Make It the Canadian Webcasting Corporation

That's my proposal. Beat the inevitable by turning the CBC into the CWC.

By Crawford Kilian 8 Feb 2012 |

Crawford Kilian is a contributing editor of The Tyee.

Let's admit it: The recent flap about Old Age Security is a popped trial balloon. The follow-up flap about bureaucrats posing as new Canadians was a comic interlude. When the Conservative budget comes in, cuts to the public service will likely cripple key ministries like Environment, Fisheries and Oceans, and Health.

Crown corporations will no doubt suffer as well, and few will suffer more than the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.

I'll make my full disclosure here: For 45 years I've listened to almost nothing but CBC Radio. I wrote six radio plays that the CBC produced in the early 1970s (using a big package of script advice that the CBC used to send out to anyone who asked for it).

Since the cancellation of Intelligence, I watch little CBC television except Power and Politics. Its audience, to judge from its ads, is mostly anxious seniors who need step-in bathtubs and who have forgotten to remove their bathrobes before they step in.

So I could sympathize with my Tyee colleague Kai Nagata when he took the mickey out of Rick Mercer with a video rant advising CBC to ditch its TV branch. (You can view it at the top of this article.)

But Kai didn't go far enough, so I will: CBC should ditch both TV and radio, and the technologies of those media. Unless it does so, the Conservatives will strangle TV and radio alike.

Never mind that the CBC is the creation of the R.B. Bennett Depression-era Conservatives, who wanted to prevent an American takeover of the airwaves. Today's Conservatives can't wait to sell the country to the Americans, the Chinese or any other high bidder. Because the CBC sometimes reports accurately on what the government has been doing, the Conservatives (and the Liberals before them) have been dreaming of ridding themselves of this turbulent broadcaster.

Canada lives where?

Evidently aware of this hostility, the increasingly underfunded CBC has spent years vainly trying to appease its enemies. It has dumbed down TV and radio alike, with reality shows on the tube and gee-whiz promotions on radio. ("Canada lives here" -- yes, but increasingly elsewhere, too!) It fills the gaps in its radio programming with "encore" presentations of its shows.

CBC admittedly costs money. According to its 2010-2011 Annual Report, in 2011 CBC spent $1,476,778,000 in TV, radio, and new media services -- up almost $30 million over 2010. It received $1,159,938,000 in government funding, plus a yearly top-up of $60 million, and ran a loss for the year of $24,660,000. This was an improvement over the $58,299,000 CBC lost in 2010.

Assume that a 10 per cent cut goes through, and the top-up is dropped. That will reduce the CBC's budget by about $176,000,000.

The CBC has been here before. Back in 1984, its budget was $906,000,000 -- equivalent in 2011 dollars to $1.77 billion. It had to reduce its budget by $75 million ($146 million today). It survived then, and it can survive now.

But a chart on the website of Friends of Canadian Broadcasting shows a steady drop in support from the Harper government since 2008. The CBC is effectively back where it was in 2000, and the downward trend is likely to continue.

The CBC's current five-year plan shows it expects no rescue: "Our funding has not kept pace with consumer inflation of the last 20 years (thereby creating a notional $400 million shortfall in real dollar terms)." The plan also notes that the government has not committed to providing the $60 million top-up beyond March 31.

The incredible shrinking audience

The plan recognizes that the television is shrinking and fragmenting into specialty channels, while CBC Radio holds a growing share of a shrinking audience. It also notes that its websites are popular, with 5.8 million Canadians visiting in the fall of 2010. And it forecasts video shifting "to on-demand digital platforms," while radio listeners migrate via the Internet to their iPods and smartphones.

They have every reason to. CBC programming online is pretty good and remarkably extensive. Whether streaming or recorded, CBC programs offer excellent video and audio. And the plan predicts "doubling our current level of digital investment to at least five per cent of programming budget by 2015 in order to increase the amount and accessibility of original online content, to build a robust regional online offering and to allow us to invest in innovation and experimentation. "If digital-platform spending was 2.5 per cent of the CBC's 2011 budget, that means it came to just under $37 million.

