Is it time to get rid of the CBC? Should we?

OK, the source of this cringe-worthy video clip, Rebel Media, may be suspect to many ~ Screen Shot 2018-12-11 at 06.55.51I do not follow them ~ but it does bring up a question: is this what we expect for the $1 Billion plus we pay for the CBC?. The complete interview, which I watched. looks, as someone else said, more like an advertisement for one of those online dating sites than news. It certainly caused a small storm about the CBC’s bias … which, in this case, especially when compared to CBC journalists’ question and comments directed to e.g. Andrew Scheer and Maxime Bernier, seems over the top, even by the CBC’s standards. And that begs the question: is the CBC living up to its mandate? The Broadcasting Act says (§3(1)(d)(i), inter alia, that “The Canadian broadcasting system should serve to safeguard, enrich and strengthen the cultural, political, social and economic fabric of Canada.” I suspect that someone will want to make a case that the CBC, as a network, at least in it’s English language ‘news’ services, has crossed a line and looks too much like a 24 hour a day infomercial for the Laurentian Consensus as represented by the Liberal Party of Canada.

Let’s think a bit about what Canada is and what it needs by way of “broadcasting.”

First, we are a huge, but sparsely populated country and most of us, but not all of us, live in a relatively narrow strip close to our Southern borders. Many of us have easy and cheap affordable access to high-speed internet services which means that traditional  ‘over the air’ broadcasting is largely irrelevant, unless we’re driving in our cars, and even then some of us have satellite radio services. But some of us live in rural and remote areas where even low-speed internet is expensive and unreliable and a few of us Screen Shot 2018-12-11 at 07.28.10live in areas outside of the ‘footprint’ of the big broadcast satellites in geostationary orbits.  The image on the right shows how one satellite system, in one frequency band cover the globe using three satellites in the geostationary orbit (which means that the satellite rotates around the earth at the same speed as the earth rotates making it seem ‘fixed‘ above a point on the ground) and it shows that some of Northern Canada cannot be served by those (the most common) satellites. There are satellites that provide full global coverage but, always, at high costs and usually with low bandwidth.

epirbI would argue that almost every Canada, including those ‘out on the land’ in remote Northern areas of Canada, should be able to receive at least emergency weather warnings and to expect that the Government of Canada will receive a signal from her or his emergency locator beacon is (s)he has to call for help. That’s not part of the “broadcasting” system but it and the satellite problems do show, I hope, why the government is in the business of regulating the radio spectrum in which everything from AM broadcast radios to ultra-high frequency satellite system operates. One key element of the broadcasting system is “over the air” broadcasting that uses those radio frequencies.

I retired as General Manager of the Radio Advisory Board of Canada over a decade ago, but even then the chat over coffee when the Broadcasting Committee (mostly radio engineers) met was about the changes that new technology was making ~ advertising revenue streams were drying up and both technical standards (what we did in the RABC) and content rules (imposed by the CRTC) were becoming more stringent and expensive to meet. I think that today the business model for both commercial and public broadcasting is in tatters.

I believe that most Canadians still want and need broadcasting services. They want news, sports, entertainment, education and opinion. Most don’t want to pay for it but they accept advertising as the cost of a “free” service.

I think you can already guess that I’m going to say that “over the air” broadcasting (radio and televisions) is a necessity for Canadians but it cannot survive, especially not outside of the major metropolitan areas without some public support … public support means your tax dollars.

But that does not mean that we need the CBC.

What does the CBC do? Basically, it provides, in both English and French, three services:

  • Radio Canada International ~ this is Canada’s voice to the world, it is, today, entirely on the internet. In 2012 the Harper government imposed a 10% cut on CBC/Radio Canada ~ then CBC/Radio Canada decide that RCI, which is little known, would have its budget cut by 80% from $12+ Million to just over $2 Million. That ended the era of RCI‘s shortwave, worldwide service. It was a criminally stupid decision that, in my considered, professional opinion, should have caused the government of the day to summarily dismiss the entire CBC/Radio Canada Board and all of the most senior managers for cause. Every country needs a “voice,” RCI was ours … the gold standard for international broadcasting is found in the BBC World Service and Deutsche Welle, both still provide near-global coverage using nearly jam-proof shortwave and satellite radio stations. Both, of course, make extensive and intensive use of the internet;
  • CBC Radio ~ CBC Radio has a big, integrated network of stations covering most of Canada. aerial-view-of-arcticYou can see a list of transmitters on their web site. If you live in Arctic Bay, in Nunavut, population 850±, you are served by radio station CKAB-FM which is a community-owned CBC North rebroadcaster that gets its programming from CFFB in Iqaluit; if you live in Prince Rupert, BC, you are served by CBC Radio 1 (a national network which has a mix of local, regional and national programmes) broadcasting on 860 KHz and if you live in Shilo, MB you are also served by CBC Radio 1 on FM from Brandon, the people in Twillingate, NL are served, again by Radio 1 from  Grand Falls which is rebroadcast on 90.7 MHz from a transmitter in Botswood. In short, CBC Radio is doing a first-rate job of serving most Canadians, even if you find some of the content banal and biased. I think it is, by and large, money well spent because in many, many, many communities the CBC provides the only news and weather; but
  • CBC Television is, in my opinion, a near-total waste of taxpayer’s money. As you can see from this list (you have to select the province you want) the CBC has only 14 English language TV broadcast stations which serve about 25 urban ‘markets’ and serves less than 10% of the Canadian market in prime time. (Rex Murphy, in a talk to the Manning Centre, quipped about the low audience levels of the CBC at about the 2’50” mark.) It used to have hundreds of transmitters providing near national coverage but in 2012, when Canada converted to digital TV, it closed all but 14 because only a tiny number (certainly less than 5%, likely less than 2%) of Canadians want to watch CBC and do not have cable or internet access. Electing to not serve Canadians with many, many local TV stations was a smart business decision because, as you can see from this listing, Canadians from Kamloops, through Kenora and on to Halifax and St. John’s are served by other networks.

I think that Radio Canada International should be upgraded; CBC Radio should remain about the same, government-funded and commercial-free, and CBC TV should be closed, completely and the money saved should be used to directly subsidize TV, film and radio production in Canada based on Canadian content rules: n% for the production company being Canadians and using Canadian studios, x% for using Canadian talent ~ on screen and in in the studio, y% for using Canadian locations and so on.

Some, at least half, I suspect, of the CBC’s 14 television licences will sell, at auction, for a tidy sum, making room for new, innovative, probably ethnic, services in larger cities ~ Vancouver, Calgary, Toronto and Montreal and a couple of others. The CBC”s excellent production facilities will also sell for a good sum to private entrepreneurs who will then host dozens of independent radio and TV programme producers. There’s nothing wrong with Canadian production values and in a more open market, I suspect that Canadian drama, public affairs, education and political commentary programmes can survive and even thrive, each on its own merits.

So, to answer my own question: yes we could get rid of the CBC, but we would have to replace both Radio Canada International and CBC Radio because both provide important services to many Canadians and to Canada, itself, but we should, with little impact on most (I would say 85+% of) Canadians, get rid of CBC TV and invest, instead, in Canadian film, television and radio production …

 

… for domestic and export markets. Should we get rid of CBC TV just because Rosemary Barton presented an absolutely dreadful, even sickening interview with Prime Minister Trudeau? No, of course not, but we should get rid of CBC TV because it no it is longer ‘fit for purpose’ and it is, largely, redundant on top of that, and it takes useful money away from an important and growing industry: film and television and radio production.

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