Monday, March 30, 2009

An anniversary to remember.

An anniversary for the CBC passed recently and I didn't mention it in this blog. What anniversary was that, you might ask? Why, it was the second anniversary of Phase I of CBC Radio Two's disastrous attempts at restructuring its programming, which began March 19, 2007.

Of course, we didn't know at the time that it was simply Phase I of a larger program. No, the CBC Radio Two listening audience merely thought it was an ill-advised restructuring of the evening programming - the cancellation of the "World at Six" news broadcast, the replacement of "Music for a while" with the much-reviled "Tonic", the replacement of "In Performance" with the cretinous "Canada Live", the cancellation of "Two New Hours" and the introduction of the crapulent "The Signal" and the cancellation of "Brave New Waves" and "Northern Lights". Oh, and I forgot to mention: the cancellation of the "The Arts Report" and Joe Cummings during the "Music and Company" morning broadcasts. Well, I suppose it was unfair that the evening schedule should bear the brunt of the restructuring.

Following Phase I of the CBC restructuring was Phase II - the cancellation of "Symphony Hall", "The Singer and the Song" and the removal of Howard Dyck from "Saturday Afternoon at the Opera". And, following swiftly on the heels of Phase II like a rabid dog chasing a postie came Phase III, the cancellation of "Here's to You", "Studio Sparks" and "Sound Advice", and the replacement of "Disc Drive" with "Radio 2 Drive" and "Music and Company" with "Radio 2 Morning". The announcement of Phase III, of course, resulted in a storm of protest, letters written to the editors of newspapers, protests in the streets on April 11, 2008, the creation of Facebook groups in protest and much general hand-wringing. But it all came to naught. The CBC continued on its merry way in spite of the protests of its listeners.

Two years have passed since the beginning of Phase I and the CBC is very much in the news lately. Last week the CBC announced program cancellations and staff reductions in response to a budget shortfall, blamed by CBC management on the loss of revenues from television advertising during this global recession. The CBC has even announced that they may have to resort to asset sales - the sale of buildings owned by the CBC - to meet their budget. Of course, global recession aside, the lack of funding increases for the CBC over the past several years and the Conservative government's refusal to provide additional funding to the CBC during this time of crisis can also be blamed for the current mess the CBC finds itself in.

But who is really to blame for the crisis at the CBC? Greedy mortgage lenders, bankers and insurance companies who precipitated the global financial crises leading to the current recession and the resulting loss of advertising revenue? Sub-prime borrowers who borrowed too much money to buy houses they couldn't afford and whose subsequent defaults on their mortgages lead to the uncertain value of the asset-backed commercial paper that the banks invested in? Alan Greenspan, for lowering interest rates in 2001, only to initiate a program of interest rate increases in recent years leading to sub-prime borrowers being unable to meet their mortgage payments when their adjustable-rate mortgages reset to a higher interest rate? Canadian voters for electing governments who failed to increase funding for the CBC over the past several years? Or perhaps CBC management, for failing to adequately manage their working capital such that they could withstand a recession?

I suspect that the answer is, to some degree, all of the above. But there is another aspect to consider.

Imagine this scenario. Imagine that a right-wing government is in power, a government which does not believe in the need for a public broadcaster and which does not have the moral courage to propose the dismantling of the public broadcaster, but instead prefers to let the public broadcaster wither and die through lack of funding. Suppose too that the public broadcaster, in a misguided attempt to make itself more relevant, has gutted its programming, replacing a classical music schedule with a hodge-podge of contemporary, bland music, thereby alienating its core audience to the extent that that core audience feels compelled to protest the public broadcaster's actions to their Members of Parliament, to the Minister of Heritage, to the national newspapers, to the public broadcaster's Board of Governors - in short, to anyone who will listen. The right-wing government, seeing the public dissatisfaction with the public broadcaster, views this as a green light to continue their program of starving the public broadcaster in order to eventually abolish the public broadcaster through attrition. Suppose that the public broadcaster's once-loyal audience, who would have previously protested job layoffs, program cancellations and regional station closings and may have attempted to counter the right-wing government's attempts to kill the public broadcaster just can't be bothered anymore because they feel they have been betrayed by the public broadcaster and are no longer willing to stand up for the public broadcaster. Would the public broadcaster find itself in a state similar to the state that the CBC currently finds itself in? Perhaps. Could the public broadcaster be blamed for not only giving the right-wing government the ammunition with which to shoot it, but also giving it the gun and instructions on how to use it? Most certainly. As ye sow, so shall ye reap. What goes around, comes around. Insert your favourite aphorism here.

