Saving the CBC, really?

So Ezra Levant has been on a mission for quite some time. He has been arguing that the CBC should be privatized because the act of privatization would allow the CBC to “flourish”. For in his words, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation is “sluggish” and “statist” The CBC is infected with government control, which is both direct and indirect, and it has a bureaucratic mentality which should be fixed. Or that is what Mr. Levant would argue.

One can see him on his website ( or listen to him on Sun TV.  This point of view is not unusual among some in Canada. For, in their mind, the CBC is a government entity and is therefore not market based. In their mind, government ownership indicates that an organization is inefficient and/or not reflective of Canadian society as a whole. However, from my point of view, if one wishes to guarantee freedom of speech, this point of view is not rational. For over the last forty years, media in the Western world has become more concentrated. Consequently, Freedom of Speech and Freedome of the Press has been harder to obtain. Just look at the facts.

From 1990 to 2005, a number of corporate mergers and government policy changes eliminated relevant voices in Canada. Access, the Alberta Public Television Service, was bought from the Alberta government in the 1990’s by CHUM Ltd. Chum, in turn, was purchased by CTVglobemedia. Lastly, CTVglobemedia was purchased by Bell Canada. And this is not unusual. While, in 1990, 17.3% of daily newspapers were independently owned; in 2005, only 1% were autonomous.

Broadcast names like Alliance, Atlantis, CHUM Limited, Standard Broadcasting and Osprey Media were either merged, bought out or both. Craig Media, a media company with roots going back to 1948, found its media assets were eventually rolled into Quebecor, Rogers Media or Bell GlobeMedia. The change has been so stark that we can name most of the private sector media companies. They are CTVglobemedia, Rogers, Shaw, Astral, Newcap, Quebecor, Postmedia and Corus. And this concentration could increase. For, in 2008, the CRTC noted that a company could hold broadcasting assets that equal up to 45 per cent of the country’s total television viewership. Or put differently, with small changes, Bell Globemedia could likely purchase Quebecor, PostMedia and Newcap without running afoul of Canadian ownership restrictions. Without the four public broadcasters in this country (i.e. CBC, Télé-Québec, TVOntario and British Columbia’s Knowledge Channel), the space for public discourse would be radically reduced.

We can see that this is the case in other media markets. The recent Phone Hacking Scandal, in the UK, has suddenly allowed politicians in various media markets to comment on condition of the media. For example, Leader of Australia’s Green Party, Senator Bob Brown, is leading the campaign for reform of the media. Senator Brown has been attacked by the Murdoch-controlled The Australian for doing so. While the newspaper insists that is has “nothing to fear from any inquiry into media behaviour”, it derided Brown’s calls for an inquiry as “tilt at windmills”. These are strong words from a newspaper considering that News Corporation, a corporation Mr. Murdoch controls, owns seven of the 11 metropolitan and national dailies, 77 per cent of the Sunday newspapers as well as many TV and magazine interests in Australia. Or put differently, if one corporation owns more than 70% of the media of a country, who is left to defend a politician who speaks against that firm. It has been said that politicians in the UK and Australia have often given Newscorp a pass. Maybe it is the lack of oversight that allowed NewsCorp employees to make some many questionable decisions. Or put differently, who polices the media when a country’s media is owned by one corporation? Given that the story broke in a place with a competitive media system, one would have to say no one can police the media in places where the media ownership is held by an oligopoly or monopoly.

So turning over the any public broadcaster in Canada is ludicrous. It is a poor public policy decision not including what it would do to free speech in this country. Yet, Ezra Levant is advocating for such an action.

For the most part, most investigative journalism is performed by a few well-resourced organizations. The Calgary Herald, Edmonton Journal, Hamilton Spectator or local CTV bureau do not get to preform investigative functions. The Toronto Star, National Post and Globe & Mail do have the staff to do some investigative journalism. However, generally, that staff works in Ottawa on national stories. Stories that would include a high profile topic like prostitution, the wronging of a minister or a federal government department. However, who will do a story about product labeling laws in Canada? Who will ask question about pollution in Canada and its effects on human health? Who will ask questions about the safety of hockey helmets? Marketplace will.

