An interactive exhibition previews the CBC's 2013-2014 lineup. Photograph courtesy of the Canadian Press

Cover Story

Is the Sun Rising or Setting on the CBC?

Our public broadcaster charts its course in a world of Snapchat, clickbait, and teenage YouTube stars

At the Canadian Broadcasting Centre in Toronto, I make a wrong turn. Third floor, east side: used to be the radio newsroom when I worked here ten years ago. Then, it was a frantic hub of creativity and human disorder, knee-deep in newspapers and Styrofoam Thai takeout containers that popped when you stepped on them. Today, it’s home to something called Communications Marketing and Branding, where people meet in glass boardrooms with catchy names. Stencilled onto the glass of the “Idea Room” are these words: Modernity. Technology. Progress.

I find my bearings and make my way to the fourth floor, where staffers are holding the morning digital-news meeting. I follow the noise to a huge space with actual walls. The vibe is casual: fleece, hiking shoes, relaxed banter. Management was kind enough to put in a foosball table, but there’s no ball for it. A TV monitor is perched on a stack of photocopy paper. On the wall of the meeting room, an unmarked dry-erase board. On the table, an untouched Globe and Mail. Thirteen people are here, with one disembodied voice on a conference call from Ottawa. It looks a bit like the old days, except for one big difference: everyone clutches a smartphone and studies it instead of making eye contact. Some clutch two.

The goal here is to review what happened overnight, anticipate what’s to come, and decide how to share all this with the Canadians who follow CBC News online and on their phones. Such daily huddles are crucial for a public broadcaster desperate to stay relevant at a time when people are consuming media in entirely new ways. “If we were starting over,” CBC president and CEO Hubert Lacroix said last year when describing Strategy 2020: A Space for Us All, the corporation’s latest five-year blueprint, “the smart money would invest everything into digital.”

It’s hard not to feel that the CBC is, indeed, starting over. Strategy 2020’s signature motto is “mobile first,” which means making the smartphone audience the top priority, and creating content specifically for it. It’s a mandate that, by reallocating resources traditionally earmarked for television and radio, promises to transform the company. Nothing will be spared: news, current affairs, entertainment, children’s programming. The aim is that by 2020, one out of every two Canadians—18 million people—will access the CBC digitally. What the CBC will look like if that happens is anybody’s guess.

Yesterday, police in Tulsa, Oklahoma, released a dashcam video of officers shooting an unarmed black man. “Run it on the website,” says one producer. “Do we obscure the video out of respect for the dead man?” asks another. “No need.” The video was shared extensively online, unedited, before anyone at this meeting got out of bed. The conversation shifts to Justin Trudeau and Barack Obama, who are both visiting the United Nations in New York today: Trudeau, to give his first UN address as prime minister, and Obama, to deliver his final UN speech as United States president. The producers decide to carry the addresses on Facebook Live. A new project by Gord Downie, of the Tragically Hip? The team decides to “push social,” which means: get the story out on Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and Instagram. There’s plenty of nodding. What about the story the Globe ran about a new extradition deal with China? There’s silence. “Sounds like talk at this point,” decides one editor, which is a polite way of saying: nothing jumps out that will silk-purse this sow’s ear into a sexy digital story. Leave it to radio.

Back at his office, Brodie Fenlon, a senior news director, discusses the meeting with me. Time moves quickly for his team. Decisions are made and deferred, but the point is to come to some agreement about what to obsess over today. In the past, they had two ways to showcase those obsessions: radio and TV. Now there are “platforms.” Take Facebook Live, which streams live video to social-media subscribers. It didn’t even exist a year ago, says Fenlon, but it’s already “an integral part of our assignment.” This is the CBC’s new reality: get familiar with the digital landscape, and fast. “We place our bets and figure out what works,” says Fenlon. “When we get there, something else comes along—like Snapchat.”

Snapchat is a social-media app that allows people to send photos or video as messages. Once viewed, the “snaps” self-destruct—a trick that has made the company the undisputed global platform for dick pics. But the app has bigger plans. Snapchat Discover, first introduced in 2015, has become a sought-after vehicle for media companies who want to reach a younger audience. Essentially a digital newsstand, Discover’s offerings include documentaries, investigative features, and articles. Uploaded daily, the content vanishes after twenty-four hours—but not before the more popular posts have captured millions of views.

