The CBC: Past, Present and Future

By Tony Manera

cbc

This article addresses four key aspects of the CBC’s past, present and future. It begins with the historical rationale for the creation of the CBC by Parliament in 1936, followed by arguments for the continuing validity of that rationale in today’s media environment. The challenges faced by the CBC are then broadly outlined, together with some ideas to more fully realize the potential of this unique national institution.

HISTORICAL RATIONALE FOR THE CBC

During its early days, Canadian broadcasting was dominated by American radio stations transmitting near the border with Canada. The impetus towards the establishment of a Canadian broadcasting system came from the desire to provide a Canadian counter balance to that predominantly US programming presence. As far back as 1932, then Prime Minister R.B Bennett vowed that “We will show the States that Canada is no appendage.” He went on to add that “properly employed, the radio can be made a most effective instrument in nation building.” Under his leadership, The Canadian Radio Broadcasting Commission was established in 1932.

This was followed by the creation of the CBC in 1936, with support from all political parties in the House of Commons. It took great political courage to launch this enterprise in the middle of the Great Depression. MacKenzie King was Prime Minister at the time.

The vision articulated by both prime ministers resonated with Canadians who did not want to be culturally assimilated by the US. This was especially important to anglophones, who enjoyed access to a vast quantity of American radio programming in their own language. In a similar vein, francophone Canadians wanted to be able to pursue their distinctive French language cultural aspirations.

But there was more to the idea of Canadian broadcasting than a mere desire to avoid American cultural domination. Fierce battles were fought over whether the air waves should be reserved for public service or become a vehicle to generate profits through advertising. The most articulate Canadian spokesman against the latter option was Graham Spry, who pointed out that, in the world of commercial broadcasting, “The primary consideration of the broadcaster, indeed, is not the listener who hears, but the advertiser who pays.” This concern was echoed in 1932, when a Parliamentary Committee recommended that advertising should take up no more than 5% of program time.

Commercial broadcasters were interested in radio because of its profit making potential. And it wasn’t just the Canadian Graham Spry who decried the exploitation of the medium for profit. The American radio pioneer Dr. Lee de Forest, in a written statement to the Parliamentary Committee, said that radio was being debased by advertising, adding “We look to you in Canada to lead radio in North America out of the morass in which it has pitiably sunk. May Canada fulfil my early dream.”

So, controversy about broadcasting policy is nothing new. Opposition to the CBC as a publicly subsidized broadcaster has been ongoing from its inception. It comes in part from individuals who genuinely believe that “government does best that which governs least,” an idea often attributed to US president Thomas Jefferson. Advocates of this philosophy oppose any government role in cultural matters.

But there is a different perspective that should also be considered. Funding support of culture is the foundation of great civilizations, and cultural development cannot be left entirely to market forces. This view was articulated by Max Frankel, former executive director of the New York Times, when he pointed out that “without government subsidy and tax supported philanthropy, there would be no great universities, no great libraries, no great museums, no grand opera or basic science.”

Antagonism to the CBC has come from some, though not all, private broadcasters. The motivation is obvious. Less CBC, more profits for the commercial sector. The arguments have been specious, self-serving, but nevertheless enduring.

IS PUBLIC BROADCASTING STILL RELEVANT?

Many changes have occurred since the CBC was created. Whether Canadian public broadcasting is still relevant is a valid question.

To properly address the issue, one must begin with the current CBC mandate, which was last revised by Parliament in 1991. It was then anticipated that technological changes would revolutionize broadcasting. As a result, the Broadcasting Act amendments were designed to be “technologically neutral.” This intent is reflected in the Act’s stipulation that “the CBC should make its services available throughout Canada by the most appropriate and efficient means and as resources become available for the purpose.”

The resulting legislation requires the CBC to provide a wide range of predominantly and distinctively Canadian programming that informs, enlightens and entertains. The CBC is also expected to reflect the different regions of Canada. Its programming must contribute to national consciousness and identity.

