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.


Anonymous said...

Good Morning,
During the past 6 or 8 months, (or has it been a hundred years) my journeys away from my public broadcaster have opened a world of entertainment from Austrailia, Boston, Germany, and other far away places. I've delved into my CD and mp3 collections and have done my best to fill the void that was opened when Radio 2 decided that intellectual and higher arts pursuits were fodder for the elite. The only thing remaining is (and this may sound corny) is the void in my heart. It feels almost like a home-sickness. Glancing at the WGBH website, I easily see the fare offered up for the week, and I try to tune in when I can, but more often than not, I'm away from my wi-fi hot-spot or computer and can't receive the signal. The days of turning on the radio at any time of day and be guaranteed of a world class public broadcaster right here in our own country are gone., then I click on the CBC radio website and am greeted by food recipes, what's your favorite Canadian 'fill in the blank' list/contest, or how badly Billy Bob Thorton behaved to Gian Ghomeshi and the feelings of jealousy, and home-sickness returns. Gone are the days of chuckling with Eric Friesen as he brings us another live performance from Studio Sparks, or as we follow one of Jurgen's tangents.But always, ALWAYS we were guaranteed above all, great music. The whole abrupt ending to SATO, booting us to another program midway through the final aria is just a symptom of just how badly CBC as sunk, and the other day, a poster was naively wondering if Canada had a contribution to the European Broadcasting Union's commemoration of the 250th anniversary of the death of Handel. Sadly I shook my head, knowing the answer.
But, we've got 'Guitar Gurus', another in-studio interview with yet another Canadian singer/songwriter, and who knows? Maybe Tom will play The Stampeders or Dolly Parton again.
Anger at the CBC doesn't cover it anymore. Sadness, embarrassment, home-sickness, are more the emotions that have replaced the rage felt when CBC decided to turn it's back on a loyal audience. And for what, another .6 of a percentage up or down in the ratings?
Eric Friesen used to say CBC was Canada's cultural voice. Now, all we need is a hog report to complete this stations circle.

Anonymous said...

Um, here's what you wrote on your blog:
"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."
Since this is the case, that would mean that each Canadian contributes $2.83 a month to employ thousands of people to entertain you.
What's the problem?

James Wooten said...

The problem is that I'm not being entertained. I don't listen to CBC Radio Two anymore. So I resent the fact that my tax dollars are being spent on a service that I don't use, and on a public broadcaster that seems determined to drive it's audience away.

If the CBC would like to operate CBC Radio Two as a commercial service, dependent on advertising to survive, then I would be quite happy to see them try to do so. But I don't want to subsidize CBC Radio Two anymore, even at $2.83 per month.