Photograph courtesy of the Canadian Press
Staffer Jeff Kaey walks through the newsroom in 2009. Photograph courtesy of the Canadian Press

If Strategy 2020 takes hold, the CBC will probably have to figure out how to package the range of its reporting for Snapchat, as news outlets like the BBC and CNN have done already. But by the time you read this, the audience may have moved on to a newer, flashier platform—Instagram Stories, say—and Fenlon and his team will be scrambling to get their heads around the next fad. “We’re building the car while we’re driving it,” he says, “and it may turn out to be an airplane.”

That’s fine. One expects a public broadcaster to pay attention to currents and tides. But rather than excitement about new technology, there’s a very different feeling in this building: anxiety. The new corporate strategy proposes a future in which everyone is on digital, consuming their news and entertainment on devices. But what if it’s wrong? You only have to look at the Toronto Star’s experiment with creating a tablet edition of its newspaper to see how the rush to digital can end up being a colossal, expensive, and embarrassing disaster. Launched in 2015 and aggressively marketed, Star Touch was shuttered this year because of low readership. It was a 20 million dollar miscalculation that ended up costing roughly seventy people their jobs.

Walking on the second floor between colour-coded elevators, I see a picture in an office window, held in place by closed Venetian blinds. It’s like some kind of talisman of the past—a faded publicity shot of comedy duo Wayne and Shuster. I am not a fan of nostalgia: glory days usually prove never to have existed. But the picture’s presence seems rebellious, because these tuxedoed cornball geniuses—who got their first CBC show in 1946 and were off the air by 1989—don’t fit into an evolving image of a forward-looking, plugged-in, hip CBC.

Since its founding in 1936, the CBC has routinely been accused of stodginess. But as the broadcaster adapts to changing media conditions and grows more elaborate, it harbours ambitions that threaten to outstrip its own ability to define itself. Jeffrey Dvorkin, once a managing editor of CBC Radio News and now head of the journalism program at the University of Toronto’s Scarborough campus, puts it this way: “When media organizations lose sight of their purpose, they embrace technology without really understanding what it is.”

In the CBC’s past, we find examples of excellence in which new or emerging technology barely figured: Morningside, This Hour Has Seven Days, The Great Eastern, and, more recently, WireTap. These shows were about writing, performance, the vagaries and complexities of human communication—not electronics. It’s a legacy the broadcaster ignores at its peril.

Heather Conway, the CBC’s executive vice-president on the English side, has a modest office on the seventh floor of the corporation’s Toronto headquarters. I wait for her in an open carpeted space the size of a basketball court. It’s empty but for two black vinyl couches pushed close together as if marking a spot on the carpet where one might build a fire for warmth. The space is undergoing renovation as the CBC shrinks its footprint in the building and rents out office space it no longer needs. The mood is ghostly: human beings used to work here, before the downsizing and reconfiguring—all the euphemisms for people losing their jobs.

Photograph courtesy of Canadian Press
Employees watch a dispiriting newscast on April 10, 2014. Photograph courtesy of the Canadian Press

It’s important to note that despite the CBC’s cutback targets—it aims to shed 1,150 full-time positions by 2020—it also plans to hire 300 new employees “in the next years” to improve the company’s digital skills. Whether that will mean more coders, more interactive journalists, or more thought leaders who would help shape the company’s ultramodern ethos remains unclear. What Strategy 2020 does make clear is that the CBC wants its creative people to think, a lot, and often, about smartphones and what to put on them. To drive home the point, TVs hang near most elevators in the building, showing the latest Chartbeat metrics on how Canadians are usingcbc.ca: 57,852 concurrent visitors at 11 o’clock in the morning, growing to 60,832 an hour later. Is this good? It’s just metadata, but the effect is of watching koi in a pond, seeing where they feed, for how long, and in what parts of the information pool.

A story about the Trans Mountain pipeline, for example, has 1,251 views. But the top story on the CBC, with 4,109 views, is about a Kingston landlord upset that his tenants have been keeping livestock in their apartment: a goat, rabbits, chickens, “definitely” quails, according to the landlord. The reasons one story has four times as many clicks as the other are not all that complicated. One story advances your understanding of political and economic forces in Canada. The other you can practically smell, and is more likely to show up on your Facebook timeline.

