Role of CBC is debated in license renewal hearings

CBC Building, Toronto. Photo: nav1SK, CC some rights reserved

BBC, CBC, PBS, NPR…anyone familiar with broadcasting and news knows what those letters mean and what product they deliver.

What may be harder for In Box readers to grasp is how much more significance “the Beeb” and CBC hold (held?) in Great Britain and Canada, respectively.

In the U.S. – for better or worse – radio and television were pioneered by the private sector. “Public” broadcasting arrived much later in the game.

PBS, CPB, NPR (and hundreds of local public broadcasting organizations) have made important contributions to the landscape of culture and information. But I would argue they have no long history of establishing national identity in the U.S.

It’s almost the opposite in Canada.

In the model of the BBC (but without the mandatory household fees) for decades the CBC linked the country together, often providing the only radio or TV service available in far-flung and remote areas.

As blogged by Brian Mann on Nov 11th,  BBC is caught up in its own corporate crisis at present, after a prominent host (now deceased) was accused of being a serial sexual predator. (Which should have been recognized earlier, but wasn’t. Which could have been exposed, later, but that news report was censored from within.) That’s just the short version and all the dust hasn’t settled yet.

There are no comprable scandals besetting the CBC, other than political quarrels that NPR listeners understand quite well.

Critics of the CBC in Canada say the organization is top-heavy, wasteful with money and is run by an organizational culture that’s biased against conservative values in general and the Conservative Party in particular. This perspective holds that CBC has gone complacent, lazy and lacks focus. Some argue it’s actually no longer needed – the private sector can now fulfill most of the same purposes, etc. (I’m probably leaving a number of other critiques out. People do love to argue about what the CBC is, should be, or isn’t.)

CBC defenders (and there are many) argue with passionate that public broadcasting fills a crucial niche and must be protected. There’s a Friends of the Canadian Broadcasting group with a robust webpage and lobbying effort.

I dare say they see the CBC as flawed too, but in the opposite direction. This side argues the CBC needs to return to its roots, in terms of mission, even if technology is changing how it would do that. Don’t mimic and replicate commercial media. Go back to a culture of service, culture and information with a uniquely Canadian flavor. (Or some such purity.)

Anyway, this all comes up because the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission is holding license renewal hearings (Nov 19-30) in which the CBC gets to present their vision, advocate for permission to makes changes and defend itself against criticism from all comers. (The CRTC is equivalent to the Federal Communications Commission, or FCC, in the U.S.)

It’s not riveting stuff. But it is something media types watch closely.

Tim Harper of the Toronto Star summarizes some of the dynamics from the popular point of view  this column, calling the question of what the CBC should be “the Canadian debate that never ends”.

A more technical overview is summarized in this article from Mediacaster. (If you are interested in more details, the article includes a number of supplemental links on the subject.)

Honestly, I’d hate to try settle this quandary. It may have seemed simple, back in the day. But no more.

Everything is in flux. Revenue is shaky for all news organizations. Tax funding is endangered. Crystal balls are not showing where the twins of journalism and entertainment broadcasting are going – or should go.

There’s a public interest to defend, for sure. But what is it? And who should pay for it?

For example, after budget cuts in this tight economy, the CBC is asking permission to run ads on program services that have historically been ad-free. (CBC TV already has ads.) The CBC says they are not asking for ads on Radio One’s news and info service. Just ads on the music-oriented Radio Two service. (For now at least.)

Ads on public radio, can you imagine how that would go down with NPR listeners? And yet, like it or not, corporate underwriting is well-established. If ads would save the CBC budget, is that a necessary step – or a big sell-out and the beginning of the end?

Private broadcasters can very reasonably ask why the CBC should get tax funds and special government favor, if it follows an ad revenue model that has it walking like a duck, talking like a duck – but not having to compete in the real world, like all the other ducks have to.

That seemingly small proposal to run ads on just the music service drew heated opposition when it was announced in April 2012. The move prompted some supporters of public broadcasting to argue the CBC is straying its core reasons for being:

Jeffrey Dvorkin, former ombudsman for NPR and chief journalist for CBC, was discouraged by what he sees as a continuation of a misguided strategy.

“This is a time for the CBC to renew itself through a deeper engagement with the public and not by continuing the program policies and managerial assumptions that brought it to this point. So far, the CBC seems obstinately oblivious to the challenges that face it,” he said.

The hearings are being covered live on line, over the Cable Public Affairs Channel. CPAC covers matters of public interest (like Parliamentary activity) with funding by private cable companies.

According to Wikipedia, the CBC used to carry Parliamentary coverage and similar hearings in the 1980′s, but stopped in the early ’90′s … due to budget cuts.

An interesting example itself on the question of what’s the best way to deliver content.

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Postscript: Watching some of the live-streaming coverage this morning, I have to say the back and forth is pretty dynamic.

Questions from the public, along the lines of ‘why is it easy to get live streaming on non-CBC sources, but very little of that is available from CBC?’

CBC’s CEO Hubert Lacroix basically replied: the CBC can’t be everything to everyone, and time will tell if that’s a good thing to offer or if the CBC should go in that direction at all.

Questions from CRTC members on the powerful role of unions at CBC and what side-effects that may have on reporting, operations and policy.

Questions about an implied cosy pattern of CBC employees moving between reporting and politics. (Should that be permitted? Well, would current contract and bargaining rules permit that to be restricted?)

How is the CBC Ombudsman selected? To whom does that person report? What happens to recommendations from that office?

It’s all very polite, but includes some hard-hitting exchanges on important concerns.

If this is your cup of tea, you might want to drop in and watch a bit yourself.

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2 Responses to “Role of CBC is debated in license renewal hearings”

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  1. Hank says:

    As far as CBC TV is concerned, I say move local news programs over to Newsworld (the CBC cable network). then kill off CBC TV and use the funds saved to bolster the offerings on Newsworld.

    As far as CBC Radio is concerned, kill off Radio 2 and use the funds saved to bolster Radio One and try to bring it back to the level of excellence it enjoyed in its heyday – the 70s and early 80s.

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  2. Agree with Hank. Too much of what’s on regular CBC television is little different than what’s on commercial television. And they issue press releases touting their ratings just like the private stations do. So what’s the difference? What’s their special role? What should taxpayers be funded the same thing on CBC that private advertisers are funding on CTV and elsewhere? They’re supposed to be funding something different.

    Too often, debates over public media are oversimplified into “for” and “against” when for those who want a strong public broadcaster, the narrative is more nuanced.

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