CBC Vancouver - Wanderin'-The-Corridors by kris krüg (CC-BY-SA 2.0), https://flic.kr/p/2jXse

CBC Vancouver - Wanderin'-The-Corridors by kris krüg (CC-BY-SA 2.0), https://flic.kr/p/2jXse


What if the CBC Really Put Everything Up for Review?

The future of broadcasting has emerged as a hot issue with Canada’s broadcast regulator effectively putting everything up for grabs as part of its comprehensive TalkTV review of broadcasting regulation. Acknowledging the dramatic shift in the way Canadians access and interact with broadcasting, reforms to seemingly untouchable policies such as simultaneous substitution, genre protection, and over-the-air broadcasting are all on the table.

The Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission has effectively acknowledged that the world has changed and policies based on a different landscape merit a review. In the current market, scarcity has given way to abundance and broadcasters have ceded considerable control to consumers’ demands to watch what they want, when they want.

My weekly technology law column (Toronto Star version, homepage version) notes that Canada’s public broadcaster, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, is undergoing a similar review. If recent comments from its president Hubert Lacroix are any indication, however, there is no willingness to radically rethink its future. In a speech earlier this month to the Canadian Club of Montreal, Lacroix devoted much of his time to lamenting the budgetary challenges faced by CBC with unfavourable comparisons to support for public broadcasting in other countries.

Liberal MP Stéphane Dion adopted a similar approach in comments in the House of the Commons, focusing on budget cuts and claiming that “more than ever, Canada needs a quality public broadcaster.”

Lacroix and Dion start from the position that the public broadcaster (particularly English language broadcasting) remains as important today as it did decades ago and that the challenges are primarily budgetary in nature. Yet a more ambitious review would not start with the assumption that this is primarily a debate over financing, but rather open the door to considering whether Canada really does need a public broadcaster in its current form “more than ever”.

Indeed, given the many changes in the broadcast environment, the necessity for a public broadcaster that is not dramatically different from the myriad of private choices is not entirely clear. The private sector offers equally compelling news programming and strong sports coverage. The CBC frequently emphasizes the need for a domestic voice and perspective, but today Canadians are empowered to do this on their own.

What the public often needs are the “raw materials” to enhance their content and better platforms to help distribute and market it. What if the CBC saw its public role primarily through that prism?  It could continue to produce news programming, but openly licence its content so that Canadians could freely use it for their own creativity and storytelling. Moreover, the CBC could provide the digital platform for those new perspectives, becoming an aggregator for Canadian voices on everything from hockey to politics.

Rethinking the role of the public broadcaster could also mean embracing “non-economic” programming such as local news. While Lacroix muses about whether the CBC should forego local news programming due to the costs, the growing challenge for the private broadcasters to offer comprehensive local news is precisely why a case can be made for public dollars to step in and fund it.

The CBC could also re-examine how it distributes its programming and what it airs during prime time. The public broadcaster could launch an English-language Netflix competitor, offering unlimited on-demand Canadian programming online at no cost. Rather than shutting down over-the-air broadcasting, it could enhance its over-the-air approach by offering mobile television services that by-pass the pricey private alternatives.

As for its conventional programming, it could drop the “me-too” reality shows and use its prime time hours to air Canadian movies and documentaries, providing far more exposure to professionally produced Canadian programming that often struggles to find widespread distribution.

There are legal restrictions that render a fundamental rethinking of the CBC enormously difficult. While no one has all the answers, starting with the view that what ails the CBC is primarily a lack of funding demonstrates a lack of vision and misses the broadcast revolution that is well underway.


  1. the double dip
    What really frustrates me is that I had to disable an ad blocker on CBC to view videos. Their clips and shows run mandatory video ads, and if I try to block or skip them it refuses to show me the content at all. My taxes are paying for this content so why do I have to be subjected to this inconvenience?

    As a Canadian don’t I own this? And that goes double for your comment about licensing and remixing.

  2. Ed Nixon says:

    Free market skeptic
    Professor Geist, what nonsense you spout sometimes. You will have to do a bit more clear and in depth thinking to make this particular point-of-view fly with me. The private broadcasters do _not_ provide compelling anything unless you’re referring to the warmed-over prime-time content they scoff up from Las Vegas and LA. But I’ve never found left-overs very compelling. And, as double-dip says, the budgetary imperative that necessitates such heavy handed and anger-making web behaviours at CBC are a function of what? Inadequate funding. I don’t think I’ve read a commentary on the future of CBC that does not include any of your prescriptions. Meh. What is really needed, in my view, is an adequate and consistent funding base and then a light handed but thorough cleaning of house among the weak-kneed, Ottawa infected and dispirited upper management in the Corp. (Don’t get me started on how I feel about “private” broadcasting’s stellar coterie of executives.) Please read John Doyle’s piece in today’s Globe and Mail: there _is_ no private sector broadcasting in Canada. Here’s an idea, why not redirect all the subsidies and grants that are currently siphoned off to fat entities like Bell and Rogers over to CBC/Radio Canada? Your simplistic recipes for healting up Canadian broadcasting are not very useful. The legalities? Ok, yes, maybe. The economics, institutional and political dynamics? ‘Fraid not.

