No light, just heat in Senate report on troubled CBC
The Senate is so thoroughly discredited that its blueprint for the CBC was destined for oblivion before it was released last week.
It is just as well. The 63-page report by a 10-member Senate committee is a shoddy piece of work; poorly researched, internally contradictory, short on vision. It accurately reflects the hostility of Conservative MPs and cabinet ministers toward the CBC. But it does not grapple with the big questions facing Canada’s 78-year-old public broadcaster. It does not offer a thoughtful analysis of what is wrong with CBC. It does not sketch out a path to financial sustainability or national relevance.
The report does contain a few sensible recommendations but for the most part, it is a “lost opportunity” as Sen. Art Eggleton wrote in his dissenting report.
Back in December 2013, when the Senate’s transport and communications committee launched its study, the elected upper house of Parliament was thought to be more collegial and less short-sighted than the House of Commons. Its committees had a history of producing knowledgeable, balanced reports. Observers hoped this study would shed light — not generate more heat — in the long-running battle between friends and foes of the CBC. It soon became apparent from the committee’s testy hearings and its obsessive focus on the salaries of on-air employees such as Peter Mansbridge that it was not looking at the big picture. Last week’s report confirmed that.
It offered no useful advice to the CBC about carving out a niche in today’s digital, multimedia universe. Its programming suggestions contradicted its goal of increasing viewership. (Broadcasting performances of the Royal Winnipeg Ballet, the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, the Royal Nova Scotia International Tattoo, the Edmonton Opera and L’Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal may be a fine way to disseminate Canadian culture but it is not going to drive up ratings.) Its financing proposals were vague: Examine the costs and benefits of commercial advertising and “explore alternative funding models and additional ways to generate revenue to minimize the corporation’s dependence on government appropriations.”
Had the senators dug a little deeper, they would have found that the two alternative funding models come with problems of their own. The British Broadcasting Corporation relies on a licence fee of $295 per year charged to every household and business with a television. But as viewers switch to live streaming on their computers or smartphones, it has been forced to rethink its financing. Its American counterparts, National Public Radio (NPR) and the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS), use a combination of on-air pledge drives, corporate donations and federal and state subsidies. Both are chronically short of funds. PBS’s televised beg-a-thons are painful to watch.
Nowhere in the report is there any acknowledgement that the CBC’s parliamentary allocation has shrunk by 18 per cent since the Conservatives took power in 2006. It has had to lay off talented broadcasters, cut programs and shut down stations. It can’t afford to do what it did in the past, but the government hasn’t indicated what it wants the public broadcaster to do in the future.
Nowhere do the senators indicate which, if any, of the CBC services — four domestic and two international radio networks; six television networks, multiple digital platforms and northern broadcasting in eight aboriginal languages — should be dropped. Nor do they attempt to reconcile the public broadcaster’s mandate — “to provide radio and television services incorporating a wide range of programming that informs, enlightens and entertains” — with its resources.
It might have helped if any of the senators on the committee had a background in broadcasting. The only one who came close was former hockey coach Jacques Demers who worked as an on-air commentator on Réseau des Sports, a French-language specialty channel. The others were former political aides, public servants, small-business owners, a nurse, an accountant and a professional fundraiser. The senators did get a few things right: The Broadcasting Act, last updated in 1991, needs to be modernized. The media landscape has changed tremendously in the last 24 years. Legislation designed for the pre-digital, pre-smartphone era is an anachronism in today’s world.
The corporation should tighten its internal policies. The ignominious departures of high-profile hosts Jian Ghomeshi and Evan Solomon attest to the need for that. But new rules are unlikely to change the CBC’s culture. It needs managers who take action rather than make excuses. It needs a president who exemplifies — and demands — the highest professional standards.
The CBC should sell its extensive real estate holdings and lease office space.
Their other recommendations were either nebulous or impractical.
Little was expected from the scandal-tarnished, inconsequential Senate — and little was delivered. Carol Goar’s column appears Monday, Wednesday and Friday.