Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

CBC's place in 'public space'

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CBC Radio offers a much-needed "public space" in Canada's audio-visual system. It's similar to what Assiniboine Park means for Winnipeg.

But with plans to go more commercial, including ads on Radio Two, CBC risks undermining its fundamental mission.

As Canada's national public broadcaster, it's CBC's job to present radio and television programs that meet the needs of citizens, rather than delivering audience eyes and ears to advertisers.

Private broadcasters are in the business of making money. There's nothing wrong with that. In fact, profits help these broadcasters invest more in quality programs while keeping their shareholders happy.

To increase profits, private broadcasters plan their programs to maximize audiences of people with money and motivation to buy products -- from beer to cars. The bigger the audience, the more advertisers pay for commercials.

As a public broadcaster, CBC should play a different role. CBC's statutory mandate is to offer programs that inform, enlighten and entertain -- not make a profit. It shouldn't be all about the money for the CBC. But increasingly, the bottom line has taken on new significance for our national public broadcaster, forcing the CBC to sound and look more and more like a private broadcaster.

CBC shouldn't be short of cash, especially after Heritage Minister James Moore promised before, during and even the morning after last year's election a re-elected Harper government would maintain or increase CBC funding.

Why does the CBC need to be more commercial in its programming?

Despite Moore's promise, the Harper government actually cut CBC's budget by $115 million in the March budget.

One week after this announcement, CBC announced its intention to place ads on Radio Two -- nine minutes every hour. If the CRTC allows this to happen, it will only be a matter of time before we start hearing ads on Radio One, interrupting shows such as As It Happens and World Report.

But funding cuts are not the only reason CBC is in financial hot water.

In recent years, the CBC has taken private-sector-like risks that haven't panned out, overpaying for the right to broadcast foreign shows and Hockey Night in Canada that have not produced the hoped-for payback.

The future direction of the CBC will come into focus in November when the CRTC considers CBC's applications to renew all its broadcasting licences. For the first time this century -- and until Oct. 5 -- anyone can write the CRTC about the kind of CBC they want. This is a rare opportunity and the CBC has already received an earful.

Thousands of people have written the CRTC with ideas and comments. According to a 2,000-letter sample, CBC should strive to be:

-- Strong, vital and national with the necessary funds to deliver a distinctive, high-quality service.

-- Balanced, with in-depth journalism, documentaries, and arts and culture programming.

-- Excellence in local and regional service to communities, large and small, in all parts of Canada.

-- More Canadian, and less pro sports.

-- Classical music should return big-time to Radio Two.

Money is only one of CBC's challenges. Currently, at least seven of 11 CBC board members have close ties to the Conservative Party of Canada. The last three appointments the Harper government has made to the CBC board have all been well-connected and active Conservatives, including Rémi Racine, who was recently appointed board chairman.

With the prime minister on record as favouring the privatization of parts of the CBC and some Conservative backbenchers calling for its complete defunding, this move to assert Conservative control of the CBC's governing structure is very troubling.

In today's hyper-connected world, the media have ever greater influence on our lives. Private broadcasters are merging into fewer and bigger companies, controlling a growing share of information -- the lifeblood of a democracy. That makes the role of the public broadcaster more important today than ever before.

The CBC is Canadians' public space in the media, a space that is vital for the health of our democracy, and that is worth protecting for future generations -- just like Assiniboine Park.

Ian Morrison is spokesman for the independent watchdog group Friends of Canadian Broadcasting (friends.ca)

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 21, 2012 A13

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