For CBC, Canada’s 80-year-old public broadcaster, 2015 was an Annus Horribilis.
Steep cuts in annual funding by the former Conservative Harper government, forcing the Canadian Broadcast Corporation to slash news broadcasts, reduce sports and documentary divisions and sack hundreds of its workforce. And a series of scandals involving anchors and hosts of popular TV programs, with public confidence in the corporation collapsing, and viewership falling which has sent commercial revenues into free fall.
The Toronto Star declared, “The greatest of our national cultural institutions is dying.” (Nov. 19, 2015) “CBC in crisis” has been talked about for years, but the situations look worse than it has appeared.
But, with the turn of the year, as Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s new Liberal government sets in full motion, finally, a ray of hope may be found in 2016 for the CBC’s resurrection.
In fact, as the Canadian Press article carried by the Huffington Post Canada reported under the headline, “CBC’s 2016 outlook will be better thanks to Liberal government,” said: “With a more CBC-friendly Liberal government now holding the purse strings, could things finally be looking up for the beleaguered public broadcaster? Many observers seem to think so.” (Dec. 7)
Prime Minister Trudeau has promised to restore $150 million in annual funding that was cut from CBC/Radio Canada during the Conservative Harper years.
Still, some observers and experts warn that it is yet to be known whether the new government wants to save the CBC, or whether it decides that the CBC is worth being rescued and actually deliver the promise to restore the slashed funding. (Toronto Star, Nov. 19) And even if the funding is to be restored, some pro-CBC people argue that $150 million may not be enough.
Aaron Wudrick, federal director of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation, has told the Canadian Press that a severe fiscal climate could force the Liberal government to reassess whether it can afford to spend more on the broadcaster. “I’m not sure that most people would argue that spending another $150 million on the CBC is more important than many of the other priorities that the Liberals have identified. I don’t know that the CBC is at the top of the list.” (Huffington Post, Dec. 7)
Meanwhile, among those who agree that restoring the slashed funding to save the CBC from the crisis would be necessary, not a few people argue that it is more important to agree how the increased funding should be used and what the CBC should do with the additional funding.
Linden MacIntyre, former “Fifth Estate” host who retired from the CBC in 2014 amid a round of cuts, points out that as a result of repeated workforce cuts – as well as budget cuts and slashed programs – morale fell to all-time low among those who remained on the payroll, including experienced and young bright journalists. (Huffington Post, Dec. 7)
Annual funding reduction plans introduced as part of the Harper government’s expenditure cut measures forced the CBC into budget cuts, and drastic workforce cuts were implemented three times so far – in 2009, 2012 and 2014-15. During these years, CBC workforce has been cut by as much as 25%, according to media reports.
CBC has some 7,000 employees and annual revenues of about C$1.8 billion, with 64% of them coming from the government’s funding, and the rest from advertisements and fees. But amid intensifying competition with commercial broadcasters, ratings are falling and advertisement revenues are slowing. It lost the long-held National Hockey League rights from the 2014 season, meaning a loss of huge advertisement revenues in the year and thereafter. The CBC announced in 2014 its decision to withdraw from the pro-sports areas where broadcast rights have been skyrocketing in recent years, and to concentrate on big amateur sports events, like the Olympic Games.
MacIntyre argues that the CBC should return to top-rate investigative journalism, as in good old days its in-depth pieces on “The Journal” were routinely run on PBS and the BBC. “CBC has just dismantled what was … one of the best documentary units in the world. It’s gone now.” He says he is keen to see CBC become famous again for the right reasons. “I want to go back to a time when the CBC was famous for its programs.” (Huffington Post, Dec. 7)
Richard Stursberg, former assistant deputy minister of communication, who has held top posts at several television-related organizations, says in his article in the Toronto Star (Nov. 19), “The bigger issue is whether the new government wants to save the CBC. This is not a question of money. It is more fundamentally a question of what the CBC should be.”
So saying, he is making some worthwhile proposals that the CBC and the Ottawa government should consider seriously. First of all, he argues, CBC and the government should adopt a similar agreement between them to what the British Broadcasting Corporation has with the British government – the Royal Charters and Agreements. They define what is expected of the corporation and decide how much money the BBC should receive over the period of the contract, usually lasting 10 years. It is important that the Canadian version of the Royal Charters should define the role of the CBC and what the public broadcaster should aim to be, Stursberg says.
He sees that despite, or because of, the emergence of enormous digital media companies, the role of the CBC is more important today to ensure commitment to providing the “Canadian contents” – which private and digital media pay little attention for the pursuance of commercial profits. He also argues that the CBC should have no ads as today Canadians will not watch television shows with ads to prevent it from falling into competition with commercial media for ratings that would bring about deterioration of programs quality.
It’s interesting to watch if the CBC will come to its turning point in 2016, 80th year since its founding in 1936, and whether the Trudeau government will come to the aid of Canada’s greatest national cultural institution.
By Yoshikazu Ishizuka, TOCS senior consultant