A Canadian Voice that Deserves More than Status Quo

Senator Hugh Segal 

The challenge of shaping tomorrow’s CBC is, in some ways, the challenge of Canadian excellence and how to advance it in a competitive and digital world.  If the CBC was the answer back when the R.B. Bennett Tory government created it many decades ago, what was the question?  And, what is the question to which tomorrow’s CBC must also be the answer?  Frankness requires us to understand that the two questions are very different.

The question in the 1930s was: would there be a Canadian voice in network radio?  Existing market failures were producing only American-owned network extensions in Canada. Canadians had the right to Canadian radio both in content and form.  Without creative government initiative, this would not have happened.  A multi-network, multi-language CBC ensued, with all of the challenges and decision points that such expansion, concomitant unionization, multiple client groups, and self-important bureaucracies produce, especially when dependent on funding from the federal government.

The coverage of World War II brought CBC radio and Radio Canada into their own as Canada’s eyes and ears at the centre of events that mattered deeply. CBC TV, which began in my life with one bilingual station in Montreal (CBMT CHANNEL 6), broadcast Saturday night hockey live from the Montreal Forum!

Overall, CBC has been a magnificent directional success.  Its news and public affairs are a global standard setter, despite working on budgets that are tiny by comparison to BBC or CNN.  Focus on sports, while of high quality and revenue-positive, is challenged by more robust sports league revenue needs not affordable by a government-funded state broadcaster model.  As the private sector steps up with tax deductible investment, CBC is squeezed out by its status as a Crown Corporation that cannot deduct the cost of doing business from its profit and loss statement.  It is similarly unreasonable to expect a state broadcaster to see its federal grant raised by many hundreds of millions because a private large cable firm has five billion dollars to spend on NHL hockey.

The CBC’s children’s programming and cultural broadcasts are similarly exemplary, as is national comedy.  Yet, the truth about the CBC as a market force is that it is really only CBC radio that tends to dominate its listening markets.  TV ratings are modest to middling at best throughout English-speaking Canada. Radio Canada’s TV does better in Quebec for a series of reasons that reflect different genres of broadcast production, specifically the teleromans, very much part of popular Quebecois culture.

Should CBC TV, on any of its broadcast or digital platforms, seek to compete with commercial TV or digital players whose main goal is profit?  Should CBC TV seek to choose its own path providing deeper news, analysis, and local and sophisticated cultural programming not available elsewhere in Canada?

Can the present funding model, dependent on federal annual grants and sponsorship/advertising revenues plus compulsory standing in all cable packages serve the long-term interests of quality broadcasting?

These questions, along with the role and mission of the CBC in the digital world, cannot be addressed through the regulatory process of licensing hearings held by the CRTC. History affords us a compelling notion of how we might best proceed.

The question has changed from “how do we ensure a Canadian broadcast presence?” to “what unique value added contribution across all platforms can the CBC make?”

Between 1949 and 1952, the Rt. Hon Vincent Massey, Canada’s first Canadian-born Governor General and the Benefactor of Massey College, chaired a Royal Commission on the Development of Culture, Letters, and Science.  Many new instruments of cultural policy emerged from that commission’s recommendations, such as the National Film Board and the National Arts Council, to name but two.  It is that kind of courageous, out-of-the box thinking the future of the CBC needs now, and it will not come from management, creative talent, or the board who are invested in the present model.  Nor will it come from the CRTC or politicians on either side of the House of Commons, who have elections in 12 months upon which to focus their agencies. A Senate Committee, which is now considering the issue, will no doubt make a good start. But the time for a dispassionate, expert, and wide-ranging analysis, with hard research and creative triangulation between competitive forces, Canada’s changing demographics and the opportunities for new technology driving fresh assessment of the CBC mission is now here.  The status quo–or bandaids used as bridges when new architecture and intellectual engineering is required–is not viable.

There is now a robust private broadcasting, production, and multi-platform world that did not exist when CBC was created.  The clutter is called competition and, whatever the quality or, on occasion, apparent lack of adult supervision among some private competitors, CBC must earn its way by breaking through the clutter with a dynamic role that sets it apart for the better. As a charter and founding member of “Friends of Public Broadcasting” in the mid-1980s with other more prominent and concerned Canadians, I believe that we will always need the CBC.  It is time to ask the tough questions and drill down for the answers that will serve a CBC that is able to be a signal cultural, community, creative, and journalistic force in the new reality that all of the communications sector is facing.

As Canadian history tells us, with Royal Commission Chair names like Massey, Rowell, Sirois, Glasco, Hall, Ledain, Camp, Berger, Macdonald, and others, tough policy choices are often facilitated in a democracy when thoughtful, non-partisan research and discussion dissect a truly challenging issue in the open for all to see. Royal Commissions can educate, clarify, underline, and facilitate new understanding.  The CBC and the taxpayers who fund it, the performers and talent who drive it, and the nation it serves, deserve no less.

Hugh Segal is currently Master Elect of Massey College, an Ontario Senator in Canada’s Upper House, and founding member of “Friends of Public  Broadcasting.”

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