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CBC Blog - By Richard Nielsen


The budget announcement that the Federal Government will be reducing the CBC’s Parliamentary Grant by $150 million is confirmation if any was needed, that Canadian Governments, past and present, will do almost anything to kill our Public Broadcaster.

Since 1979 the CBC budget has been reduced seven times and augmented only once.

At the moment, private television in Canada receives more subsidies including revenues mandated by the CRTC than does Public Broadcasting, a situation that makes us unique in all the world.

When the Conservative government of Brian Mulroney and the Liberal Government of Jean Chretien through the CRTC created hundreds of Specialty Channels to compete with our conventional broadcasters (which then included the CBC, CTV, Global, Chum City) they provided the private network with ownership of more than fifty Specialty Channels to compensate them for the lost advertising revenue that would result. These Specialty Channels were highly profitable, distributing revenues to their shareholders of more than $500 million a year, but no provision was made for the CBC to receive any of it.

When the CBC dropped all its American shows it provided a significant benefit to private broadcasters. It also shut itself off from the possibility of simulcasting from which our private networks benefit to the tune of more than $250 million per year.

When the Broadcast Fund for Independent Producers was created in 1984 the CBC was given title to a minimum of 50% of that, with no limit as to how high the percentage could go. The situation now limits the CBC and other public broadcasters to 37%, the rest goes to the private sector.

The basic problem with Canadian television is that our Regulators and Governments have emphasized distribution at the expense of production.

Only the CBC is mandated to provide opportunity for Canadian artists to create a Canadian audience for what they do. This is true of writers, directors, performers, designers, cinematographers, editors and all the highly trained contributors, a mature film and television industry requires.

This latest cut to the CBC is aimed directly at us. Our voice, the voice of the artist, is feared because it can’t be directed or anticipated. It is unique to its surroundings, if it is stifled there is no record, no shared sensibility that is the real substance of nationhood.

We should ask ourselves what it is that our governments, Liberal and Conservative, fear. None of the drastic changes of the past have included any meaningful dialogue. Appeasement evident nightly on the CBC by the presence of Kevin O’Leary, Dragon’s Den and its spinoffs plus Rex Murphy’s rants and Don Cherry’s bombast clearly hasn’t worked.



Recently the CBC Issues Panel discussed the future of the CBC in a ‘streamed universe,’ that wasn’t the topic, the topic was the CBC but with the exception of Chantal Hebert the panel solemnly discussed whether the CBC even had a future. The ‘streamed universe’ for those who shy away from discussion of exotic developments in new technology, refers to nothing more complex than the fact that people will receive television on their computers on demand via the internet. This ‘reality’ persuaded Andrew Coyne, who recently left Macleans to join the National Post Group, to predict that, “streaming would put an end to the need for a public broadcaster.”

The panel members, except for Ms. Hebert, matched Coyne’s pessimism. Chantal’s objection was practical. She pointed out that there would not be, “50 French channels available to Quebecers” and that Radio Canada fulfilled a vital function in being the only news broadcaster in the province that consistently provide information about the rest of the country. There was no recognition whatsoever by panel members that the problems of Canadian broadcasting can be traced to a mindset that has concentrated on distribution – where the technology is rapidly changing – rather than production which is why the industry exists. Perhaps one of the reasons there are so few solutions to modern problems is because the pace of technological change - particularly in communications - encourages people to construct solutions for an imagined future rather than the present.

Meanwhile our preoccupation with distribution has given us a broadcast system that is absolutely unique. Despite its stated objective to provide a Canadian presence in the broadcast service supplied to Canadians, it imports everything the US produces. Indeed the average Canadian has access to more American programs than the average American. To ensure this Canadian presence we spend approximately $13 billion a year but only $2 billion of that finds its way into production and only $350 million is spent making Canadian entertainment programs. The rest goes to sports, news, talk and actuality programs of one form or another. By far the largest portion of program spending, $700 million annually, goes to import American shows, and that’s a bargain since the $700 million purchases $14 billion worth of production and that’s less than half of the story. The $14 billion in US programming is played on Canadian channels and for every Canadian channel our cable and satellite providers are permitted to import two additional US channels which play only American shows.

This system ensures that every Canadian program broadcast in prime time goes up against approximately 30 US shows – the 30 most popular US shows that money can buy. These rules instituted over the last 40 years by our regulatory agency, the CRTC, have reduced the average audience for a Canadian program to less than a third of what it was in the 1970’s despite a one third increase in Canada’s population, and US involvement on our television is on the increase taking new forms. Our networks presently favour producers who come with an American presale, which almost always means a program designed primarily for the American market. What the American presales create is an opportunity for the series or program to be simulcast in both countries, enabling the Canadian broadcaster to substitute our ads for those on the American channel, and reap the financial benefits, an estimated $300 million a year.

This is the origin of programs like Flashpoint and Baby Blue nominally Canadian shows but indistinguishable from American ones. But all of these subsidies amounting to more than a billion a year, were not enough to keep our private networks solvent. All of the original ones, City TV, CTV and Global have recently become the property of our cable distributors: Bell, Rogers and Shaw. The CBC is thus the only original player left in the game. Steps need to be taken immediately to differentiate the CBC from the rest of the system. It should get out of sports and advertising and give these to the private networks in exchange for their subsidies. Probably it should also get out of News. It is news that gets a public broadcaster in trouble with politicians of all stripes. It has also created a news service that it concentrated on national issues. There isn’t a single provincial premiere outside of Ontario and Quebec who would be recognizable to Canadians on the strength of their appearances on the CBC and the absence of French Canadian talent on the CBC is a disgrace.

At present, sports accounts for 48% of CBC viewers while news and various forms of talk make up most of the rest. The CBC should become the centre for Canadian drama and entertainment production as it once was, and it must also be decentralized with at least five commissioning editors spread across the country. Andrew Coyne seemed unaware of the fact that advertisers would not pay significant amounts of money to have their material streamed on the internet to compete with programs from all over the world, including vast amounts of material supplied free of charge. He is wrong about the future but even if he wasn’t, priority must be given to the present, where there are real and important problems to be faced. The Harper government is rumoured to favour abandoning the CBC. That may be an exaggeration but changes are clearly in the pipeline being advocated by people who have no love for the CBC as it presently exists.

The government is correct in wanting to reform the system - not to meet some threat of change in distribution patterns, but because Canadian television reaches so few Canadians and costs so much more than it should - with most of the money going to distribution rather than production. What is necessary is that members of the production industry cooperate with the government in an overhaul of the whole system. Perhaps if the industry listens to government it will listen to us. We can’t afford to leave the discussion to the cable companies and the CRTC. As things stand the cable companies and the broadcasting beaurocracy, private and public, are the only people who benefit from a bad system rapidly getting worse.

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Posted by Dick