Recently I’ve been thinking about the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, and how it spends the billion dollars a year it gets from the Canadian taxpayer. It’s not just because Sun Media is on a mission to have it shut down. There’s also a debate over whether it should be exempt from cuts the federal government is imposing on all its services.
And there are people who think the CBC should be doing more than it does right now. OpenMedia.ca has a project called Reimagine CBC in which people are asked to pitch ideas to transform the public broadcaster and make it more relevant in this new media universe. There are things the CBC does already, like be active on social media. There are ideas that are so vague they sound like they came out of management.
Then there’s Kai Nagata, who is suggesting the CBC get out of producing television entirely and shift all those resources to the Internet so it can become an online news and cultural leader. He even spiced up his submission by posting a video to YouTube parodying the Rick Mercer rants in which he explains his reasoning.
Nagata, you’ll recall, is the former CBC and CTV television reporter who did not own a television.
His reasoning is interesting. He points out that people are moving away from TV and toward online these days, and suggests that abandoning television and focusing on online will give it more bang for their buck.
But I’m not convinced. For one thing, if the CBC succeeds in making killer web videos, wouldn’t it just make sense to put that kind of stuff on television, where it can make more money? The CBC does have a lot of infrastructure, including hundreds of television transmitters, many of them in small communities where the CBC is the only over-the-air television. It also has regional control rooms and studios for newscasts that might be less important if everyone was getting their news from the web.
I think Nagata underestimates the power of television. Canadians still watch it, and many supplement it with online consumption of media. CBC’s ratings may be low compared to CTV and Global, but they’re still high when compared to most cable networks, and more people watch television shows on TV than online.
And that’s assuming we forget all about Radio-Canada. Nagata points to the success of its Tou.tv online video website, but seems to ignore that the thing that makes it so popular is that it has a bunch of television series on it.
What should the CBC get out of?
Still, I like Nagata’s suggestion because it gets us thinking. I don’t want to start sounding like Pierre Karl Péladeau, but it annoys me a bit that the CBC competes directly with private broadcasters in some areas. Particularly areas where the private sector does a better job.
Like local news. In Montreal, the market leader among anglophones is CTV’s CFCF. It kills in the ratings. It has more hours of original local news than its competitors combined. It has more journalists, and more of its news is local.
So why is CBC trying to compete? More importantly, why is the CBC trying to compete by doing the same thing? Why not abandon the supper-hour newscast and do something else, like local cultural programming?
On the French side, it’s a bit more complicated because Radio-Canada is so popular and because the main private broadcaster already produces so much original programming. On one hand, there’s a good argument that the culture is healthy enough that it doesn’t need the CBC’s help, and that removing the public broadcaster would make the private broadcasters healthier and encourage them to invest more in original Canadian programming. On the other hand, shutting down Radio-Canada would lead to having only one major television player in French, and that’s very worrisome. It would also be a net loss for original Canadian television no matter how you slice it.
CBC television can be thought of in two ways: a creator of television programming and a conduit for that programming. For scripted series, “creator” usually means that the CBC hires a production company to produce a TV series and it airs episodes of that series. A scheme could be conceived in which those series are still produced but air on private television, on cable or online.
Or what if the funds that went into the CBC were instead transferred to the Canada Media Fund, which helps fund television series no matter what network they air on? What if we focused our money more on creating better Canadian television series, ones Canadians actually wanted to watch? What if we got rid of the overhead and gave all that money directly to the people who actually produce Canadian television programming?
And what if, instead of a network that carries the CBC network to distant communities, infrastructure was used to bring both private and public Canadian programming to them? What if CBC’s production facilities were made available to ordinary Canadians to make their own television, which could then be uploaded to YouTube or the CBC’s website for people to see?
I don’t think anything like that is going to happen. Even if we establish that it makes sense, there’s still too many unanswered questions. Cutting local stations would seriously affect CBC News Network. And communities will resist efforts to take away their television stations, even if they’re just low-power retransmitters of distant CBC stations.
But this discussion needs to start somewhere. And that means we have to figure out exactly what we need the CBC for, and what we’ll need it for in 10 or 20 years. I don’t have all the answers, but I think technology has changed enough that we don’t need the CBC to be doing the exact same things it was doing 30 years ago.