File this under item of note in the world of public broadcasting.
The Canadian Broadcast Corporation (CBC) has been up for a regular license review by Canada’s regulator agency, (deep breath) the Canada Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission, more mercifully known as the CRTC.
That’s a fairly large topic, full of complex details and Canada-specific issues. If wanted, here’s a good summary article from the Globe and Mail on how the CBC began – and the many challenges it faces in a multi-media future.
For the purposes of this post, we’ll set most of that big picture aside and just talk about something a lot of us hate: commercials.
This past week the CRTC renewed the CBC’s license for five more years.
More controversially, part of the CRTC renewal decision could be of some significance for public broadcasting on both side of the border. Ads will now be permitted on some CBC radio services. Yes, they’ll be limited in number. But many observers feel a sort of Rubicon just got crossed.
Here’s more from a CRTC press release of May 28th:
Broadcast of advertising for a three-year period
The CBC requested permission to gradually include national advertising on its Radio 2 and Espace Musique radio networks, up to an unlimited quantity during the fourth year of its licence term. The CRTC partially granted this request by allowing advertising to be broadcast on these services for a limited three-year period. The networks may not broadcast more than four minutes of advertising per broadcast hour. In order to minimize the impact on their listeners, the advertising broadcast will have to be consolidated in a maximum of two blocks each hour.
At the end of the three-year period, if the CBC wishes to continue to broadcast advertising on Radio 2 and Espace Musique, it will have to submit a new application to the CRTC. The CBC will have to demonstrate that the advertising has not had an undue adverse effect on advertising markets, that listeners have not been unduly inconvenienced by the advertising, that the level of investment in radio broadcasting has been maintained, and that there has been no reduction in the variety and diversity of programming provided by the Radio 2 and Espace Musique services.
A few more details. Although CBC is largely funded by tax dollars CBC TV already has ads – approved ads anyway – that ship has sailed. (I am having some difficulty establishing when ads were first permitted on CBC TV, do readers know?)
As for radio, CBC radio one is the powerhouse service, with a high number of listeners in many communities, including Ottawa. CBC radio two is the quiet, shadow station. Formerly the place to find classical music, it’s now trying to be more things to more listeners by including contemporary music during drive time – relegating classical to off-peak hours. (Espace Musique is a French language/music service.)
Not that my feelings matter, but I was initially outraged by changes to CBC radio two, feeling the old format wasn’t broken and didn’t need fixing. Well, surprise, surprise. Over time I have changed my mind. I was sure I’d hate the drive time music shows but they’re actually pretty good. (Small, anecdotal evidence, perhaps, that initial outrage isn’t always the best way to gauge change?)
But what about out-and-out commercials on supposedly non-commercial public radio? Camel’s nose and slippery slope cries of alarm abound.
For those who care, here is CBC news coverage of that same ruling. CBC’s long-form interview program As It Happens covered this with comments from CBC President Hubert Lacroix, and a critical view from Wade Rowland. And here’s non-CBC coverage from Maclean’s.
In choosing to ignore the advice of 93% of the citizens who took the trouble to comment on the CBC’s proposal to place ads on its radio services, the decision sets CBC Radio on a slippery slope. This is the beginning of the end of the last commercial-free service offered by the CBC, according to the watchdog group Friends of Canadian Broadcasting.
More criticism was offered up from the free-market perspective in a commentary by the Financial Post’s Terence Corcoran:
In its licence decision Tuesday, the CRTC approved a plan by the CBC to introduce the evil force of commercials to Radio 2, one of public broadcasters two radio networks. The CBC, on television and through its aggressive digital Web-based operations, has been in the commercial market for decades, more recently manipulating and abusing its massive public subsidy to compete with the private sector on the Internet. Radio was the last fig leaf on the CBC’s phony claims to non-commercial integrity, and now it is gone completely.
Long time consumers of public media in the U.S. can easily remember furors over allowing corporate underwriting on PBS, NPR and member stations like NCPR. As a listener, I still wish they weren’t there. But programing has survived. (In the case of small stations like NCPR, local underwriting can even seem homey, a sign of community spirit.)
Limited ads on some CBC radio stations will soon be tried as an experiment. Is it a good one?
Or has a line that should be inviolate just been crossed?