A guest posting by Richard Nielsen, President of Norflicks Productions
Let’s clear up one misconception about Canadian broadcasting. It is not short of money.
The cable companies (or BDUs as they are bureaucratically referred to) have revenues of approximately $14 billion a year. $8 billion of that comes from broadcasting.
Of this $8 billion, approximately $3.5 billion comes from advertising; pass-through payments from subscribers to specialty channels provides approximately $1.2 billion; federal subsidies of one kind or another contribute approximately $2 billion while another half billion or so comes from special arrangements, such as the Media Fund and provisions to encourage Simulcasting, et cetera. Lastly, there are provincial subsidies of one form or another.
But the largest subsidy, not included in these calculations, is the importation of U.S. shows at less than 5% of their production costs. Last year, our private networks and specialty channels spent roughly $700 million on U.S. programs with a production value of $14 billion. These were all entertainment shows and they competed with the $350 million that goes into the production of comparable Canadian programs.
We can never have a broadcasting system of our own if we continue to import American programming in such quantities. Rather than prohibit them I think we should charge a fee for any American channels imported into Canada and that at least 50% of such a fee should go to support public broadcasting, i.e., the CBC. This could eliminate the need for a parliamentary grant but its real purpose is to reduce the competition from U.S. television, which every other developed country in the world has already done.
And the CBC should be substantially restructured.
The CBC should get out of sports, out of news and out of advertising. This would save money but it would also reduce revenues, so the revenue losses should be recovered from subsidies that now go to private television; after all, if the CBC gets out of advertising and sports, private networks will be the main beneficiaries. This transfer of resources would enable the CBC to do what it is supposed to do, promote Canadian culture. It will also strengthen news on private networks since they would benefit from a wider use of the material they produce and would have available more news from distant and foreign locations.
More savings will come from reducing CBC facilities across Canada. They are no longer up to date and are expensive to maintain. If the CBC got out of news, it would have no excuse for retaining them. Their sale would significantly reduce costs, including labour costs. We would better accommodate regional concerns by having five Commissioning Editors located across the country but able to call on the national talent pool as required.
A stripped-down CBC devoted to the production of drama, variety, comedy and documentary, and dedicated to finding and developing Canadian talent should have restored all the budget cuts it has experienced since 1979. But that need not mean more government money. As I’ve indicated, there are other places for the money to come from.
Many CBC News personnel should be transferred to a Cooperative News Service, which all Canadian television networks and stations would own, supplying material, personnel and facilities. If the new revamped CBC wanted a newscast, it could buy one from the Cooperative News Service, but it should have nothing to do with producing it.
The reason successive Liberal and Conservative governments have treated the CBC so badly is that they hate the News department. Government is inevitably in the business of persuading the public to support the measures it advocates and it’s not surprising they believe that any broadcaster funded by them should get in line. The private sector, where almost all news is advertiser driven, has established rules and practices that keep advertisers out of the newsroom, but no public network is free of government pressure. It follows that it shouldn’t be doing news. This news service would be funded by advertising, by pass-through payments and by the fees paid (and received) by member stations.
I’ve said nothing about educational television but it provides a much better basis for a Canadian PBS than does the CBC. We should add another channel that would be controlled by our various provincial educational broadcasters. It should specialize in public affairs, presently neglected by both public and private broadcasters but flourishing on TVO with The Agenda.
I also think that a beefed-up Cooperative News should operate four distinctive news channels, two in French and two in English, one for international consumption and one for Canada. But all four should be available for Canadians to watch.
Essentially these reforms are designed to use advertising dollars, government grants and public support to perform functions for which each distinctive form of funding is most appropriate. Thus the new National Educational channel would attract foundation support and support from subscribers as does PBS. CBC would depend on money supplied by or mandated (pass-through payments are one example) by the federal government while private, advertiser-driven television would provide information and entertainment, but would have no specific cultural mandate apart from certain requirements for Canadian content.
Other postings about the CBC and public broadcasting: