Many of us already consume our radio and television on the computer, streamed on the internet, either stationary in front of us, or mobile in our hands, or who knows where. Soon it will be most of us, after which it will be (almost) all of us. Pity the poor and the remote – and the obstinate – who languish on the wrong side of the digital divide. The trillion channels streamed, financed primarily by advertisers, will compete mercilessly for our attention. Where does CBC Television fit in? (CBC Radio, and the French Radio Canada, will have to be discussed separately.)
Since the CBC made a decision nearly a decade ago to put the emphasis on ratings and to obtain the largest audiences possible, the elements distinguishing it from the private networks and the cable systems have shrunk, though they have not disappeared altogether. So the answer is: it will compete with them. It has in fact prepared itself for this contingency, with the result that the advertisers will call the tune, which will be largely American. There is no evidence that the CBC has done any substantial strategic planning to secure for itself a major place in the streaming universe, unlike the BBC and NPR.
The Broadcasting Act, however, imposes certain cultural objectives on the Canadian system. The Act can, of course, be rewritten, but let us assume that, whatever government is in power, Parliament, reflecting public opinion, will continue to demand a certain amount of Canadian content. It may demand it but it cannot regulate and enforce it. The way to resolve this is to think of the CBC in terms of production and not distribution. The subsidies that now flow to public and private networks can be invested in the production of Canadian content, and in culturally valuable programs, many of them interactive. Financial incentives will have to be devised to induce Canadian channels to use them. The CBC will be an agency for production, both in-house and by private companies, decentralized, all across the country. CBC would no longer broadcast, i.e., distribute, programs.
It may, however, be possible to devise a joint CBC-provincial system outside the streaming universe that would distribute educational material – and public affairs programming – in another way, maybe even the old-fashioned way.
What about news? The public interest demands a system as free as possible from special interests – including the government’s – and as ethical journalistically as possible. Richard Nielsen, the president of Norflicks Productions, is proposing a concept that should be publicly discussed: the formation of a cooperative, modeled on the original Canadian Press, which would sell its “products,” including local news, to both public and private systems. This would put an end to the practice of having taxpayers finance news and, its corollary, the government’s congenital paranoia.
Let it be paranoid about the news as such, rather than about the messenger.
Other postings about the CBC and public broadcasting: