Monday, August 22, 2005

Does Canada Need a CBC?

Angry in TO is finally taking some time out from his Cindy Sheehan stalking observations to wax indignant about the currently-striking CBC. Needless to say, his comments aren't pretty, but I think they're a little off:

How does the CBC qualify [as a public service]?

Ask yourself this question: If the CBC didn't exist today, and someone at the federal level suggested spending billions to set up the CBC, would you support it? Do you think it would be required in today's media market in Canada?

Regardless of income? Do you get the CBC for free? Or do you get it for the same price as a CTV affiliate and Global affiliate, and maybe a CityTV or A-Channel affiliate, via broadcast, cable, or satellite? If you live in a rural area, do you use satellite? Would you consider getting a system for $40 a month? Is that $40 a month so much of a burden that you prefer to get a grainy CBC signal free over the air? It might be for some, but I suspect most people without access to any TV except the CBC via broadcast don't watch much TV at all.

Do you think the CBC ranks up there with public services like education, electicity, fire and police, water and waste management?

If I might interrupt: this last sentence is somewhat misleading. These public services are provided on a local level; the CBC is not.

The problem within the CBC is that they believe it does. They believe Canadians need the CBC just like they need fresh water and working sewers. They believe that Canadians would demand a CBC if one didn't exist, and would happily pay to create a CBC. They believe that Canadians would be sorely hurt if the CBC disappeared, just as they would be hurt if there were no fire departments or if the electricity would be turned off.

Well, that depends, Angry. Is a national news network, one with reporters in every jurisdiction in Canada, desirable? One that can communicate on pretty much any broadcast media? I, for one, would think so.

One more question. Did you live in an area affected by the big blackout of 2003? During those 24 to 72 hours (different areas were affected differently), did you ever say, even just to yourself, "Man, I'm missing a whole lot of CBC because of this stupid blackout!"

Well, here's the thing:

There is no broadcasting company in Canada that currently has the reach of the CBC. CHUM comes pretty close, but they don't have TV or radio stations in the Prairies, the Maritimes, or the North, and they have no French-language service. Canwest Global has print and TV, but no radio or French-language representation.

The CBC is one of the few truly national entities that has representation in every jurisdiction in Canada, and in every broadcast media -- TV, radio, and the Net. So it's not just television, as Angry seems to imply.

That's important when you're living in a community where cable or broadband access is problematic, because under those circumstances no private businessman is going to be able to operate a profitable TV or radio station, which delivers good local programming.

Angry's main problem in his sniping at the CBC is that he's taken the Toronto point of view: sure, he's got plenty of choices on his remote or his radio dial, so he doesn't need the CBC. I wonder, though, if he's actually bothered to listen to The Current, or Disc Drive, or RSVP, or Vicki Gabereau or Peter Gzowski during their heyday. I've always found listening to CBC radio a good opportunity to find out what was going on in Vancouver, or the Prairies, or Montreal, or the Maritimes.

It's local coverage that the CBC excels at, and funnily enough it's what everyone seems to be demanding:

More important are the continuous complaints from viewers outside Canada's largest cities that CBC's reflection of regions in its daily programming is so inadequate that the broadcaster is not fulfilling its mandate to taxpayers.

CBC executives - who slashed regional programming following a series of government-imposed budget cuts five years ago - told a House of Commons committee earlier this year they will re-establish TV and radio in the regions if the Liberal government delivers an extra $80 million over three years.

Currently, taxpayers contribute about $900 million to the CBC's $1.3-billion annual budget.

Regional broadcasting is the critical issue, says former CBC president Tony Manera.

"It isn't economical for larger, private broadcasters to have a significant presence in the regions, so the CBC becomes indispensible and a lifeline to those smaller centres," he says.

"Abandoning or drastically reducing the regionally based services has a negative impact on the roots of the country. When I was president, I argued very strongly to maintain a strong regional presence because the CBC had to be grounded in the regions. But the reality is that the money isn't there, so hard choices have to be made. The government seems to be unable to grasp this very simple fact, so the CBC's choices are not between good and bad, but between bad and worse."

CBC TV, and its all-news sister station Newsworld, currently have an audience of about eight to nine per cent of English-language viewers.

But about 40 per cent of viewers watching Canadian programming do so on the two CBC channels - a task that became more difficult last fall, winter and spring because CBC filled its empty Hockey Night in Canada hours with aging Hollywood movies.

CBC radio networks One and Two are heard by 10 per cent of the listening audiences, but its local programming, where it exists, regularly grabs larger audiences. In Ottawa, for instance, CBC radio's morning and afternoon magazine shows regularly vie for top spot in the ratings.

Public utilities aren't the proper analogue to compare the CBC with. Think, instead, of the railways of the 19th century, which were supplemented by air transport and the Trans-Canada Highways in the 20th. The CBC is that analogue, only instead of transporting people across Canada, it's transporting ideas.

And that kind of network is worth spending taxpayers' money on.