  3. Dwight Williams says:

    I’d argue that the lack of funding partially undermines the flexibility needed to properly deal with that broadcasting revolution, as it’s undermining everything the CBC continues to do.

  4. IMO, The CBC Should Be Limited To….
    – Areas poorly served commercially due to lack of population density.
    – Primarily news and information service.
    – Secondary programming of niche interest.

    – Areas poorly served commercially due to lack of population density.
    – Primarily news and information service.
    – The epitome of CanCon with support for Canadian inde and docudramas, limit big productions and zero purchasing of foreign content with the exception of:
    – Coproductions with long time partners like PBS and BBC. Such coproductions right now anyway use little cash as they trade reciprocal copyrights, like news clips and live broadcasts.

    Just my twonie.

  5. pat donovan says:

    sense + non
    the cbc as cable provider (give telecoms nightmares)
    they want it to make money, yes?

    news service ( the wireless (+ living off the wire died about the time BM the PM made his stash off it))

    (Instead of the usual crown corp debachery like atomic energy of canada)

    dumping the slush pile (www shows ) onto cable.

    unicorns, daisies and butterflies for everyone.
    well, except quebec, who won’t allow it.


  6. RE: Ed Nixon
    I have to agree with your point on our so-called “private” broadcasters, which are actually giant subsidized media conglomerates, which also goes back to the point that these *medium* companies should not have *media* assets.

  7. Financing issues become he elephant in the room when broadcasting policies need to be reviewed.

    Previous governments initiated the Aird Commission in 1928 and the Fowler Commission in 1955. A comparable Commission with broad terms of reference is long past due. Unfortunately, any such commission risks introducing unwelcome facts that would threaten the confused political opinions of the present government.

  8. Bill Wittur says:

    Do we want a broadcaster or distributor?
    Another great article, as always!
    The approach I have is to consider what I call ‘The Three Elements of the Content Cycle’:
    1. Creation of Content In-house (eg. controlled editorial & publicly funded programs);
    2. Enabling Content Creation (eg. User-Generated Content); and
    3. Distribution or Delivery of Content (eg. an Internet Service Provider)

    The CBC is at a crossroads, mainly because part of its mandate – broadcasting – is no longer an critical part of the creation cycle.

    If it continues to exist, its primary focus should be on all things digital.

    The next leap is ask a more important question: should digital services in Canada be a right or a privilege? If we believe that the Internet is a right, then our infrastructure – including a public Internet provider – should move in this direction.

    The CBC would be the most efficient vehicle for this transition.

    The reason why our officials don’t want to steer too far off course or they want to save the CBC (even though it’s running out of steam) is that creating a public Internet service provider is ‘too hot a political potato’ to handle.

    That said, I believe we need to step it up a notch and change the mandate of the CBC so that it becomes the CCC (Cdn Communications Corp) or CDC (Cdn Distribution/Digital Corp).

    More can be read here:

  9. Please replace the CBC with a Canadian version of the BBC. We need quality, politically unbiased, freely available Canadian content.
    Private corporations would never deliver that as their mandate is profit and political influence.

  10. Devil's Advocate says:

    Someone’s got a sense of humour
    “…a Canadian version of the BBC. We need quality, politically unbiased…”


  11. @ Bill
    Some great ideas there, but through experience with CBC’s news website, I’m not sure that “2. Enabling Content Creation (eg. User-Generated Content)” is such a good idea without serious chacks and balances.

    Look at the CBC News website’s “Community” section. Lots of user generated content, some of it not even worthy of a MySpace or other blog rant. But using the taxpayers dime and CBC brand-power to forward their ludicous opinions as fact. Being “User generated content”, moderation is outside of the CBC Ombudsman’s mandate and no formal CBC editor will touch it. The Digital Content Editor has last say and would just as soon see a post of erroneous hogwash pass than “…censor the public…”

  12. @Gregg
    The user content on the CBC is quite valuable, it shows what the average person’s thoughts are. No need for moderation unless there are threats made. Censorship is just wrong.

  13. Bill Wittur says:

    Enabling Content
    Thank you for the feedback! I accept your point as 100% valid and will stress that those are three options to consider, but not necessarily something worth pursuing if we keep a public entity.

    My recommendation (or, I should admit, personal bias) is to push for the creation of a public internet service provider, looking to utility companies such as water and electricity as our guide and not media companies.

    Specific mandates could emerge, probably from heated discussions: net neutrality, universal access, affordability. There would still be issues with respect to the emergence of a two-tier system, but perhaps that’s where our media conglomerates could get involved with more creative services, without interference with basic offerings.

    Yes, I’m a dreamer 😉

  14. Cheers Bill and Darren!
    Nice to have an open discussion with members.

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