The CBC’s slow-motion death from a thousand cuts

 

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Given the tongue-lashing my esteemed colleague, Norbert Cunningham, issued to the CBC in his regular space this Tuesday, I hesitate, for a moment, to crack my own bull whip. Then again, whaddya know? The moment’s gone.

The sorry truth is that the public broadcaster’s English television network hasn’t been much good since I was glued to Mr. Dressup in the mid-1960s. The other sorry truth is that the public broadcaster’s English radio network, once fantastically varied, has become a mere echo of its former self (though, miraculously, the quality of its on-air journalism and talent hasn’t slipped).

In fact, through most of my life, my relationship with the CBC has been littered with routine, tedious disappointments with its upper management. And so, when the corporation’s honchos announced last week that it was slashing 657 jobs and cutting $130 million from this year’s budget, I quietly mumbled, “What took you so long?”

That’s the one question CBC President Hubert Lacroix did not address in his statement to employees, which began on an appropriately humiliated note:

“Well, here we are again. This is the third time I have to stand up before you in these circumstances, and, I have to tell you, I hate doing this. I imagine you feel the same way. So how did we get here?”

Yes, Mr. Lacroix – you of the inadvertently claimed (and repaid) $30,000 expense claim – do tell.

Well, first, of course, there was that whole hockey disaster. Losing the NHL broadcasts to Rogers was, let’s just say, disappointing. But that wasn’t the only thing that went sideways over the past 12 months.

“There’s an industry-wide softening of the television advertising market – down approximately 5 per cent overall in the last year,” Mr. Lacroix said. “This is common to all conventional broadcasters, and neither CBC nor Radio-Canada was spared. 

“In addition, on the CBC side, since last summer, our prime time TV schedule performed poorly in attracting 25-54 year-old viewers, the most important demographic for advertisers.”

Combine this with the loss of professional hockey broadcasts, and the revenue hit came to about $47 million. And that’s still not all.

“As you know, advertising sales on CBC Radio 2 and Espace musique are much weaker than expected,” Mr. Lacroix continued. “This is a major disappointment. We’re trying to fix this, but the initial projections won’t be met. We are not close. This represents a $13 million shortfall, nearly all of it impacting English Services.”

Throw in the federal government’s “two-year salary inflation funding freeze” of $72 million, and, hey presto, we arrive at our present dismal circumstances.

Of course, if all this feels somehow familiar, it should. None of Mr. Lacroix’s explanations/excuses seem particularly novel. To one degree or another, they are variations on a theme that has been playing and replaying since I was a kid: a business that – if left to stitching together its own safety net – should have been out of business  along time ago. 

Currently, 64 per cent of Mother Corp.’s $1.8 billion in annual revenue come from taxpayers. Another $330 million derive from advertising. The balance is from specialty services (subscription revenue and advertising from CBC News Network, bold, documentary, Explora, ARTV and the Réseau de l’information de Radio-Canada) and financing.

It’s that billion bucks from citizens that gets right-wingers and purse-string-pullers riled up. They don’t like anything that smacks of welfare (corporate or otherwise). And they don’t watch or listen to the CBC, which, in their heart of hearts, they believe is a nest of socially progressive vipers. 

Of course, they’re right, which is why I continue to be an avid consumer of CBC radio. I grew up with it. I fell asleep to Max Ferguson and Allan McFee. I woke up to Peter Gzowski. And despite the cutbacks, it still produces damn fine programming – just not enough of it.

I don’t give a fig about the public money. Make it $2 billion a year. But, for God’s sake, let us finally acknowledge what the CBC (radio, at any rate) does peerlessly well: public affairs journalism and documentary reporting that reflects the moral compass of the Canadian majority.

Forget the rest; just do more of that. Okay, mother?

 

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