It’s time to rethink the CBC

The CBC license is up for renewal and the debate is (again) on. Is it fair to keep public funding for this broadcaster? Or, more bluntly, do we need the CBC?

Before dealing with the CBC, we should ask another question: do we need the CRTC? Considering the globalization and the new technology, the CRTC looks more and more a Don Quixote of modern time.

Its mandate is to make sure that Canadian broadcasters operate according to the Broadcasting Act, Telecommunications Act and Canada’s anti-spam legislation. Their mission is to ensure “that Canadians have access to a world-class communication system.”

Unfortunately, the mandate and the mission were shaped years ago, according to the social and technologic environment of the past. Nowadays, with a box bought in the black market and a satellite dish, Canadians are already flooded with programs from all over the planet and the CRTC has no power to make sure they are “world class”; furthermore, we just need a computer connected to the internet and anyone can become a broadcaster with more viewer than the CBC. Not to mention the mandate to implement to anti-spam legislation, the laughingstock of duct cleaning telemarketers bothering Canadians with phone calls generated from India.

Over the course of many years, I had the opportunity to deal with many people working hard, diligently and with passion to fulfill the CRTC mandate. Their job had a purpose when they had to regulate “Canadian highways” of distribution over the air or the cable system. But the Internet is out of the CRTC's reach.

With this in mind, let’s go back to the CBC and its role in the Canadian broadcasting. That is, forget for now the carriage and let’s talk about content.

There is no doubt that the CBC has a rich history of accomplishments since its creation in 1936, in terms of production of quality shows and as a springboard for worldwide renowned artists. However, since the beginning of the eighties, the game has changed, and the CBC has increasing difficulties to play a significant role. They are losing ground domestically and our Canadian talents need to move to the South to pursue their international quest for stardom.

I’m not engaging in the frivolous debates about the CBC being a Liberal mouthpiece or the producers of programs considered, by some, the only essence of Canadianism. Programs perceived to be tailored for snobbish, cultured, and socially hypersensitive viewers and not for those insensitive couch potatoes watching House of Cards or other shows on Netflix or Amazon (not to mention the hundreds of channels bringing shows in every language and from every country on this planet.)

Let’s pretend that the CBC has more quality programs and the best product representing Canada. The question remains: why the CBC viewership is shrinking?

True, the shrinkage is common to the entire broadcasting sector, public and private, but for the CBC this is a chronic, old and more serious disease that predates the new technology.

Some argue that the production of quality programs comes with a price, so public funding is justified. Fine, they have public funding, but the question remains: why do they have less audience then most private broadcaster?

Because, they say, private broadcasters can resort to more foreign programs for a cheap price, mainly from US, while the CBC is bound to the so called “Canadian content.”

Let’s try to understand: do they have better quality programs or not? If they do, are they implying that Canadians prefer to watch cheap programs? Of course not. But, some explain, that it is very hard to sell quality, educational programs compared with trash TV shows. True, but why then do the CBC newscasts, which are not supposed to be ‘educational’ but just informative, have the same problem?

Let’s try the other way around. Canadians watch good programs that foreign producer dump for a cheap price in Canada considered only a fringe market. Canadian broadcasters, they say, cannot compete with US production companies because they have more resources. They, rightly, point out that American competitors have 10 times the potential audience available to Canadian broadcasters. Basically, if they can spend $10 to produce a show, we can spend only one.

This argument doesn’t hold water. We compete with the US in many sectors, selling them many quality products (isn’t that the reason why Donald Trump doesn’t like Free Trade with us?); we also compete with them in sports (Aren’t we the North?). Is it possible that only when we talk about quality TV programs, we can’t do better than the Americans?

Aren’t we, as they say, the best country to live in? Why we dislike everything from US but we love their shows selling us their lifestyle? Why people from around the world love this country and Canadian ingenuity works in every sector but stops at the doorstep of CBC production studios? Why we are unable to capture that reality in our programs? How can they hope to expand their viewership internationally, if they are unable to even interests Canadians?

I know that the mandate of the CBC is more articulated than the one of other broadcasters, the CBC plays a big role especially in remote areas in the North to keep all Canadians connected. True, but the quality of a product is not the one in the mind of the producers, but in the acceptance of the ‘clientele’, in this case the viewers. If their role is important, how come their audience is shrinking? Do they need more public money? How much more? More importantly, to do what? Furthermore, with the new technology, conventional broadcasting is less and less important in keeping people connected, especially in remote areas.

Why should we increase public financing for a broadcaster that has serious difficulties to fulfill its mandate? Why not invest more money in the new technology to better connect Canadians, especially those in remote areas?

Moreover, does it make sense that the more Canadian turn away from the CBC the more they are forced to pay for it?

There are many problems facing broadcasters everywhere but the first step to solve them is to recognize the source. The problems with the CBC are threefold. First, they are unable, just like most other broadcaster, to better use the new technology. Second, they don’t have the proper content. The CBC wants to talk about Canada but it’s trying too hard to shape Canadians into something they still don’t know. And third, it is the mentality of the Corporation. Economic entitlement, lack of reward for those working hard and diligently (and there are many), no consequences for incompetent and irresponsible employers, too much bureaucracy inside and too much politicking.

The CBC has a lot of work to do before making the money issue the only obstacle to make the corporation successful again.