In the pages of this newspaper, Mark Sutcliffe’s column has spurred much discussion about the role of the public broadcaster in the future of our country. Debate about what we offer is a good thing â”€ but starting with an accurate understanding of the Canadian media industry would provide for a better discussion.
Mr. Sutcliffe started from the premise that CBC/Radio-Canada’s funding model is competitively unfair to private broadcasters. He uses as examples our bids for Olympic and NHL rights.
There are three problems with the premise. The first is factual. We put in a lone bid for the Olympics only once the private sector actors announced their withdrawal from the bidding process. We stepped in to ensure Canadians would see Canadian athletes in Sochi and Rio and we then brought in no fewer than 4 private broadcast channels to enhance the offer. Similarly with the NHL, we were offering what no one else was offering, the only conventional coast to coast broadcaster who could devote two months of prime time the Stanley Cup playoffs.
The second problem is the idea that a well-funded public broadcaster makes private broadcasters less successful, either in financial or in programming terms. That may seem logical, but the studies I have seen suggest that the opposite is true. Countries with well-funded public broadcasters have high quality and highly profitable private broadcasters. Countries that don’t invest in local story-telling end up with underperforming private broadcasters and a dependence on foreign programming. The US is the exception that proves the rule. For just about everyone else the rule applies.
The third problem is the very concept of a free-market private broadcaster in Canada. What we call ‘private’ Canadian broadcasters collectively receive direct and indirect benefits and subsidies from the taxpayer amounting to about $1 billion annually. And why do they receive Government assistance? Because, while private broadcasters make money airing American television, there is no viable commercial model to consistently make Canadian programs available to all Canadians at a profit.
Should private broadcasters receive that funding? Yes, if we want them to deliver public benefits to the broadcasting system – that is to say, if we want them to air Canadian programming. But we’ll never make that their raison d’être. Airing American programming will always be where they make their money.
So much for the private side, what about the public? Mr. Sutcliffe has a problem with our hybrid funding model, created by Government over 75 years ago, which determines that public funds will be supplemented by self-generated revenues. We’re not alone, Via Rail receives public funding but we still pay something for a train ticket. Public money funds the Foreign Affairs department but we still pay for a passport. As a country, we have found many ways to encourage, where the public interest is served or the market fails, certain activities that will not otherwise happen - writers, film-makers, artists, musicians are all assisted by bodies such as the, the Canada Council, the National Film Board, Telefilm Canada, and regional and municipal arts councils.
It is a system that has served us so far. Mr. Sutcliffe is, however, right to question whether it will in the future. CBC/Radio-Canada’s beginnings were about counteracting American influence on our airwaves. With so much, mostly foreign programming in the expanding, fragmented media landscape of today, it remains patently obvious that that influence is even greater now and that a space reserved for our own stories and our own debates will continue to be important to our cohesion as a country. Private broadcasters will never see that as their job.
Mr. Sutcliffe’s remedy is to spread the money around to as many places as possible and to hope that Canadians will find and define those essential debates and stories on their own. But that is not how modern media really works nor how modern culture is created. We need to seed the creative milieu and let their creativity bloom. But unless it is someone’s job to find it and make it as available to the Canadian public as possible, the investment and the impact will not be optimised and the reason we spend the money in the first place, national consciousness and identity, will not be served.
Is CBC/Radio-Canada the only vehicle that can and should have that mandate? No, of course not. But it may be the best vehicle we have at the moment to serve those needs.
We have recently read a lot of nostalgia for a broadcaster of a bygone era. Mr. Sutcliffe’s grasp of the current nature of the media landscape suggests he might be judging CBC/Radio Canada from that perspective of what we were. I’d prefer to discuss what we need to be; are not yet but are in the process of becoming. I hope he will take a fresh look at what we do today and plan to do tomorrow and write some more about a subject that I believe, admittedly from a biased point of view, is worth discussing further.
William B. Chambers
Vice-President, Brand, Communications and Corporate Affairs, CBC/Radio-Canada
A shorter version of this letter also appeared in the National Post.