Until recently, reinventing the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation seemed merely desirable. Now it’s imperative. The public broadcaster is struggling to stay afloat in the face of a perfect storm: ongoing cuts to its government funding; the loss of advertising revenue from NHL telecasts, after Rogers bought the rights; and lower than expected ratings for its current television season. In April, CBC president Hubert Lacroix announced the elimination of 657 jobs, almost 10 percent of the corporation’s permanent workforce. There will be programming cuts as well. Going forward, for instance, the network will no longer compete for the rights to broadcast professional sports.
These are only short-term remedies. Still to be addressed is the larger question of how to put the ship on a more sustainable course, long term. In years past, asking the government to increase its $1.15-billion annual subsidy might have been an option. There is certainly a strong case for it: the CBC receives just $34 a year from individual Canadians, well below the per capita subsidies for public broadcasters in countries such as France ($78), the United Kingdom ($111), and Germany ($147), and a far cry from the $164 allocated to Norway’s tiny NRK. Still, no one—least of all CBC management—has any illusions about its chances of getting more government funding in the foreseeable future.
While Canadian prime ministers have always believed the CBC was out to get them, Brian Mulroney was the first to take an axe to its budget. Jean Chrétien followed his lead, and so has Stephen Harper (Paul Martin was an outlier). Since 1997, the CBC’s federal funding has fallen by more than 15 percent, while government spending as a whole has risen by more than half. Within Conservative ranks, the animus toward the corporation is palpable. No fewer than six Tory MPs have tabled petitions calling for an end to its subsidy. Former parliamentary secretary Dean Del Mastro spoke for many when he told a committee hearing, “Maybe it’s time we get out of the public broadcasting business.”
So no, a helping hand from the government of the day is not in the cards—but remember, there’s still $1 billion in the kitty. Not enough to cover the cost of existing programming, but a lot of money nevertheless. Not enough to be all things to all people, the CBC’s wrong-headed goal for the past quarter century, but enough to fulfill its obligations as the country’s public broadcaster: namely, to deliver programming that serves the public interest but is not provided by the private sector. Why, after all, should a publicly funded broadcaster telecast professional hockey when private networks will? And why should its schedule include calorie-free confections like Dragons’ Den and Recipe to Riches that satisfy no discernible common good?
Yes, hockey and schlock reality shows attract larger audiences than The Nature of Things and The Fifth Estate, but for a public broadcaster higher ratings are desirable only if the programs that fuel them also enrich the country. This principle seems to be better understood at CBC Radio, with staples like The Sunday Edition, As It Happens, Quirks & Quarks, and Writers & Company. The House, a weekly one-hour roundup of political events, has a smaller audience than, say, Q, a daily show about pop culture, but its existence is no less important. We build parks at public expense because we believe everyone should enjoy access to shared green spaces. Whether they use them matters less than that they have the opportunity.
Some people disparage programs like The House as “broccoli” (code for “nutritious but not much fun”). But this, surely, is what the public broadcaster is supposed to do: eschew the fast food offered up by private broadcasters in favour of what’s actually good for you—which is not to say that it can’t also amuse and entertain. In the hands of a good chef, even broccoli can be enjoyable. And it’s not as if there aren’t other, more popular vegetables to put on the menu. So the question facing those charting the CBC’s future is not whether it should produce content of this kind. In the final analysis, there’s no other justification for its existence. The question, rather, is how much it can produce with the $1 billion it has left.
This appeared in the June 2014 issue.