Posted in TV

Should the CBC dump TV?

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.

27 thoughts on “Should the CBC dump TV?

  1. Dave

    Why doesn’t Kai Nagata just post a video of himself masturbating to a picture of Kai Nagata and get it over with. Oh yeah, and I’m sure the CBC views him as a jilted lover as well. What will he do next to feed his massive ego?

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  2. Charlie

    I’m curious as to how the CBC is able to compete with the likes of CTV, Rogers, and Global for sporting event rights. There are some that are a given — such as equestrian or track — that the major private companies have little-to-no interest in and the CBC takes ownership of such events.

    Which brings me to my real point: how can the CBC afford to keep HNiC and the Stanley Cup playoffs in the future, let alone right now? CTV/Rogers/Global will make a serious (read: expensive) attempt at getting these rights and taxpayer money ought not fund a TV-rights pissing contest.

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    1. Darren

      Playoff coverage would conflict too much with CTV’s regular American programming for it to be worth a massive bid. The games could air solely on TSN, which is probably what Bell Media would prefer, but the league would likely resist selecting a bid which included no OTA network coverage.

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      1. Fagstein Post author

        the league would likely resist selecting a bid which included no OTA network coverage.

        I think if enough money was on the table they’d change their minds. The CFL already has. The number of Canadians who are sports fans and have TVs but don’t have access to TSN is pretty small.

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        1. Darren

          It would need to be a pretty big sum, and I’m not sure if the conditions are right. CTV overpaid on the Olympics, and are now cooperating with the CBC to submit a joint bid which will lower costs for both networks. I could see them pulling a similar tactic with the NHL, their interests can be complimentary. The risk of Bell Media submitting an independent bid would be enough to force the CBC to cooperate and make some concessions (better playoff picks for TSN, more Canadian teams for TSN coverage, etc).

          The CBC will definitely be feeling a pinch to keep its rights acquisition costs manageable, and Bell may even see some advantage in cooperating with the CBC to ensure Rogers doesn’t gain a bigger foothold for Sportsnet coverage. Rogers has been making big rumblings that they’re unsatisfied with Sportsnet being seen as a second tier network of channels, they’re planning on increasing their spending quite heavily in the future.

          While I do agree that nearly every sports fan in English Canada probably has access to TSN, I would argue that playoff coverage isn’t just about reaching out to average hockey fans, though. A significant number of casual viewers primarily use OTA reception, as you’ve reported on in the past. These are the type of people who may never watch a game during the regular season, but are inclined to tune into playoff games.

          I’ve argued in the past that the CFL signing with CTV, but not ensuring OTA coverage for at least the Grey Cup, was a mistake. I’m probably giving the NHL too much credit when I assume they wouldn’t make the same mistake themselves.

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  3. Alex H

    Kai Nagata needs to get over it. Go away, get a job in something else, leave the media alone. His focus on the media seems to be almost obsessive, like some frustrated guy following his ex-wife around to harass her new boyfriend. It would be amusing if it wasn’t just so sad.

    As for the CBC, you have to remember that the mandate isn’t just for what you see in Montreal, but for the whole country, including many places where there is no TV or radio competition at all. CBC has provided news (regional and national) to these areas, where no commercial broadcaster would dare to try.

    The CBC’s real issue is more to do with the nature of their labor agreements, of their work rules, and the way that they operate. It runs like the government, which isn’t a good thing. The idea of the CBC isn’t a bad one – but the execution is pure “functionaire” at it’s best.

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    1. Fagstein Post author

      CBC has provided news (regional and national) to these areas, where no commercial broadcaster would dare to try.

      Except that this is total bullshit. Case in point: Quebec has no CBC television stations outside of Montreal. And if you discount Atlantic Canada (where CTV and Global have regional stations instead of local ones) and the North, CBC television stations are all in markets large enough to also have private TV stations.

      Radio is a different story, but I’m not arguing against radio.

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      1. Aaron

        “Except that this is total bullshit. Case in point: Quebec has no CBC television stations outside of Montreal.”

        No offense, but it’s your argument that sounds like bullshit. Of course CBC (English) has no Quebec-based stations outside Montreal, there are very few anglos in the rest of the province. Radio-Canada on the other hand, has stations in Rimouski, Quebec (city), Saguenay, Trois-Rivieres, and Sherbrooke (in addition to Montreal; not to mention French-language stations across Canada in markets where no commercial station would attempt to operate in French).

        If you’re talking exclusively about CBC and not Radio-Canada, you’re forgiven, but I don’t see why we would have a debate about CBC and not Radio-Canada.

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        1. Fagstein Post author

          Of course CBC (English) has no Quebec-based stations outside Montreal, there are very few anglos in the rest of the province.

          But isn’t the entire point of the CBC to serve areas where there aren’t many people? We have private broadcasters serving areas with lots of people.

          Radio-Canada on the other hand, has stations in Rimouski, Quebec (city), Saguenay, Trois-Rivieres, and Sherbrooke

          There are TVA and V stations in all of those cities as well.

          It’s true that Radio-Canada has stations in cities in the Rest of Canada (really only half a dozen that produce local news), that would need to be taken into consideration should any major changes happen because there are no private French-language networks outside Quebec.

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          1. wkh

            There’s a difference between “aren’t many” and few enough to fit in a corolla.

            And yeah the Kai Nagata hate on is bizarre. Especially from people commenting on a media blog.

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          2. Josh

            At its core, Steve, your idea about ditching local news in bigger markets isn’t a bad one. But stop for just a second think about the political implications of, for instance, no local CBC TV news in Calgary, but local Rad-Can stations in Vancouver, Edmonton, Halifax, etc. pumping out content.

            The idea would only fuel some of your wackier right-wingers even further.

