CBC / Radio-Canada protest. Photo: sarah0s/flickr

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The CBC has its supporters in both French and English Canada, but these days the French supporters are more ardent and much more vocal.

This past weekend the public broadcaster’s supporters throughout Quebec and in New Brunswick took to the streets.

The tens of thousands of demonstrators were particularly concerned with the continued vitality of services in French — and especially those services provided to francophone communities outside of Quebec.

And yet, when the CBC comes up in Parliament, the Conservatives seem to think there is nothing more to it than the English-language, main-network television service.

On Monday, the Liberals’ Stéphane Dion and the NDP’s Pierre Nantel both questioned Canadian Heritage Minister Shelly Glover about the government’s deep cuts in funding to CBC, cuts of more than $100 million.

In responding to both questioners, Glover argued that the broadcaster’s troubles are due to declining audiences, in part a result of the changing media environment, and not inadequate government funding.

But that story of audience decline mostly applies to the main English-language television service. Audiences for French-language television, and for radio in both languages, remain strong.

A quick check of the French-language ratings in Canada shows that the CBC’s French television service, Radio-Canada, shares the top 20 spots equally with the private network, TVA.

And Radio-Canada has the number 1 show, the prison drama Unité 9. This show is set in a fictional Québec prison and is written, acted and produced entirely in Canada, by Canadian talent. In the last week of October, well more than two million viewers tuned in to Unité 9. That number accounts for more than a quarter of all francophones in Canada.

CBC Radio is unique and keeps a large, loyal following

Many other Radio-Canada television shows do very well in the ratings game, among them the wildly popular and influential Sunday evening talk show Tout le monde en parle.

As well, radio, in both languages, continues to compete effectively for audiences. In part, this is because the product CBC/Radio-Canada offers is entirely unlike anything you can get from commercial stations. Jian Gomeshi notwithstanding, CBC’s French and English radio services give listeners a consistent diet of well researched, respectful, intelligent and scrupulously produced “talk” radio.   

Now, the main “talk” radio services in both languages are commercial-free. The Corporation cannot benefit financially from its radio services’ large and loyal listenership — which is part of the reason Glover’s argument about declining advertising revenues is simplistic and unfair.

CBC television does, in certain respects, look a lot like its commercial counterparts. From its earliest days, the public broadcaster’s television networks have carried advertising, in part because for many years, when Canadian private television broadcasting was still in its infancy or non-existent, CBC was the only Canadian game in town. Providing space for Canadian advertising was part of CBC’s service function.

But overall, CBC is not designed to be a business, to be judged only by its bottom line performance. It is, in essence, a service, responsible not to shareholders but to citizens.  

In addition, these days, CBC is not only a traditional over-the-air broadcaster. It provides content on multiple “platforms”: online, in podcast form, via a variety of apps, and, still, through the good old radio and television boxes.

CBC is, in fact, as much a creator of content as it is a distributor of programming. And that content is overwhelmingly Canadian.

A sweet advertising deal for the private networks

Private broadcasters, especially in English, fill their prime-time schedules with highly promoted American, commercial, entertainment programming. Then, when the same shows are simultaneously broadcast on American channels, Canadian rules force those U.S. channels to carry the Canadian networks’ advertising. That might be the definition of the perfect sweet deal — all provided to private, for-profit businesses by the government of Canada.

You can argue with the merit of some of CBC television’s prime-time offerings — this writer is no fan of Dragon’s Den — but you can’t argue with the fact that it is almost entirely Canadian.

And CBC provides a good deal of programming that could never be — and is not designed to be — profitable.

Think of minority-language programming throughout the country, such as English programming in the Saguenay and Abitibi regions of Quebec or French programming in Cape Breton or Windsor, Ontario, and of the services to remote, rural and Northern communities, often in Aboriginal languages. There would be no way to make a profit on those essential services. No profit-focused private broadcasters would ever be interested in taking over CBC’s minority-language or Northern services.

That fact alone underscores the need to find a long-term, stable funding solution for the public broadcaster.

Time to consider a license fee on the British, Japanese or Swedish model?

While politicians in the House engage in a dialogue of the deaf on the CBC, it is the Senate, these days, that is doing the real heavy lifting.

The Senate Transportation and Communications Committee is holding hearings throughout the country to examine “the challenges faced by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation in relation to the changing environment of broadcasting and communications.”

On November 5 the Committee heard from one witness who proposed a practical and feasible new funding model for the CBC.

Marc Raboy, who holds McGill University’s Beaverbrook Chair in Ethics, Media and Communications, proposed that Canada adopt a system similar to that of Britain, Japan or Sweden, a so-called “license fee” system.

Raboy explained it this way:

“Every radio and television set comes with a license that must be renewed annually, at a fee set every ten years by agreement between the broadcaster and the government. A formula like this not only removes the debate on funding from ongoing political (partisan) discussion, it allows for a certain amount of stability and predictability, and when substantial enough it allows the broadcaster to be completely free of advertising.”

The latter point would be a key argument in Canada. The private broadcasters would loudly cheer any system that eliminated competition for advertising dollars from the public broadcaster.

For the senators’ benefits, the witness from McGill did a bit of math.

“In Canada,” Raboy explained, “based on an estimated 12 million households, a yearly $150 per household license fee would generate $1.8 billion per year. That’s about $12.50 a month, or 40 cents per day, per household.”

If Canada adopted this system, the CBC would disappear as a big-ticket item in the federal budget, allowing the federal government to put the billion-plus dollars that now go to CBC elsewhere.

Raboy tried to argue that such a license fee would be no more onerous than the car registration and driver’s license fees most Canadians now pay, but he admitted that the CBC license fee would be a hard sell politically.

“It would take a tremendous political will — and probably an all-party consensus — to introduce something like a license fee for funding public broadcasting,” he told the senators, “but I think we need to begin thinking about that type of solution.”

Thinking about solutions in a reasoned, evidence-based, non-partisan way is not something that happens too often in the House of Commons right now.

Maybe we should be grateful, after all is said and done, that we still have that Upper House of “sober second thought.”

Photo: CBC / Radio-Canada protest. Credit: sarah0s/flickr

Karl Nerenberg

Karl Nerenberg joined rabble in 2011 to cover Canadian politics. He has worked as a journalist and filmmaker for many decades, including two and a half decades at CBC/Radio-Canada. Among his career highlights...