CBC’s application is deeply concerning
FRIENDS supports the strong public broadcasting Canadians deserve. Unfortunately, CBC management’s plant for the future is making problems related to its funding shortfall worse, not better.
In its application to regulators, CBC management is seeking to water down its Canadian content and local programming obligations and to grow its advertising revenues. Combined, these changes will likely lead to more repeats, more ads on CBC TV, more ads on digital platforms, and more digital services that are restricted to those who buy a subscription. If CBC management gets its way, our national public broadcaster will become less distinctive.
Specifically, the CBC is asking for permission to broadcast:
- less Canadian drama, documentary and comedy programs on primetime TV (when most people are watching), even less than private broadcasters are required to show
- less local news on TV
- no local non-news TV programs
- less children’s programming (actually it wants its obligation to produce children’s program to become a non-binding “expectation”)
We can only assume that CBC is asking for lower standards because it intends to deliver less of the programming that makes CBC distinctive. The CBC is even seeking to eliminate an expectation that it strives to exceed minimum standards, rather than just meet them.
This will make it even harder to distinguish the CBC from private broadcasters.
CBC is not just any broadcaster. But this fact does not seem to be recognized by current management whose licence renewal application suggests they are running the CBC just like any private broadcaster.
According to the Broadcasting Act, the CBC must “inform, enlighten and entertain” Canadians, and “reflect Canada and its regions to national and regional audiences, while serving the special needs of those regions”. Its programming must be “predominantly and distinctively Canadian”. And, CBC should “contribute to shared national consciousness and identity”.
Digital, digital, digital
To compensate for Canadian content reductions on TV and radio – currently enjoyed by tens of millions of Canadians – CBC management is proposing to do more programming on its digital platforms, where audiences are currently miniscule.
By its own accounting, CBC spends between $150 million and $300 million on digital activities, including over $150 million from its parliamentary appropriation1. In other words, CBC is spending about as much on digital activities, that attract very few viewers, as it does on radio, where the programming is very distinctive and audiences are large and loyal.
But the biggest issue is that digital broadcasting has been exempt from Canadian content and other rules for years, with broad and negative consequences for Canada. For example, this exemption lets Netflix, Canada’s largest broadcaster, off the hook for contributing to the production of Canadian programs, an obligation all Canadian broadcasters must comply with.
Now, CBC management is claiming that its digital service should enjoy the same exempt status as Netflix, Facebook and Google. Even worse, CBC brass believe that the CRTC has no business regulating these activities, and that they have no obligation to say how they are spending these dollars – our public dollars – in the digital domain.
FRIENDS has written to the CRTC to request that this information be made public. So far, they have not responded.
CBC should not be able to hide details of its plans and operations just because they are digital. They are publicly-funded. They should be accountable to Canadians. FRIENDS’ view is that the CRTC should treat digital and conventional broadcasting equally, and require foreign online media to pay up and follow our rules. CBC should not be hiding behind the same legal loopholes as Netflix and YouTube.