The economics of broadcasting are such that the lofty aims originally articulated by Prime Minister R.B. Bennett and affirmed in the 1991 Broadcasting Act, can only be achieved with a state-funded “public” broadcaster. This conclusion has been reached by all of the Royal Commissions and Parliamentary Committees that have reviewed the role of the CBC since its inception.

One of the more recent reviews was conducted by the Parliamentary Committee on Canadian Heritage in 2007. It received submissions from individuals and groups representing a broad cross section of Canadian society. The voices of the cultural community, the motion picture industry, various educational institutions, government agencies, commercial media organizations, francophone and aboriginal associations, were heard. The breadth and depth of support for the CBC was clearly demonstrated.

The result of these hearings was unequivocal. In its 2008 report: Defining Distinctiveness in the Changing Media Landscape, the committee confirmed the CBC’s role as an institution at the centre of cultural, political, social and economic life in Canada. This conclusion was unanimous, with no dissent by any member of the committee.

It is now 2015 and technology continues to reshape the way content is produced, transmitted and received. Broadcasters, both private and public, are trying to adjust to the new environment. But ultimately, content is what matters. And content is driven by the purpose of its creators. Is it nation building or selling merchandise? For the CBC, it is the former. For commercial broadcasters, it is the latter. If nation building is no longer an important objective, then the CBC is unnecessary.

That is the central question that needs to be addressed. To answer it, we must ask how it is that Canada exists at all. Our prosperity depends on trade. Trade flows mostly north to south and back. From an economic perspective, it would make more sense for Canada to unite with the US. The case for such a merger has been made in a recently published book by Diane Francis: “Why Canada and America should become one country.” The benefits are obvious. No more worrying about exchange rates when travelling, no more disputes about softwood lumber, no need for presidential approval of pipelines, no long lines at border crossings and so on so forth.

And yet, neither Canadians nor Americans seem to want a merger. We generally get along, despite the occasional hiccup. We value our separate identity and, by all accounts, wish to maintain it. So it would seem that nation building still matters.

And just what is nation building? It is definitely not a commercial objective. It is a consequence of the collective will of a country to forge its own identity and place in the world. Canada, because of its proximity to the US, must work harder to realize this goal than other countries. We are thinly populated, with 3.4 persons per square kilometre. We have two official languages and numerous aboriginal languages and cultures. Over 20% of our population is foreign born. There are more than 200 ethnic groups, 13 of which exceed the one million mark. Immigration is expected to be the key driver of population growth over the next 50 years. Those immigrants will need all the help they can get to become full participants in Canadian life.

It’s a big challenge to hold this nation of ours together. Market forces alone can’t do it. We need an institution such as the CBC to act as a form of cultural glue that, however imperfectly, binds us together.

CHALLENGES FACED BY THE CBC

Funding is by far the biggest problem faced by the CBC. There are also governance, accountability and independence issues, all of which I have addressed elsewhere. The problem, of course, is that governments have been shaping cultural policy not directly, by reviewing, and if necessary, changing the mandate established by Parliament, but indirectly, through funding reductions. The mandate should be driving funding decisions. Instead, the opposite has been happening.

The inflation adjusted parliamentary appropriation to the CBC has declined over the past thirty years by about 50%. In its 2008 report mentioned earlier, the Parliamentary Committee recommended annual funding of $40 per capita. Instead, Parliament has kept cutting the CBC appropriation, without regard for the consequences. It now sits well below $29 per capita. This is a relatively small taxpayer contribution, especially when one takes into account its multiplier effect on the economy. Other countries, much smaller in area than Canada, with a more homogeneous population, invest substantially more in their public broadcasters than we do.

The cumulative effect of all these budget cuts has led to a significant decline in the number of high production value programs, more repeats, and substantial losses of human talent. The latter is particularly worrying, since it is people who produce content for viewers and listeners. It is in direct contravention of the Broadcasting Act’s requirement that the CBC “contribute to the development of Canadian talent and culture”. Significant television audience share has been lost, in part due to the proliferation of new channels, but also because of the negative impact on programming caused by budget reductions.

