Opening remarks for Mr. Robert Rabinovitch, President and CEO of CBC/Radio-Canada, for CBC/Radio-Canada’s appearance before the Standing Committee on Canadian Heritage

November 27, 2007

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Mr. Chair, Members of the Committee.

Thank you for inviting us back to talk with you about the mandate of CBC/Radio-Canada.

With me today are Sylvain Lafrance, Executive Vice-President of French Services and Richard Stursberg, Executive Vice-President of English Services.

We have been following the work of this Committee over the past nine months as you have studied our mandate, and we are eager to discuss with you what you have heard, and your thoughts about what Canadians want from their national public broadcaster.

When we were here last March, we spoke about some of our recent successes – in programs and in productivity. We also spoke about the tremendous changes sweeping the broadcasting environment, and the need for a new approach – a systematic review on a timely basis – a contract between the national public broadcaster and the citizens it serves.

Such an approach is essential if CBC/Radio-Canada is going to be able to continue to respond to the needs of Canadians. Other countries have already followed a similar path. They conduct mandate reviews that include widespread consultation, then establish similar agreements with public broadcasters in Ireland, Hong Kong, South Africa and, of course, in Great Britain with the BBC. I urge you to speak with them about their experience.

It is important to point out that this contract must continue to protect the arm’s length independence currently enshrined in the Broadcasting Act. Micromanagement of programming decisions – including specific demands on where programming is to be made, and by whom — would create a bureaucratic nightmare that would stifle creativity and flexibility, and undermine the very essence of public broadcasting. Under a contract, once the expectations of the broadcaster are agreed upon, the public broadcaster is responsible for making the decisions necessary to fulfil those expectations.

For CBC/Radio-Canada, a new contract reviewed on a regular, predictable cycle would provide direction on what Canadians could expect from their national public broadcaster in return for a clear indication from Government on its willingness to supply the necessary funding on a stable, continuing basis.

This contract should be part of an ongoing permanent process of regular, timely and predictable reviews of our mandate. Other witnesses have also expressed strong support for a contract. I hope that you will endorse this proposal in your Report.

I cannot stress how important I believe it is that you take this opportunity to recommend a new approach. The Broadcasting Act has not changed in more than 15 years. During that time, the broadcasting environment has continued to change and has done so even since our appearance last Spring. It is being buffeted by consolidation in ownership and changing viewing habits that are redefining what “broadcasting” means. Sure, Canadians still watch television and listen to radio, but more than ever, they are enjoying programs on their laptops, their Blackberries, their cell phones, and their Ipods. That is why we are no longer the company we were 15 years ago. We can no longer think of ourselves as a Television company, or a Radio company, or an Internet company.

In fact, we are a content company. And we need to make, and are already making, programs that, from their inception, are designed for all platforms. That philosophy is now ingrained in all of our services.

In short, we are programmers. Our job is to ensure that distinctive content created by, for and about Canadians is available – when Canadians want it, on whichever platform they are using – and that means that we need multiple services, not just one or two.

CONTENT IS KING

Our mission is to deliver public value to Canadians.

That means programs that are relevant to people;

Programs that enrich their democratic and cultural lives;

Programs that reflect the tremendous diversity of this country and that build cohesion, by showing what we all have in common.

Our programs should also fulfil public policy objectives, by which I mean, we need to offer a range of programs that are distinctive, intelligent, entertaining, and innovative.

In the last couple of years, we have recognised that our unique advantage in a crowded marketplace is our distinctive, Canadian programming. We have gone back to our roots and developed unique, indigenous content in drama, entertainment and children’s programming. Undoubtedly, you have heard of the success of shows like Little Mosque on the Prairie. It entertains about a million Canadians each week and is now being broadcast in 57 countries around the world, including Gaza and Israel. Another great example is Les Bougon – an audacious program that private broadcasters feared showing but which averaged 1.2 million viewers each week on Télévision de Radio-Canada. Also let’s not forget Afghanada, a unique CBC Radio series that has developed a loyal audience throughout the country.

When you consider what we have been able to do with the resources we have, you can see that CBC/Radio-Canada delivers great public value.

