Is CBC’s audience declining as Harper claims?

Is CBC’s audience declining as Harper claims?

Is CBC’s audience declining as Conservative Leader Stephen Harper claimed in a radio interview earlier this week?

“The reason for the difficulties aren’t the cuts,” he said. “There aren’t cuts. The reason is the loss of (CBC’s) audience. It’s a problem for the CBC to fix,” he told Quebec City radio station CHOI Radio X in an interview that aired Monday.

The head of CBC/Radio-Canada shot back on Tuesday.

“It’s not about a lack of audience,” president and CEO Hubert Lacroix said following the corporation’s annual general meeting in Winnipeg.

“It’s about a broken finance model that doesn’t work, that used to be built on advertising revenues supporting a drop in parliamentary appropriations. In this environment, it doesn’t work anymore.”

So who’s right? They both are. Sort of.

That there were funding cuts is not in dispute.

“Harper’s assertion that his government made no cuts to the CBC’s budget is patently false,” says Ian Morrison, of the watchdog group Friends of Canadian Broadcasting, adding Heritage Minister James Moore campaigned in 2011 on a promise to “maintain or increase” the CBC’s funding.

The 2012 federal budget cut $115 million from CBC’s operating costs over three years.

But audience measurement is trickier: it depends on which parameters you look at.

For instance, Numeris (formerly the Bureau of Broadcast Measurement, or BBM, which broadcasters rely on for data) calculates audience “share” (average percentage of people tuning in to a particular program at a particular time) and audience “reach” (total number of viewers/listeners). There are also calculations for hours tuned (radio) and average minute audience (TV). And then it’s all broken down into age groups, as well.

Broadcasters typically present the figures that show them in the best light, Morrison says.

Citing Numeris data, CBC’s most recent annual report, for the 2013-14 fiscal year, shows audience declines in some areas, offset by audience gains in others. (Yahoo Canada News has asked Numeris to verify the figures.)

CBC does not have a ratings problem — and it’s because the corporation has an unfair advantage, according to one broadcasting expert.

“History shows even with budget cuts, their ratings hold steady — they can do more with less people. They just don’t like doing it and have a huge lobby group to scream ‘shame’ every time the government cuts CBC’s budget,” says radio consultant Steve Kowch, who spent 20 years as a programmer in private radio.

“Private radio doesn’t have that advantage because poor ratings equal less funding from advertisers, and that results in layoffs and poorer programming. CBC is immune from that,” says Kowch, author of 99 Things You Wish You Knew Before Making it Big in Media.

Morrison says disparaging CBC’s audience size is a kind of mantra that was repeated often by the Conservative government. Not only is it not true, he says, it misses the point.

“It’s also false and misleading in the sense that public broadcasters in democratic countries around the world don’t operate on a ratings basis. What’s more important (is) reach.”

He says about one-third of the population tunes in to CBC television at least once a week, and about one-third of Canadians listen to CBC radio at least once a week.

Harper’s comments came on the heels of a CBC announcement to staff that it intended to sell off all its properties and buildings across the country.

“Our resources have been shrinking and it has forced us to make tough decisions; to lose furniture in order to save the house,” Lacroix told an industry conference in Germany earlier this month.

Last week, the Canadian Media Guild (CMG) — the union representing many CBC staffers — confirmed Lacroix was not speaking metaphorically, saying the move was a response to “the continuing and tremendous financial difficulties facing our national public broadcaster.”

The CMG was astounded by the decision, especially in the midst of campaign-trail promises from the Liberal Party, the NDP and the Green Party to restore or increase CBC funding if elected.