Back in 1936, every Canadian wanted a radio set. And as prices finally dropped as low as $30 ($500 in today's currency), one million households welcomed the new technology into the living room, mainly tuning in to American stations with such shows as the beloved Amos 'n' Andy.
That wasn't quite what Ottawa had in mind when it founded a national radio network a few years earlier. So on Nov. 2 of that mid-Depression year, the government decided to rechristen its on-air effort the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, granting the network its independence and a mandate to provide Canadians with Canadian entertainment. The new broadcaster cheerfully picked up the competition ( Amos 'n' Andy as well as various American soap operas) but also added The Happy Gang variety show and hockey games to the mix.
These days – as the CBC gets ready for a 75-day countdown to its 75th anniversary – what Canadians want is any gadget that streams content from the Internet. Three-quarters of us have broadband access at home and increasingly we use it not simply to read e-mail or surf the Web but to watch high-quality video programming: Almost one million Canadians have already subscribed to Netflix to stream Hollywood movies and TV shows.
The old dilemma – how to create original Canadian shows when it is much cheaper to pick up popular American ones – now has a new urgency. The borderless world of the Internet is putting intense pressure on the system Canada has created to produce Canadian programming both on the CBC and on the commercial broadcasters that grew up alongside it. The government regulator, the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission, is trying to untangle the knot created by the arrival of "over-the-top" services such as Netflix that don't face the same requirements to air and fund Canadian shows that Canadian broadcasters and cable and satellite providers do.
"The debate between Netflix and the cable providers is moving very fast," warns Bart Beaty, a communications scholar who heads the English department at the University of Calgary. And, he points out, "The CBC is kind of being left out of this discussion."
The paradox is that as commercial choices and international choices proliferate, a public broadcaster of Canadian programming becomes more distinctive and more relevant, not less. The CBC is not a sideshow, but rather a solution.
"It is going to be increasingly difficult to create content within the confines of national boundaries and national models," observes media consultant Jerry Brown, an associate partner with PricewaterhouseCoopers. "[Yet]it's vitally important each culture and each country tell its own story. … If it's hard to see how you are going to continue to produce commercial programming that is Canadian, that speaks to the role of the CBC."
The public broadcaster is an existing non-profit public organization in which Canada has invested heavily, which doesn't need to be regulated into delivering Canadian content, and which is positioned to do it across multiple platforms. Whether the CBC is about to become painfully isolated or gloriously distinctive, though, depends on how successfully it positions itself as the first source of Canadian choices in a digital age, and whether its government and its audience help it embrace that role.
Too much of the time, discussions of the CBC devolve into subjective criticisms of particular programs, pitting fans of Republic of Doyle against those who lament Peter Mansbridge's lost chair as visions of distinctively non-commercial programming bump up against the reality that the CBC needs the advertising dollars and the government approval that come with ratings.
"Public broadcasting is edifying or public broadcasting is [too]American: We are stuck in that," observes Carleton University communications professor Ira Wagman.
Regardless of what it programs, an on-demand world in which viewers seek out high quality and specialized programming should create a strong niche for the CBC as a champion of Canadian content. Prof. Beaty suggests one way to deliver that: He points out that aggregators such as the online newspaper The Huffington Post and the magazine Salon.com are the successful Internet content models and wonders how the CBC could play that role.
Whatever shape the CBC takes, however, the critics agree that if the government is going to create Canadian content by supporting the CBC and bankrolling the Canadian Media Fund (which underwrites the cost of TV shows for all Canadian broadcasters, public and private) that material has to reach an audience. Canadian content needs a digital stage easily accessible to all Canadians.
"There is no point in Canada becoming a place where we are funding content nobody is accessing. It's a waste," Prof. Beaty says.
In short, if we want a future in which there are strong Canadian choices available on TV, radio, the Internet and mobile, we need the CBC to play a central role as producer, curator and aggregator, both generating Canadian shows and news itself and acting as the digital platform for independent work.
The corporation is already taking steps in that direction. Its current strategic plan calls for it to double spending on alternative platforms by 2015 to a minimum of 5 per cent of its budget. Its current TV programs are available online for catch-up viewing and its radio shows can be streamed live, as can all the programming on the CBC News Network. Its popular French-language Tou.TV service acts something like Hulu, offering not only current and historic Radio-Canada programs but also other public broadcasters' offerings, some dubbed from English and some from the international French-language public broadcasting consortium TV5.