Of course, no matter how compelling our programs, we cannot succeed if audiences do not watch or listen to them. Audience size is not everything, but one cannot have a public broadcaster without a public. If too few people are watching, or listening, we are irrelevant. I would draw your attention, Mr. Chair, to the programming mix of public broadcasters such as the BBC. There you will find programs designed to build audiences, as well as high culture offerings. And, if we are irrelevant, why should Canadians continue to invest in public broadcasting?

Audience size also affects our commercial revenue, which now makes up about half of our Television budgets. If we lose audience, we lose revenue, and the resources to produce Canadian programs. If we attract audiences and our revenue increases, we do not generate profit – we generate more resources, which are put right back into developing better programs for Canadians.

What is important is to offer a range of program genres, both popular and meaningful, and we must remember that popular can be meaningful – just think of Little Mosque or Les Bougon. Both programs deliver important social messages through humour.

GETTING OUR CONTENT TO CANADIANS

Access to our programs is also critical. We must be sensitive to the changing means of delivery. That is why we are using new technologies to reach new audiences. We have become a top provider of News and content on wireless devices. We broadcast our programs across North America on satellite radio. Podcasts of our programs are the choice of a new generation of young Canadians – with more than a million downloads a month. We have proven that you do not need to dumb down your programming to reach a younger audience. Other witnesses have told this Committee how important it is that we have a strong presence in New Media and emerging platforms.

We are making better use of our strengths. And we are restructuring, accordingly. Many of our journalists are now filing reports in English and French, for Radio, Television and the Internet. That allows us to put more resources into bringing more stories to light.

We still need to do more.

We want to reach the eight million French- and English-speaking Canadians who pay for CBC/Radio-Canada but who do not currently have a local CBC/Radio-Canada Radio service. The Government asked for, and we provided, a plan that would bring local public Radio – local News, local issues – to 15 of the fastest-growing communities across Canada that are deprived today of local public broadcasting. We included the cost – $25 million in capital costs and $25 million a year in operating costs – because we simply do not have the resources to do it without cutting services elsewhere. That plan was submitted to this Committee in May 2007. I hope you will endorse it.

Increasing our local Radio presence will help us improve our service to Canadians on one platform. If we are to continue to be relevant to Canadians, we must provide our content on all platforms — regular Television channels as well as specialty channels geared to specific audiences.

A dramatic change has occurred over the past few years in television watching. While conventional general television will continue to be important, more Canadians, both English and French, look to specialty channels for their television. This season’s viewing of specialty channels was 54 per cent on the English side and 38 per cent on the French side (whole day). In most cases, viewers are looking for a particular genre of programming – sports, news, high culture, children’s programming, etc. It is obvious that the public broadcaster must serve Canadian viewers as they wish to be served.

We are reorganising, accordingly. That is why we are taking a significant enhanced position in ARTV and The Documentary Channel. That is why we are in the process of changing the name and the programming mix of CBC Country Canada to be an arts and specialty channel.

We must continue to develop specialty channels such as a children’s channel – perhaps in partnership with another public broadcaster; an elite performance sports channel; and a channel specifically dedicated to the expression of nationwide diversity, new cultures, opinions, and regions. We must view public broadcasting in the future as a comprehensive array of services, because Canadians have demonstrated by their behaviour that that is what they want.

Our mandate must be to serve all Canadians. Public broadcasting is not a niche service. If it becomes one, it will cease to be relevant to the people who invest in it, and it will wither away.

Mr. Chair, over the past few years we have created a strong efficient broadcaster. Canadians have come to us in increasing and record high numbers in English and in French, Radio and Television.

A contract with Canadians will result in enhanced relations with our shareholders and will position CBC/Radio-Canada for the future: nimble, willing to take risks and never losing site of its primary goal of enhancing the democratic and cultural life of the citizens of this country.

I hope that your Report will be forward-looking and that you will create a roadmap for the future of public broadcasting. Strong, forward-looking recommendations from your review of the mandate of CBC/Radio-Canada can give us the tools to help us do this.

On a personal note, I have appeared before this Committee frequently during my mandate. I have always appreciated the discussions we have had and the consistent interest in CBC/Radio-Canada shown by Committee Members. I know that my successor, Hubert T. Lacroix is looking forward to meeting with you soon, and I am confident that he, too, will enjoy working with this Committee.

We look forward to answering your questions.

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