadcasters, to generate 30 percent of its revenue, from paid advertising.
Advertisers want to be sure that time-shifting, streaming, digital piracy or some other technological device, will not allow content consumers to skip their expensive advertisements.
Live programming works best for that. And the champion of live programming, is sports.
TSN and SportsNet are siphons, sucking up most of the ad revenue for CTV GlobeMedia and Rogers, while the only thing that CBC has to keep them in the game, is Hockey Night in Canada.
With limited funding the CBC can’t compete with the monetary offers made by private sports channels for broadcasting rights. For years the Corp desperately cannibalized the budgets of its radio and news divisions, to hang on to the kind of programming that television advertisers demanded. The end result was failure on all fronts. The quality, variety and national reach of its programming deteriorated, and the battle for advertising revenue was lost.
And therein, lies the crux of the issue.
Do we, in Canada, see our national broadcaster as a business, or a public service?
Seventeen other western nations fund, to some degree, their public broadcasting networks. All but two of them provide more public funding, on average, than Canada does to the CBC.
Britain, France, Spain, Japan, and Australia have decided that there is no place at all for commercial advertising, on their national public service channels.
The CBC in contrast, is always partially pregnant. It can neither consummate a fertile funding relationship with Ottawa, nor deliver sufficiently healthy ad revenue to sustain life.
Many taxpayers strongly believe that the CBC should pay its own way. I am not one of them. Following that argument to its logical conclusion turns the CBC into a common commercial broadcaster indistinguishable from CTV, Rogers, or Shaw. A national public broadcaster should be free and clear of political and commercial demands, and focus on the news, information, culture and education, that concern Canadians. There is no logic in running popular American programming, to underwrite an entity that is supposed to reflect Canada, to Canadians.
In the urbanized polyglot of Southern Ontario, that may not seem to be terribly important, but it should be. Here in the media capital of Canada, we should thoroughly understand the nuances of our nation; our similarities, and especially, our differences, from coast to coast. Only a national public broadcaster can fulfill that mandate. I sometimes believe that those who find no value in the CBC, have never experienced life in the hinterlands of Canada. Having been there, and done that, I cannot help but remember those early mornings in Inuvik, eagerly awaiting the voice that would tell me that I was not alone, marooned on an island of isolation disconnected from the world; but rather I was on the vibrant frontier of a great, and wonderful nation; the second largest in the world, held together by a distinctly Canadian voice.