Of course we're all losers in this scenario, especially those CBC employees still working at the CBC, the CBC employees who have taken early retirement, either forced or in disgust at recent actions of CBC management, as well as the laid-off CBC employees who are all entirely blameless for the misguided actions of CBC management during the last two years. Oh, but I almost forgot, there are some winners. Namely, those members of CBC management who will still receive their bonuses for 2008.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Whither the CBC? Wither the CBC!

The National Post has been running a series of articles and columns for the past week on the future of the CBC. The title for this series was "The State of the CBC", but it could just as easily have been titled "Whither the CBC" or, more appropriately, "Wither the CBC". In any case, a number of well-known columnists, commentators and pundits have written about the current state of the CBC and its prospects for the future.

On Saturday, Mr. Robert Fulford provided this article, titled "An on-air bureaucracy". His submission was accompanied by a column titled "What Canada wants" by Ms. Kirstine Layfield, identified at the foot of the column as being an "executive director of programming for CBC Television".

I've copied them both below. Have a look at both, and see for yourself whether Ms. Layfield's column is not a sterling example of the type of CBC-speak that Mr. Fulford decries.

First, Mr. Fulord:

An on-air bureaucracy

Robert Fulford, National Post Published: Saturday, March 21, 2009

Ottawa won't close down the CBC, no matter how many contributors to the National Post yearn to see the end of it. A minority government could never stand the storm of public anger that would follow, egged on by an army of self-righteous journalistic defenders.

CBC viewers and listeners, it's true, are a minority, but even if only 100,000 Canadians actually love it, 100,000 Canadians can make an unbearable amount of noise, particularly if they believe they are on the side of virtue, truth and "Canadian values." Even governments with large majorities, while despising the CBC for chronic unfairness, have never seriously threatened its existence. They have grudgingly allowed it to remain alive -- though keeping it, from the CBC's point of view, on starvation rations.

That also means that Ottawa won't substantially increase the CBC's funds in the imaginable future, no matter how much the company's president begs. A generous grant to the CBC in this economic era would be even more politically troublesome than killing it, even if Stephen Harper wanted to be generous.

For now, at least, change will have to come from inside. That's just as well, because that's where the problems lie. The most profound failures, in style and attitude and ambition, can be found among CBC employees, both junior and senior, and the corporate culture they have jointly created. It's true the government sometimes interferes and has always burdened the corporation with far more tasks than it can be expected to accomplish. But that's nothing beside the self-created atmosphere in which CBC employees work.

They are over-managed and over-manipulated, wretched servants of focus groups and demography charts. So far as a viewer and a listener can tell, they are not excited about their work and do not expect that we will be. Many crucial figures among them are pure managers who could work anywhere with equal satisfaction.

They lack the animation that comes from a belief that what you are doing is unique and valuable.

In mass communications, which demands spontaneity and imagination, they show little originality and barely a hint of daring. This comes through when they acknowledge, condescendingly, that they are appealing to the young. The melancholy results usually appear to be the work of 30-year-olds instructed by 45-year-olds on how to appeal to 20-year-olds.

Broadcasters who came to the CBC with dreams of making great programs instead find themselves conscripted into a nightmare of sclerotic bureaucracy in which everything matters more than broadcasting. What counts most is the endless, baffling shuffle of titles and responsibilities, a byzantine turf warfare.

To work at the CBC is to live in a world of memos, usually concocted by bosses whose insecurity dictates that they write in incomprehensible gibberish. Memos explain that the bosses want to "Ensure that all managers have development plans based on leadership competencies according to identified timelines," which are "part of ongoing efforts to better align resources and workflow with evolving needs." (I've lifted two sentences from two different --but both actual--CBC memos.) The tone is deadening, joyless, self-defeating.

