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


Jeffrey Dvorkin

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

What if CBC Were More Like PBS?

A lot of nervousness in the Canadian public broadcasting community these days.

Conservative MPs - emboldened by their newly achieved majority status in Parliament - are going after the CBC once again. This time, it's about the CBC's long-time refusal to open its accounts to more public and political scrutiny.

The issue has been - for the moment - defused. CBC President Hubert LaCroix handed over some documents to members of the House of Commons Ethics Committee. Tory MPs - spurred on by Canada's own wannabe Rupert Murdoch, Quebec media baron Pierre-Karl Péladeau, and the bullying of Péladeau's house organ, Sun Media, have been hectoring the CBC over its refusal to reveal how it spends the $1.1 billion budget. (About two thirds comes from an annual Parliamentary appropriation).

At first, the CBC maintained that certain information was highly confidential especially about staff salaries. (Full disclosure: in 2010, my declared earnings from the CBC were around $3500 for commentaries on information programs). Tory MPs were particularly interested in how much the CBC's stars earn. Presumably, a lot more than $3500. The CBC still refuses to release that information but it may eventually be forced to.

Now the issue is more high-minded: the CBC says it is concerned that the Committee not reveal the names of journalistic sources some of which are in the documents.

MPs agreed. They will not look at those names, but they insist on knowing more about how much is spent by the CBC on salaries and non-programming line items such as entertainment expenses. This may yet come out.

And there's more pressure from the government. Some Tory MPs are now speaking about a more radical restructuring of the CBC and its mandate. In effect, to make the CBC look more like PBS and less like the BBC.

If this were to be proposed, the public outcry would be loud and long, especially where Radio-Canada (the French-language arm of the CBC) is concerned. Radio-Canada has a unique and highly popular profile in the cultural life of French Canada in general, but particularly in Quebec. On air talent are superstars, more in the European sense. Public acclaim (even for Radio-Canada journalists) is always sky-high among Quebeckers.

In English Canada the response would be different.

If the changes to come from the government had an impact on CBC TV alone, the outcry would likely be a lot more muted. This is because television in English Canada is not seen to be a beacon of the country's highest cultural aspirations.  As CBC TV over the years has increasingly sought to be seen as a media heavyweight, especially in entertainment, it has lost much of its cachet among the intellectuals who once supported it. This is usually dismissed as by CBC management as "elitism." But losing that stratum of Canadian society has meant a major decline in support for the CBC overall.

CBC Radio on the other hand, enjoys a level of loyal support among the grass roots and the elites that remains strong. It resembles the support in Quebec for Radio-Canada - both radio and television. The Tories would have to tread very carefully to avoid creating an ideological issue that would be difficult to manage. Interestingly enough, NPR has not been able to garner the same level of popular support as CBC Radio, but NPR retains significant support among elites, possibly even more than CBC Radio.

But the question of what should happen to CBC TV remains crucial: what if CBC TV (which has long annoyed whichever party is in power) did become more dependent on the public for its financial support? Is this an altogether bad idea? Might it force CBC management and program makers to rethink the strategy that has put them in this predicament? The implications are huge.

In the short term, are Canadian facing the prospect of pledge drives, matching grants, fundraising and all the annoying accoutrements of US public broadcasting?

During a pledge drive, regular programming is interrupted by an appeal for money by station employees, who ask the audience to make their contributions, usually by phone or the Internet, during this break.

Audiences usually decline during these events. Public radio has found a way to make
pledge drives a bit more programmatic, even entertaining. It hasn't completely worked, but it is better than it once was. The "beg-a-thons" have been replaced by some witty and self-deprecating shows...shows that still ask for donations (albeit with humor)...

Having manned the phones at local public radio stations in the US to take calls from listeners calling in to pledge $35, $50 or maybe even $100 (wow!), I was impressed with the spirit that public radio supporters have and the listeners' deep knowledge of the programs and the journalists. Public radio drives are often more successful than public television appeals. In some cases, where the station is a "joint licensee" (radio AND television) the money raised by radio drives is diverted over to bolster the needs of the TV side.

Pledge drive and fundraisers by themselves, do not support public broadcasting. Public donations only count for around 22% of a station's budget needs (on average).

In fact, PBS stations are not doing well financially. Some are in serious financial trouble. A few have had to sell their licenses to pay off their debts. The reasons are complex. In the end, PBS stations are just less connected to their communities, compared to public radio. Public television stations produce relatively little local programming and almost none have news departments. Public radio stations usually have newsrooms.

Another complication: in Southern Ontario and specifically in Toronto, the Buffalo based PBS station - WNED raises a considerable amount of money from Canadians. If CBC TV were forced to compete and raise money from the public, this would undoubtedly have a serious impact on the border public television stations. Many PBS stations count on the remarkably generous support of Canadian viewers who in turn might be disinclined to support the CBC.

Finally, if CBC were forced to compete, as the Tories apparently wish, there is no question that there would be layoffs in the creative and journalistic communities across the country.

CBC TV has locked itself into an untenable situation: it has claimed that it must be popular to merit the $1.1 billion budget. But to do that means that it must look a lot like every other commercial broadcaster. So it's not unreasonable for the Tories to ask, why support a public broadcaster that resembles its commercial rivals?

On the other hand, the goal of public broadcasting can't just be about jobs. It has to be about citizenship and excellence. CBC Radio (and NPR) seem to have found out that you can be both excellent and popular at the same time. Is it really beyond the ability of television to do the same?

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