The question is: Which of those two stories represents the future of the CBC? It’s the classic clickbait dilemma. Do you draw people in using cat videos, then hit them with the hard journalism they need? But the strategy is flawed. You end up with a news service that’s all over the map, trying hard to be liked. When I talk to Fenlon about metrics, he says, “It’s healthy and good to do a gut check with what we think is important and how that’s playing with the audience, but it’s just one of many factors.” Which is to say that, in the newsroom, an editor’s instinct about news value will be informed, but not determined, by numbers. Still, by the elevator, there’s the insistent statistical hum that tells a programmer what people really want—and it’s not pipelines. Who doesn’t want to give people what they want? Especially if you’re looking to round up 18 million of them by 2020.

“People’s viewing habits are shifting away from scheduled content to on-demand content,” Heather Conway tells me. “In radio, they’re shifting from linear listening in the car or home to streaming.” She holds up her smartphone. “I have one of these,” she says. “Most Canadians have one, too, and they check them all day long. And one of their favourite things to check is CBC. So by the time you get to the supper hour, you actually know the news. What you’re interested in is what’s next.”

For programmers at the CBC, the message is simple: Think about digital. All. The. Time. But making radio and TV with that in mind is more challenging. A radio producer I know there tells me that, so far, she’s had little guidance about how to, as she puts it, “up the digital game.” The company should appeal to younger listeners, one manager told her. That same manager said, vis-à-vis the vision thing, that in five years people will be using driverless cars, so the CBC needs to think about creating programming for people who are in cars but don’t have to focus on driving. “I have honestly tried to understand our mission or mandate,” she says, “but the message from management has been vague and confusing.”

All she knows, she says, is that every Friday, she gets an email announcing the top digital stories for their division (often the quirky ones), and that everyone wants to be mentioned in this report and are gutted if they’re not. “Our numbers suck,” she says of the radio show she works on. “So a group of us tried to figure out how to better market our show. We’re not marketing experts, but no one else is doing it for us.” They hashed out ways to make Twitter more effective in boosting their numbers. But, she asks, “Are we even making radio anymore?”

Those concerns sounded familiar. I heard similar things in 1992, when I started as a radio producer. At that time, the corporation’s president was Gérard Veilleux. His idea, which he had cooked up with pen and paper on a Canadian Airlines flight from Edmonton to Ottawa the year before, was eventually dubbed “repositioning.” At the time, the television audience was shrinking, and the fear was that things would only get worse thanks to satellites—nicknamed “death stars”—which could broadcast hundreds of specialty channels for every taste, leaving general-interest networks like the CBC in the dust. New technology called for change, so Veilleux and his senior programmers dreamed up a branding exercise that, they said, would win back viewers by reminding them of how distinctive and vital the CBC was.

Photograph courtesy of Canadian Press
Hubert Lacroix speaks at the 2015 annual public meeting. Photograph courtesy of the Canadian Press

It was a ratings disaster. A decision was made to move the flagship newscast The National from 10 p.m. to 9 p.m. because it was assumed that viewers’ habits were changing (Veilleux claimed they were going to bed earlier). A new logo was created. Other than that, very little direction was offered to the programmers who were expected to reposition the network: they received no clear set of marching orders to help them address, through their craft, what it meant to live, work, and raise families in Canada. “Nothing was spelled out,” complained the late Knowlton Nash in The Microphone Wars (1994), his history of the CBC. Gerald Caplan, a public-policy expert who co-chaired a government task force on Canadian broadcasting in the 1980s, called Veilleux’s shakeup “a way to make sure I watch as little CBC Television as possible. And,” he continued, “it’s working.” The National eventually moved back to its old slot, and Veilleux moved on to another job. The new logo remained.

The plan exposed the CBC for what it was, and in some ways still is: a public broadcaster in a state of technological panic. “Each new wave of managers that come in,” says Barry Kiefl, president of Canadian Media Research Inc. in Ottawa and former head of research at the CBC, “get caught up in these metrics that they think are meaningful because others in the industry use them.” In other words, the CBC’s current struggle to gauge success using terms like “concurrent visitors” and “engaged minutes” isn’t so much about media managers adapting to technology as it is about their being seduced by the future and all its buzz words. The architects of Strategy 2020 might want to pay attention to the wrecks in their rear-view mirror—if only to make sure that something like repositioning doesn’t happen again.

