Monday, May 5, 2008

My summary of the CHPC meeting with CBC execs held May 1 2008

Mr. Hubert Lacroix, President and CEO of CBC/Radio-Canada, Mr. Richard Stursberg, Executive Vice-President, English Services and Mr. Sylvain Lafrance, Executive Vide-President, French Services, appeared before the House Standing Committee on Canadian Heritage on May 1 2008.

I was not able to attend the meeting but instead watched the video of the meeting on the Parliament video site here.

I’ve attempted to summarize those portions of the meeting relevant to the changes in the CBC Radio Two programming that have taken place over the past year and those changes that have been announced for September. I have based this summary on the notes that I took while watching the video since I do not have access to a transcript of the meeting; consequently, any errors or omissions are mine alone. If you know where a transcript of the proceedings can be found, please let me know.

During his opening remarks, Mr. Schellenberger reminded the committee members that questions that overstepped the bounds of the committee’s mandate according to the Broadcasting Act, or that threatened the CBC’s operational independence, were out of order and would not be considered.

I find it interesting that Mr. Schellenberger felt it necessary to make this remark. The Broadcasting Act clearly states:

40. The Corporation is ultimately accountable, through the Minister, to Parliament for the conduct of its affairs.

So, if Members of Parliament are not allowed to question CBC Executives concerning decisions that are relevant to “the conduct of its affairs”, then who is? Who is to oversee the CBC, if not the elected representatives of the taxpayers, namely, the Members of Parliament?

Fortunately, the Members of Parliament ignored the instruction of the Chairman and proceeded to ask questions concerning recent operational decisions of the CBC.

Mr. Hubert Lacroix then made an opening statement, during which he commented on the Committee’s recent report and the proposed MOU between the government (I assume) and the Corporation. Mr. Lacroix also stated that during the four months that he has held the position of CEO he has met with employees and “stakeholders that work in broadcasting” across the country. It is interesting, however, that at no point in his opening remarks did Mr. Lacroix state that he had met with Radio Two listeners to attempt to understand their concerns, even though there have been protests concerning the Radio Two programming changes taking place for the past year, and certainly within the last month. Are the CBC listeners not important to the conduct of the Corporation?

Mr. Lacroix also stated that in the four months since he has become CEO the CBC has focused on three priorities: its people, its programs and its push to move forward with its strategic initiatives. Once again, conspicuous by its absence is any mention of serving the needs of listeners. Where are the CBC Radio listeners in Mr. Lacroix’s priorities? Clearly not among the top three.

Mr. Lacroix also alluded to the recent protests by the CBC Radio Two listeners on April 11, stating that not all listeners are satisfied with change. However, Mr. Lacroix stated, CBC management will not shy away from making hard changes. What does this mean, precisely? Even if the majority of CBC Radio Two listeners are not in favour of the programming changes, CBC Radio executives are determined to push their changes through? Where will it end? Until there are no listeners left?

During the questions from the committee members that followed, Mr. Bill Siksay, Member of Parliament for Burnaby-Douglas, questioned the CBC executives about the recent changes that have been made to classical programming on Radio Two. Mr. Siksay reminded the executives that in many rural areas there are no alternatives to CBC Radio as very few commercial radio stations feature classical music. Mr. Siksay asked the CBC executives why listeners were being abandoned, especially in Vancouver, where listeners have been loyal to Radio Two?

Mr. Lacroix replied that the recent changes to the Radio Two programming are intended to make Radio Two the greatest showcase of Canadian music in the country and to expose listeners to other genres. Mr. Lacroix also reiterated the point that classical music will remain the most important genre on CBC Radio Two. Furthermore, Mr. Lacroix stated, in September the CBC will begin a streaming audio service on the internet to “stream classical music 24/7”.

This seems to be the crux of the CBC’s argument. (I find it interesting that the CBC executives have not felt the need to promote this viewpoint with Canadians prior to making the programming changes, but instead believe it’s acceptable to make the changes first, then explain their rationale. But this is another topic for discussion later.) Their argument, as I understand it, goes like this: the CBC is Canada’s public broadcaster. Therefore, it is the CBC’s mandate to promote Canadian artists, from every musical genre and every ethnic group represented in Canada. If this means that CBC Radio Two becomes a hodge-podge of music, everything from country music to jazz to pop to classical, so be it. It’s all in the name of cultural diversity! So what if no one actually listens to it!

The problem with this, of course, is that there is no focus on the listener. What does the listener want to hear? There is no focus on the quality of the music. Is it of sufficient quality to be played on Canada’s national broadcasting service? There is no focus on educating the listener. Is the music being featured on Radio Two accepted as being one of the great performances that deserves to be heard?

