FRIENDS wishes to thank the Commission for engaging so thoughtfully and intelligently with our intervention in the CBC license renewal proceedings.
As the process comes to a close, we thought it would be helpful to zoom out from the technical morass and re-center our thoughts on the central questions at hand.
At first glance, it appears as though the main issue in these proceedings has been the Commission's role in supervising and regulating CBC's digital activities. The Commission has already heard our view that CBC should be subject to cross-platform expenditure requirements that reflect the way the Corporation actually works. We must not dismiss transparency as a relic of the analogue age.
But the question of regulating digital is not just about the mechanics of regulation. It is fundamentally a question of trust. The real question before us is whether Canadians and the Commission can trust CBC/Radio-Canada to prioritize public service absent clear, comprehensive regulation which compels them to do so.
The answer is unambiguously "no", especially when considering the behaviour of the present management team during these proceedings and beyond.
Management’s posture towards the Commission was frankly shocking; not just aggressive but also disrespectful, bordering on disdainful.
In its final undertakings, management all but dared you to regulate the Corporation’s digital activities, suggesting all manner of calamities that would arise were you to do anything more than merely monitor their digital activities, and even then, they contest your jurisdiction to do so1.
Management’s representations to you also contained many patently false statements. Ms. Tait told the Commission that the public has not complained about Tandem, even though FRIENDS sent her a petition signed by more than 16,000 Canadians, calling for Tandem to be stopped. FRIENDS mentioned this in our opening remarks on January 18th and this correspondence is attached as Appendix 1, for added certainty. Ms. Tait further claimed that the CBC logo does not appear on Tandem articles even though it clearly does2. In the example depicted in Appendix 2, the CBC logo is the only visible logo after you scroll down.
Ms. Tait also claimed that the quality of news programming at the local and national levels has not been impacted by budget reductions, yet FRIENDS has obtained a record of correspondence between CBC journalists and Ms. Tait, wherein the journalists tell Ms. Tait that she “misled the CRTC” in this regard. The signatories convey their desperation, say that quality has “deteriorated significantly”, and that they cannot do their jobs with the resources allotted. The complete record is publicly available on FRIENDS website and we encourage you to read it in full3.
Management claimed that Canadian content spending has been steady when in reality it is falling4. They claimed that local spending was unchanged when we now know that there have been declines across the board, particularly in English TV, where local spending has plummeted in recent years5.
On several occasions during these hearings, Chairman Scott said that “what gets measured gets done”. Unfortunately, this appears to be demonstrably untrue with respect to Ms. Tait’s leadership team. Quite the contrary, the evidence suggests that it may be more accurate to say that “what gets measured may well be misrepresented to the Commission.”
The Corporation asks for “flexibility”, in digital and elsewhere, by which they mean free rein. How can the Commission grant them the hands-off approach they seek when the management team has been so frequently and overtly untruthful? Mere monitoring is clearly insufficient; unflinching regulation is required.
In our opening remarks on January 18th, FRIENDS cited the Commission’s bold 1974 decision to remove ads from CBC/Radio-Canada’s radio services as a seminal moment for the Corporation and for Canada. Chairman Juneau made this decision because the Corporation’s radio service was in trouble – losing audiences and credibility every day. Something major needed to change for the radio service to survive, and by taking bold action to remove ads, Chairman Juneau’s Commission created the conditions for the terrific revival of the radio service from which Canada continues to benefit. That is just one of the reasons why Canadians remember Chairman Juneau. It is why Canada’s most prestigious cultural awards are named after him.
The facts today are analogous to those the Juneau Commission confronted in 1974. Likewise, this license decision will greatly influence how the Scott Commission is remembered.
Here are the facts:
- CBC English TV has its smallest audience ever6. CBC English TV content is overwhelmingly popular, but many people prefer to enjoy it ad-free on Netflix.
- Anglophone and francophone journalists are in open revolt over Tandem7, which is problematic in and of itself but also indicative of a greater pathology: management's obsession with advertising and commercial activity and their corresponding disregard for public service, especially news. Their two-page “Strategy Summary” doesn’t mention the word “journalism” once, but it does stress a “business priority” to maximize commercial revenue8.
- Despite management’s statements to the Commission that budget cuts have not affected news quality, FRIENDS has learned that journalists are pleading with management to reverse cuts and other practices that are compromising quality, as detailed in Appendix 3, below.
- As private journalism disappears across Canada, CBC is in no position to pick up the slack. “Station-originated programming expenditures”, a proxy for local news spending, has plummeted in English during the last license term9, a period in which the country lost more than 16,000 journalists10.
- For all their talk of public trust, CBC initially refused to disclose even basic facts about its digital activities, essentially hiding more than $300 million of activity from public scrutiny. Disclosure eventually provided has been de minimus.
- Taken together, these factors have inspired a thriving #DefundCBC movement which is now so significant that it counts the Leader of the Opposition as a member and a champion11.
The crisis of 1974 applied only to radio, but today’s crisis of confidence and relevance, while most evident in English TV, in fact touches upon almost every department. The Tandem fiasco has inspired a mutiny in English and Francophone newsrooms alike. The journalists complaining about insufficient resources speak of compromised quality in digital, radio, and TV.
Management appears blind to this reality.
Just as in 1974, the one thing that can return the Corporation to a viable path of distinctive public service is bold action by the Commission. The Broadcasting Act envisions that the Commission will regulate the Corporation, not just monitor it.
FRIENDS respectfully submits that it falls to the Commission, not only to withhold its trust from this CBC/Radio-Canada management team, but also to impose sensible regulation that can help CBC/Radio-Canada to restore public trust in their work.
One way to do that is to channel Juneau’s cultural vision and professional resolve to order a phase out of all ads on English television, news programming in all languages, and all digital services. Doing so would do the CBC far more good than harm.
We cannot overstate just how much of a positive impact the Commission would deliver for Canadians by greatly reducing the prevalence of ads across the Corporation’s services.
On January 18th, Chairman Scott asked FRIENDS why CBC/Radio-Canada's advertising initiatives should be restricted at a time when the corporation needs maximum flexibility to find its feet in this transitional situation where both analogue and digital services require significant investment of time and talent.
But advertising does not afford flexibility. Advertising is a constraint. On TV, advertising imposes a uniform structure on all programs, ensuring that no single aspect of any show can take longer than eight minutes to unfold, and filtering out programs that don't insert a cliff-hanger in exactly the same spot each and every time. The impact of this imposed structure is most damaging to news programming, forcing producers to put interesting stories further down schedule in hopes that this will entice audiences to endure the commercial break which separates them from the information they find pertinent.
Online, advertising penalizes Canadians who choose to explore CBC’s digital services by subjecting them to very aggressive pre-roll ads and other display ads that undermine the Corporation’s credibility.
For example, here is a screenshot of cbc.ca from February 25th 2021. Is this how a credible, intelligent public service media organization presents itself?