Fixing the CBC Means More Than Stopping Harper

May 4, 2013 in Canada, Media and Journalism, Politics by Justin Beach

051002CBCLockoutcThis week the Canadian internets were abuzz with talk of Stephen Harper’s plan to control the CBC. The thing is that the CBC is horribly broken already and Stephen Harper’s latest authoritarian power grab is the least of their worries.

As I understand it, Harper’s plan is to place someone on the CBC’s board to monitor and partipate in labor negotiations on behalf of the government. This is part of Harper’s broader anti-labor, anti-working people agenda and because of that I’ll oppose it. It is, however, different than having a government representative in the newsroom vetting stories. The people and organizations who are claiming that this is an attempt at editorial control by the federal government need to be careful how often they cry wolf. There are countries in the world where journalists are being censored, arrested and assassinated.

The reality though is that the CBC is in desperate need of repair, possibly to the point of being reinvented. The CBC’s mandate has, since the beginning, been overly broad. It allows the CBC to do virtually anything and claim it is part of the mandate and, at the same time, allows just about anyone to find places where the CBC is not fulfilling its mandate to their satisfaction. More recently, over the last few decades, the CBC has been slowly starved to death with each successive government cutting the Mother Corps funding a little further.

As the company’s funding dwindled the’ve been forced to seek new sources of funding. This came, for the most part, in the form of additional advertising on the air and on the web site. The end result, on the television side especially, is something that bears little resemblance to a public broadcaster. It has become essentially a publicly funded commercial broadcaster competing with privately owned commercial broadcasters.

Adding to all of this is the indisputable fact that the broadcast television model and the cable television model are broken. It is not a question of if they will become financially unsustainable but when. Netflix now has more customers than any US cable provider, more customers than HBO and is growing rapidly on both sides of the border. Amazon, Hulu and Netflix are now starting to produce their own programming that is only available through their websites. These services have become so popular that they are successfully competing even with free torrent sites. Soon all of the power will be in the hands of production companies that produce quality content. They will have the ability to license content to streaming sites or simply sell their content direct to consumers.

Overall the CBC is underfunded, more commercial broadcaster than public broadcaster and produces little original , in house, content. That is, perhaps, why VP of all English services Kirstine Stewart left that position to sell ads for Twitter last week. Harpers plans should definitely be thwarted but that is, ultimately, only a tiny step toward actually fixing the CBC.

Ultimately the CBC needs to have it’s mandate rewritten to force it to behave more like a public broadcaster and prevent it from competing for ad dollars with other struggling broadcasters. The company’s funding must be increased and stabilized and new options must be opened to it including grants and listener/viewer support. Much like other public broadcasters, the CBC should work as a local-national partnership with a certain amount of independence granted to local stations. They should work with partners including provincial public broadcasters, universities and museums to create informative and educational programming. They should work with arts and cultural organizations to deliver arts programming and with other public broadcasters around the world to supplement their current affairs programming.

As a 21st century public broadcaster, the focus should be on educational programming, current affairs, documentary and the arts and above all, the focus should be on content creation and not distribution or broadcasting.

So, it is disturbing that Stephen Harper wants to interfere in labor relations at the CBC. He should not be allowed to proceed but if the CBC continues down its current path the Collective Bargaining Agreement, any agreement, will cover fewer and fewer people every year and that is the greater concern.

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