Parliamentary committees have, from time to time, been tasked with finding alternative sources of funding for the CBC. A variety of schemes have been looked at, but none has been found to be viable. In 1994, for example, the federal government made a commitment to a wide-ranging investigation of new sources of revenue to supplement the CBC’s parliamentary appropriation. Nothing ever materialized. More recently, in its 2015 Report, the Senate Committee on Transportation and Communications told the CBC to explore alternative sources of revenue in consultation with the Government of Canada. Why did the Committee itself not explore such alternative sources? It worked for eighteen months on the problem, and heard from many witnesses. If such sources existed, surely the Committee would have found them. And why ask the CBC to do it? The CBC, after all, is a creature of Parliament. Does it not follow that the responsibility for deciding how the CBC is funded belongs to Parliament?

It’s important to point out that Canadian private broadcasters also receive valuable support from taxpayers. This is because, for them to survive in the presence of their much larger American competitors, some combination of protection and regulation is necessary. The restriction on foreign ownership is one example. Another is Section 19 of the Income Tax Act, which disallows tax deductibility of advertising on foreign media primarily directed to a Canadian market. Then there are expenditure relief measures, in the form of production tax credits and access to the Canadian Media Fund, which benefit both the CBC and private broadcasters. Finally, we have simulcasting (the replacement by Canadian broadcasters of American commercials with their own on programs for which they have bought the Canadian rights.) The combined value of these benefits to private broadcasting entities has been estimated at about $1 billion per year, which is greater than the CBC’s current parliamentary appropriation, yet their obligations to offer Canadian programming and to serve minority audiences are far below those of the CBC.

OPTIONS FOR MEETING CBC’S CHALLENGES

Before looking at options for the future, it is important to note what already has been done.

Over the past several years, the CBC has become more efficient, making better use of its human and physical resources. Some of the CBC’s talent pool, for example, instead of being segregated in narrow silos, is now available across several platforms. These adjustments have been painful at times, but necessary.

Another change has been an increased reliance on commercial advertising, which is disturbing and irritating to the viewer, but also influences the types of programs that are offered. The result is that the enlightening component of the CBC’s mandate is compromised by the need to reach audiences that will generate advertising revenue. In 1994, the Minister of Canadian Heritage, in recognition of this fact, expressed the government’s desire for the CBC to reduce its dependence on commercial revenue. The year after, the government decided to make such deep cuts to the CBC’s appropriation that the corporation had no option but to add even more commercials to its schedule. Today, commercials on the CBC can take up to 30% of program time.

The excessive dependence on advertising revenue results in a CBC that is not sufficiently distinctive from its commercial counterparts. And, while many public broadcasting supporters have advocated a totally commercial free CBC, my own view is that the CBC could be sufficiently distinctive by maintaining a hard cap of four minutes of advertising per hour on television. The current ban on commercials in children’s programming should be maintained and extended to all information programming, as well as to radio. This cannot be achieved within current funding levels.

Many people express the view that the CBC should not try to be all things to all people. While this certainly makes sense, the fact remains that all taxpayers pay for the CBC. This suggests that it should offer something of interest to most Canadians. According to a survey conducted in 2012/2013, the CBC still manages to achieve this objective. Its unduplicated reach of viewers and listeners, through conventional and web-based platforms, exceeded 93% in French and 85% in English.

Looking forward, it’s obvious that technological developments will continue to influence how content is delivered to users. The CBC should take full advantage of new web based platforms to enlarge the reach of its audiences and to become more efficient where there are opportunities to do so. But let’s not be under any illusion that these measures will be sufficient. The CBC, as long as its funding continues to decline, will have to make even more difficult decisions than it has until now.

Radio is a less costly medium than television. It is mobile and has traditionally enjoyed a loyal audience. There may be some opportunities to enhance radio programming by shifting resources from television to radio. This would have consequences, of course, but so would all other options. There is no legislated requirement for the CBC to provide local services, hence it could withdraw from this aspect of its news operations on television, especially where the private sector has an adequate presence. Local news would still be covered on radio. Any savings could be used to boost regional, national and international coverage.