We can see the results on The National, the news flagship of CBC television, an emblem of all that's wrong. The journalists delivering the news are afflicted with an emotional flatness that seems to be built into the regulations. Feeling has been so carefully banished that every story is delivered in the same tone, right down to the sing-song ending. Journalists manage a thin smile when there's an item intended to be amusing and pull a long face when describing death. That's their emotional range, A to B. They apparently imitate the sternest and dullest of the U. S. network journalists. They look as if they're terrified that something bad will happen -- not in the news, but to them.

Richard Stursberg, the vice-president of English-language services, knows the CBC culture has to change and hopes to lead the revival. Despite his curious habit of declaring programming triumphs that nobody else has noticed, he's emerged as an average executive with average plans whose results will be average, if that. The only hope of those dreaming about a resurrected CBC is that there are fresh and largely unknown talents sprouting inside the corporation and that their up-from-below pressure will eventually work serious changes. No one else is going to do it.

Next, Ms. Layfield:

What Canada wants

Kirstine Layfield, National Post Published: Saturday, March 21, 2009

People say the CBC is chasing eyeballs. Personally, I have never met an eyeball. I have met Canadians from across our great country who have eyes -- and ears and hearts and minds. They have a thirst to understand their world from a Canadian perspective and a desire to hear their own stories and music. This is the audience of the CBC.

Lately, there has been much debate concerning the CBC. Many politicians have suggested that the CBC should focus on "service," not "ratings." Yet of all people, politicians should know only too well that being a public service requires the support of the public. The public needs to be engaged, its needs and desires need to be understood and acted upon. Its support and approval needs to be earned. In the case of politicians, the public votes to give them a mandate.

In media terms, a public broadcaster needs to have the input, support and the "vote" of its public audience to know that it is on track and providing a valued service. Success for a public broadcaster must be measured by the extent to which the public supports and endorses its programs.

The BBC understands this.

The BBC is fully supported by U. K. taxpayers. It is in the envied position of requiring no advertising dollars to pay for the service. BBC Television, widely regarded as the best public television service in the world, makes provocative documentaries, thoughtful dramas, engaging comedies and is renowned for its news coverage. But that's not all: Last week, it ran the Hollywood film Meet the Parents. It airs U. S. series -- Damages, The Wire and Family Guy -- back to back. On weekends, it runs Formula One racing and professional sports such as football.

The BBC is not chasing "eyeballs for advertisers." Rather, it is in service of its public, providing a wide breadth of programming.

And its content looks similar to what the CBC has been broadcasting these past few years. We too respond to our Canadian public with a variety of great content -- a range of genres from arts to quiz shows, the classics to popular music, a vast majority proudly homegrown and broadcast across multi-platform services.

The CBC is battling for ground in the ad market because if we didn't, half of our television budget would disappear. Services such as Radio 3 and commercial-free CBC radio, programming in eight aboriginal languages and commercial-free kids programming come with a cost that the government appropriation does not entirely cover at a price of $34 per Canadian. And it can't be imagined in these economic times that our government funding would, or even should, increase.

So the CBC competes with private broadcasters. But what is a private broadcaster in Canada anyway?

Nordicity, an independent firm specializing in broadcasting, valued the federal regulations that provide private broadcasters with the right to substitute U. S. content at between $270-million and $330-million. Other provincial and federal government subsidies such as tax credits and the Canadian Television Fund add another $165-million in cash support to the privates. Canada, in short, has a heavily subsidized media industry in which private companies compete for public money, and the CBC, in turn, competes for advertising dollars.

And by all measures, the CBC is working, engaging more radio listeners than ever. We are producing the most Canadian content -- indeed, our spending on Canadian programs is more than all the privates combined. Our television shows are watched by 30% more Canadians than just three years ago. In fact, for the first time in our history an overwhelmingly Canadian prime-time schedule of homegrown dramas, comedies, documentaries, current affairs and sports has drawn more Canadian viewers than the overwhelmingly U. S. schedules of the privates. is the number one news and information Web site in Canada.

