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Starving the CBC: Years of Cuts, and Now the NHL Lockout

As CRTC scrutinizes public broadcaster, advocates say feds aren't delivering on promises.

Peter Tupper 22 Nov

Peter Tupper is a Vancouver-based free-lance journalist. Find his previous articles for The Tyee here.

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Facing twin threats: CBC needs protection from defunding and privatization, say Friends of Canadian Broadcasting.

The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation's radio and television licenses in French and English are up for renewal from the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) for the first time in 12 years. The hearings that began on Monday, Nov. 19 also cover other aspects of the CBC’s future, such as specifying how much of each broadcast day is Canadian content, deciding on prime time programming, and deleting the expectation of minimum broadcasts hours for children and youth programming.

Though the CRTC has no authority over the CBC's finances, an independent watchdog organization called The Friends of Canadian Broadcasting will use the hearings to highlight the gap between what the CBC is supposed to do and the money Parliament allots to it, and urge the CRTC to protect the broadcaster from the twin threats of defunding and privatization.

The Friends drafted a policy brief on the hearings which shows that despite promises from Prime Minister Stephen Harper, there is a 37 per cent gap between the increases in overall government spending and the CBC's decreasing portion of funding during the years 2006 to 2015.

The Friends' brief also says that the CBC has moved away from its cultural mandate in favour of more commercially successful programming, and should return to it, by putting Radio Two's emphasis back on classical music and by renewing English Television's commitment to 80 per cent Canadian content and to children and youth programming.

The CBC has suffered years of slashed funding and a loss of sports programming revenues due to the recent hockey lockout, putting everything from Hockey Night in Canada to Monster Math Squad in jeopardy.

Ian Morrison, the Friends' spokesperson, has been travelling across Canada this week. After attending the opening of the CRTC hearings in Gatineau on Monday, he attended a candidates meeting in Calgary on Tuesday, and attended another candidates meeting in Victoria on Wednesday, to be followed by a return to Gatineau on Friday to appear before the CRTC. He says that the CBC is a well-regarded institution across the country, and the Friends enjoy strong support nationwide, particularly in British Columbia.

'They have to keep cutting and cutting'

"Harper once told me, in a small crowd of people, that he didn't really like public broadcasting very much. I think he's constrained by public opinion," Morrison says. "Now that they're in a majority government situation, there are a number of back benchers who are putting forward resolutions to de-fund the CBC, things of that nature."

"A lot of the things that have happened are a combination of bad judgment at the top inside the corporation and the fact that they have to keep cutting and cutting and cutting, despite the promises of the Harper government, that they would maintain or increase funding." He views the system of the prime ministerial patronage system of appointing the CBC's board and president as "a kind of cancer."

"It's a little like the Republicans in the United States not liking PBS or National Public Radio," he says. "The neo-conservatives within the Conservative party think that the role of the government is national defence and things of that nature, guarding the borders, police, prisons, things like that. The don't understand the importance of investing in culture and innovation and things of that nature."

The funding issue influences the decisions about what kind of programming CBC will offer. Will it serve some ideal of the public good, or will it present commercially popular shows and advertising? Money "drives their editorial decisions. So, hockey, for example, has a huge amount of time, but children's programming does not. Commercial activity isn't neutral in a cultural and programming way."

"If it becomes excessively commercial, more than it is now, it becomes less distinctive and less worthy of the support of the public, so it's a kind of a death spiral if it takes that route. To dramatize that, we have said, as opposed to being a public service broadcaster it will eventually just become a private broadcaster that loses a billion dollars a year."

Forty years of funding decreases

The CBC's troubles have run deeper and longer than just the current Conservative majority government.

Richard Stursberg, former head of English services at CBC from 2004 to 2006, and author of Tower of Babble: Sins, Secrets and Successes inside the CBC (Douglas & McIntyre, 2012) says that for decades the CBC has actually been tortured with the death of a thousand cuts, with the worst coming under Liberal governments. "The CBC has not had any increases, it has only had decreases, in its permanent funding for 30 or 40 years. It's a very difficult situation."

At CBC, Stursberg had "a simple view. The only way that the CBC was going to survive and succeed was by making great shows that Canadians would actually want to watch... This is not a view that is necessarily widely shared. Where some people say the corporation should not be doing popular shows, it should be doing ballet on TV. I think that if it goes down that direction, then it will cut itself off from the Canadian public generally, who pay their taxes."

Stursberg oversaw a new wave of popular programming like Battle of the Blades, Dragon's Den, Little Mosque on the Prairie and The Border. He sees these as distinctly Canadian, even Dragon's Den, which he acknowledges was based on a Japanese format. "They're completely Canadian. They reflect our sensibility and our sense of humour, and Canadians love them."

Stursberg doesn't see "popular" and "commercial" as the same thing. "I never know what it means when people say, 'Make it more commercial.' I am not recommending that we sell the CBC. I am not recommending that we privatize it. I'm saying that what really counts is all these individual Canadians out there who cough up all this money for the CBC, [...] and it seems to me that we should be saying, 'What would you like that we have in programming?' I wouldn't call that commercial. I would call that fair, and I would call it sensible in terms of the very nature of the medium itself."

582px version of Total funding of CBC graph
Source: Friends of Canadian Broadcasting.

Stursberg says that the real underlying problem with both funding and content of the CBC is there is no agreement over what it should be or do. "When I say 'popular,' you say 'commercial,' and you say it in a kind of negative way. Many people do. That's not an at-all atypical view. Many people think that the CBC should be much more high minded than that. That's a big cleavage, and it's not unique to you. That's a cleavage throughout the government, throughout the population, throughout the history of the corporation. For the corporation to succeed, that matter must be resolved." Without a consensus on the corporation's purpose, there is no agreement over how it should be funded or what it should produce.

Stursberg also says he is surprised at the lack of media coverage of the CRTC hearings about the CBC, also citing the lack of coverage of the bankruptcy of Canadian publisher Douglas & McIntyre, which published his book. "I was struck by the fact that that they opened the hearings Monday, and they have about two weeks of hearings about the future of the CBC. For the first time in 12 years, we've had hearings about the future of the corporation. I opened up the major papers, and I read the Globe and the Post and the Star this morning. No mention. Something's going on here."

"It's very important that Canadians actually make their views known about it. I think it's very important that Canadians not sit passively and not do anything. I think it's really important that they write to the commission and that they write to the government and they tell people this is an important institution and that it should be well-treated and well-financed."  [Tyee]

Read more: Politics

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