Op-Ed from Bill Chambers, in response to Konrad Yakabuski's article

July 17, 2014

Konrad Yakabuski has done me a favour. In a recent article about the new CBC/Radio-Canada strategy he articulated a couple of popular myths that I now have the opportunity to debunk.

The first myth is that CBC serves its mandate less well than Radio-Canada. There is no archetype of public broadcasting. Public broadcasters take on the roles required by the specific media needs of the societies they serve. The United States, which has Hollywood, needs only a niche public broadcaster, PBS. The UK has built a nation defining icon in the BBC. That is as it should be.

With withering condescension, Mr. Yakabuski describes a Radio-Canada that can do no wrong and a CBC that can do no right. It is, perhaps, fair opinion, but it is hard to align with the facts.

Radio-Canada has a special relationship with francophone communities across Canada. For many it is their only service in their mother tongue. CBC’s role is not to replicate that, but to be the public broadcaster that English Canada needs in the face of the American television juggernaut. Same mandate – telling the stories of Canadians - different challenges.

All conventional television broadcasters, CBC and Radio-Canada included, saw a significant shift of viewers to specialty channels through the 1990’s and early 2000’s. Fewer people have noticed that in the last five to ten years, both CBC and Radio-Canada have rebounded and regained strength. And yet Mr. Yakabuski talks of CBC fading. What are the facts?

Radio-Canada has the second highest audience share* of all broadcasters in the French Market (prime-time: TVA – 23.7%, R-C – 19%). In a thousand-channel English media universe, CBC also has the second highest share* (prime time CTV - 12.4%, CBC – 9.3%).

CBC News Network** is the most watched news network in the country by a fair margin. CBC has the most used English News website as well. Both English and French talk radio networks are reaching record audiences and have never got higher marks for quality.

If he had said our funding is fading, he’d have been right. But about CBC’s programming he is, objectively, wrong.

His claim that there is nothing connecting our two language services except a Board of Directors is even more bizarre. “CBC/Radio-Canada” is our name – embedded in our governing legislation for nearly half a century – for a reason. Whatever validity his segregationist idea may have had in the distant past, the massive funding reductions of the 1990’s and the advent of the internet combined to make that model both financially unviable and strategically undesirable. Today, the idea is a little quaint. You’d think Mr. Yakabuski had, for the first time, turned his raptor gaze our way to pick over our unfamiliar carcass, only to find it spring to life.

A refresher for Mr. Y; in the 1990’s we offered Canadians 9 services, today we deliver 30. Today, when we bring Canadians the Olympics or the FIFA World Cup, we do it on all platforms in all languages. The actual content of any given segment is adapted to the linguistic and cultural particularities of the audience, but everything else is integrated. The rights negotiation, the technology, the transmission methods, the HR processes, the sales effort, the branding, the budget and the management structure are all integrated.

And collaboration is not just in major sporting events. It is in election coverage. In music services. In local stations. Enquête, the flagship Radio-Canada current affairs show that Mr. Yakabuski finds so inspiring, works constantly, collaboratively and seamlessly with The Fifth Estate, the equally successful CBC current affairs show to bring you everything from the Snowden Files to the foreign bank account investigation to countless others.

But the most foolish of Mr. Yakabuski’s fables is his claim that we plan to rob Radio-Canada to pay CBC. We are in the midst of making enormous changes – dictated by technology, viewer habits, competition and, yes, funding. But over the next five years, we will spend more on Radio-Canada’s prime time content – and on the CBC’s – not less.

Our challenge is not how we divide today’s funding pie between languages and radio and television. Our challenge - along with that of every broadcaster, public and private, in Canada and around the world - is how do we prepare for a future where Canadians will expect content in new forms and in new formats on devices yet to be invented. How do we prepare for the mobile, always-plugged-in lifestyle that some of us might dread, but others are already living?

Our strategy is not about taking from Radio-Canada to give to CBC. It is about abandoning bricks and mortar in favour of content and programming. It places a very heavy emphasis on mobile and other digital innovations, particularly in our News and local services. It also calls for an even heavier investment in prime time television and protects our talk radio networks.

It is a forward-looking, public broadcasting plan appropriate for the 21th Century. Canadians love their radio and television. But they are also digitally hungry. We intend to tell stories to and for the second largest country in the world, in 2 official languages and multiple aboriginal languages, across 6 time zones, on any platform and device Canadians care to use. I am confident that if Mr. Yakabuski succeeds in turning his raptor gaze toward the future, he’ll see its appeal.

  • Broadcast year to date – Aug 26, 2013 to June 29, 2014
  • ** Broadcast year to date – Aug 26, 2013 to June 29, 2014 – All day: CBCNN 1.5%; CP24 1.2%; CNN 1%; RDI 2.9%; LCN 3.1%. Prime time: CBCNN 1.3%; CNN 0.8%; CP24 0.5%; RDI 1,5%; LCN 1.3%

About CBC/Radio-Canada

CBC/Radio-Canada is Canada's national public broadcaster and one of its largest cultural institutions. The Corporation is a leader in reaching Canadians on new platforms and delivers a comprehensive range of radio, television, internet, and satellite-based services. Deeply rooted in the regions, CBC/Radio-Canada is the only domestic broadcaster to offer diverse regional and cultural perspectives in English, French and eight Aboriginal languages.

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