            Also, there’s the whole idea of local news being a feeder system for national news. Not that CBC’s team on The National is experiencing some kind of golden age at the moment, but the quality would be lower without the local news training ground that the supper-hour broadcasts provide.

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      2. Alex H

        By your own reports regarding the DTV transition, the CBC has a number of re-transmitters for the english language service in Quebec, and a significant number of locations covered for Radio Canada. CBC has provided radio and news service in the north where no other group would want to work, uniting a people spread out over the sparsely populated areas of Canada.

        The point of the CBC isn’t to “serve areas where there aren’t many people”, it’s to SERVE PEOPLE. It’s goal is to bring a Canadian perspective through media to Canadians, in a way that an US re-broadcaster like CTV just cannot do.

        It’s about having reporters in the field in almost every area of Canada. It’s about producing documentary and long form news segments that explore and reveal Canada, or issues in the world in ways that show how they touch Canadians. They aren’t re-broadcasting 60 Minutes from CBS (thanks Global!), they are putting stuff out there that gives us a unique perspective and look at US, not THEM.

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        1. Fagstein Post author

          It’s goal is to bring a Canadian perspective through media to Canadians, in a way that an US re-broadcaster like CTV just cannot do.

          So … is it doing that? Is The National really so much better than CTV National News? Is The Fifth Estate really so much better than W5? What is it exactly that the CBC is doing that private broadcasters can’t, other than lose money?

          They aren’t re-broadcasting 60 Minutes from CBS (thanks Global!)

          Global doesn’t rebroadcast 60 Minutes. You might be confusing it with CJNT (Metro 14), which airs it here.

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          1. ATSC

            Off topic, but, did you also notice that CJNT (Metro 14) is now also running a local morning show. Sure it’s low budget. But it’s a lot more than CFCF, CBMT, and CKMI are going for local morning programming combined. Not bad for the a little station.

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            1. Fagstein Post author

              Off topic, but, did you also notice that CJNT (Metro 14) is now also running a local morning show.

              Depends how you define “local”. It’s done for the station, but apparently it’s produced entirely in Toronto. CJNT has produced no local programming since 2009.

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    2. Fagstein Post author

      Kai Nagata needs to get over it. Go away, get a job in something else, leave the media alone. His focus on the media seems to be almost obsessive

      What do you base this on? A handful of articles written over six months and a two-minute video constitute “obsessive”?

      For that matter, you’re a regular commenter on a blog about media. Wouldn’t the same description apply to you?

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      1. Alex H

        Unlike Kai, I have never walked away from a good job in media claiming to be above it all. I don’t stand on the sidelines after walking away, pissing on those media outlets that I set on fire on the way out.

        Man burnt his bridges, he should really just move on.

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        1. Fagstein Post author

          Man burnt his bridges, he should really just move on.

          Really? Aren’t those exactly the kind of people we want to hear from, rather than those who still have a vested interest? It’s hard finding well-informed people who can comment on media who aren’t caught in conflicts of interest. You may not agree with his opinions, but it’s hard to argue that they aren’t genuine.

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          1. Alex H

            Oh, but I do want to hear from those who have a vested interest. I think that Kai gave up that position when he walked out the door and pretty much said it all sucked. I really don’t need to hear him repeat that it sucks again.

            It’s okay, I got your message :)

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  4. wkh

    It could be suggested Radio-Canada has the great programming it does precisely because it was given money to flourish and experiment. Further, by suggesting it should be axed, you would be essentially handing all entertainment French media in this province to PKP. Every last bit of it.

    Also, I think I’ve said this before, but I am an oddball. I just prefer CBC newscast. Always have. Never watch the others more than long enough to think “oh I should turn to CBC.” I don’t know why I don’t like the others. I’ll try to figure that out but I just don’t like them.

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  5. Josh

    I wonder about the way you sorta dismiss the coverage CBC provides in more sparsely-populated areas with a wave of your hand… Would you maintain local news for the North and East Coast while cutting it everywhere else? Do you really see anything good coming from such an imbalance in regional priorities at CBC?

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    1. Fagstein Post author

      I wonder about the way you sorta dismiss the coverage CBC provides in more sparsely-populated areas with a wave of your hand.

      I dismiss it because of how half-assed it is. If the CBC was really providing a service that the private broadcasters weren’t, that would be one thing. But outside of the North and Atlantic Canada, CBC television isn’t much more local than any private broadcaster. So you have to ask the question: Why bother?

      I think we should consider the idea of CBC North being its own thing with separate federal funding, and the Atlantic Canada stations maybe being funded more provincially. For the rest of the country, I just don’t see much of a point beyond feeding CBC News Network.

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      1. Josh

        Why bother? Well, since I was speaking *specifically* about the coverage CBC provides in places where there are no other broadcasters (outside of maybe APTN to some extent), I’d say you bother because they are the only game in town and people rely on it.

        I think you misread my comment.

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  6. Doug James

    High ratings are not an indication that the broadcaster in question is doing “a better job” as you suggest in your reference to CTV Montreal. It may be giving viewers what they want but not what they need. The difference is what is in the public’s interest and what is in the public interest. Overall, the CBC (although I have many criticisms of it myself) does a far better job in reporting news that is beneficial to citizens in a democracy.

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  7. Jack Nathanson

    Perhaps I am showing my age, but I can actually remember a time when there was a fair amount of cultural programming on CBC television. There was a fair amount of drama and even the occasional opera. Just about all of this genre of programming has disappeared from the CBC airwaves, perhaps due to the Mulroney purges of the 1980′s. It seems to have been replaced by excessive sports coverage, not just hockey but even things like swim meets in Southeast Asia. And at the end of the day, the CBC runs the same late movies over and over again, although they have already run those same late movies ten or twenty times.

    It’s little wonder that people are irritated by the CBC.

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