Yesterday the Senate Standing Committee on Transport and Communications released its report on the CBC: Time for Change: The CBC/Radio-Canada in the Twenty-first Century. Despite its title, it seemed mired in the Nineteenth Century.
Well, maybe the mid-Twentieth.
The report described the current challenges that the CBC and all of Canadian broadcasting is facing with the advent of services like Netflix and YouTube but offered no suggestions for how the CBC could better embrace the digital age. There were some good suggestions on eliminating waste, reducing salaries and selling off real estate (which at times came very close to micromanaging) and a worthwhile discussion of governance which correctly objected to the CEO of the CBC reporting to the Prime Minister’s Office and not the Board (though it failed to point out that under the Conservative government the CBC’s Board has become a patronage appointment so does not have the expertise to oversee a broadcaster).
However, the core message was that the CBC should be broadcasting what the private broadcasters will not – Canadian historical dramas, nature documentaries, amateur sports such as university athletics, performing arts with an emphasis on symphonies, and Reach For The Top. Yes, it specifically suggested Reach For The Top, a show that the CBC broadcast from 1966 to 1989. Old White Guy TV*.
Before you get up in arms, I love Canadian historical dramas and nature documentaries, but broadcasts of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra and Reach For The Top are not going to increase CBC’s market share nor will it engage younger, diverse, urban audiences. The CBC needs to be relevant to a wide range of Canadians.
There is no vision in this report. The Committee complained that the Broadcasting Act mandate for the CBC was too broad but its only recommendation for amendment was to include a specific reference to airing more historical drama and Canadian feature film. It did not explain why only those two genres needed to be singled out. It complained that the Broadcasting Act did not contemplate the 21st Century and needed to be updated but gave no guidance on what revisions needed to be made. It complained that witnesses kept saying that the CBC was underfunded, demonstrated that in inflation-adjusted dollars government funding is at its lowest in the past 25 years, but then suggested that new funding models, including telethons and corporate sponsorship, should replace the shortfall.
Over the years there have been many studies of the CBC. The House of Commons Standing Committee on Canadian Heritage conducted a study in 2008 on the CBC that contained a number of very good recommendations, including a memorandum of understanding between the government and the CBC that would set out specific goals and make sure that the CBC was sufficiently funded to meet those goals. The study also looked at digital media, diversity, Canadian programming, governance and accountability. The government declined to implement any of the recommendations.
Is the Senate report more in line with the Conservative government’s position on the CBC? Likely. Should we be worried? I don’t think so. For one thing, we do have an election this fall and nothing will be done before then or, if a minority government is elected, after then. As well, there is very little in this report that Conservative MPs have not said before (except maybe Reach For The Top, that’s new). For example, they have been advocating for a PBS-style funding model for years. The reality is that many of these recommendations would not be popular with their constituents, who do not want to sit through a telethon to be able to watch Coronation Street.
Yes, it was a wasted opportunity but honestly do we need another study that the government will ignore? Or do we need political will and vision at both the government and the CBC to work together to provide Canadians with the public broadcaster that we need and deserve? Yeah, that.
*With apologies to Senator Betty Unger, the one woman on the Senate Committee.