What if this approach to content was taken by, for example, the National Gallery of Canada? Suppose the National Gallery decided to focus primarily on Canadian artists, rather than considering the merits of the art? Would Canada be better served by being exposed to more Canadian art, albeit at the expense of other works of art from other countries, including the great masterpieces from Europe from previous centuries? Would this not be considered a somewhat provincial attitude?

What if this approach to content was taken by public libraries? What if public libraries in Canada decided to feature Canadian writers, at the expense of other authors from other countries. Would Canadians be better served by having access to more Canadian authors, even if best-sellers from other countries or the classic literature from other countries and other eras was not available, or was still available but not as widely?

Mr. Ed Fast, Member of Parliament from Abbotsford, pointed out that four of the finalists from the “Canadian Idol” competition had backgrounds in classical and choral music. Mr Fast also expressed concern that, as CBC scales back on classical music, fewer Canadians would develop an appreciation for classical music. Mr. Fast asked the CBC executives how they would measure the impact of their decision to reduce classical music on CBC Radio Two.

Mr. Lacroix reiterated his statement that Radio Two would become a showcase for Canadian talent in other genres and that “classical is not going away” on Radio Two, merely sharing the airwaves to better reflect other genres.

Mr. Fast then asked whether the same goal could not have been achieved by establishing another FM channel, leaving Radio Two as a mostly classical channel. Mr. Fast asked whether other options were considered and what consultation took place before these changes were implemented.

Mr. Stursberg stated that studies and consultations took place over the three previous years and that these consultations were the “most far-reaching” in the history of the CBC. Mr. Stursberg also reiterated the point that access to classical music would continue on Radio Two and that a new classical channel would be featured on the internet. Mr. Stursberg also pointed out that 30,000 pieces of music are released in Canada each year, yet only 240 pieces are played on radio. Mr. Stursberg stated that there is a “vast commercial landscape that is not heard” and that the shift in strategy on Radio Two was not meant to denigrate classical music, but instead intended to expose Canadians to music that they have had little access to in the past.

Well, this is all very interesting. If studies and consultations had taken place in the three years prior to the programming changes being implemented, don’t you think your or I (as loyal Radio Two listeners) would have heard about it? Don’t you think there would have been discussions on the CBC web site, on CBC Radio Two itself, in newspaper articles, in town hall meetings, on phone-in shows (on “Cross-country Check-up” perhaps) ? Instead, the changes to the CBC Radio Two programming that were introduced on March 19, 2007, were sprung upon an unsuspecting listening audience with little or no warning. This constitutes the “most far-reaching” consultation in the history of the CBC? What does the CBC do when it want to surprise someone?

As for the statement that there are 30,000 pieces of music released each year yet only 240 get commercial airplay, well, perhaps there is a good reason that only 240 get commercial airplay (if indeed these statistics are true, I have no way of knowing). Could it be that only 240 deserve to be heard? Is Radio Two to become a dumping ground for Canadian content that no one else wants?

Mr. Francis Scarpaleggia, Member of Parliament for Lac-Saint-Louis, stated that he has noticed the change in mix on Radio Two and that if one is looking for classical music, it is getting to the point that “Radio Two is not the place to go” as it is becoming “hit and miss – lounge music, then jazz”. Mr Scarpaleggia also suggest that if the music mix becomes too broad, then in major markets it will get to the point that listeners will disengage from Radio Two and CBC Radio Two’s audience share will fall. Those who want to hear pop music will go to commercial radio. Mr. Scarpaleggia wondered: what will happen if the CBC executives appear before this committee in the future, after CBC Radio’s market share has fallen to one percent (from the current three percent)?

Mr. Lacroix replied that CBC Radio is attempting to replicate the depth and analysis currently devoted to classical music in other genres and that classical music will remain in the 10:00 AM to 3:00 PM timeslot. CBC Radio Two listeners will still know where to go to hear classical music. Mr. Lacroix stated that he would be disappointed if Radio Two listeners moved to other channels and did not “open up to other genres”.

Mr. Scarpaleggia replied that the CBC Radio Two listener may not be able to listen to CBC Radio Two during the 10:00 AM to 3:00 PM timeslot and may want to hear classical in his or her car, or on the kitchen radio. In that case, will the CBC Radio Two listener be lost forever? (The answer to that question is yes, of course the listener will be lost forever. But I realize it was a rhetorical question.) Mr. Scarpaleggia asked if the CBC would create another radio station, if it had sufficient funding.

