Letter from the editor: The CBC has never been more vital—just not in the way it thinks

The CBC logo is projected onto a screen during the CBC's annual upfront presentation at The Mattamy Athletic Centre in Toronto, Wednesday, May 29, 2019. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Tijana Martin

Next Tuesday, CBC president Catherine Tait will be speaking at the Canadian Club in Toronto. The sold-out event is the unofficial kick-off of the renewal process for the public broadcaster’s CRTC licence, which is set to expire on August 31.

The CBC is no longer simply a broadcaster. It is a platform for truth in journalism at a time of misinformation, and it is a platform for Canadian culture at a time when global media players have easier access to Canadians than ever.

If we want Canadian culture to exist, we have no greater asset than the CBC. 

So why does the corporation remain as polarizing as ever? And how should the CRTC frame the CBC’s mandate for the next five to 10 years?

I’ve been poring over 10 years of the CBC’s annual financial statements, speaking with insiders and rethinking my own relationship with the public broadcaster. (Ed: The financial analysis will be made available to our subscribers in The Logic Council Slack channel).

What I’ve learned surprised me.

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The CBC doesn’t spend recklessly. Its payroll has remained flat over the past decade, while inflation has grown at an annual rate of 1.52 per cent. It’s far less reliant on advertising than I expected, at less than 15 per cent of its overall revenues in 2019. And its programming spend is a fraction of what private media companies spend on just one marquee show. For example, the CBC’s entire English and French programming catalogue in 2019, at $316 million, was less than the $339.7 million Netflix reportedly spent on the first two seasons of “The Crown.”

The most surprising discovery is just how much of a disparity there is between the corporation’s English- and French-language services. 

It’s commonly stated that Canadian taxpayers support the CBC to the tune of $32 per person, a number that’s barely moved in a decade. 

But almost half of CBC’s government funding—46 per cent—goes toward Radio-Canada, which serves Canada’s French-language population of roughly 8.5 million Canadians. The remainder—54 per cent—is spent on English services for the other 29 million Canadians. 

Adjusting for population, for every $1 the CBC spends on French services, it spends just 35 cents on English—that’s down 21 per cent, from 44 cents in 2010.

So what does all this mean?

For the CBC to serve all Canadians and thrive in the next decade, it needs major governance reform, the banishment of all advertising and a commitment to reform from within.

Governance reform

The CBC is stuck between two masters, requiring a delicate dance that undermines the corporation’s ability to plan for the long term.

Every year, it has to go to the government of the day to ask for funding. Every five years or so, it has to go to the broadcast regulator to renew its terms of licence and be given direct instructions on what it is required to do to retain it. If the regulator wants the CBC to produce, for example, six more hours of broadcast programming in Winnipeg, it does not have to consider how the CBC will pay for those additional six hours of work. If the governing party wants to cut the CBCs funding, it does not have to consider what the CRTC has mandated the CBC to do in order to keep its licence.

The corporation’s president is a political appointee who serves at the governing party’s pleasure. That the head of the corporation is entangled in political considerations means that cuts tend to fall hard in the English services; even among the CBC’s most hardened detractors in the House of Commons, very few would ever argue for cutting the Radio-Canada budget, given the near-universal agreement in Quebec on the importance of the corporation.

For real independence and relevance to all Canadians, the CBC should be made independent of the political class.

Banish advertising

A true public broadcaster doesn’t chase ratings. The CBC has been rightly criticized of late for its focus on advertising dollars, most recently with the launch of “Family Feud Canada.” But it’s also a factor in the news division, where it continues to produce broadcast news in major markets where it’s mostly the third- or even fourth-rated newscast on the airwaves. And it’s felt online, where CBC News often spends precious reporter time matching a story from another news outlet to generate page views for advertising.

Given that advertising revenues have been nearly cut in half from their “Hockey Night in Canada” days of $491 million in 2014 to less than $250 million today, it’s time to pull the plug on advertising entirely. This will remove the commercial pressures associated with making a hit show, placing a renewed focus on Canadian quality programming. It will also encourage meaningful journalism in underserved communities. 

Internal reform

This next recommendation is naturally the hardest to achieve. The CBC has long viewed itself as the stalwart gatekeeper of media in Canada, competing head-to-head with private broadcasters and news organizations. It needs to think of itself as a platform for Canadian content that drives viewers, listeners and readers to the work of those it has long considered competitors.   

Imagine a CBC that used its reach to drive traffic and awareness directly to other publications, like The Globe and Mail, the National Post and, yes, The Logic. It’d advance the struggling news industry by simply linking out, the way only a digital platform can, rather than duplicating the work of others. The same approach could be applied to using its distribution channels and reach in television, radio and podcasting. 

Reforming the CBC requires a dramatic shift in how it views itself. The broadcaster has never been more vital—just not in the way it thinks it is.  

If you care about Canadian news and culture, if you care about the importance of a collective truth and of independent journalism and if you care about a domestic counterweight to the omnipresence of Big Tech, there is no greater platform than the one we all own.

It has never been more vital.

Continue the conversation on The Logic Council, our subscriber-only Slack channel.

Clarification: An earlier version of this column misstated that the government appropriated CBC funding. That reference has been removed for clarity.