Will we fix the CBC or simply ignore it to death?

I never thought I'd agree with, former head of CBC English broadcasting, Richard Stursburg. During his time at the helm, he did almost as much damage to Canada's public broadcaster as Stephen Harper has done. The 'mother corp' may never fully recover from his reign.

However, he was correct when he told a Senate committee that the CBC “tries to do a little of this, a little of that to try and satisfy all these different constituencies … its strategy is ultimately, completely incoherent. You can’t hold the CBC to account when there’s no consensus on what it’s trying to do.”

I said much the same thing on last May. Sadly, Stursburg's vision for what the CBC should be was, basically, a publicly subsidized commercial station that should compete with private broadcasters and outsource most of what it does. He also felt that the news and current affairs division should be more entertainment oriented and should be less of a priority overall. To be clear, these are not things he specifically said but the results of decisions he made while serving as head of the English side of the CBC.

However the CBC's mandate is hopelessly broad. It says, in effect, that the CBC should be all things, to all people, in all parts of Canada, in all languages, on all platforms and do it on a slim and shrinking budget.

Specifically the mandate says:
"...the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, as the national public broadcaster, should provide radio and television services incorporating a wide range of programming that informs, enlightens and entertains; ...the programming provided by the Corporation should:
  • be predominantly and distinctively Canadian, reflect Canada and its regions to national and regional audiences, while serving the special needs of those regions,
  • actively contribute to the flow and exchange of cultural expression,
  • be in English and in French, reflecting the different needs and circumstances of each official language community, including the particular needs and circumstances of English and French linguistic minorities,
  • strive to be of equivalent quality in English and French,
  • contribute to shared national consciousness and identity,
  • be made available throughout Canada by the most appropriate and efficient means and as resources become available for the purpose, and
  • reflect the multicultural and multiracial nature of Canada."
Within such a broad mandate the CBC can do almost anything that it's officers decide to do and, at the same time, cannot possibly do everything that is asked of them.

If we are going to continue to have a national public broadcaster, and I think that we should, the CBC needs to be reinvented. We need to have a look at the current media landscape, including the state of media technology and decide what services a public broadcaster can and should provide.

Parliament, needs to :
  • Decide how much funding they can provide on an ongoing basis. 
  • Decide what other funding might be made available to the CBC (PBS/NPR style donations on top of federal funding is one possibility)
  • Decide what the CBC can, should and must do, keeping in mind the funds that will be made available. 
  • Decide what partnerships might be available to the CBC (provincial and territorial public broadcasters, cultural foundations, arts organizations, universities, libraries and museums are a few possibilities). 
  • After public consultation they need to ensure that the mandate that is laid out is something that has public support and meets public needs. 
  • Finally they must write a clear, concise mandate explaining what the CBC should be, what types of programming it should provide and on what platforms. 
If anything less than this is done, the CBC will continue to whither and die. Even the end of the Harper years will not fix it. The deepest cuts to the public broadcaster came when Paul Martin was trying to balance the budget.

If the status quo of benign neglect is maintained the CBC will continue to flounder without direction. Its budgets will continue to shrink either through declining ad revenues, declining audience share and/or inflation. It will remain, as it is, an easy target when the government of the day needs to find a few million, or a few hundred million somewhere.

The current media environment is a hostile one. Outlets must constantly change and adapt to changing circumstances and an ever increasing number of competitors, or close their doors. The CBC has taken baby steps but it has not evolved and, given its current mandate, it can't evolve much.

The question of 'what the CBC should be' has been bouncing around for more than a decade while the internet, mobile technology and services such as Netflix have emerged. The question is no longer simply "what should the CBC be", it is now "does Canada want a public broadcaster, or not".

If we fail to answer these questions in fairly short order, the choice will have been made for us.
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