And if CBC is doing so much online with so little spending, imagine what it could with a much larger share of the budget going to digital media -- even a brutally reduced budget.

Escape to cyberspace

So my proposal is that CBC conduct a strategic withdrawal from its traditional platforms and migrate to the web.

Many Canadians already follow news and music online. As current technology becomes entrenched and almost universal, today's radio sets will become as quaint as manual typewriters. That big new flat-screen TV will seem pretty dull if it isn't linked in some way to the web.

Granted, much of CBC's online content isn't original; it's been created in big, expensive TV and radio facilities and simply ported over to But digital technologies offer cheaper ways to produce as well as present CBC's news, documentaries and drama. Just in the past year we've seen millions of Arabs, using little besides their own smartphones, create both a news network and an audience for it.

Some of us recall when TV news film from Vietnam had to be flown across the Pacific before it could be televised. Satellite technology made real-time coverage possible, and digital technology makes it even more immediate. That immediacy easily compensates for the rougher "production values" than we get from current TV.

Any website has two components: flow and stock. Flow is the new material; stock is the material already posted. As today's CBC becomes tomorrow's Canadian Webcasting Corporation, it will be able to exploit an enormous but neglected resource: its own archives.

CBC now has 75 years' worth of audio programming (or at least a good fraction of it), and 60 years of video. By putting most or all of its stock online, the CBC could show how really good it was -- and still is.

The CBC Archives offer just a taste. Suppose, instead of a clip of the young Leonard Cohen in 1966, you could watch the whole program. Suppose you could listen to all of Glenn Gould's Idea of North, not just a 5-minute clip. Or follow the Canadian troops day by day as they liberated Holland.

If the CBC moved online, new apps would soon enable viewers and listeners to navigate this vast treasure. You could listen to This Country in the Morning or As It Happens one day a time from their beginnings, or compare election-night news coverage from the days of Mackenzie King in 1940 to Stephen Harper in 2015.

Navigating a treasure trove

Migration online could also prevent the destruction of the CBC's extraordinary record libraries, an act of witless barbarism. In many cases, intellectual property rights might hinder putting radio dramas and musical performances online. But even after the worst conceivable cuts, the CBC will still have enough money to come to an agreement on residuals. (Full disclosure: To put my own six radio plays online, I would settle for a one-time payment in the high double digits.)

If anything, a Canadian Webcasting Corporation could truly fulfill the CBC mandate of showing Canada to Canadians. By reaching younger audiences, it could engage Canadians who rarely listen to the radio or watch TV, but who certainly enjoy podcasts and videos. The CWC could host a kind of national YouTube, where ordinary filmmakers, musicians, actors and writers could post their work. Much of it would be literally amateurish, but standards would rise as artists sought to outdo one another... and to equal the achievement of artists in the archives. As an attraction for both producers and consumers of online content, the CWC would also attract advertisers -- and not just for walk-in bathtubs.

Migration online wouldn't be done overnight. But over a period of years the CWC would find its studios and equipment largely obsolete. Rather than replace them, it could sell many of its properties, and use the money to support the early retirement of senior executives.

The choice is clear. By 2022 -- one short decade -- the budget-starved CBC could be a travesty of its former self, running telethons begging viewers to support its reality TV shows and traffic-and-weather happy-talk radio.

But by 2022 the Canadian Webcasting Corporation could be a truly national medium, drawing on resources from all regions and presenting Canadians with their own multicultural, multilingual, multimedia world. They could draw not only on the events of the day but on many decades of the best that Canadians have done.

Thank you, R.B. Bennett, for the CBC. Now it is time for the CWC.

[Tags: Video, Labour + Industry, Science + Technology.]  [Tyee]

Read more: Video, Science + Tech

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