January 18, 2022
A year after CBC president Catherine Tait defended the public broadcaster’s foray into sponsored content in front of the country’s broadcast regulator, the Liberal government has set its sights on moving the CBC away from the advertising business.
The Liberals have promised $400 million over four years to make the CBC less reliant on advertising, and are aiming to ensure the public broadcaster’s programming is more distinct from its private sector competition.
“CBC really suffers from a sort of dualistic life as a half public broadcaster, and half of the time it thinks of itself as a commercial broadcaster. And I think that has to end if we’re going to get value from our investment in CBC in the years to come,” said former CRTC vice-chair Peter Menzies.
Private broadcasters have long maintained that CBC shouldn’t be competing with them.
“The CBC likes advertising but doesn’t need it,” said Kevin Desjardins, the president of the Canadian Association of Broadcasters. “They have an ability to skew the advertising market in a way, because it is not as essential as it is for private broadcasters, where that is the lifeblood of their business model.”
As for news in the digital sphere, the competition isn’t just with fellow broadcasters but with all other outlets with an online presence – news publishers and critics have been opposing the CBC’s competition for digital ads for years.
Heritage Minister Pablo Rodriguez’ mandate letter, released just before the House of Commons rose for the holidays, directs him to “modernize” CBC/Radio-Canada. That includes updating the CBC’s “mandate to ensure that it meets the needs and expectations of Canadian audiences, with unique programming that distinguishes it from private broadcasters.”
It also directs Rodriguez to provide additional funding to make CBC “less reliant on private advertising, with a goal of eliminating advertising during news and other public affairs shows.” The letter doesn’t include a figure, but during last year’s federal election the Liberals pledged $400 million over four years for that purpose.
During that election, the Conservatives also promised to review the mandate for CBC English TV, CBC News Network and CBC English online news, to ensure “it no longer competes with private Canadian broadcasters and digital providers.” In contrast to the Liberals’ pledge of more funding, the Conservative platform suggested assessing “the viability of refocusing the service on a public interest model like that of PBS in the United States.”
That was a departure from when Erin O’Toole ran for party leadership promising to defund the CBC, including cutting all funding for online news and with a goal of fully privatizing its English-language TV.
Asked about where the party stands on the Liberal plans, a spokesperson for the Conservatives said the party opposes new funding and believes “funding should be reduced, and the mandate modernized.” The Liberal “approach of throwing more and more taxpayer money at the CBC is not working,” the spokesperson said.
Menzies said he doesn’t think the Conservatives’ PBS model proposal “is helpful at all.”
“Maybe it has some political purposes in appealing to (their) base,” he said. “If you’re going to have a public broadcaster, have a public broadcaster.”
Menzies said the government’s plans for the CBC are “an avenue really worth pursuing.” He said it’s something the government could accomplish within a year if it wanted to – but could also drag it out for 10 years. He noted the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission still hasn’t issued its decision on the CBC’s licence renewal, a year after its public hearing.
The Heritage minister’s office didn’t respond by deadline when asked about how it plans to move forward with modernizing the CBC.
Supporters of the CBC are also in favour of eliminating the ad money. “We’re very much looking forward to seeing what kind of mention it gets in the upcoming budget,” Sarah Andrews, a spokesperson for advocacy group Friends said.
In trying to find sources of revenue, CBC has “made choices that are maybe not the best,” such as the move into sponsored advertising. “That’s why we think it’s so important to bring the CBC back to its public service roots, because at the end of the day, that’s its role as a public broadcaster, to serve the Canadian public,” Andrews said. “They can’t have to rely on private advertising dollars.”
CBC’s sponsored content division, called Tandem, was put on hold briefly due to controversy over the initiative, but then resumed. Last year, the CBC got $1.4 billion in government funding, according to the CBC’s annual report, a figure that includes a $36.7 million advance from this year’s budget. A spokesperson for the CBC said its current advertising revenue is “just under $254 million.”
Menzies noted that relying on advertising affects the kind of programming CBC does, forcing the broadcaster to pay more attention to major markets, especially the GTA. “It gets over-covered and other areas get under-covered,” he said. Not relying on advertising would enable more coverage of areas like the North, Menzies said.
He suggested the government could also make CBC material free to other news organizations to use, which would be a boost to local news operators.
Broadcasting consultant Kelly Lynne Ashton noted that debate about the CBC’s mandate comes up regularly, including at multiple parliamentary committee studies in the past decade or so. “The reason that keeps coming up is that there’s a basic fundamental disconnect because the government keeps asking the CBC to do more but not giving them more money to do it,” she said.
“If you want them to move away from advertising, and stop competing with the private broadcasters for advertising and do the kind of content that the private broadcasters won’t do, then give them the money to do it.”