My weekly Law Bytes column (Toronto Star version, freely available version) reflects on the current debate on the future of the CBC and public broadcasting in Canada. I argue that missing from much of the dialogue has been the recognition that technology and the Internet may provide the CBC with […]
Archive for October 30th, 2005
The return of the CBC has sparked a national discussion about the future of Canada’ s public broadcaster. Funding is the key issue for the CBC’ s management, which last week used a House of Commons committee hearing to note that it has not received a major budget increase in more than 30 years. Media commentators have focused on the need for new business models, citing the potential for pay-per-view or subscription opportunities, the elimination of commercials, or the emulation of the widely applauded CBC Radio by its television counterpart.
Missing from much of the dialogue, however, has been the recognition that technology and the Internet may provide the CBC with its best hope to bring new relevance to the role of the public broadcaster.
CBC critics have long argued that public broadcasters have been rendered unnecessary by the emergence of numerous private alternatives. Canadians have access to hundreds of television channels via cable or satellite. Conventional radio offers dozens of channels in urban centres, while satellite and Internet radio hold the promise of even greater choice.
What those critics miss is that the role of the public broadcaster extends beyond merely providing Canadians with programming alternatives. In its early years, the CBC played an important role in introducing radio and television into the homes of millions of Canadians as the public broadcaster brought news, sports, and culture to Canadians in new and dynamic ways.
While the 500-channel universe may have eroded the need for publicly funded programming choices, the necessity for support of new technologies in the public interest has never been greater. Canada is among the most connected countries in the world, yet it lags behind many other countries in using that connectivity in innovative ways.
To its credit, the CBC has taken some baby steps in this direction. CBC Radio offers the equivalent of “Internet timeshifting” by streaming its local radio broadcasts. Moreover, several programs now feature podcasts so that listeners can access the content at their convenience. CBC News employs Really Simple Syndication (RSS), which keeps Internet users instantly updated on breaking stories, while the CBC Archive provides streaming video of CBC news coverage of noteworthy past events.
With its labour woes behind it, the CBC should demonstrate its value to the public by building on these initiatives. Following the lead of other public broadcasters, it should leverage the Internet to provide unparalleled access to content, grant Canadians the right to use its content in creative new ways, and become an active public interest participant in the Canadian Internet policy process.
The Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation provides a good illustration of how the Internet can be used to provide exceptional online access to content. It recently launched a new online portal that features more than 20,000 video clips and access to 12 radio channels. The portal includes three weeks of archives from its television broadcasts, creating the Internet equivalent of personal video recorder for the entire country. The CBC’ s online archives are respectable, but they are not nearly as comprehensive as those now found in Norway.
The British Broadcasting Corporation has emerged as the undisputed global leader in providing its users with rights to use and interact with its content. The BBC Creative Archive allows users to download clips of BBC factual programming for non-commercial use, where they can be stored, manipulated and shared. The initiative currently offers roughly 100 programming extracts, but the public broadcaster is also running a pilot study that offers hundreds of hours of television and radio content to a trial user group.
The BBC also maintains the BBC Backstage program, which provides data, resources, and support for users that want to build on BBC material. Sporting the motto "use our stuff to build your stuff", the program encourages people both inside and outside the BBC to share knowledge, ideas and prototypes with each other.
On the horizon lies the BBC’s Digital Curriculum program, which is scheduled to launch early next year. The program will be a free, curriculum-based, online service for 5 to 16 year olds, designed to stimulate learning both at home and through school.
Although Canadian funding of the CBC is not identical to the television license fee approach used for the BBC, there are clear similarities between the two public broadcasters. The BBC has recognized the need to interact with the public in ways that transcend the broadcast model. The CBC can do the same by returning its programming to the Canadian public who provide the majority of its funding through tax dollars.
The CBC can also follow the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’ s lead by becoming involved in the Canadian policy process. Earlier this month the Australian public broadcaster spoke out against proposed legislation that would grant new legal protections to digital locks, known as technological protection measures (TPMs).
Reflecting its public interest mandate, ABC warned that the locks "have the ability to stifle creativity and culture" and "to encourage anti-competitive behaviour." Moreover, it expressed concern that "the application of TPMs to copyright material…has the effect of preventing the ABC from being able to use copyright material to achieve its mandate." Canada is currently debating similar legislation, yet the CBC has remained silent on the proposed reforms.
While these are challenging times for the CBC, it is evident that similar issues face public broadcasters worldwide. For the CBC to meet the challenge and remain relevant, it must hearken back to an earlier time – not to wax nostalgically about the "golden era" of the CBC, but rather to restore its place as a leader on the new technological frontier.
Michael Geist holds the Canada Research Chair in Internet and E-commerce Law at the University of Ottawa, Faculty of Law. He can reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or online at www.michaelgeist.ca.