The hard reality is that there are no good options for the CBC, as long as the current trend of reduced funding continues. It will be forced to rely on commercial advertising even more than it does now, offering programs that are not sufficiently distinctive from those available on commercial stations. It may have to cancel programming aimed at minority audiences (children’s programs, French language services outside Quebec, amateur sports, and so on.) It may have to import more US programming, which can be purchased at a fraction of the cost of producing original Canadian content and can usually, though not always, cover its costs through advertising. All of these options are in direct contradiction to the objectives set out by Parliament in the CBC’s mandate. Hence, the CBC would become just another commercial broadcaster. The vision of Prime Ministers Bennett and Mackenzie King will have been erased.

It’s important to point out that the objectives set out by Parliament for the CBC are independent of the platform used to achieve them. Whether it’s over the air transmission, or delivery through cable, by satellite or through Internet streaming, if we want to advance the cause of nation building, then we have to ensure that there is sufficient content that reflects the Canadian reality and that such content be available to the largest possible number of people. We have an institution dedicated to this objective, the CBC. We should be strengthening it, not weakening it. Yet, successive governments seem determined to dismantle it.

The CBC currently includes a variety of performance measures in its Annual Report, which is accessible on the CBC website. These indicators are directly linked to the CBC’s mandate, and cover a broad range of quantitative (share and reach) and qualitative measures. In many cases, five-year comparisons are shown, along with management comments. With some exceptions, CBC audiences (in both official languages) give rankings in the 7-8 range (out of 10), which is commendable when one considers the financial constraints under which it must operate. The overall sense that one gets by looking at these indicators is that audiences perceive CBC programming to be informative, enlightening, entertaining, original, innovative, high quality, Canadian and different from what is available on other channels. Nevertheless, there is room for improvement, and a close examination of these indicators points to areas, such as regional reflection, where performance is perceived as relatively weak.

It would be helpful if this section of the CBC website were easier to find. It’s as if the CBC is trying to hide it! And, while the source of the data is shown (TNS Canadian Facts,) some form of independent validation (either from the Auditor General or the CRTC) would add value to it. The important point is that taxpayers should have easy access to reliable information about the CBC’s performance. This could help to convince policy makers of the value to Canadians of the services provided by the CBC.

CONCLUSION

Without the CBC, English language Canadian broadcasting would be little more than a branch plant of the American media industry. And what about the survival of French Canada? The French language services of the CBC, commonly referred to as Radio-Canada, are highly popular in Quebec and the rest of Canada. The fact that they are delivered by a federal institution, created and financed by the Parliament of Canada, and overseen by a federally appointed board of directors, demolishes the myth that only a sovereign Quebec can protect the French language and culture.

It is true that Radio-Canada has provided opportunities for separatists to promote their cause. As long as the federalist option is equally prominent, I fail to see the problem. A country that allows such freedom of expression is a country to which most people would want to belong. Perhaps Radio-Canada has, however indirectly, played a role in the decline of Quebec’s sovereigntist movement. If so, isn’t that an excellent example of nation building?

The CBC could and should be a national treasure, playing a much greater role in fostering our Canadian identity, while providing opportunities for the nurturing of Canadian talent in all its forms. It could also be instrumental in assisting new Canadians to become full participants in Canadian life. What has been lacking for quite some time is the political will to sustain this vital institution.

*****

Tony Manera, a former engineer and college president, served as senior vice president of the CBC for many years before his appointment as president and CEO in 1993. He resigned from that position in the wake of draconian budget cuts announced by the federal government in 1995. Since then, he has continued advocating for the CBC, by writing, speaking and making presentations to Parliamentary committees. In 1996, his book “A Dream Betrayed: The Battle for the CBC,” was published by Stoddart Publishing Co. (Toronto.) A 2015 update of this work is available in ebook format through Amazon and Kobo websites.

Subscribe to the Pearson Centre newsletter.

Insightful commentary & debate, delivered to your inbox. Sign up below.