Notes for remarks by Mr. Robert Rabinovitch, President and CEO for CBC/Radio-Canada’s appearance before the Standing Committee on Canadian Heritage (review of the Corporation's mandate).

March 22, 2007


Mr. Chair, members of the Committee.

Thank you for inviting us. We welcome all efforts to clarify the role of public broadcasting.

With me today are Sylvain Lafrance, Executive Vice-President of French Services; Richard Stursberg, Executive Vice-President of CBC Television and Jennifer McGuire, Acting Vice-President of CBC Radio.

I will get straight to the point. Canadians could be better served by their broadcasting system and their public broadcaster. Much better.

The broadcasting environment is changing profoundly. We believe that this new context calls for a new contract. The new realities of play require new rules of play. And yet, I’m happy to report to you that the CBC/Radio-Canada of today is in remarkably good form.

Let’s start with traditional media. Our Radio services have enjoyed a decade of almost continuous growth in audience share and loyalty. They have enhanced the quality of programming and have won virtually every prestigious broadcasting award, not only in Canada but around the world.

Our French Television service has experienced a string of both popular and critical successes over the last four years – everything from Les Bougon through to Tout le monde en parle. And people are talking. It is not by accident that Quebecers have ranked Radio-Canada as fourth among the most-admired companies, according to a survey published in Commerce magazine in March 2007. Télévision de Radio-Canada is very near to finding that elusive perfect balance between broad appeal and the exemplary quality of public service programming.

Even CBC Television, which faces the greatest challenges among all of our services, is on the move with a new management team and a bold plan.

Faced with ferocious competition, market fragmentation and changing consumer behaviour, CBC Television has maintained a stable prime-time share over the last four years of between seven and nine per cent. That is in the same neighbourhood as Global TV and more than double that of the largest specialty services. This past season, CBC Television had 15 of the top 20 Canadian shows in terms of audience size.

Both and are among the country’s most visited media sites. At a rate of more than one million downloads per month, CBC/Radio-Canada is one of the leaders in podcasting in Canada. Interestingly, some of our most successful podcasts are our more serious shows like Les années lumières, Les premières à la carte, Ideas, and Quirks and Quarks, and they are being consumed mainly by 18-to-34-year olds, putting the lie to the belief that you need to dumb down content to reach a younger demographic. The fact is, new technology opens up new audiences for existing content.

So yes, CBC/Radio-Canada is doing well across the board, despite an unpredictable playing field.

A few years back, this Committee urged us in its report, Our Cultural Sovereignty, to look at how we can better serve Canada’s regions. We submitted to the Government our first comprehensive plan in the Fall of 2004. Having had no take up on that plan, we recently submitted to Government a more modest plan that focuses on bringing local Radio programming to the eight million Canadians living in centres that do not have a local CBC service.

In the meantime, technological advances are enabling us to rethink our local News offering. Our plan is not to replicate what the private broadcasters already do. We believe that, by aggressively managing our budgets and using technology in new ways, we can connect with grassroots communities and, at the same time, counter the trend in the private sector of gradual withdrawal from local news.

I mentioned our efforts to manage our budgets. You should know that over the last seven years we have become much more efficient and focused. We have generated $75 million in ongoing annual cost savings and, last year, more than $93 million in non-advertising revenues through everything from merchandising to better use of our real estate assets.

That in itself is a remarkable accomplishment. Yet we continue to face serious financial pressures. The plain fact is, if these pressures are not addressed – seriously and soon – there will be no more rabbits to pull out of the hat.

Some still ask the question: Is the CBC delivering value for money? Absolutely.

Consider that, of the 18 industrialised countries reviewed in the Nordicity study tabled with our submission, our need is the greatest and our system is the most complex. But our funding is the third least, at less than half of the $80 per capita average. The BBC does its job in one language and one time zone with $7.3 billion. We do ours with $1 billion in public funding, or about $30 per person (over 5 ½ time zones in two languages).

But, while we deliver exceptional value for the investment Canadians make in us, that doesn’t mean we’re equipped to discharge our 1991 mandate or address the challenges we face next year, and the next. The simple fact is the implicit contract with Canadians that governs us today is too generic and it doesn’t reflect today’s reality.

We need an explicit contract. This is the practice in other countries — in Ireland, in South Africa, Hong Kong. In the UK, the BBC operates under a Royal Charter that is formally renewed, after debate, every 10 years. This is the kind of clarity and predictability we seek. Anything less is really paying lip service to the ideal of public broadcasting – while watching it wither.

But why now? What’s the rush?

In 1997, Canada didn’t have 100 digital specialty channels, 100 more foreign satellite channels, or 17 pay-per-view and video-on-demand services. Canadians watched TV and listened to radio —not on their laptops, their Blackberries, their cell phones, on their iPods. In 2004, there was no satellite radio. In 2005, there was no YouTube. In 2006, no iPhone.

