Tuesday July 29, 2014

Why we must preserve public broadcasting


CBC is being cut again. This time it is 657 positions over two years to deal with a $130 million budget shortfall.

I’m sure there are many people—mostly Conservatives and conservatives—who are gleefully wringing their hands over this latest news.

There are also many people—mostly progressives and artists—who I am certain feel like the sky is falling.

Ordinarily, I would fall into the latter camp, but I am a critical thinker and have to look at this with some perspective.

Of course, I do have a great deal of sympathy for the employees who will be laid off—although some of it will be taken care of by attrition—but I do not think we should simply jump to knee-jerk ideological conclusions about what it really means.

Also, I love the CBC. I think we need it, perhaps now more than ever. But, if we are being realistic, we should not rule out the possibility that it must change with the times, and by that I mean get back to the basics.

According to the 1991 Broadcasting Act “….the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, as the national public broadcaster, should provide radio and television services incorporating a wide range of programming that informs, enlightens and entertains.”

It goes on to say “...the programming provided by the Corporation should: be predominantly and distinctively Canadian, reflect Canada and its regions to national and regional audiences, while serving the special needs of those regions; actively contribute to the flow and exchange of cultural expression; be in English and in French, reflecting the different needs and circumstances of each official language community, including the particular needs and circumstances of English and French linguistic minorities; strive to be of equivalent quality in English and French; contribute to shared national consciousness and identity; be made available throughout Canada by the most appropriate and efficient means and as resources become available for the purpose; and reflect the multicultural and multiracial nature of Canada.”

In short, the CBC’s mandate is to tell our stories and who else is going to do it? The CBC does that admirably, better than any other broadcaster, as should be expected. And it is a bargain, costing only $34 per taxpayer compared to the $124 British subjects pay for the BBC and $77 French citizens shell for the RTF.

The case for public broadcasting in general is just as compelling. Public broadcasters produce, on balance, much more important and thoughtful programming than their commercial counterparts and are less politically biased. In the hyper-partisan media environment we find ourselves in today, the fact-based information and perspective provided by public broadcasters is all the more imperative.

I think the jury is going to be out for a quite a while on what the impact of this latest round of cuts will be. For my money, the CBC should concentrate on news and documentary programming. There is a place for quality Canadian drama and comedy, of course, and we cannot forget about how necessary CBC is to the Canadian music industry. These are the critical cultural expressions for which the corporation was founded in the 1930s—by a Conservative prime minister (R.B. Bennett), no less.

So far, it looks like the most dramatic change will be the loss of live sports coverage. So be it; it is not a business the public broadcaster should be in these days anyway with all the choices we have in that genre. Interestingly, the $130 million deficit is awfully close to the $100 million CBC will lose from Hockey Night in Canada now that Rogers has bought exclusive rights from the NHL.

I would also not mourn the loss of so-called “reality” programming. I fail to see how these shows fulfill the mandate of the corporation, unless it is simply the revenue they generate. I do not know if that is on the table, but it should be. The other networks are a more suitable milieu for that genre.

We absolutely must preserve the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, but the reality is there is not as much money for it as there used to be. Let us hope the stewards of this venerable and essential Canadian institution will make the right decisions on how to adjust. Paying close attention to the legislated mandate is a good place to start.



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