Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

CBC must rethink its value

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Now that everyone knows they'll get more hockey, not less, following the Rogers-NHL broadcast agreement, the rest is details. Except for the future of the Canadian Broadcasting Corp., which is the great question that emerged from the landmark $5.2-billion deal that will shape hockey broadcasting in Canada over the next 12 years.

The CBC has always claimed it needed Hockey Night in Canada because it earned revenue that was used to support its other divisions.

The public broadcaster made this assertion whenever it was faced with criticism that it should not compete for sports advertising when the private sector was more than capable of providing the same service.

Following Tuesday's announcement, however, the CBC was telling a completely different story. An executive said the loss of hockey revenue wouldn't have much of an impact on the CBC because, well, the profit margins weren't that great and sometimes there were even losses.

Hockey is believed to have accounted for roughly half of the $450 million in the CBC's ad revenue. Its largest revenue source, of course, is the taxpayer, who provides a $1.2-billion annual subsidy.

Rogers has partnered with CBC for the next four years on Hockey Night in Canada, but it's a nearly meaningless arrangement that will provide the corporation with a platform to promote its programs, but not a dime in revenue.

It seems more like charity than a business deal and it seems unlikely the arrangement will be extended beyond the terms of the four-year contract.

The NHL-Rogers deal is a major blow to the prestige of the CBC, but the sad fact is that the corporation's relevance to Canadians has been declining for decades.

Few people could name their favourite CBC TV show because most Canadians just aren't watching. The TV network had a prime-time market share of just 5.3 per cent at the middle of last year's season, a 40 per cent decline over the previous year.

CBC's prime mandate is to deliver Canadian content, which naturally hampers its ability to generate audience, but it's time to re-evaluate that mission.

There are several alternatives that have been suggested over the years, including adopting an American-style public television model.

The CBC could also abandon its main network, and re-invest in its all-news channel, creating current affairs programming of the highest quality. CBC Radio could also be strengthened; private broadcasters could be provided incentive to produce more Canadian programing.

None of these options, however, has ever been considered seriously because the CBC has been regarded as a Canadian institution and icon that could not be dismantled or re-arranged.

The Conservatives have cut its budgets, but CBC's executives have resisted the opportunity to consider how its considerable subsidy might be used to greater effect.

But now that the Mother Corp. has lost its flagship and is sinking in just about every category, it should launch a new national conversation on its future.

The CBC once was relevant and even indispensable in the lives of every Canadian. It may not be possible to achieve that lofty goal again, but the current inventory of mediocrity is no longer acceptable.

Editorials are the consensus view of the Winnipeg Free Press’ editorial board, comprising Catherine Mitchell, David O’Brien, Shannon Sampert, and Paul Samyn.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 28, 2013 A14

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