The youtube space at Toronto’s George Brown College opened in April 2016. On one Friday the following winter, I show up for an event hosted by the CBC. The room is loft-like: white walls, an exposed ceiling, track lighting, and what appear to be carpeted blocks for creative young people to sit on.

I’m clearly the oldest of the crowd, which numbers about thirty. Most of the other attendees produce YouTube videos on their own channels: how-to, comedy, music (“Do you do metal? I do metal”). One of them makes video compilations of content from other YouTube creators. Example: the top five videos of people flipping plastic water bottles so that they land upright, the twenty-five funniest acts of vandalism, the top fifteen ghost videos. He’s here to see whether the CBC wants to do business with him. He has nearly 2 million subscribers. For context, CBC News on YouTube has 361,000 subscribers, and The National has 119,000.

These YouTubers are being scouted as freelancers for the CBC. It’s all part of what Abby Ho, then head of the CBC’s Creator Network, calls “facilitating emerging talent”—or, if you will, sourcing unconventional fare for use on specialty channels, both online and mobile. “Our goal,” says Ho, “is to create a range of digital content that meets the needs of Canada’s diverse populations.” The business model seems obvious: drive the kind of traffic that legacy media can only dream of. A growing number of people have given up on television altogether and are looking for fresh material on YouTube or via Facebook and any number of other apps. The production model is also appealing: young people who might never otherwise have scored a contract at the CBC are getting their work shown there after all, and a lot of them are gifted.

One such creator is Toronto-based Wendy Liu. Through her YouTube channel Withwendy, which has 540,000 subscribers, Liu teaches people to sew clothes and accessories, such as mini-backpacks and wrap dresses, from scratch. On one episode of her CBC Life show, Dollar Store DIY, she offers instructions on how to make an “adorable and easy” advent calendar from low-cost materials. The growing popularity of such YouTubers among younger audiences has led the broadcaster to partner with an American media company called Fullscreen, which claims billions of video viewings annually and produces such original shows as Making Moves (about a dancer who “navigates the cutthroat LA dance scene and high stakes world of internet stardom”) and Kingdom Geek (a talk show with a co-host who “breathes geek culture, especially all things superhero”). The YouTube and online entrepreneurs who work for Fullscreen—the company boasts a roster of 70,000 creators from across the globe—will supply material for the CBC’s TV network and digital channels. The main hope is that the traffic will create a social-media gateway to the CBC’s own properties.

We watch a “sizzle reel”—a tightly edited montage of various CBC YouTube channels. Clips from web-based sitcoms and makeup tutorials. Footage of flamboyant vloggers and young people in Uniqlo-like garb. There’s an emphasis on diversity, and the whole thing is set to a high-energy rock track. Some of the montage looks and sounds familiar, but much of it doesn’t. In a way, it’s refreshing—upbeat, dynamic. The quality is high. Yet during our talk, Dvorkin expressed uneasiness with the “mobile first” mania driving interest in such content. Of his old employer, he says, “They have anxiety about being accused of being elitist and are convinced that being popular and having ratings is the only definition of success.”Besides, he continues, CBC managers are “just like any consumer.” They get wowed by new tech and gadgets.

Photograph courtesy of the CBC Still Photo Collection
Knowlton Nash hosted the National from 1978 to 1988. Photograph courtesy of the CBC Still Photo Collection

Viewers witnessed some of the perils of this tech giddiness last October, when foreign correspondent Nahlah Ayed was assigned to a refugee rescue ship in the Mediterranean. She worked up material for The Fifth Estate, but she also appeared on Facebook Live, reporting from the deck in the middle of the morning, Toronto time. Viewers were invited to send questions. A number of commenters were in the mood to rattle on about the CBC. “Why go live when you refuse to run stories honestly…zero integrity,” wrote one viewer. “It’s TIME to cut the liberal news station loose,” another said. The rest argued over the issue of refugees. Dump them in Italy, tell them Canada is full, screen the boat for terrorists, send them back home—and all this while Ayed was engaged in a risky assignment.

