Tuesday, February 14, 2012

The CBC: running madly off in all directions

This article appeared in the Feb. 14 2012 edition of the Globe and Mail, and on-line here.

One has to wonder what's going on in the CBC. First, CBC management decimates the Radio 2 audience by making some ill-considered changes to the programming, then runs madly off in all directions by launching digital music channels that only a small percentage of Canadians are likely to listen to. What happened to the concept of serving all Canadians, not just those with high-speed internet connections?

CBC enters digital-music arena
From Tuesday's Globe and Mail
Published Monday, Feb. 13, 2012 6:00PM EST
Last updated Monday, Feb. 13, 2012 6:22PM EST

The CBC has taken a giant new step into the competitive digital-music arena. On Monday, the public broadcaster unveiled CBC Music, a website and mobile app with 40 radio stations covering genres from indie rock to classical. To keep listeners coming back (that all-important “stickiness” in digi-speak), the service also includes create-your-own  playlists and selections of songs by young artists such as Toronto’s Austra and Montreal’s Plants and Animals.

It’s not only a bid to attract more listeners, but also opens up “a whole bunch of ways to connect with them that [was] difficult to do on terrestrial radio,” said Chris Boyce, CBC’s executive director of radio and audio.

This comes as broadcasters are increasing their presence in the world of apps: Astral recently launched new mobile apps for its radio stations, with bonuses such as exclusive in-studio performances. Meanwhile, subscription streaming services such as Rdio are once again on the rise, offering users access to massive libraries of streaming music for a fee.

“Gone are the days when people first heard a new track of music on the radio,” Boyce said.The CBC isn’t trying to compete with online music retailers such as Apple’s iTunes, though. Instead, the site links to iTunes. And no, it doesn’t replace CBC’s on-air music. There are currently no plans to eliminate the Radio 2 music station, Boyce said.

The win

The CBC attracts savvy programmers. CBC’s independently spirited Radio 3, for example, brings listeners everything from singer-songwriter Kathleen Edwards to local Charlottetown band, Milks and Rectangles. Now that expertise can be applied to a broad spectrum of genres, with streams devoted to Canadian classical composers, some of the best homegrown jazz and alt pop. CBC Music could become a key arbiter of the best, if lesser-heard, music out there.

The miss

It’s still radio: You can’t jump ahead to the next song when listening to a stream. So while CBC Music caters to the new-media crowd, it requires old-media patience. You can jump forward or back while listening to playlists though. (Radio 3 host Lana Gay’s colourful list, including The Gruesome’s garage rocker Hey, is a highlight at the moment). Still, the nascent service only has a precious few playlists so far. And features of individual artists have a grand total of seven acts right now.

The competition

The pay service Rdio gives users access to a huge library of music for a monthly fee. Astral’s free apps are an extension of its stations, with added content such as app-only performances of hot acts. In comparison, CBC Music feels like the CBC – with a wider cross-section of music, unencumbered by the tight programming formats of private radio stations.

The next big thing

Spotify, officially unavailable in Canada, is nevertheless seen as a standard bearer with its personalized playlists (Obama just posted his) and its highly searchable library of artists. CBC Music, by comparison, is more like enhanced radio. Yet some digital radio sites, like American public broadcaster NPR, have taken a sharp direction toward nuanced, esoteric music. The question is whether users will want more breadth or more eclecticism? More searchability or more of a curated radio feel? 

What the CBC and the industry knows for sure is that we always want more music.

With files from Steve Ladurantaye

CBC faces budget cuts - but do we care?

This article appeared in the Feb. 12 2012 edition of the Globe and Mail and on-line here.

I find the statement "While vociferous protests would let the government know people value the CBC ..." laughable. Didn't CBC Radio 2 listeners protest against the programming changes that the CBC implemented in 2007? Did the CBC listen to its supporters? No, it didn't. The CBC continued to merrily dig themselves deeper into the hole of irrelevance. And now, former CBC listeners who have abandoned the CBC in droves should rise up a fight for an institution that has betrayed them? I don't think so.

