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Simple solution: CBC must stop chasing ratings
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Simple solution: CBC must stop chasing ratings

Written by
Jeffrey Simpson
Published by
Globe & Mail
June 24th, 2006

Columnist says that since the government won't increase CBC funding it's time to consider alternative revenues such as private broadcasters paying a public broadcasting tax.

Everyone knows the CBC narrative by now. The words are simple, the explanations pat, the reactions predictable.

The narrative goes like this. Yes, we at the CBC are trying new (read lowbrow) programs to build audiences because we don't get enough public money. We need more and more commercial revenue -- that is, higher ratings -- to find the funds to fulfill at least some of our public broadcasting objectives.

So, just when you think English-language television can't get dumber -- that is, more like the private networks -- it does.

The CBC pushes back The National for one night a week during the summer to make way for The One, a U.S. talent-scout show. It announces four reality shows in its fall schedule from the corporation's new "factual entertainment division." And it moves George Stroumboulopoulos's risible attempt at a public affairs program from Newsworld to the main network at 11 p.m.

The reaction from the usual suspects is prescripted: outraged letters from long-time CBC fans, complaints from past CBC presidents, replies from CBC brass, censorious editorials and columns like this one.

Elsewhere, one suspects, there is widespread indifference.

Predictable, too, is the recent spate of reports lamenting what's become of the CBC. A Senate report, for instance, says "Canada's national public broadcaster... seems in danger of losing its way."

A more serious critique comes from Bill Neville, a long-time board member, in a paper for the Public Policy Forum. Having been a kind of CBC insider in his time, Mr. Neville reports that "there is considerable evidence that ratings... are a major preoccupation within the corporation." There's an understatement, but what else is new?

Mr. Neville asks the old question, "What is a Canadian public broadcaster to do?" He outlines two broad options. The first, "apparently favoured by most of CBC-TV's current management, is, in effect, to beat the private broadcasters at their own game." The second is to turn CBC-TV more in the direction of CBC Radio, where "commercialism doesn't crowd its public service mandate." He obviously favours the second, but that option is more articulated than done.

Television is immensely expensive. The CBC's budget has declined significantly in real terms for 20 years. Its mandate in the Broadcasting Act hasn't changed, nor has its requirements to provide services in both English and French, an international service and a northern one. Neither Conservative nor Liberal governments have cared.

Why they haven't cared is the apposite question, the answer to which is too painful for the CBC to contemplate.

Ask yourselves: How many companies or institutions are doing as much as they did two decades ago with a third less money? Some are, but invariably, like the CBC, what they do has been diluted. They've outsourced, sought "efficiencies," sold off assets -- everything the CBC has done.

The Senate/Neville critiques are correct; their core remedies are the same. The corporation needs more money and a sharper focus on what public service broadcasting is about.

One can happen without the other, albeit in a limited way, as TVOntario's Studio 2 demonstrates. The show operates on a shoestring by TV standards, yet is the best public affairs program on English-language television.

Studio 2 isn't chasing ratings but (or perhaps because) has cultivated a very dedicated audience that would raise hell if TVOntario died. Who'd die on which hill for a CBC public affairs program? Certainly not the Stroumboulopoulos one.

Christopher Waddell, a former CBC bureau chief in Ottawa and now a journalism professor at Carleton University, has proposed more radical rearrangements for the CBC.

In a lecture delivered in Calgary, Mr. Waddell recommended shifting the CBC's resources massively to the Internet and specialty channels. His CBC would be narrowly focused, upscale, non-commercial and out of the government's clutches, since it would be financed by a trust fund rather than annual parliamentary appropriations and commercial revenues.

Mr. Waddell says the CBC should continue doing drama and children's programming within his model, but it's hard to see how. That's among the reasons his model probably won't work.

But he did raise intriguing ideas of building a large national trust fund to finance part of the CBC's work. He recommends that the CBC get out of commercial advertising and sports programming, the two going together.

A commercial-free CBC would be a bonanza for the private broadcasters.

The question might thus be asked: Why should the private broadcasters not pay a tax -- call it a public broadcasting tax -- on the additional advertising they would make from this kind of broadcasting world?

Think of how much cheaper the rights to Hockey Night in Canada would be when they come up for sale in two years for CTV/TSN if the CBC weren't bidding? Why should the private broadcasters, in this case CTV/TSN, capture all the benefits?

The predictable narrative about the CBC can't change, and won't change, unless the CBC stops chasing ratings. It can't/won't stop chasing them, thereby being an ersatz private broadcaster in too many ways, unless commercials disappear and the mentality inside the corporation changes.

Those pressures aren't going anywhere until the CBC either has its mandate shrunk or its revenues increased by Parliament. Since Canadian governments won't increase CBC revenues, it's time to consider finding the additional revenues by other means or just letting the CBC drift further from the national consciousness.

© Globe and Mail

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