Friday, March 13, 2009

The Future of the CBC

As our national broadcaster, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation strives to offer original programming in both French and English but, when it comes to accepting taxpayers’ money, the CBC cannot say “no” in either official language. Each year, the enterprise receives over one billion dollars from the federal government. Now that difficult economic times have encompassed even the so-called “Mother Corp.,” the CBC has asked for an additional $60 million to make up an advertising revenue shortfall. Thus far, these requests have been rebuffed, but present circumstances occasion a reassessment of the status quo.

For all the things that make up the CBC – radio, Internet, other properties – it is the television component that is most problematic, in terms of cost and content. Therein lays the quandary – should taxpayers be financing this one broadcaster, even as it competes with private networks like Global and CTV?

As it accepts public funding, does the CBC offer content that could not be provided by private entities and, if so, does that content reflect the Canadian mainstream, or the worldview of the oligarchy that runs the network? Much has been made of the left-leaning nature of the CBC’s news coverage. As I wrote last year, “this is the network that marked the fifth anniversary of 9/11 with a special investigation into whether the terrorist attacks were an inside job by the U.S. government (CBC gave ‘both sides’ of the story – note to our national broadcaster: both sides of bollocks is still bollocks).” But liberal media bias is not peculiar to public news outlets, or even to Canada. What sets the CBC apart is the nature and funding of its other TV programming, including comedy and drama.

Experienced viewers of television in this country can detect the bacon-y scent of Canadian production values almost at once. Sets and lighting are odd, wardrobes appear to have been selected in pitch darkness, and casts are made up of the same handful of actors who – when they are not manning picket lines to demand yet more handouts and guaranteed airtime – are mugging unmercifully on the taxpayers' dime. Bad television may not be a crime, but why should innocent folks have to pay for it?

Why, for example, should taxpayers foot the bill for CBC's Little Mosque on the Prairie, an unwatchable politically correct harangue? Adding insult to injury, when 3.7 million people saw the debut episode of this monstrosity – presumably because they had passed out or were trapped under something heavy, rendering them unable to change channels – the aberration got banner reportage throughout the CBC’s 2006-7 Annual Report. That is, just over ten percent of the country tuned in to a production for which one hundred percent of the country was obliged to pay, and this success rate was sufficiently anomalous to be trumpeted to the skies.

In its 2007-8 Annual Report, the CBC acknowledges that Canadian television production is not profitable and avers that private broadcasters receive more money in tax concessions and “other indirect government support” than CBC Television receives in government funding. For the sake of argument, let’s say that’s true. Would this not suggest that the private broadcaster model is a better one? If CBC Television is so hell-bent on producing shows that are “distinctly Canadian” (a phrase repeated so often in CBC publications that it cries out for a drinking game), then wouldn’t this task be made easier by opting for the more lucrative, tax-advantaged route of its private sector competitors, rather than consuming over a billion dollars in direct subsidies every year?

The CBC contends that 80 percent of its television programming consists of Canadian content – notwithstanding the network’s ubiquitous imports like The Simpsons, Coronation Street, Wheel of Fortune, Jeopardy! and myriad American movies – but this misses the point. If there is a need and appetite for the Canadian television the CBC provides, then it should be able to find viewers and private sponsors. If, however, there is an insufficient audience for their product, then the CBC is simply indulging in sanctimony at taxpayers’ expense.

At a time when economic turmoil is forcing governments and individual citizens to make cutbacks, cringe-inducing television is a good place to start. Moreover, if a private model provides greater funding for production, as the CBC suggests, perhaps a change would be in everyone’s interest. There is a place for public broadcasting, but in its current form – accepting billions of taxpayer dollars while bidding against private counterparts for U.S. programming and major events like the Olympics – the CBC does not fill it.

By all means, if the network wishes to take on a truly public role, it would be serving a need. Otherwise, the CBC should let us keep our billion bucks and compete for programming, audiences and advertising dollars as private networks are compelled to do.

Theo Caldwell, President of Caldwell Asset Management, Inc., is an investment advisor in Canada and the United States.