December 6, 2019

Winnipeg
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CBC-TV's half-baked election decision

Opinion

Wednesday is election day in Winnipeg and across Manitoba, and candidates have made their final pitches to voters. It’s now up to the public to decide who will govern at the municipal level in this province. People will, no doubt, be very interested in the outcome of various races in hotly contested wards or the plebiscite on the future of the Portage and Main intersection.

On election night in Manitoba, it's Chocolate Week on The Great Canadian Baking Show on CBC. (CBC PHOTO)</p></p>

On election night in Manitoba, it's Chocolate Week on The Great Canadian Baking Show on CBC. (CBC PHOTO)

Meanwhile, over on CBC Television, it’s Chocolate Week!

That’s right, Chocolate Week. On The Great Canadian Baking Show. At 8 p.m., when the polls close on election night.

As was the case Monday in Ontario, when results-seeking viewers who flipped over to CBC-TV’s primetime block in search of election coverage were greeted instead by three intriguing whodunits — Murdoch MysteriesFrankie Drake Mysteries and The Mystery of the Disappearing Commitment to a Public-Broadcasting Mandate — TV-watchers in Manitoba looking for live primetime coverage of Winnipeg’s civic election will only find what they’re looking for on privately owned CTV Winnipeg, which will air a two-hour municipal election special from 8 p.m. to 10 p.m.

CBC — the public broadcaster that receives in excess of $1 billion in taxpayer-supported funding annually — has decided to take a pass on televised election coverage this time around, opting instead to relegate municipal election results and analysis to its radio arm and to Facebook and other online platforms. CBC-TV will reportedly air a half-hour of election coverage at 11 p.m.

This is, in a word, shameful. It is also, in another word, boneheaded.

One might reasonably think the CBC’s mandate as Canada’s public broadcaster would include an obligation to provide, on its primary platform, public-information programming of urgent local importance — such as election coverage — in the local markets it has been tasked to serve.

The rationale for this dubious corporate decision, according to a story published in this newspaper Tuesday, lies in CBC’s "commitment to our advertisers" and the "competing priorities" that shape the TV network’s primetime schedule.

What about a commitment to viewers — most of whom, one assumes, are also taxpayers who are responsible for paying the $1.2-billion annual freight that keeps the ever-morphing CBC in business?

One might reasonably think the CBC’s mandate as Canada’s public broadcaster would include an obligation to provide, on its primary platform, public-information programming of urgent local importance — such as election coverage — in the local markets it has been tasked to serve.

The Great Canadian Baking Show, while surely a tasty televisional confection, would not qualify as urgent or public-service broadcasting, regardless of how fervently committed CBC executives might be to the show’s advertisers.

In response to questions from the Toronto Star about election-night coverage in Ontario, CBC’s head of public affairs issued a written statement that said, in part, that "In planning our election night coverage, we considered a variety of options to best address competing priorities and we know through research that audiences want the results on mobile and digital."

Do they? Or does the CBC, in its determined effort to mutate and expand beyond traditional broadcast media and into various print-driven digital news platforms, just really need its audience to consume election information in the realms it is seeking, on the strength of billions in taxpayer dollars, to occupy?

It’s a question that relates directly to the public broadcaster’s reason for being. If the CBC’s job does not include covering elections — municipal, provincial, federal — on its traditional, signature broadcast services, then what does it include? Online comedy programming? Digital music services? Chocolate Week?

If the CBC’s job does not include covering elections — municipal, provincial, federal — on its traditional, signature broadcast services, then what does it include? Online comedy programming? Digital music services? Chocolate Week?

Look, everyone knows the media business is changing, and that traditional news reporting is under assault.

We in the newspaper busines — which is not the recipient of government largesse despite ongoing discussions about the need to support and preserve local news coverage in an increasingly challenging economic environment — are more aware than most.

MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS
The CBC building on Portage in Winnipeg on Monday, Oct. 22, 2018. 
Winnipeg Free Press 2018.

MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS The CBC building on Portage in Winnipeg on Monday, Oct. 22, 2018. Winnipeg Free Press 2018.

Which makes the decision by the taxpayer-funded CBC all the more perplexing — the public broadcaster offloading election coverage to secondary platforms is akin to the Winnipeg Free Press stating that because it’s focused on its digital subscribership, it won’t be offering election coverage in its print edition; instead, the front page of Thursday’s printed Free Press will feature a selection of recipes — that’s right, Chocolate Day!

It should be said here that not everyone within the CBC organization is in favour of this abdication of election-night responsibility. At least three dozen staffers at CBC Ottawa signed a letter in protest of the TV network’s election-coverage pass, asking, "What does it say about our priorities as a public television broadcaster that on the one night where local politics takes centre stage, we are missing in action? How can it be that we would fail to show up for the most important moment of the four-year election cycle...?"

These are fair questions — ones that will no doubt also be asked in the darkened election-night corners of CBC Manitoba’s TV operation, and ones that should be given serious consideration when next the federal government sits down to discuss what to do with its $1.2-billion commitment to a public broadcaster whose election-night commitment is to its advertisers rather than to the TV audience it is mandated to serve. 

brad.oswald@freepress.mb.ca Twitter: @BradOswald

Brad Oswald

Brad Oswald
Perspectives Editor

After three decades spent writing stories, columns and opinion pieces about television, comedy and other pop-culture topics in the paper’s entertainment section, Brad Oswald shifted his focus to the deep-thoughts portion of the Free Press’s daily operation.

Read full biography

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