Future of the CBC: Canada still needs a healthy public broadcaster

David Kilgour
David vs. David
Future of the CBC: Canada still needs a healthy public broadcaster

In the ongoing debate about the roles of the CBC/Radio Canada and private broadcasters, the recently-announced cuts at the corporation of 657 jobs and some programming will add high-octane fuel. The other David will write about commercial broadcasting; the focus here will be on the public broadcaster.

For more than 75 years, CBC/Radio Canada has attempted with varying degrees of success to be our national public broadcaster in two official and now eight aboriginal languages. Today, whether by television, radio, the Internet or social media, it continues to reach millions of households across the country every day. Many of us assert that its 82 radio stations in local communities are what provide the major appeal of the CBC for most Canadians.

There are also 27 television stations and 11 foreign bureaus. As of March 2012, it had 7,304 permanent full-time employees, 469 temporary full-time employees and 1003 contractors. According to a mid-2011 study by Deloitte, the contribution of CBC/Radio Canada to the economy of Canada in 2010 was $3.7 billion, arising from spending of $1.7 billion.

It is also evident that more Canadians are increasingly using the Internet for both information and entertainment. According to a 2013 CRTC report, Canadians had access to 1,156 radio outlets and 744 television stations. In 2012, 78 percent of our households subscribed to high-speed Internet. These trends are likely to provide continuing challenges for CBC programming to win and keep viewers and listeners.

Public service broadcasting falls somewhere between state broadcasting, which is usually tightly controlled by governing political parties to promote solely their own views, and profit-focused commercial broadcasting. The legislative mandate of the CBC requires its programming, among other things, to be “predominantly and distinctively Canadian,” reflect Canada and its regions, contribute to shared national consciousness and reflect the “multicultural and multiracial nature of Canada.”

It might be noted that CBC television’s reflection of our regions to each other was in at least one period so poor that in 1977 Harry Boyle, then chair of the CRTC, noted that virtually all regular English television network series were then produced in Toronto, with Ottawa providing some political programs, and the Prairies and Atlantic Canada producing virtually nothing.

A study commissioned by Boyle in the ‘70s revealed that CBC and Radio Canada devoted less than 1.3% of their sampled television news over a ten-day period to B.C. Moreover, to the four Atlantic provinces, Radio Canada news allotted no time whatsoever in the surveyed period and CBC English television allowed only 3.2%. Boyle rightfully noted in his reporting letter to the prime minister that the corporation was then failing to "contribute to the development of national unity." There will be many views among Canadians on how well the corporation is doing today on the unity front.

Modern public service broadcasting should presumably base itself on these UNESCO-proposed principles:

Public broadcasting’s only raison d’etre is public service … It speaks to everyone as a citizen … a meeting place where all citizens are welcome and considered equals. It is an information and education tool, accessible to all and meant for all, whatever their social or economic status. Its mandate is not restricted to information and cultural development (It) must also appeal to the imagination and entertain. But it does so with a concern for quality that distinguishes it from commercial broadcasting.

Two years ago, as the broadcast licences for all CBC services were being renewed, more than 8000 submissions from Canadians were received by the CRTC. The number alone indicates both much interest and concern. One hopes that the jobs cuts recently announced will not fall disproportionately on any region.

The conditions for the five years beginning this coming September will include at least “seven hours per week of programs of national interest on prime-time French-language television and at least nine hours of this type of programming on prime-time English-language television.” The CRTC also approved for three years the CBC request to carry paid national ads on CBC Radio 2 and Espace Musique. Private broadcasters understandably say that they will be at a competitive disadvantage.

A year ago, the office of the Auditor General submitted its special ten-year report on CBC/Radio Canada, finding “no significant deficiencies in (its) systems and practices.” In her comments, the AG added, “The Corporation has taken government priorities into account while remaining an arm’s-length organization …(a) number of weaknesses … could impede its ability to attract, recruit, develop, and retain employees. For example, competency profiles do not exist for most occupational groups.”

In short, there is still much value in a good public broadcaster, and good reason for taxpayers to sustain our own. Things are certainly changing at record pace in the communications sector, however, and CBC/Radio Canada will have to demonstrate more effectively than it has in the recent past that it remains an essential feature of our country’s cultural landscape.

Ontario MP Peter Kent, a former CBC correspondent and host, offers sage advice: “Any ‘rethink’ or ‘contemporization’ of the CBC comes down to a single hard truth: Canada needs a national public broadcaster, not a semi-private service. That’s where the conversation must begin.”

David Kilgour is co-chair of the Canadian Friends of a Democratic Iran and a director of the Washington-based Council for a Community of Democracies (CCD). He is a former MP for both the Conservative and Liberal Parties in the south-east region of Edmonton and has also served as the Secretary of State for Latin America and Africa, Secretary of State for Asia-Pacific and Deputy Speaker of the House.