Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

$1.1 billion is enough for CBC

Public broadcaster wrong to expect Canadians to pay twice for its content

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I got a couple of emails in the past few days asking me to show my support for the CBC by going to a CRTC website and telling the federal broadcast regulator that the CBC should be allowed to charge cable companies for the network's local TV signals.

It's not odd that I would get an email asking me to support the CBC. I love the CBC. I listen to CBC Radio sometimes for hours a day, my kids are hooked on shows such as The Debaters and I like a lot of CBC TV -- Being Erica is a particular favourite. You won't hear me complain about my tax dollars going to support such work.

I don't want to pay my cable company for CBC TV, however, which is almost certainly what would happen if the CRTC says the network can charge cable and satellite companies for its local signals.

This issue has made the news for the past few months, but just in case you missed it, here is a summary: TV broadcasters say their traditional business model is broken. Currently, cable companies are required to provide the signals of local stations, but they do not pay for them, as they pay for specialty channels. Broadcasters, which have seen ad revenues plummet, want the system changed so they can charge for local signals. Cable companies don't want this change, and say that if it occurs they'll have to pass along the cost to consumers.

I can understand the positions of both the private broadcasters and the cable firms. They are private companies operating on a purely commercial basis and they are in a struggle with each other to get the most favourable regulatory framework they can.

The CBC is different. The CBC gets $1.1 billion annually from the federal government for operations. It also has to generate other money from commercial revenues to pay for all its activities. That commercial revenue has fallen, just as it has for private broadcasters.

The CBC wants to be in the same boat as those private broadcasters when it comes to charging cable companies.

But should we be asked to pay $1.1 billion through our taxes, and then still have to shell out more to actually get the local CBC TV signal?

The CBC argues it has to fulfil a massive mandate with limited resources. It's true that the CBC mandate includes two languages and multiple TV and radio services across a vast country.

But the mandate is also very flexible. It was flexible enough that, faced with tough choices this year, the CBC pulled out of local TV in Brandon, withdrawing its affiliation -- and money -- from CKX, a move that eventually killed the station and left the city without local TV.

At the same time, the CBC beefed up its local TV news in Winnipeg, expanding its supper hour newscast to 90 minutes in a market that is well-served by other providers of local news.

You could also ask why the CBC is spending money to provide local news online -- hardly part of its core broadcasting mandate -- when there are multiple local providers of such information.

The BBC, with which the CBC often compares itself, withdrew a plan to expand its online local presence because there were lots of local newspapers and other commercial media willing to invest in such services.

It is somewhat galling for those of us in the newspaper business to watch the whole debate over how broadcasters can get more money for their content. The same market conditions that have hurt broadcast media have affected newspapers.

Many papers, including the Winnipeg Free Press, have had to make extremely difficult decisions about how we operate in order to ensure we provide sustainable, quality service to our communities. We reduced a day of delivery, a move that I can tell you no publisher really wants to make.

The email from the CBC said, in part, that "unlike other Crown corporations we continue to give our services away for free to private-sector companies so that they can re-sell them for a substantial profit. That's not fair." (Emphasis is theirs.)

If that's not fair, then why have broadcasters been taking services from their local papers for free for decades?

Local newspapers, in almost every city in Canada, are the bedrock of reporting on their communities. The work of newspaper journalists forms the basis of much of what listeners and viewers see and hear on radio and TV.

Sometimes it's simple -- a local radio newscaster simply reads news out of the paper, or off the paper's website.

But more often it is less visible. The following scenario happens virtually every day in Winnipeg: A Free Press journalist spends a day or more trying to nail down a story. She starts with a few snippets of information. She digs through files, combs the web and makes a dozen phone calls before finding the right people to talk to. She may tromp around a neighbourhood making cold calls on homes looking for a key interview. She arranges for photos and checks and double-checks her facts. Her story appears in the morning paper and by 7:15 a.m. a radio producer has gotten a single person on the phone -- possibly someone it took the Free Press days to find -- to talk on-air and present it as if the radio station did all the work, with no credit to the Free Press, and certainly no compensation.

The staff cost to the Free Press of generating the story could be $500. The radio station may spend $25 following it and filling air time.

There isn't a newspaper journalist alive who doesn't hate this news ecosystem, in which the newspaper does so much for so little reward. But we have to live with it. We have a great readership and when faced with challenges we come up with our own solutions.

I would suggest the CBC do the same and not ask us to pay twice.


Bob Cox is the publisher of the Winnipeg Free Press.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 19, 2009 A18

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About Bob Cox

Bob Cox was named publisher of the Winnipeg Free Press in November 2007. He joined the newspaper as editor in May 2005.

"Rejoined" is a better word for it, because Bob first worked at the newspaper as a reporter in January 1984. He covered crime and courts for three years before getting restless and moving on to other journalism jobs.

Since then, his career has spanned four provinces and five cities. Highlights include working in Ottawa for the Canadian Press covering Prime Minister Jean Chrétien during his first term in office, and five years at the Globe and Mail in Toronto, first as national editor and later as night editor.

Bob grew up on a farm in southwestern Ontario, but has spent most of his adult life in Western Canada in Winnipeg, Regina and Edmonton.


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