Canada’s public broadcaster, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC), provides us with a variety of quality content without corporate interference. Because of its unique ability to do so, it is integral to our democracy. Yet governments regularly cut CBC’s public funding. CBC has announced its latest strategic plan, which addresses recent cuts. Although the plan tries to make the best of a smaller budget, less funding and fewer staff at the CBC will harm the media organization’s capability to serve Canadians and our democracy.
A public broadcaster offers a different lens for examining current affairs than its profit-seeking competitors. For-profit corporations depend on generated revenue rather than government funding. In order to generate revenue, they need advertisers. To attract advertisers, they need viewers. To interest viewers, they have to tell people what they want to hear, even when it’s not what they need to hear.
A public broadcaster with guaranteed funding can report what Canadians need to know, even when doing so is not immediately profitable. People may not always turn to the CBC for their news, but having the option there allows for Canadians to choose to view current affairs from its lens when necessary.
Profit-seeking news organizations also face pressure from their owners in choosing what to report. CBC is largely free from this undue corporate influence. The cuts faced by our public broadcaster are problematic as, with the corporation’s capacity decreasing, they leave citizens increasingly dependent on such private news organizations. Without a strong CBC, it is unclear who will properly hold for-profit news organizations—in addition to governments and other businesses—to account.
As CBC loses its funding, its strength fades. Although the corporation’s strategic plan states that cuts will not affect news, the corporation will shorten TV newscasts. Further, future cuts would increase pressure on the CBC to begin reducing its news services just as past ones have.
Two changes occur when governments decrease CBC’s funding. The first is a reduction in production. For example, CBC may conduct less investigative reporting with less revenue–after all, investigative reporting is time-and resource-consuming, but only fills a few minutes of air time. With the same effort, a reporter could fill hours of programming.
The second is that CBC must focus on its other main source of income; it must increase advertising revenues. That is, it must chase viewers, abandon its unique perspective, and become more like profit-seeking news organizations. CBC Radio 2 has already added commercials to regular air-time. And CBC will need to add TV ads with the loss of hockey broadcasting rights.
CBC’s plans to move content online. This raises two problems. First, with fewer employees, CBC’s content-generation capacities will fall. The quality of its product will necessarily suffer regardless of the medium. The second problem is that many Canadians still turn to television and radio for their news, with many older Canadians exclusively relying on these formats.
Although discontents have focused their furor at the Conservatives for cuts, Canada’s current governing party is not singularly responsible for CBC’s predicament. In fact, the Chretien Liberals cut CBCs funding by more than the current government. Support for CBC is a cross-partisan issue.
CBC used to be a massive media organization that Canadians could be proud to call their own. It produced documentaries, conducted investigative reporting, provided timely news and on-screen reporting, offered extensive arts coverage, and developed many entertainment and arts shows.
Now, CBC is a sickly version of its former self, and without proper funding, will continue to weaken. We can look no further than our former colonial master, the United Kingdom, and its British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) to see how properly funded public broadcasting can improve the quality of information and debate in a country and offer a number of other benefits to its citizens.
CBC can plan all it wants, but without increased and reliable funding, plans will be insufficient in addressing its woes. The Government of Canada needs to commit to a higher level of funding that will increase each year by at least the rate of inflation. This funding should be safe from adjustment by political parties. Otherwise, parties criticized by CBC can cut its funding: this is unhealthy for democracy, as it discourages CBC from reporting important news that is embarrassing to the government.
Given CBC’s fragility, now is the time for Canadians to rally behind our public broadcaster and demand that it receives the amount of funding necessary to adequately serve our democracy.