Not, perhaps, what the CBC had in mind for this experiment. But it was instructive. On the one hand, it’s a bold move to take a reporter in a dangerous situation and put her in a live video on a social-media platform that just this year hit 2 billion users worldwide. On the other, editorial control suffers when such projects turn into forums for trolls. That’s one of the flaws of “mobile first”: it encourages people to think about the platform first, then plug in the story and hope for the best.

The other flaw is more fundamental. The glossy Strategy 2020 features a photo of joyful young people lying on grass, holding tablets and smartphones. But what if the brave new world where everyone smiles at a device is, if not a fiction, at least over-imagined? “The under-reported surprise story in this period of great technological upheaval,” says Gregory Taylor, a professor in the Department of Communication, Media, and Film at the University of Calgary, “is the continued resilience of traditional television. Yes, cable has seen a drop in numbers, but many of those are people who simply moved to new services: Bell Fibe, Telus Optik. Since Netflix launched in Canada, traditional TV viewing has dropped from 28 to 27.4 hours a week—hardly a disaster.” In other words, the technological change that is actually happening might not be enough to warrant “flipping” the CBC’s priorities by 2020. Putting digital first ignores how people use the radio for company, while doing chores or pretending to work. It ignores how people keep the television on during a crisis, how much authority it carries.

One mistake the CBCleadership made in 1992 with repositioning was to try to fight the death stars by becoming one. As well as moving the time of The National, they divided the TV schedule into specialty blocks: kids programming blocks, adult entertainment blocks, information blocks. Viewers were bewildered. The CBC’s current technological panic could produce a similar result: the corporation is pushing content onto social media before it knows whether it’s building a car or an airplane. Today, the CBC offers French, English, and Indigenous radio and television, as well as specialty and media-partnered programming. Podcasts, too. Commissioned entertainment is big budget, like Schitt’s Creek, or low budget, like Withwendy. The CBC is news on the Trans Mountain pipeline produced by professionals. The CBC is viral content on YouTube produced by amateurs. The CBC is, in a word, exhausting.

Not that the CBC as cornered the market on overdoing it. The Globe and Mail produces podcasts, such as Colour Code, hosted by Denise Balkissoon and Hannah Sung, which focuses on race in Canada. This is a newspaper making radio. The National Post purchases video-news packs by the Canadian Press and then posts them on its website. This is a newspaper being a television station. Snapchat is working on an original reality show called Second Chance, in which couples who are no longer couples discuss why their relationships didn’t work. This is a photo app being every specialty lifestyle channel you don’t watch. “Everybody’s doing everything,” admits Fenlon, which is as good a description of the media landscape as any.

“It’s a crowded place,” he says of the social-media turf the CBC covets, “and every English-language publisher is basically competing for attention with every other English-language publisher. But no one tells Canadian stories the way we do, and no one is in Canada the way we are.” This is the CBC’s trump card: if it’s prepared to be unabashedly Canadian in a milieu where no one else sees much commercial value in doing the same, it will enjoy the benefits of being different. But it’s important to say this out loud, and often—at least as often as CBC management uses the term “mobile first.” Better to say “Canada first,” on radio, television, and mobile.

What does it mean to tell Canadian stories “the way we do”? This existential puzzle has dogged the corporation for decades. In the 1950s, a time when the debate over public broadcasting was intensely political, the Massey Commission opted to define the CBC in the negative: it was not American. Beyond that, things have stayed vague.

“When I drive across the country,” says Heather Conway, “I don’t even need to hear the call letter. I know how to find the CBC, because it sounds like nothing else on the dial.” She’s right: the sound and look of the CBC are not an accident, and have always been deliberate. Peter Gzowski had it, Stuart McLean had it, Michael Enright, Rosemary Barton, and Matt Galloway have it: they understand there is really only one listener or viewer. The relationship is intimate.