A young man named Amaar remarked that when watching CBC's Little Mosque on the Prairie, for the first time he heard his name describe a character who was not a terrorist. Family viewers gather to watch Heartland from Calgary. Viewers watch 50-year legacy Hockey Night in Canada and yell at Ron and Don in English -- and in Punjabi. People hear more variety of Canadian music on Radio 2 than they ever had access to before.

People are talking about the CBC. Canadians are watching and listening to the CBC. And for the CBC, that is the vote that counts most of all.

Aside from the irritating rah-rah tone of the column, I find a couple of factual points to dispute. The first is the statement:

"Nordicity, an independent firm specializing in broadcasting, valued the federal regulations that provide private broadcasters with the right to substitute U. S. content at between $270-million and $330-million. Other provincial and federal government subsidies such as tax credits and the Canadian Television Fund add another $165-million in cash support to the privates. Canada, in short, has a heavily subsidized media industry in which private companies compete for public money, and the CBC, in turn, competes for advertising dollars."

The right of private broadcasters to substitute U.S. content may indeed be worth $270 - $330 million, but of course this is not cash in the hand for the private broadcaster. So no public subsidy here.

Secondly, tax credits have value only in so far as income is earned - once again, it is not cash in the hand paid out by the government to the public broadcaster. So, once again, no public subsidy.

Indeed, the Canadian Television Fund may provide cash to the private broadcaster, but I have no information on the extent of this funding or what percentage of the $165 million it constitutes. I'll leave that as an exercise for the interested reader to pursue.

Another point I object to is this:

"And by all measures, the CBC is working, engaging more radio listeners than ever."

Well, perhaps for CBC Radio One, but CBC Radio Two has been a dismal failure, losing listeners in all of the major Canadian cities surveyed by the Bureau of Broadcast Measurement. Why not address this point as well.

And finally, I find these statements laughable:

"Lately, there has been much debate concerning the CBC. Many politicians have suggested that the CBC should focus on "service," not "ratings." Yet of all people, politicians should know only too well that being a public service requires the support of the public. The public needs to be engaged, its needs and desires need to be understood and acted upon. Its support and approval needs to be earned. In the case of politicians, the public votes to give them a mandate.

In media terms, a public broadcaster needs to have the input, support and the "vote" of its public audience to know that it is on track and providing a valued service. Success for a public broadcaster must be measured by the extent to which the public supports and endorses its programs.

The BBC understands this."

Well, clearly, the CBC doesn't. How do you account for the protests that have been taking place for the past two years over the changes in CBC Radio Two? Are these protests not an example of the "input" and "vote" of its audience?

The CBC must be able to face up to reality if it's to be successful, and Ms. Layfield's column is an indication that the CBC will continue to delude itself into believing that it has the support of Canadians.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Advertising on CBC Radio Two? Why not?

The following letter appeared in today's "Letters to the Editor" section of the Globe and Mail:

Tuned in, tuned out


March 21, 2009

St. John's -- It is difficult to understand why CBC president Hubert Lacroix is so eager to keep assuring us there will be no advertising on radio (CBC Plan To Freeze Executive Salaries, Cut Bonuses Gets Poor Reception - March 20). He might as well introduce advertising on Radio 2; it goes with the kind of wishy-washy pop music that has replaced the CBC's unique and culturally distinct classical music and jazz programming.

The new listeners Mr. Lacroix is trying to attract would most likely not object to having the programming spiced up with advertising.

Advertising would have the additional advantage of funding bonus payments to reward CBC executives for having successfully gotten rid of an old community of loyal listeners and dedicated supporters.

Well said, Mr. Bassler!

Monday, March 16, 2009

The CBC: Who cares?

I noticed several articles about the CBC in the National Post and Globe and Mail over the last several days. On Saturday, the National Post carried the article "CBC tunes in to a new reality". Also on Saturday, Jeffrey Simpson's column in the Globe and Mail, entitled "A beleaguered CBC should ask itself: Who cares?". And today, in the Globe and Mail, there was an article about the cancellation of a meeting between the Heritage Minister, James Moore, and the CBC's board of directors.