This time, the CBC cuts will be noticeable
From Monday's Globe and Mail (includes correction)
Published Sunday, Feb. 12, 2012 6:00PM EST
Last updated Monday, Feb. 13, 2012 2:56PM EST

When music critics and public broadcasting analysts gather in a cavernous TV studio in downtown Toronto Monday, they can expect a splashy presentation about a digital music streaming service with no less than 40 channels. But the celebratory tone over the launch of CBC Music might be a bit forced: The public broadcaster is widely predicted to take a 10 per cut to its $1.1-billion grant when the federal budget comes down in late February or early March and moving radio music services online is a way to both save money and generate ad revenue. If Music Canada! is a bouncing new baby,old Radio 2, the CBC’s English-language music channel, looks decidedly sick.

As part of a government-wide belt-tightening process, the CBC was asked last fall to present Ottawa with two possible budget scenarios, cutting five or 10 cent over three years. The broadcaster cannot discuss the contents of those scenarios, but in a recent meeting with The Globe and Mail’s editorial board, CBC CEO Hubert Lacroix made it clear that he considers 10 per cent the most likely possibility. “You’ll notice it,” Lacroix said.

Were it simply made in one place, a $110-million hit to the CBC would eliminate French radio or half of English radio services or remove more than a day’s worth of television programming from CBC-TV every week, said Karen Wirsig, communications co-ordinator at the Canadian Media Guild, the CBC’s main union.

While it is unlikely the CBC will target an entire service in that way, a $110-million cut would force the broadcaster to make visible changes to programming. In the 2000s, with both cuts and inflation eating away at its budget, the CBC streamlined its administration and sold off real estate; to deal with $170-million in lost ad revenue during the 2009 and 2010 recession, it made cuts across the board, eliminating 800 jobs and paying out $40-million in severance. Now, though, the cuts are expected to be vertical – in lower priority areas – rather than horizontal – or across all services. Lacroix calls this a “Sophie’s Choice” for the broadcaster.

That choice will flow from the CBC’s current strategic plan, which emphasizes going digital, putting Canadian content in prime time, and restoring or initiating services to under-served regions: Anything not in that plan is vulnerable, Lacroix has said. That is why many observers expect deep cuts to national radio, which does not fit within those priorities, and especially to music programming, which can be delivered more cheaply online by services such as CBC Music.

The new service will be a beefier version of its French-language equivalent, espace.mu, which Radio-Canada launched last June. Some critics have asked why the CBC is competing with iTunes, but like espace.mu, CBC Music will operate on a broadcast model not a retail one, offering streaming rather than downloads. Still, unlike Espace Musique, its sister radio channel, espace.mu doesn’t have hosts and carries ads, allowing the broadcaster to generate revenue from music programming.

Broadcasting veterans say the CBC is unlikely to axe an entire service, such as Espace Musique or Radio 2. While vociferous protests would let the government know people value the CBC, they would be unlikely to shift the government’s position and might backfire, spewing ill will at the broadcaster itself. Certainly, the abandonment of a radio frequency would seem too great a retreat. 

Rather, these services could be cut to the bone, including an elimination of all broadcasts of live performances, with online radio offered as the alternative.

Similarly, the CBC is committed to moving children’s TV programming online, arguing that is where most children watch shows these days. This would allow the broadcaster to rethink morning television schedules, replacing ad-free programming aimed at preschoolers with reruns of adult programming on which there would be ads.

CBC watchers also expect to see fewer special events, such as the multiplatform live coverage of the Orchestre Symphonique de MontrĂ©al’s inauguration of its concert hall last September. And, despite the commitment to under-served regions in the strategic plan, they question whether the broadcaster can really go ahead and open new radio stations in locations such as Kamloops, B.C. and Kitchener-Waterloo, Ont. as well as a new digital service in Hamilton.

“There is no more room for efficiency,” said Ian Morrison, spokesman for the public broadcasting lobby group Friends of Canadian Broadcasting. “Every dollar is going to come off the air or off the screen.”

With files from Guy Dixon