The rights to these programs are not free, however, and creating an English-language equivalent would be expensive. So would a CBC app that simply streamed CBC-TV live to your tablet or cellphone because of the complications of clearing rights to all the shows created by outside producers. The CBC is deeply concerned that the vertical integration of distributors and broadcasters – Bell now owns CTV, Shaw has Global, and Rogers has City – will squeeze the space for its content on mobile platforms, a fear it expressed strongly to the CRTC at a hearing in June.
The problem might partly be solved by technology already popular in Asia that turns smartphones into digital TV antennas, so that anyone can tune in to over-the-air signals for free without fancy apps or extra bandwidth charges for either the user or the broadcaster. It's tempting stuff, although neither the CBC, which firmly believes the future lies in Internet delivery, not free-to-air signals, nor the CRTC have considered the implications.
Furthermore, bold visions of multi-platform access to programming paid for with tax dollars often bump up against the CBC's financial realities: 18 per cent of its overall budget is raised by placing ads on its television networks. Like a commercial broadcaster, it can't afford to give its programming away for free or to let its online offerings cannibalize its TV audience.
Money is one thing standing in the way of the CBC's future. Canadians like to rant about the $1-billion in tax revenue they give the CBC, but the corporation is, in fact, one of the worst-funded public broadcasters in the developed world. At $34 per capita, Canada spends less on public broadcasting than any other developed nation except the United States and New Zealand. The broadcaster's parliamentary appropriation has mainly stagnated or dropped over the past 20 years – by the CBC's calculations, inflation means it has $433-million less to spend now than it did in 1991. It has never been given multi-year funding from Ottawa, and it is currently being asked, alongside numerous other government organizations, to make suggestions to the Treasury Board as to how it could cut 5 to 10 per cent from its budget.
Also, the CBC operates in a legislative vacuum: the 1991 Broadcasting Act that spells out its mandate predates the growth of the Internet and the organization has not had a licence renewal hearing at the CRTC since 2000. A hearing scheduled for this September was recently postponed to 2012; the suspicion among CBC watchdogs is that the government does not want to draw attention to the public broadcaster when it might be about to chop the budget.
The CBC dodged cuts during a similar Treasury Board exercise in 2009, when the government decided "reallocations were not necessary as programs delivered by [CBC/Radio-Canada]are aligned with the priorities of Canadians."
That's a lukewarm statement of support and a larger problem for the CBC is a persistent sense in Ottawa that despite polls that show a majority of Canadians support the CBC, public broadcasting is not on the government's agenda.
The CBC suffers under what it tactfully refers to as a "market-oriented" regulatory regime: When the CRTC ruled the broadcasters could start negotiating payment for their signals with cable and satellite distributors last year, it simply left the CBC out of the deal. Similarly, the Canadian Media Fund, which doles out subsidies to Canadian TV producers based on their success with audiences, used to reserve a set percentage of its money for CBC projects, recognizing that the public broadcaster should not be judged by ratings alone, but it has abandoned that policy.
Today, eyeballs are the only measure of success.
"I hope government will make its decisions based on what the broadcaster has proved in recent years," said CBC CEO Hubert Lacroix, pointing to recent ratings. "Radio, TV, and Internet services – we have never seen numbers like this."
And yet it is precisely that message that some observers fear will fail to win the CBC a unique position in a future of global choices, fragmented audiences and minority tastes. This fall, when Being Erica goes head to head with House on Global and Two and a Half Men on CTV, there is no prize for guessing which show will come last. And yet, in another neck of the digital woods, Being Erica is a very popular item in the iTunes store: New technology represents an opportunity not to gather millions of Canadians around The Happy Gang campfire, but to reach them in a more diffuse way, on multiple levels and multiple platforms.
The broadcaster's strategic plan stresses it will offer something for everyone – but not all things to all people. Yet, the reality is that the CBC measures its own performance largely by the numbers and externally its entire record is all too often judged by the perceived success or failure of a handful of high-profile shows on the English-language television network.
"Everybody wants to play programmer for the CBC; everybody thinks they can program the network," said Prof. Wagman, who argues we should all just let the corporation's 9,000 employees get on with their jobs. "It's better to think of it in a different way. Because it is a public broadcaster, the CBC has to imagine what the country should be. What it needs is to imagine again."
BY THE NUMBERS
Ratio of government funding to self-generated revenue, including advertising, in the CBC's total budget
The amount independent producers spent creating Canadian dramas and comedies for public and private broadcasters in 2009-2010.
Percentage of that money raised through federal and provincial tax credits.
Percentage contributed by government's Canadian Media Fund.
Percentage contributed by broadcasters' licence fees, divided equally between public and private.
Sources: CBC 2009-2010 annual report; The Canadian Film and Television Production Association's Profile 2010