Now, I'm not sure what prompted this sudden spate of articles on the CBC - I was out of the country for two weeks, so may have missed something - but is seems to have been prompted by the fact that the CBC recently requested an advance on its annual public funding to compensate for falling advertising revenues and the fact that this request was turned down by the Minister of Heritage, Mr. Moore.

Also, it appears that there is some controversy over the decision by the CBC to run more U.S. programming in the evening television schedule, in the hope of attracting a larger audience share and thereby boost advertising revenues. Mr. Moore is quoted in today's Globe and Mail article as having said the following on Tout le Monde en Parle:

"The reason that taxpayers provide a subsidy to the CBC is to give each Canadian, in every part of the country and in both official languages, the opportunity to see [Canadian] news, stories and dramas. Frankly, I can tell you I don't like it when I see the CBC cancelling Canadian content, and we see Jeopardy and Wheel of Fortune."

Well said, Mr. Moore.

There are several points raised in the articles mentioned above that I could elaborate upon, but since this blog is primarily concerned with CBC Radio Two (or "CBC Radio 2" as the CBC insists on calling it) I'll focus on Mr. Simpson's column.

I found Mr. Simpson's column so insightful that I've copied it below. Have a look.

A beleaguered CBC should ask itself: Who cares?

Jeffrey Simpson

March 14, 2009

Heritage Minister James Moore rejected more funding for the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. this week. Nothing new in that.

Governments have been saying no to CBC for decades. Why?

This government said no in the context of a stimulus budget that showers money everywhere. The few groups that were ignored - academic and medical researchers, for example - complained. Their complaints echoed in the media and in Parliament.

CBC, by contrast, really didn't complain. It just asked quietly for an advance on next year's allocation, according to news reports. In the meantime, the corporation's board will meet Monday to ponder the impact of declining advertising revenue.

The public broadcaster's ongoing dilemma is clear and painful, its response clear and counterproductive.

CBC's public allocations have been declining for years. Per-capita public funding is about a quarter that of public broadcasters in Britain and Germany and less than half that in France. Only New Zealand supports its state-financed public broadcaster less, according to a study by the Nordicity Group, a consulting firm specializing in broadcasting.

CBC executives argue that between 1995 and 2004, CBC received 9 per cent less government funding, while public money for the arts in general rose by 39 per cent. Said CBC president Hubert Lacroix earlier this year, "the last permanent increase in our basic funding goes back to 1973."

Seven years ago, the government gave CBC a discretionary, yearly sum of $60-million for Canadian programming. The Commons heritage committee recommended a per-capita increase to $40 from $33 in CBC's appropriations, instead of the yearly, discretionary sum. The government ignored the committee.

Presidents, chairpersons and CBC union leaders have exhausted themselves pleading CBC's case to governments of both political stripes over many years - to very little, if any, avail.

After Ottawa climbed out of deficit in the mid-1990s, almost every public policy and institution received more money, except CBC, including under the supposedly tight-fisted Harperites. So a shortage of public money cannot explain CBC's woes.

CBC's defensive answer, given privately of course, is that governments always hate the broadcaster because they don't like its news coverage and think that they can penalize it because CBC is a public agency.

A sliver of truth resides in that observation, but that sliver does not explain why other countries' public broadcasters get more. Nor can the explanation be solely that the Harperites have a special grudge against CBC, as they do, because CBC didn't get much from the Liberals either.

Much more plausible by way of explanation is that in the age of media proliferation, CBC is not nearly distinctive enough, so that increasingly people ask: Who cares? The sound that greets CBC's fate has been resounding silence, including from those whom you might expect to defend it.

Listen to NDP Leader Jack Layton, who likes all things public and has seldom seen a cause for which more public money was not needed.
Said he of more money for CBC: "We'll have to look at any request that comes forward very carefully." In other words, even Mr. Layton isn't willing to go to bat for CBC.

Think of Dean Acheson's memorable quip that "Great Britain has lost an empire and has not yet found a role" and apply it to CBC. It has disillusioned core audiences but not found others that really care.
CBC's answer to funding problems has been massive popularization in the search for audience maximization. A deep disdain for intellectualism pervades both English-language television and radio - or what CBC executive Richard Stursberg, quoting a British government white paper, called "worthy" programming.

