Can the CBC be saved?

by Eric Smith

In the days following the release in January of the Juneau Report reviewing the mandates of the CBC, the NFB and Telefilm, the verdict was almost unanimous.

Editorialists, pundits and politicians all agreed that Canadians were not willing to pay an extra tax on their cable bill as a way of guaranteeing stable funding to the country's public broadcaster.

And although the scope of the report was far wider than the current funding crisis facing the CBC, most of its other recommendations were eclipsed by the suggestion that the corporation's financing should come from a dedicated source beyond the grasp of parliamentary appropriations.

As the first speaker at a symposium on the CBC's financing organized by the McGill Institute for the Study of Canada, Pierre Juneau readily admitted that his committee's financial recommendations had met a fairly cool reception. But he added, "It was necessary to present audacious solutions to the public at large. Because one day we just might have to adopt a solution that will solve the problem."

And although the focus of the symposium was on the funding of the corporation, several panelists stressed that the question of content and programming was inextricable. The "problem," as defined by several participants, is that as the CBC loses more and more of its government financial support, it relies increasingly on advertising revenue to stay afloat. The need to compete with private broadcasters for advertising makes the CBC's programming less and less distinguishable from that of its competitors. And as the CBC starts to look more like a non-subsidized broadcaster, the justifications for its government subsidy are increasingly called into question, thereby creating a declining cycle that the more pessimistic panelists claimed would lead to the corporation's demise.

Broadcaster and former chair of the CBC Patrick Watson was the most forceful among the panelists in calling on the corporation to review its programming. He argued that the CBC's decline would continue "until it turns into the 'Canada channel.'" The CBC, according to Watson, "must make itself relevant to client groups, not elites, but citizens with a capital C, people who care about their community and feel they have been abandoned by English-language TV."

Several panelists argued that the development of broadcasting in recent years has focused on technological questions of bandwidth, channel capacity and delivery systems over questions of content.

According to Juneau, "There is an enormous discrepancy between the investments we make in all kinds of electronic distribution systems and the money that goes to the production of Canadian programming. It's a scandal, a real scandal, that the more we invest in the plumbing, the more we will have to go outside Canada for the programming to feed it."

Laval University communications professor Florian Sauvageau, himself the co-author of a report on public broadcasting 10 years ago, called on the government to "tax the distributors." He noted that BCE, one of the leading developers of new distribution systems, had just posted a 64 per cent increase in profits. "Surely there will need to be some content to put on all these channels," argued Sauvageau.

The suggestion that a dedicated tax on distributors be set aside for programming is a plausible solution, according to panelist Scott Wilson, an accountant and partner at Price Waterhouse. He and other panelists cited the recently approved dedicated tax on blank cassettes to fund copyright protection. But as symposium moderator Desmond Morton asked, "If tax methods are not complicated to organize compared to political will, why are Canadians not putting their pressure to bear on the government?"

While most panelists agreed on the value, at least in principle, of public broadcasting, McGill economist William Watson challenged whether the CBC should be getting any kind of subsidies at all. He argued that as technology is beginning to allow consumers to pay only for what they watch, only those people who choose to watch a particular program should have to pay for it. "The Juneau Report says that too much attention is paid to getting people to watch the CBC," Watson said. "You would think that was a good thing. But everywhere it comes up in the report it's in a disapproving context."

Responding to William Watson, Patrick Watson argued against looking exclusively at broadcasting content as private goods and the audience as consumers rather than citizens. "People come together in public spaces and public fora," he said. "Since the beginning of time this has required some intervention by the nation-state."

The symposium was organized by John Roberts, the Seagram visiting fellow with the McGill Institute for the Study of Canada. It will be broadcast on Newsworld on Saturday, May 4 at 1:30 pm.