Monday, June 29, 2009

Will Globalization Kill or Make the CBC Relevant Again?

The CBC, Canada's national public television and radio network, is under fire. Facing budget cuts and layoffs, many question its relevance, as its steady decline since the 1970s doesn't seem to have any chance of being abated. The CBC model is closest to that of European public television, but unlike the BBC, the CBC doesn't enjoy revenue streams from a television licence, or from voluntary contributions like PBS and NPR do in the United States.

How much are we talking here? The public funding in 2007-2008 from Parliament was a little over $1B CAN, amounting to $33 per capita of spending. The network does allow advertising, bringing in an additional $393M CAN. The BBC in the UK, with about double the population of Canada, has a budget of $8.83B CAN. On a per capita basis, the CBC has a budget about one-fourth of the BBC's. Politics are said to be playing a part in the funding crunch, as the Conservatives under Stephen Harper have been accused of starving the CBC.

In terms of all television, not just the CBC, technological changes with the Internet drawing away viewers and the prevailing trend of audience fragmentation has called into question the very enterprise. Radio-Canada, CBC's francophone TV arm, is somewhat insulated from these changes, but not immune to them. Canada is a relative small nation in terms of population next to a large one. The global "mediascape" has favoured American programming, which is readily watched in anglophone Canada. Culturally, anglophone Canada may be distinct from the US, but not so distinct that it rejects American Idol, Dancing with the Stars, and Survivor.

I think the relevant question is the importance of having a flagship Canadian public broadcaster. Does it even matter? I think it does. Andrew Coyne at Macleans has an interesting argument, but let's see if it holds water. He says pay TV is the answer. Since the most compelling programming is on premium cable, with subscribers, why not have the CBC move in that direction. The devil's in the details and I'm not sure how such a transition would take place, as CBC would be dramatically overhauling their business model. It brings up the issue of whether the CBC is a "business" or part of a public infrastructure, which its mandate alludes to. Coyne, Chantal Hebert, and Allan Greg discuss the CBC on CBC's The National.

The CBC has been betwixt and between Parliament on one and and the market {advertisers} on the other. I think it shines when it comes to hard news and sports, particularly hockey. Where they falter is when they try to go for mass appeal, with infotainment shock-and-awe investigative journalism and syndicated programming like The Simpsons {dropped after budget cuts}, Jeopardy, and Coronation Street. They lost the bid for the 2010 {Vancouver}/2012 {London} Olympics by 110% to CTV, which might be a good thing given the economic climate. Apparently, CTV is trying to charge 4 to 5 times what CBC was charging for ads during the Turin Olympics. Sounds pretty dire.

In autumn of 2007, during the WGA strike, I was teaching entertainment marketing, where a recurring theme is cost control. I wondered if the strike might open up opportunities for Canadian writers and production. As it turns out, opportunities have opened up. Given that Canadian producers understand the U.S. market and that Canadian production for an hourlong drama can be $1.8M US versus $3M US in the United States, co-production is on the rise. Flashpoint is an example of a CTV-CBS co-pro, shot in Toronto and started {and continues} strong ratingswise on CBS, despite having a summer run on the TV wasteland known as Friday night.

Getting back to CBC, could such "reverse colonialism," as the NYTimes puts it, take shape. Their much-hyped and promoted Being Erica found a home on US cable, so there's evidence of content flowing backwards to the US. In 2008, Douglas Coupland's {infinitely better} jPod cost under $1.5M CAN, so that's the ballpark CBC is playing in, in terms of production costs. jPod Trailer.

Given that the US TV market is costly and arguably broken, given how shows need to instantaneously find their audience with the revenue-hungry networks, perhaps the CBC can look to co-pro, as an option. Moreover, rather that trying to compete with the other networks airing US television shows, maybe it's time to build strong niche Canadian audiences with tight demographics. Hint:: Rick Mercer. The news division needs to make sure it embraces the web and the convergence/singularity of media. Concede that other sources may break stories, but be the place where Canada talks about them.

These ideas are just stop-gap and don't address the big issue of increased funding. The people will have to be behind the national voice of a CBC and willing to fund it as part of a cultural infrastructure. Letting the market "decide" will seal its fate, which would be fine for many, but is that good for Canada? The worst case scenario is a PBS model. There's good production here and there, e.g., Frontline, Austin City Limits, and {at times} Charlie Rose, but the viewer-sponsored model means that KQED in San Francisco turns into the cooking channel on Saturdays.

Image:: CBC "Butterfly" logo {1966}. Hubert Tison.

Song:: The Morons Are Winning - The Awkward Stage {Vancouver band previously featured on CBC Radio3}

Video:: CBC's Rick Mercer's earlier work

Video bonus:: CBC Logobug

Twitterversion:: #Globalization & future of #CBC. #CBCTV relevant or #fail? Can co-pro w/US help? Is it cultural infrastructure? #Canada @Prof_K


Primerica said...

Lets hope it will make it relevant again. I understand it's hard to stay on top which such a budget but they really need to reorganize their system and start all over. It would be nice to see CBC be a factual and entertaining TV channel, but nowadays it's just a future dream.

Take care, Lorne

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