The result is an ersatz, albeit Canadianized, private broadcaster calling itself a public one. A tiny handful of CBC board members sharply disagree with this direction, but they have been beaten down. The entire management of English CBC believes in the strategic direction and defends it vigorously.

Management changed Radio 2 into an ersatz private network (minus commercials), but has not (as yet) increased audience share. What CBC achieved was to alienate a chunk of its core audience - the one that really cared about CBC - and replace it with another that is only indifferently attached to CBC because so much of the programming is available elsewhere.

The same phenomenon besets television. The Hour, for example, could just as easily be on MuchMusic or CTV. Political commentary apes that of private television, with discussions revolving not around substance but who is winning, what are the political calculations, who is up and who is down - questions that for most viewers evoke the response: Who cares?

As long, therefore, as CBC pursues this strategic direction, it will have the worst of all worlds in the search for public money. It will have alienated core audiences who might have cared enough to fight, and exchanged them for audiences for whom CBC is just one choice among many, and therefore not worth getting excited about.

Mr. Simpson has captured the very essence of what is wrong with the CBC. In attempting to popularize CBC radio in an attempt to capture a larger audience, the CBC has alienated its core audience and ensured that it will become even more difficult for it to convince the government (and taxpayers) to fund it.

Imagine what would have happened in March 2007 if CBC management had issued an appeal to its listeners, telling its loyal audience that it required more funding to maintain its current programming. Imagine if the CBC had put it as bluntly as this: if we don't get more funding from the government, we'll be forced to cancel classical programming on CBC Radio Two, start importing game show programming from the U.S. for evening television broadcasts and will not renew our licensing agreement for the Hockey Night in Canada theme song.

What would have been the result? Why, Canadians would have been up in arms! Letters would have been written to the editors of the national newspapers, to Members of Parliament, to the Minister of Heritage in support of the CBC, demanding increased funding for the CBC! Loyal Radio Two listeners would have donated money to the CBC in response to PBS-style campaigns for donations! There might have even been people marching in the streets in support of increased funding for the CBC!

Well, if you've been reading this blog or paying attention to recent events, you know what happened. Instead, CBC management tried to implement their programming changes without explaining what their overall plans were and without prior announcements making it clear to listeners what was happening until it was too late. First came the March 2007 programming changes. Then - as best I can recall - further changes in the autumn of 2007, finally culminating in the destruction of the CBC Radio Two programming in September 2008.

What was the result? Of course, letters were written to MPs, to the Minister of Heritage, to the newspapers. People started blogs (such as this one) in protest. People marched in the street in protest. But they were not marching in support of the CBC. No, they were writing letters and protesting against the CBC. So the CBC lost one of its most valuable assets in any fight with the government - the support of its listeners, who also happen to be taxpayers and, more importantly, voters.

So Mr. Simpson is correct. Who cares about funding for the CBC now?

Well, I for one care. In fact, I care quite a bit. I resent the fact that I am funding a public corporation with my tax dollars that does not care one whit for my opinion and that seems determined to run itself into oblivion.

The National Post article states that the CBC funding is currently $34.00 per capita. Note that that is not $34.00 per taxpayer, but $34.00 for every man, woman and child currently living in Canada. If you're a taxpayer, how much are you contributing to the CBC?

Just as a quick check on the figures, we can take the 2008 budget for the CBC as $1,115,424,000 and the population of Canada as 33,212,696 (as of July 2008). The per capita funding thus works out as $33.58. So the figure of $34.00 per capita seems to be correct.

However, if we take the labour force participation in Canada (18,245,100) during 2008 as a proxy for the number of taxpayers, then the CBC funding per taxpayer works out as $61.14. (Yes, I know that this does not include retirees and others who are not in the labour force who also pay taxes, but as I said, I'm using the labour force participation rate as a proxy for the number of taxpayers in Canada. If you have a figure for the number of taxpayers in Canada, you can do the calculation yourself and figure out how much each taxpayer is paying.) So you, if you are paying taxes in Canada, paid (on average) approximately $61.14 for the CBC in 2008.

Well, I for one would like my money back.