Thursday, July 13, 2006

CBC: A Bit of Background

The CBC was created during the government of Conservative R. B. Bennet following the 1929 report of the Royal Commission on Radio Broadcasting. The reason was to ensure that there would be more Canadian content in broadcast journalism and to reduce the risk of Canadian Broadcasting becoming assimilated by the American networks. Operations began on November 2, 1936. CBC-TV started broadcasting on September 6, 1952.

Bennett realised that a public presence in Canadian radio was essential if it was not to become an exclusively profit-driven enterprise dominated by US commercial interests. The Radio Corporation of America, for instance, took the position that the best thing to do was to treat Canada as just another part of the U.S. market and service it out of New York. (Manera, Tony A Dream Betrayed, p.14) The CBC has been a symbol of Canadian pride and independence and together with institutions like the National Film Board, Telefilm and the Canada Council it has done much to nurture Canadian culture and identity.

Former CBC president Tony Manera illustrates the difference between private and public braodcasters by juxtaposing their different interests. In his book A Dream Betrayed he wrote: "When CanWest chairman and CEO Izzy Asper acquired a 20 percent interest in New Zealand's TV3 in 1991, he asked the employees to tell him what kind of business they were in. Someone from the news department offered the view that they were in the business of making sure that their audiences received the most carefully researched news and information possible. ... Izzy Asper told him that he was wrong and proceeded to set him and his coworkers straight. Their business was selling soap. ... Public broadcasting [on the other hand] is about nation-building. For commercial broadcasting, audiences represent consumers to be delivered to advertisers; for public broadcasting, audiences are made up of citizens whose interests must be served." ( pp. 13-4)

Most Canadians are aware that the CBC has changed a lot in the years since the Mulroney government and then the Liberals drastically slashed government funds allocated to the corporation. The money is meant to help it play a role private business could not do because it includes worthwhile endavours which will never yield a profit. What little Canadian programming (other than news) Global and CTV have is usually subsidised through Telefilm or provinical government grants and tax incentives. So perhaps even that might not exist if it wasn't for those resources.

It was predictable that the Tories would slash CBC funding. The Liberals on the other hand promised in their "Red Book" of the 1993 election "stable multi-year financing for national cultural institutions such as the Canada Council and the CBC. This will allow national cultural institutions to plan effectively" they said on page 89. Paul Martin was a co-author of the pamphlet. (Manera, A Dream Betrayed, p.11) Just like their promise to abolish the GST it was a lie and it was under Martin in particular that the CBC was hit hard. Almost as if he had been out to prove that he can cut better than the Tories he eliminated about 234 million dollars from the operating budget of the CBC in the fiscal years 1996 - 98. (The previous url is for 1996 to 2005. Years before that are at the Vancouver Public Library.) Cuts to capital funding and (presumably) the fact that CBC was made responsible for the cost of Radio Canada International, which used to be paid by the Foreign Affairs Department, raise the total of cuts to $ 400 million over the last decade according to CBC President Robert Rabinovitch.

After 1998 followed several years with little change and it wasn't until fiscal 2003, when John Manley was Finance Minister, that the corporation got a substantial increase of $ 97 million. When Paul Martin became Prime Minister and Ralph Goodale Finance Minister it was back to austerity for the CBC even though there were substantial fiscal surpluses by that time. In the fiscal year ending March 31, 2005 the government's contribution to operating funds was about 936.8 million dollars. Adjusted for inflation the 1994 government operating funds contribution, i.e. before the massive Liberal cuts happened, would be approximately 1.2 billion or about 28 percent higher. Canadian per capita income, adjusted for inflation, increased by 26 percent in the same time period making the discrepancy much worse. It's also interesting to note that Canada is 22nd out of 26 OECD countries in per capita public funding for public broadcasting. Only Portugal, Poland, New Zealand and the United States invest less in public ownership of broadcasting, according to Professor Marc Raboy of McGill University.

I remember a time when reruns happened in the summer. Now most of the CBC broadcasts other than news and sports seem to be repeats. Even movies often get repeated within relatively short time periods and that in spite of the vast and magnificent NFB library. The CBC still produces some excellent programs but they are few and far in between compared to what was offered decades ago when the country had a much lower GNP and therefore less resources available.

Has the CBC lost its importance to most Canadians because of the 400 channel universe and the so-called convergence of new technologies the digital revolution has brought about? Is it perhaps because of a decline in the quality of programming over the last two decades? Or is the world getting more uniform because of globalisation making individual cultures and hence the CBC less important?

The only ones complaining about the CBC seem to be those who would like to abolish it. There don't seem to be too many complaints by those who would love to see a thriving public broadcaster offering quality programming that is rarley found among private broadcasters, e.g. the Friends of Canadian Broadcasting.

And I would love to see a CBC in good shape, appearances to the contrary notwithstanding.