CBC Radio Canada - Vancouver by Tyler Ingram (CC BY-NC 2.0) https://flic.kr/p/7NujTF

CBC Radio Canada - Vancouver by Tyler Ingram (CC BY-NC 2.0) https://flic.kr/p/7NujTF


Why We Need the CBC as an Ad-Free Digital News Competitor

The Standing Committee on Canadian Heritage wrapped up its lengthy hearing on the media and local news last week with appearances from Facebook, Google, and the Globe and Mail (I appeared before the committee last month and my opening comments and review of the discussion that followed can be found here). The high profile witnesses sparked another round of debate over the ongoing troubles in the newspaper industry with intensifying criticism of the CBC’s emphasis on digital news services, including a new opinion section and its acceptance of digital advertising, which are both viewed as direct competition for the struggling private sector alternatives.

For example, Globe and Mail publisher Phillip Crawley told the committee that the CBC is the Globe’s largest competitor in the digital ad space. He expressed concern over the inclusion of opinion, which is viewed as further encroaching on newspapers’ turf, and pointed to the BBC’s approach, which faces government-backed restrictions on accepting digital advertising on its domestic websites. The CBC criticism has emerged as a common theme for several years with many media organizations and commentators arguing that CBC should not be in the business of competing with newspapers.

The CBC responded on Monday with a letter to the committee titled “limiting access to the digital public space is not in the public interest.” The CBC argued that given the struggles of smaller papers, its online presence is more important than ever.  Further, it tried to downplay the significance of its digital advertising revenue, arguing that it amounts to $25 million annually, a very small share of the total digital advertising expenditures in Canada.

It is helpful to separate two issues: the CBC competing in digital news as opposed to it competing for digital advertising dollars. While some have characterized the CBC’s role in providing digital news as an unfair, publicly-subsidized competitor to private news services that increasingly rely on paywalls and subscriptions to generate revenue, the industry’s reliance on paywalls is precisely why the CBC should be offering a free, taxpayer-backed digital alternative. An informed electorate demands that all Canadians have access to reliable news and expert opinion without regard for their ability to pay for it. In a digital world filled with paywalls and concerns about fake news, the importance of a publicly-funded, freely available, trusted media institution is greater than ever and the CBC (now backed by hundreds of millions of extra tax dollars) is ideally suited to meet that need.

While the CBC should be responding to its audience with a strong digital news service, it does not follow that it should also compete for digital advertising dollars. As noted in the CBC letter, its total digital advertising revenues are relatively small (and they are even smaller – roughly $6 million – for the online news service) so the foregone earnings will not have a material impact on the CBC. However, there is a market effect of having the CBC compete for ad dollars that affects news organizations of all sizes. This includes large players like the Globe as well as smaller, independent media for whom a loss of thousands in advertising can be significant. An ad-free online service would better justify the public investment in the public broadcaster, make for an enhanced user experience, and remove the concern that the CBC is harming private sector alternatives by competing for advertising dollars.

The government just gave the CBC a $150 million taxpayer boost – six times its annual digital ad revenue – with the promise of much more to come. It would be entirely appropriate for Minister Melanie Joly and the Standing Committee on Canadian Heritage to attach a condition to the funding that encourages a robust digital presence for the public broadcaster but mandates that the news portion of the site remain ad-free.


  1. Given the CBC’s passion for censoring opposing viewpoints, and its reckless exposure of commenters to real-life stalking, I’m rooting for the CBC website to be entirely dismantled, ads or no.

    • I actually used to work for them many years ago and have a lot of love for the Corp., but they’re not the same any more. They are opinionated, censorious, and pro American now. This is not what I want to see.

      As a supporter of a free internet, I also think that the CBC’s bad attitude is summed up by their insistence on using flash. This shows a blatant disregard for the security of their users, and is also discriminating against those of us who prefer non proprietary software that isn’t tainted by dependence on any US corporation. If the CBC was prepared to be a supporter of free speech and Canadian values (including software), I’d be all for putting large sums of money into it. As it is, I say dump it.

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  3. I’d make the CBC and ISP.

    just think of all the fun it could have if it made money. think of the vulture screaming to get on.

    and like major corps, it’s buy from independents.
    at vulture prices (unless connected).

  4. margaret beresford says:

    Your points on keeping CBC as are fine to a degree….I and 26 groups across Canada, have been lobbying to get CBC to rid its board of all politicians who continue to exert a ‘carrot or stick’ enforced dictation over policies and their use of CBC News as propaganda tool, pro or con. This is extremely destructive as regardless of which party, all want to make sure no articles such as the one on our 5 banks being bailed out —ever become an issue or topic of inquiry on CBC News …..period.

    To date, Canadians are unaware our banks were bailout to the tune of a 114 billion or worst, have been regularly lied to as to how our banks are more efficient and adhere to proper banking practices BECAUSE they are Canadian….

    The same approach of either censoring or lying has/is being used in totally distorting the absolute devastation expected by more lawsuits under ISDS clauses along with future targeted privatization of all our public pensions, healthcare, utilities, education and protected lands and water…..

    .All up for sale as the last market for corporate gauging expected thru corporate procurement controls and the ever-present ISDS clauses, forcing its corporate tribunals to eliminate any Constitutional or court interference or efforts to overrule their none appeal decisions (foisting all environmental and any other costs on taxpayers).
    See bilaterals.org for complete details and analysis on NAFTA, CETA, TTIP, TPP, FIPA and the privatizing (robbery) from hell set up in the TISA, Trade in Services Agreement…..

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  8. All I ever cared about at the CBC was the news division. But they have stopped doing basic journalism and now just regurgitate non-sense from government propaganda arms and think tanks bought by foreign governments. Basic fact checking isn’t even attempted any more. They have become not just irresponsible but dangerous as they push nonsense to drive Canada into a war against Iran for Israel, Qatar and Saudi Arabia and a war against Russia for the US all based on BS. It is stunning how far they have fallen since the days of Joe Schlesinger.

    I used to be a big backer of the CBC and 10 years ago I would have agreed with this idea. But now we would be much better off shutting it down.

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