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The CBC is in crisis -- or, at least that's what Liberal Senator Dennis Dawson, Chair of the Senate Transportation and Communications Committee, says.
Dawson's Committee is doing a major study of Canada's public broadcaster.
That study is on summer hiatus, but will continue in September.
The Red Chamber may have lost much of whatever luster it ever had this past year, but this study is just the sort of thing at which the Senate has historically excelled.
A House of Commons Committee could, if it chose, examine the CBC.
Indeed, the current Commons Canadian Heritage Committee has heard from CBC President Hubert Lacroix a few times over the past number of years -- and from some of the CBC's most ferocious critics, notably Quebec media mogul and now Parti Québecois Member of the National Assembly Pierre-Karl Péladeau.
But the Commons Committee did not decide to do a root and branch analysis of the beleaguered public broadcaster in the context of the challenges posed by the 21st Century media environment and an outmoded Broadcasting Act that is more than 20 years old.
The Conservatives have what you might call an attitude of "malign neglect" toward the CBC.
They would rather let it wither on the vine after the loss of hockey revenues and serial cuts in government funding, than try to figure out how to reestablish the vitality of public broadcasting in this country.
And so we are left with the Senate's efforts.
How much does Mansbridge make anyway?
We should not be distracted by the silly controversy over the CBC's refusal to divulge to the Senate Committee the actual salaries of its senior people.
When the Corporation told the Committee that stars such as the National's Peter Mansbridge earned in the range of $80,000 some Senators thought they were being taken for fools.
The $80,000 would be the base salary, of course, and CBC brass says they cannot divulge the actual remuneration for privacy reasons.
It is an awkward issue.
It shows that what seems like excessive pay for a handful of stars poses a serious public relations problem for the Corporation. The remuneration for the denizens of the public broadcaster's plush executive suites constitutes a similar source of potential embarrassment.
However, so far, the Committee has heard some fairly revealing and articulate testimony that is of far more pertinence than the kerfuffle over a few (unnecessarily inflated?) salaries.
Playing the ratings game
The former Vice President of English services, Richard Stursberg, was one of those who testified.
Stursberg, a veteran of the federal bureaucracy and the cable industry, was a CBC VP for six years, starting in 2004, until President Lacroix sacked him 2010.
It is fair to say that most of the goodbye parties for him at CBC probably took place after he had left.
His term was not a peaceful one, and his view that the public broadcaster should be single-mindedly focused on ratings did not win him friends among CBC's staff.
The former VP's presentation came in the form of a letter he thinks the Prime Minister should write to the CBC's Board. It is not very long.
Here is the gist of it:
Dear Board Member,
The CBC faces a challenging future. Recent changes in technology, the ongoing erosion of the television advertising markets, the loss of the NHL contract and the reductions in the corporation's parliamentary appropriation will require the creation of a new strategic plan for the broadcaster. As you develop this plan ... there are a number of principles that should guide the Board's work.
1. CBC should offer -- to the maximum extent possible -- only Canadian programming.
2. The corporation should focus on making popular shows. It is financed by the taxes of all Canadians and should serve as many of them as it can.
3. CBC should not duplicate the work of the private sector. There is no point spending public money on things that are already being well done without it.
The application of these principles leads to some broad conclusions about programming strategy.
1. The Corporation should abandon local television newscasts. The private networks do this very well and the CBC is typically third in the markets it serves. It would be wiser to place greater emphasis on international news coverage to help Canadians better understand their place in the world.
2. The Corporation -- particularly in English -- should focus it's prime time strategy on the creation of popular, distinctively Canadian dramas, comedies, documentaries and reality shows. The private networks cannot do this because their deep prime-time schedules are inevitably dedicated to U.S. shows.
3. The CBC should be out of sports.
4. The CBC should reflect French Canada to English Canada and English Canada to French Canada, so that both linguistic communities can better understand each other. The CBC is the only broadcaster -- public or private -- able to do this.
Once the Board has prepared a plan that reflects these general principles and directions, the government is prepared to discuss it's financing and negotiate a multi-year agreement. The agreement would be similar to The Royal Charter that the U.K. Government negotiates with the BBC.
As part of the Corporation's accountability to the Canadian public, its Annual Report should explain how effectively it is executing it's plan. Particular emphasis should be placed on: how Canadian the schedules of the various services are; how popular the programs are with Canadians; and how well the News Departments are reporting fairly and accurately...
With Many Thanks for Your Service,
The Prime Minister of Canada.
There are a few easily identifiable Stursberg-isms there.
They include the emphasis on the "popularity" of CBC programming (translation: ratings) and the need to abandon local broadcasting altogether (supposedly too costly and the private networks do it better).
Short term numbers vs. quality and long-term audience building
The obsession with ratings is what got Stursberg in so much trouble when he was at CBC.
It is an idea that runs somewhat counter to Stursberg's (and others') notion the CBC should be nearly 100 per cent Canadian.
In Canada, it is U.S.-style entertainment shows that get the easy and quick ratings. When we do Canadian knock-offs of those U.S. products, they sometimes work and sometimes do not. But how distinctively Canadian can such programs be if they are, in essence, imitations of what American big time producers churn out?
Stursberg's idea almost totally excludes the possibility that we in Canada can develop distinctively Canadian genres and programming formats, suitable to our own culture, history and world view.
The former VP's approach favours short term ratings success over building audiences in the long term based on a strategy of quality. By contrast, the latter has been, in general, CBC Radio's successful approach.
The former VP's idea that the Corporation should take advantage of the fact that it is a truly bilingual Canadian cultural institution -- one of the very few -- and reflect the two linguistic communities to each other has been around a long time, but rarely acted upon.
As one of a very small club of folks who worked both sides of the linguistic fence at the public broadcaster, this writer had much experience with that noble idea -- and has many battle scars to show for it.
We'll talk about all that, and much more, in the next installment...
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