Photograph by Pail Hoeffler
Peter Mansbridge appears in a promo shot for 1982’s Quarterly Report: The Electronic We. Photograph by Pail Hoeffler courtesy of the CBC Still Photo Collection

Where some private broadcasters go wrong is in thinking of an audience, of the many, and then hollering material over everyone’s head to the back of the hall. It’s like having a conversation with a stage actor who’s still in character. At times, the CBC makes the same mistake. But its legacy is the voice in your ear, the feeling that someone is talking directly to you. The CBC could use its own Jane Jacobs, someone who could put a halt to the frantic construction of hi-tech expressways and look again at the old neighbourhoods to see what’s worth preserving. In the old neighbourhoods of the CBC, there has always been quiet respect for human dignity and the power of listening. Only after that comes respect for image and sound: the craft. If the CBC wants to be “mobile first,” it’s worth remembering that there’s never been a more intimate communication tool than the smartphone. It is most often held, watched, or read by one person. It is not a place for broadcasting. It is a place for one-on-one contact.

It’s also worth remembering that if Canadians are drawn to the CBC, it’s not for its technological savvy. Chris Boyce was the director of radio and audio for English CBC. He left two years ago in the wake of the Jian Ghomeshi scandal. Now he’s co-owner of a podcast company based in British Columbia. He suggests that Strategy 2020 may not be a radical move that will put the CBC on the cutting edge so much as it is a new expression of the ongoing confusion the corporation has faced in the modern era: Why are we here? What do we do, and how do we measure our success at doing it? “In my period at the CBC,” he says, “a lot of time was spent running in circles because nobody could figure out if we were doing what we were supposed to be doing. And in the absence of an articulated vision, everyone filled in the blanks in the way they wanted, or the way that fit their view of what public broadcasting should be.”

It doesn’t have to be that way. The BBC, too, has made digital a priority, shifting to a “mobile-first proposition”—as described in its 2017 annual plan—that features “short-form journalism and visual storytelling.” But the BBC also says it will emphasize “slow news”: a deeper, long-form focus on current events and issues. While the CBC uses words like “transform” and “innovation” in its Strategy 2020, the BBC is declaring up front that it will keep doing what it does best, damn the metrics.

Is the CBC diluting its mission by taking on too much? For Boyce, that’s the dark heart of the matter. He thinks the great tragedy of the CBC is that it is utterly unable to free up resources to do things it absolutely must do to remain relevant. “Does it make sense to continue creating supper-hour newscasts?” he asks. “Is that the most cost-effective way to reach Canadians with local CBC content?” Boyce doesn’t think so. “But nobody wants to be the executive that killed local supper-hour news on CBC.”

Also, the country’s changed. There are six times more people in Sarnia, Ontario, than in Grand Falls–Windsor, Newfoundland, but it was only the latter that had (at least until last year) a CBC station. There are shows on CBC Radio and Television that have been around forever and that are expensive to produce, but that no longer command audiences the way they used to. “We don’t live in a world of limitless resources; we live in a world where we needed to make tough decisions about what to stop doing, so we could start doing new things,” says Boyce.

But doing new things also means understanding why you’re doing them. The CBC has asked the federal government for another $400 million to run an advertising-free operation, which it argues would stimulate the creative marketplace: more documentary and entertainment programming would have to be commissioned to fill all the freed-up time on TV, radio and smartphones. If the corporation wants that money, it really needs to come up with a vision—whether it’s one that incorporates lessons from the past, or one that reaffirms that frontline programmers can be trusted to follow their instincts.

What the CBC can’t do is repeat the mistakes of repositioning and expect taxpayers to wave it through. Graham Fox, CBC pundit, says talk of vision must come before any talk of money. “Let’s first decide what the CBC’s mandate should be in the social-media age,” he tells me, “and then we can come to an agreement on what that costs. Until we know what we want the CBC to deliver, a debate on how much funding it should have is a pointless exercise.”

At the digital-news meeting, beyond talk of “pushing social,” there is discussion of another story: a Russian man is considering a head transplant. Questions arise. First of all, is that the right term? Should the procedure instead be called a body transplant? Also, a head transplant was tried on a dog decades ago and the dog died, so there’s that. Some see the Italian surgeon as a visionary genius. Others say he’s a dangerous crackpot. So there’s narrative tension. But no one is talking about how it will be packaged online. That’s for later. Right now, they’re still searching for the human heart of the story: Socratically, sarcastically, rhetorically.

That’s what the CBC does best: put a bunch of people in a room and force them to hack through the weeds until they find a story worth telling. That’s its mandate. Everything else is a distraction.

Tom Jokinen is a writer based in Toronto. He frequently contributes to the Globe and Mail and CBC Radio.

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