“When the public broadcaster is in peril” – An excerpt from Wade Rowland’s book Saving the CBC

"As “the mother corp” faces the potential loss of broadcast rights for Hockey Night in Canada, veteran broadcaster and media strategist Wade Rowland argues we have less than two years to find a way to save CBC/Radio-Canada: the cornerstone of Canadian culture and an institution many regard as the glue that holds the country together."

"As “the mother corp” faces the potential loss of broadcast rights for Hockey Night in Canada, veteran broadcaster and media strategist Wade Rowland argues we have less than two years to find a way to save CBC/Radio-Canada: the cornerstone of Canadian culture and an institution many regard as the glue that holds the country together."

Here is an excerpt from his new book Saving the CBC: Balancing Profit and Public Service

At a time when governments, both federal and provincial, are slowly emerging from the financial crisis of 2008, and when the public broadcaster is in peril of being brought to its knees by its ill-advised involvement with professional sport and its dependence on advertising, it has become undeniably clear that something must be done to preserve balance in the nation’s media ecology.

We live in an era of epic challenges, both national and global, arising out of financial instability, geopolitical transformations, environmental calamity, massive migrations of desperate human populations, religious animus, terrorism, the threat of nuclear weapons, runaway developments in science and technology. That much has become conventional wisdom. What is not so well understood is that, for these reasons and many others, there has never been greater need for the kind of thoughtful dialogue and considered judgment that can take place only in public spaces. The most important of these is provided by our media.

There was a time when broadcasting was understood by both the public and by its entrepreneurs to involve a degree of public service, thought of either as a moral responsibility or simply a quid pro quo for permission to use the public airwaves. That era of media came to an end beginning in the 1980s with the rise of neo-liberalism, and the messianic belief in the moral authority of unfettered market capitalism. If we can judge from such manifestations of social disaffection as the Occupy movement, we now appear to be entering a phase of reaction to this, of regret over the destruction of so much social value embodied in the public service initiatives of the great commercial media organizations of the middle decades of the 20th century. It seems highly doubtful, however, that the clock can be turned back where the mammoth corporate media conglomerates are concerned—they have become too big and powerful and politically potent to be persuaded to forego profit in favour of a renewal of their public service mission. No professionally managed television network, for example, will voluntarily decide to restore its spending on news and current affairs to pre-deregulation levels simply because it is socially responsible; “the right thing to do.” The laser-like focus in these organizations is on their fiduciary responsibility to shareholders.

Clearly, the public service assumptions (though not the prescriptions) of Canada’s Broadcasting Act of 1991 are outdated. But if we can no longer rely on commercial media to serve the public interest beyond some minimal entertainment function, we are fortunate to still have more than a remnant of true public service broadcasting in the CBC/Radio-Canada. We have a strong rootstock on which to begin to grow a new system more suited to the media ecology of the twenty-first century as defined by our current political-economic, social, and technological realities. If we can no longer depend on commercial broadcasters to educate and enlighten in any significant way, we can at least insist that they entertain us responsibly, and in this country there remains a body of regulation administered mainly by the CRTC that prevents broadcasting from descending to quite the depths plumbed in some of the news commentary and reality programming seen in the US. There are no equivalents to Extreme Makeover or the Rush Limbaugh Show being perpetrated here: to do so would put broadcasting licenses in jeopardy. The CBC is entirely capable of filling the public interest gaps in the system. What it needs is a sustainable, predictable, level of public funding and a management team that understands and supports the goals of public service media and is willing to do what it takes to achieve them. All of this can be realized, if we can first achieve public recognition that the provision of public space for the crucial debates that will shape our future is too important to be left in the hands of a small coterie of profit-driven corporate oligopolists.

With that in mind, I offer the following [ten] proposals in the interest of furthering the urgently-needed debate on the future of public broadcasting in Canada. …
Proposal 1

Eliminate advertising on CBC television and prohibit its reintroduction on CBC radio. This is fundamental to the revitalization of the CBC as a public service broadcaster. The approximately $400 million in ad revenue collected annually by the CBC would then be available to private broadcasters who have for nearly a century complained bitterly about competition for advertising dollars from the publically-subsidized CBC and its predecessor, the CRBC. Give them what they want, at long last.

Proposal 2

In return for providing substantial new advertising revenue to private broadcasters, increase the CBC’s $1.1 billion parliamentary appropriation by an equivalent amount, to be taken from the various subsidies currently provided to private broadcasters. The object is to provide stable, multi-year financing for the public broadcaster, at a level that will permit it to properly fulfill its mandate for public service on both television and radio, and on the web.  The details of financing will obviously be complex and will require new legislation. The guiding principle should be that the public service broadcaster be treated as a utility—the provider of a public good that is universally accessible regardless of income or geographic location; a necessary service paid for from the public purse, and not through charitable donations, or subscription fees, or bake sales. …

Proposal 3

Eliminate professional sports broadcasting on CBC. Proposal 1 demands this. Pro sport, typified by the NHL (a $3 billion industry), is big business, and as such demands very high prices for the television content it provides. No broadcaster could afford any of the big pro sport franchises without offsetting advertising revenue, so, carrying sports means, for the CBC, advertising on television. The CBC’s withdrawal from sports will provide a revenue windfall for private broadcasters, a portion of which should be transferred back to the CBC to supplement the Parliamentary appropriation. … 

This excerpt was reprinted with the permission of the author Wade Rowland and the publisher Linda Leith Publishing$14.95 print; $8.95 ePub, Mobi, PDF. The book can be purchased at indigo.ca and  amazon.ca.