Marketplace is a consumer protection show which looks into everything. The journalists on the show have looked into various cell phone issues. They have shown the deficiencies there. This CBC show looked into our food safety and labeling system. The problems were so serious that the Federal Conservative Government changed policy with in the next year. Most private broadcasters do not have shows like this because it can affect their advertising revenue. So while W5H and 16:9 exists on CTV and Global, they tend to stay away from large revenue sources. Consequently, negative stories about Ford, Sobey’s, Bell, Shaw, Loblaws, Rogers or Telus would not be run on private stations. However, since CBC is a public broadcaster it does not depend exclusively on revenue. So it can ask the hard questions that private broadcasters shy away from. We know this because Wendy Mestly constantly notes it. When she is not on as host, she notes that her show constantly puts large advertisers on the spot and takes them to task about their corporate practices. She has noted how thankful she is to be able to do her job as an unfettered journalist. Given that no other private broadcaster runs these stories, how can Ezra be right? I would argue he is not.

Furthermore, from a market perspective, Canadians listen to CBC in droves. In most market places, CBC Radio One is amongst the top five broadcasters. In Calgary, where they hold 10.4% of the market, they are the most listened to radio station. In Toronto, they are the third most listened to station with 8.3%. While 8.1% of Edmonton listeners call CBC their home; leaving CBC Edmonton with a 4th place finish. Furthermore, these numbers do not include CBC Radio 2 or the Radio Canada’s numbers.

These high numbers indicate an obvious fact, CBC appeals to many people. If you listen to CBC in various parts of the country, its flavor changes. As a listener, I can tell you that CBC in Alberta is a lot more libertarian than CBC Toronto. Given Radio Canada’s attempt to hire Gilles Ducieppe, I would assume that Radio Canada may seem to be more ‘separatist’ leaning that CBC English Language services. So, regardless of political outcome, CBC tends to listen to its audience.

Lastly, one can easily say that the privatization of CBC will not lead to anything good. For CBC would likely just act like other private broadcasters. Buying American Shows would be their raison d’être. For, most broadcasters already purchase most of their line up from the States. While, shows like the Listener, Little Mosque on the Prairie or Flashpoint are shown in Canada, the majority of Canadians watch US television. Therefore, Canadians don’t watch Canadian shows because they are not on. The CRTC tries to change their habits. For, the CRTC presently requires that 60% yearly, and at least 50% of prime-time programming, 6:00pm to midnight, be of Canadian origin. However, historically, much of these requirements have been fulfilled by low-cost news, current affairs and talk programs in off-peak hours.

Or one can look at the survey data. According to BBM Canada the Top 30 in Canada shows are regularly American Shows. However, during the summer US- Canadian coproduction’s, like Combat Hospital and Rookie Blue, shown up in the Top 30. Admittedly, they were up against rerun American shows, but they were watched. CBC, on the other hand, regularly shows Canadian shows and many of them are profitable.

So the question, I have for Ezra is this: do you want just another broadcast that will buy the few American shows that are not show by CTV Globemedia, Shaw/Global, Corus and Rogers? For, that is all one would get with a privatized CBC. If you question that idea, look at the programming on Access. As I noted previously Access was the Public Broadcaster. Over 15 years later, Access has become indistinguishable from the rest of  CTV Globemedia’s platforms. The branding has changed and the shows are all American. The only thing that is left is an hour show called Alberta Prime Time.

Consequently, all one can say is that the privatization of CBC would be the quieting of many relevant voices. CBC would be just another broadcaster. Like, Global, CTV, Shaw, Rogers or Sun Television, a privatized CBC would not be interested in national or community values. Nor would it spend more than 1% on its revenue on creating content. At best, 10 or 20 talking heads would get most of the broadcast time. This does not sound very democratic to me. CBC has been responsible for bring a different perspective to Canada. It does so because it wants to reflect “Canada to Canadians”. Private Broadcasters, on the other hand, exist to make a buck. They open stations, close stations or buy programmes from the States to make money, even if it would mean the end to Canada. So Ezra, you can save the CBC by recognizing that it is an essential part of a functioning democracy. Leave it alone so that it can actually report what is happening in different parts of the Country.

2 thoughts on “Saving the CBC, really?

  1. I would add that the CBC hasn’t gone far enough in providing that benefit, and the separatist cant at RC is precisely the consquence. There’s no reason why I should receive the same media product in English or French from the same producers, organisation, and online apps as I do from TVFrance. With TVFrance, I push a button and the language switches between English, French or Arabic… but the content is all the same. Instead of a national broadcaster that produces bilingually, we have two sub-national broadcasters, one for each of the two solitdudes. Canada has no national public broadcaster.

    Not good enough. If we can demand bilingualism of all military officers, we can certainly demand that minimum from public-interest journalists. The French certainly do…


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