Rethinking the Public in Public Broadcasting

My weekly Law Bytes column (Toronto Star version, homepage version) assesses potential reform of the CBC.  Canadian stories are being told in record numbers, yet they are not found on the CBC.  The blossoming of citizen journalism, blogging, digital photo-sharing, and user-generated content is reshaping the way the public is informed and entertained. Millions of Canadians are no longer merely consumers of the news and entertainment. Instead, they are active participants – one expert recently labeled them as "the people formerly known as the audience" – who create, report, comment, and analyze their own content that vies for the attention of a global audience.

The CBC’s future may therefore lie in further blurring the difference between conventional broadcast and the Internet by establishing an integrated approach that brings more broadcast content to the Internet and more Internet content to broadcast. The CBC has developed an impressive online presence, yet the majority of the content is based on the traditional broadcast model that places a premium on control.  The next-generation CBC would do well to partner with the public by loosening restrictions and encouraging the dissemination of Canadian content from a broader range of sources.

Indeed, public broadcasters in other countries have already begun to reinvent themselves in this way. The British Broadcasting Corporation’s Creative Archive allows users to download clips of BBC factual programming for non-commercial use, where they can be stored, manipulated and shared.  Similarly, the BBC Backstage program provides data, resources, and support for users that want to build on BBC material.  The BBC also actively encourages civic journalism, inviting the public to contribute photos and first-person accounts of breaking stories.  The collaboration between broadcaster and public took centre stage during last year’s London bombings, as the BBC was deluged with thousands of photos and eyewitness reports.

Other European public broadcasters and government agencies are launching their own initiatives.  The Danish Broadcasting Corporation, which already features hundreds of hours of archival material on its website, recently announced plans to provide content to the wikipedia project, thereby enabling users to build on its materials.
Later this month officials in the Netherlands intend to unveil plans to digitize 700,000 hours of feature films, documentaries, television shows, and radio programs.  This remarkable project, which will take several years to complete, will transfer an incredible array of historical materials into the hands of the public.

The CBC can chart its own path by rethinking what it means to be a public broadcaster in the Internet era.  Notwithstanding the importance of providing greater access to its content on all media platforms (the Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation provides a model by featuring an online portal with more than 20,000 video clips and access to 12 radio channels), the CBC would do well to innovatively collaborate with Canadians to bring their creativity to a wider broadcast audience.

While some may dismiss the value of a broadcaster filled with podcasts, citizen journalists, and independently created Canadian content, the Internet is fast becoming the most important source of Canadian content.  Failure to embrace that content may result in the public broadcaster formerly known as the CBC.


  1. CBC already half way there… already provides a wonderfully indepth place where Canadians can react, respond and comment on their content as well as communications from elsewhere on the planet. The portal is methodically organized and at this point content is accessible back several years. It is a natural next step on the path to futher expanding and opening access to Canada’s public airways to follow best practices in Europe, and elsewhere, and to empower Canadians to voice and reflect their lifework and lifestyle using Creative Commons-type copyright guidelines (like BBC has) ultimately to develop the CBC into a true – fully-transparent – “Made in Canada” national public treasury of information and valued cultural and historical record.

  2. Jason in Ottawa says:

    Just discovered CBC podcasts…
    I recently discovered several (free) CBC podcasts in the iTunes online music store. I used to listen to CBC radio, but with its often ecclectic mix of programming it seemed what I wanted to hear was rarely playing when I was available to listen. The CBC podcasts are great. Now I can download Radio 3, DNTO and other interesting content to my iPod and listen to it whenever I have time. This is definitely the way of the future for the CBC. I hope they will get more agressive about making their content available in new ways. All CBC programming should be available as podcasts.

  3. Justin Beach says:

    All I can really say to that, I think, is Amen! and thank you very much. Sadly, I think it’s unlikely to happen in the near future, but I think it’s where things will likely end up once the inevitable is accepted.

  4. Half Way?
    Sorry Margaret, but I have to disagree I think – unless all that you describe is well hidden. When all I really see at this point is a news portal. I don’t see opportunities for interactivity and community. In short, the site invites you to read along but not to become involved.

  5. Zed!
    I find it hard to believe that this article does not touch on the efforts made by the CBC in their creation of Zed, a fantastic website where independent Canadian artists could upload their work and possibly be featured on the tv show if it was successful on the site. has gone under some restructering but it’s still around. As a musician I can now upload my work to NewMusicCanada where it can be(and has been) played on Radio3. That’s democracy in Canadian media for you!

  6. Fascinating Idea

    That’s an absolutely fascinating idea. I don’t know how implementation would occur though, and I suspect that current management would NOT be in favor.


    PS: some spambot managed to get past your “human check”