The broadcast regulator styles itself as an administrative tribunal that operates at arm’s length from the federal government. It is a description that embellishes the degree of separation. The distance remains short enough that the prime minister can give the CRTC a slap across the head, if he has a mind (a statement, not a question).
To prove the point, he has just done so. In a rare move, the federal cabinet has asked the Canada Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission to take another look at the renewal of the CBC’s broadcasting licenses. The CRTC made the decision to renew those licenses for five years, with minimal conditions, in what it called a “flexible approach” in late June.
That ruling resulted in cabinet being deluged by petitions from media unions, broadcasting watchdogs and minority groups complaining that allowing CBC management free rein would detract from the goals of broadcasting policy in this country when it comes to reflecting Canada and its regions. In its decision to send the CRTC homeward to think again, the Liberal government has agreed.
In its response, the government said that certain categories of broadcast content – local news, children’s programming and original French language programming – are essential “to the maintenance and enhancement of national identity and cultural sovereignty”.
“The (original CRTC) decision derogates from the attainment of the objectives of broadcast policy,” the government said.
The specifics of what the government wants in a revised decision were not spelled out but when the original ruling was made, two of five CRTC commissioners dissented with the majority. One reason vice-chair Caroline Simard did so was that she said there was a lack of balance between “innovation and reassurance”. As an example, she offered the lack of an imposition of a minimum number of hours of local programming in metropolitan areas in the license renewal. The CRTC waived the requirement because the CBC far exceeded the minimum targets imposed in the 2013 renewal. But Simard said this was “short-sighted” in light of the push towards online coverage that might see a rethink of traditional television news reporting in future years.
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What we can expect from the regulator is a revised decision that puts stricter conditions on local programming and the amount of input from local production companies.
But it is unlikely to get to the root of the problem, which is that the taxpayer-funded national public broadcaster now sees itself as a publicly-funded commercial corporation, fighting to the death for advertising dollars against not only private broadcasting networks but also newspapers and online publications. The CBC is equally likely to lap up the lion’s share of the funds redistributed by Facebook and Google, under new government legislation.
The evidence of the CBC’s ever more commercial bias is in its annual report. In its latest accounts, the CBC received $1.3 billion in public subsidy and $504 million from “self-generated revenue” – advertising, subscriber fees and other investments. With the public funding under threat – new Conservative leader Pierre Poilievre has made sympathetic noises about defunding the corporation – CBC management sees its salvation in online revenue. Digital advertising increased 22 percent in a year, according to the report, while television advertising fell 10 percent.
As part of its online drive, CBC has launched a branded content division called Tandem that aims to “leverage” editorial credibility to advertisers by offering content that looks like news. Needless to say, such adulteration was greeted with all the enthusiasm of a fart in a spacesuit by CBC staff.
The CRTC waved through the Tandem initiative as “onside with the general approach” the CBC is taking.
But the wider media landscape is that the companies CBC is competing with – including Postmedia, publisher of National Post – are operating at a distinct disadvantage to this Janus-headed beast.
The private sector has long embraced branded content, and even applies for government grants (all major dailies in Canada draw from the $95 million Journalism Labor Tax Credit, which contributes a minimal amount to salaries).
But the government funding is nowhere near enough to allow the private sector to compete with a $1.3 billion public subsidy.
It would be to everyone’s benefit that the newspaper subsidy is withdrawn, on the condition that CBC is told to get out of the advertising business.
At one point, the CRTC recognized the CBC should not be a commercially-driven enterprise. “Since CBC is a cultural institution, audience success for certain types of programming in a commercial sense is not necessarily of paramount importance,” it said.
Former CRTC vice-chair Peter Menzies, now senior fellow at the Macdonald Laurier Institute, said he is amazed that the government doesn’t see how its own actions are distorting the marketplace. “My view is that Canada should have a public broadcaster but don’t let it compete for advertising revenue domestically,” he said.
quite. In its revised license renewal, the CRTC should recognize that fact and rebalance the media landscape.
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