Canadians want their programming when and where and how it suits them. CBC’s future is that of a content provider that is platform agnostic, not of a television company or of a radio network. This single reality is already transforming CBC/Radio Canada.

So the extent of change is one reason for urgency. And, frankly, the speed of that change makesnot reviewing our long-term goals and strategies an unacceptable risk — financially, culturally, politically.

Now some people will tell you that public broadcasters aren’t needed in an age of choice and technology. If ever that was true, it isn’t now.

There is near unanimity on the importance of the role that Radio-Canada plays in enriching the cultural and democratic life of our Francophone community. In French and English, the simple fact is that there are some things – which cut to the core of public policy priorities – that private broadcasters either cannot or will not do, but that we can and will do.

  • Canadian programming in prime time on television.
  • Commercial-free, safe, entertaining programming for kids.
  • Connections in the North and other remote parts of the country.
  • Original Current Affairs programming.
  • Canadian perspectives on international events.
  • High-culture programming.
  • And many other types of programming listed in our submission.

These are things that others are not in a position to do.

And then there is the issue of programming diversity. In Vancouver today, two companies own virtually all of the mainstream media on all platforms. Diversity of viewpoints is disappearing. Canada needs to ensure that those views and voices are heard, and that too is the role of the public broadcaster.

So, the demand for both quality and diversity of product has skyrocketed. But funding is a real challenge; CBC/Radio-Canada has not received a permanent increase in its public funding base in the past 33 years. Since 1974. It is essential and will be well used. And, more broadly, as you know, the funding model for commercial television broadcasters is seriously at risk. I do want to thank Minister Oda for her announcement yesterday of the 60 million dollar additional funding for programming over two years.

What we need is a long-term, properly resourced strategy for broadcasting in the next decade. We need to engage Parliament and Canadians in a planning process to address the big policy questions.

Questions like:

Does Canada need high-quality Canadian programming in prime time?

Do Canadians want programs that reflect their reality?

Television drama is the most pervasive catalyst of popular culture in Western societies. In the last 20 years, every other industrialised country has used its national broadcaster as the anchor in repatriating its prime-time television schedule. Everywhere else, home-grown drama is the most popular viewing option during prime time. Canadian French-language content is extremely popular, but increasingly, our ability to produce the kind of séries lourdes that are the most effective expression of culture, is diminishing due to funding pressure. And when it comes to English-language content in Canada, CBC Television has already determined to use its prime-time schedule to invest in compelling Canadian drama. We have made progress, but it is severely limited by resources.

Another question: How do we expose Canadians to world events through the lens of a uniquely Canadian point of view?

CBC/Radio-Canada already has the most extensive network of foreign bureaux of any Canadian broadcaster. But should we do more internationally?

Or questions like this: How do we promote social cohesion in one of the most diverse societies in the world?

The role of public broadcasters has always been to reinforce coherence and common values. What is our role in sustaining a uniquely Canadian identity in an era defined by diversity and fragmentation? How to build a sense of belonging and national pride?

As an example, we launched this past year an Internet service called RCI viva, which is dedicated to providing content about Canadian values and customs to new Canadians and aspiring immigrants.

Or this question: How do we engage Canadians in advancing democratic principles?

A significant part of the magic of our main Radio services is their devotion to providing the forum for the national debate. Whether it is Christiane Charette or The Current or Cross Country Checkup or Maisonneuve en direct our Radio is at its best when it hosts the country in conversation. Increasingly, we will use technology to bring that hosting role to the local level.

In television, the private conventional broadcasters air little if any current affairs and documentary programming – collectively 70 hours per year on the English side and less on the French. CBC and Radio-Canada both air literally hundreds of hours per year, and that is not including what airs on CBC Newsworld and RDI.

Who else will do that?

CBC/Radio-Canada is in fact a public-private broadcaster in terms of its funding, and a publicbroadcaster in terms of its mandate. Given our mandate and our funding levels, we must find commercial funding sources to maintain our services. Is that the Government’s wish? This whole issue should be carefully thought out and planned. We need to strike the right balance.

Today, CBC/Radio-Canada is at a turning point that no one-year answer, no one-dimensional response will resolve. What is required for CBC/Radio-Canada to reach its potential as an instrument of national policy is a new contract with Canadians. Like all contracts, this would lay out the obligations of all parties and have a specific term of, say, ten years.

Such a contract would provide guidance on the big questions I have just raised. It would be based on principles already enshrined in the Broadcasting Act and serve as the basis for a clearer contract with our 32 million shareholders.

A fundamental principle that underpins any contract is that sufficient resources be provided to be able to meet the expectations set out in the contract. Frankly, if the money isn’t there to fulfill these expectations, the contract will fail.

It is our clear hope that this Committee will see in the idea of establishing a permanent process to review CBC/Radio-Canada’s mandate the opportunity for Canadians to renew their relationship with their national broadcaster, and to clarify, through a new contract, how Canadians can be best served.

Thank you for your time and attention.

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