Op-Ed from Bill Chambers, in response to Wade Rowland's article "CBC President Hubert Lacroix Should Face the Music", published on July 3, on Huffington Post Canada.

July 10, 2014

The true road to oblivion: A response to Wade Rowland

On July 3rd, Wade Rowland published a blog on the Huffington Post Canada website.

Wade Rowland is an erudite fellow. He writes frequently and passionately about the future of public broadcasting in this country, here on this blog and elsewhere. And he doesn’t just complain, having worked at CBC sometime in the distant past, he regularly proposes alternate approaches intended to make public broadcasting better. So I am always interested in what he writes and this week he wrote about the strategic plan that CBC/Radio-Canada announced last week.

In his article, he lent on Thomas Hobbes, 17th century philosopher, to argue that the CBC’s senior management (that would be me, I am a Vice President at CBC/Radio-Canada) and its Board should resign because we are proceeding with the “progressive dismembering of the corporation.”

Now one doesn’t actually need Hobbes to know that, were the strategy about dismembering the corporation, we should, in fact, resign. What baffles me is that he doesn’t seem to have understood it – the plan I mean, he appears to have a handle on Hobbes.

I assume Mr. Rowland has read the strategy. He’s a serious guy. So we have to take some responsibility for him not understanding it. He seems to have hit on a few phrases and taken them to be the entire meaning of the thing. So let me clarify what seem to me to be misconceptions.

Mr. Rowland states that our strategy calls for “an abrupt abandonment of traditional broadcasting”. That is not, of course, the plan. We tried to make it plain in our content section that, not only is there no intent to mess with our talk and information radio networks, but that the single most important investment in the coming years, would be in our prime time television schedules. The quintessence of traditional broadcasting. Over the five-year plan, this would continue to be the way we reach the largest number of Canadians and be our highest programming priority.

We also, it must be said, talked a lot about what else lies in Canadians’ futures and how important digital mobile services will be. As things shift, that is the direction they will go and, even with our financial challenges, we intend to be there.

Nowhere will mobile be more important than for our News content, both local and national. Already, more than half our online news consumption is through a mobile device. The next generation of mobile content will be conceived for the environment, not created for a TV screen and adapted. James Harding, the Director of News and Current Affaires at the BBC just this week called mobile the fourth revolution after radio, television and online. He announced that it will transform news at the BBC, not replacing traditional habits, but altering and adding to them. We got there about a week ahead of him.

Our strategy, A Space for us All, is not about abandoning our traditional audiences for digital ones, it is about abandoning bricks and mortar in favour of content and programming. We’ll be spending less on buildings, on infrastructure and on support services. We will place a heavy emphasis on mobile and other digital innovations and an even heavier investment in the programming that reaches the most Canadians and has the biggest cultural impact.

To back up his contention that we are progressively dismembering the corporation, Mr. Rowland put forward a list of what he calls “recent amputations”. This is a list of ten things, stretching over the last fifteen years, that we have either stopped doing, are doing less of or are doing differently. He neglects to mention that, since the late 1990’s, we have also gone from delivering 9 services to Canadians to delivering 30, and, for the first time in 40 years, we have expanded our local services into 7 new communities. We provide much more content to Canadians today than we did in those olden days and we do it more efficiently. The idea that we should never stop doing something whose time has past or that we shouldn’t make choices so that we evolve with Canadians’ needs is, in my view, the true road “to oblivion”.

The strategy we announced last week conceives of the institution not as a museum where things are preserved but and an activator of culture where things should morph and evolve constantly, at about the same pace that the country itself changes. When Canadians go through big convulsive shifts in how they interact and experience their culture and their society, we are part of those shifts and they do and should change how we fulfill our role.

Underlying Mr. Rowland’s call for the whole gang of us to resign, is the explicit assertion that CBC/Radio-Canada doesn’t have enough money to carry out its mandate as he defines it, and the implicit assertion that a mass resignation would serve some purpose beyond being emotionally cathartic.

It is true that, relative to its peers, CBC/Radio-Canada is very poorly funded and, as a result, there are things that we will not do that could be of great benefit to Canadians. It is also true that the financing model that has sustained conventional private and public broadcasting in Canada for decades is broken and needs to be reinvented. With more funding, we would provide more and better service to Canadians. And we would actually change faster.

But he is wrong in his belief that, with the funds we do get, we cannot create something magnificent that will be of real value to Canadians. The way forward is not to stay frozen in a defensive crouch. Nor is it to chuck all the great things we are doing and have done over the years. It is to experiment with new ways and not to be afraid of change.

This is the choice: we can either stamp our feet, demand more money and say we’ll go home if we don’t get it – futile – or we can focus hard on the things that are most important to Canadians and move with them into a future that finds a balance between heritage and innovation. To see which we have chosen, please read the plan: http://www.cbc.radio-canada.ca/en/explore/strategies/2020/.

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