Mr. Stursberg stated that the CBC could not afford to build another FM radio network. Mr. Stursberg also stated that, as a result of market research, it was becoming clearer that the CBC Radio Two audience was becoming older. It was also clear that the prevailing view that the audience would “grow into Radio Two” was not taking place. Radio listeners in their 40s and 50s were not moving to Radio Two. Therefore, Mr. Stursberg stated, Radio Two would have to be repositioned and, by doing so, would serve the Canadian music industry better. Mr. Stursberg also stated, surprisingly, that he was “not too worried about losing the audience”.

Mr. Michal Chong, Member of Parliament for Wellington-Halton Hills, made several points concerning Radio Two. Mr. Chong compared CBC Radio Two’s decision to revamp its programming to Coca-Cola’s decision to introduce “New Coke” in 1985, stating that the CBC was alienating its core audience. Mr. Chong asked why, if the CBC was interested in showcasing new artists, they were putting new artists on FM radio instead of on the internet. Mr. Chong pointed out that FM listeners tend to be an older demographic, whereas younger listeners tend to listen on-line more often. Mr. Chong also suggested that if the CBC wanted to showcase diversity, a third FM band would be required as is commonly the case with public broadcasters in Europe.

Mr. Siksay then asked whether the CBC executives had any market share data available to judge the success of their programming changes. Clearly, the subject of the discussion had been the changes to CBC Radio Two, yet Mr. Stursberg persisted in trumpeting the audience share of CBC Radio One and CBC Television before finally stating, with an apparent straight face, that no erosion had been seen in the Radio Two audience, and none was expected!

Mr. Siksay asked whether audience erosion had not occurred in Vancouver and Mr. Stursberg replied that it had not. Mr. Stursberg also stated that the CBC would not have a clear sense of the CBC’s market share “until the beginning of next year”, after the new programming had been launched in September.

Mr. Siksay then asked: when did the changes to the CBC Radio Two programming begin? Mr. Stursberg, showing himself to be a master of the understatement, replied that some “small changes” had been made in the past year.

Mr. Siksay then asked whether the CBC did not survey its audience to determine the reaction to these changes and Mr. Stursberg replied that the CBC does not survey its audience, relying instead on the Bureau of Broadcast Measurement. Mr. Stursberg reiterated the point that the CBC has not seen any erosion in market share.

I find Mr. Stursberg’s remarks preposterous. Of course the CBC executives have access to market share data and of course they can assess the impact of the changes in the programming on CBC Radio Two’s market share! They have a full year’s worth of data to assess, from the 6:00 PM to 10:00 PM timeslot, when “Music for Awhile” and “In Performance” were replaced by the crapulent “Tonic” and even the more crapulent “Canada Live”. Unfortunately, members of the public do not have access to this data. While it is true that the Bureau of Broadcast Measurement (BBM) provides access to its "Top Line Radio Reports" here, the fact is that this data covers the time period from 5:00 AM to 1:00 AM Monday to Sunday as one single value - hardly granular enough for a member of the public to determine if, for example, CBC Radio Two has lost listeners in the 6:00 PM to 10:00 PM timeslot during weekdays. One would expect that if the effects on audience share of the move away from classical music would have been felt, it would be in this timeslot. And, the fact is, the BBM have compiled a full years' worth of data for the CBD to analyze - and the CBC, as a subscriber to their service, receives data that is much more specific than available to the general public. If the changes in CBC Radio Two’s evening schedule, first launched on March 19 2007, were such a smashing success, as the CBC executives would have us believe, doesn’t it make sense that the CBC executives would be willing to highlight this success? Or perhaps this experiment has not been so successful after all, and the CBC executives are unwilling to admit this?

After further questioning the meeting was adjourned, and Mr. Schellenberger thanked the witnesses for appearing before the committee.

I find all of this quite astonishing. After a year of programming changes we finally hear, in a public forum, CBC Radio management’s rationale for the changes that have been taking place on Radio Two. If you were the executive of a large corporation planning to implement an unprecedented change in your product, wouldn’t you prepare your customers carefully for such a change? Wouldn’t you advertise this change well in advance, preparing your customer for the change so that, when it did happen, the customer would be prepared for it and perhaps even be looking forward to it? And, before making such a change in your product, wouldn’t you survey your customer base to make sure that your customers were receptive to such changes?

Nothing of the sort has happened in this case. Instead, CBC Radio has attempted to force these programming changes down the throat of their audience and, what is worse, appear to be completely oblivious to the impact that it has had on their audience. They are not willing to change their course and it appears that there is no government body that is willing or able to make them change their course.

What is the Canadian taxpayer to do when a Crown corporation begins to run amok?

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