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Now the Details

Media, ethics, and journalism. What works. What doesn't.

Jeffrey Dvorkin

Monday, February 23, 2009

What Constitutes Public Broadcasting Now?

A number of students have been chatting with me about the role of the CBC as a subject in preparation for term papers. They ask me to compare CBC Radio and NPR. It's a subject I'm happy to talk about although the comparison is often a sad one to make.

Interestingly, there now seems to be a meme among journalism professors or possibly journalism students; a number of people are pondering this issue - all at the same time. Co-incidence? Or...?

As news organizations in general, and public broadcasting in particular confront a serious economic crisis, it's worth asking if public broadcasting, in its present forms, will survive intact or whether this is an opportunity too good to miss.

NPR is going through more stresses as funding sources dry up and stations are unable to meet their program fees and membership dues as NPR stations. NPR has already laid off or not fill a total of 70 positions - around 10% of its total staffing.

But there are fears that more cuts will have to be made. Already some internal battle lines are being drawn between the News and Online department - or as some would describe it, between NPR's past and its future. My guess is that Online will have to retrench in order to save NPR's best loved and most listened-to content. It will be tough to choose between your two children and it can't be an easy time to be in management at NPR. But since NPR works best when it serves the stations' needs, the choice is an obvious, if difficult one.

CBC is a more complicated beast. It now finds that, it too has a revenue shortfall of more than $C60 million (about $US48m) due to declining advertising. That plus an annual $C65m as a discretionary allocation from Parliament which may not be available in a recession means that the CBC may be out by about 10% of its $C1 billion ($US800m) annual budget.

Recently, a CBC spokesperson was quoted as saying that the CBC is in fact, no longer a traditional public broadcaster but a "publicly funded commercial broadcaster." If that is so, then surely its annual appropriation might be claimed by commercial broadcasters as only their fair share.

Like many media organizations, the CBC is overextended in terms of content. In short, it produces too much for too few people. Its flagship TV newscast runs third in the ratings and its news department has lost money and influence to other programming department. CBC says it has no choice; the Parliamentary mandate of the CBC demands that it be all things to all Canadians.

But in the 21st century, that may no longer be possible or feasible in large part because the mandate has been superseded by technology. More things are available online than one broadcaster can possibly provide with any degree of quality. Perhaps it's time to scrap the mandate (or at least re-evaluate it) and look at what is both possible and necessary from a public broadcaster. Public broadcasting in Canada appears to operate more as a government dependency than as an independent public service broadcaster.

It is not, I would suggest, the mission of public broadcasting to run American game shows and to define success largely in terms of ratings.

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