Toronto Star

No light, just heat in Senate report on troubled CBC

- Carol Goar

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.

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