CBC: Forging a future in the wake of cuts

CBC’s role in Canada

Although Canada’s national public broadcaster, which was established over 70 years ago, is engrained in Canadian identity, the CBC struggles with an overarching paradox.

“The idea of the CBC is in some ways something worthy and necessary, but who really wants to watch it, right?” said Wilfrid Laurier University’s associate professor of communications Herbert Pimlott.

But regardless of who actually is consuming its content regularly, what it represents is important to Canadians.

“It’s telling the stories that are pertinent to Canadians.

“Telling stories about Canadians and taking the world to Canadians,” he continued.

As a former inhabitant of Western Canada, Pimlott recalled a show called the Beachcombers, which aired from 1972-1990 on CBC, explaining that the show conveyed features of Canadian life that would otherwise have gone untouched.

Other Canadian broadcasters would never tackle those kinds of stories, said Pimlott. “They would never do anything like that. They’d do Baywatch.”

Student panelist Laura Carlson nodded in agreement, explaining that as someone who recently became a heavy consumer of CBC programs, she has seen a value in the broadcaster that is hard to find anywhere else. “I find that it would be difficult as a young person growing up without it.”

Joseph, who is both an American and Canadian citizen, explained that there is nothing like the CBC in the United States. He mentioned National Public Radio (NPR) as the only source which comes close to CBC’s unique content. “[NPR] is such a marginalized voice, this kind of off-to-the-side voice,” said Joseph. “The CBC provides something completely different than that but still with the same quality of programming.”

Niles echoed Joseph, stating “there’s certain things that CBC does that no other broadcaster ever will. It’s certain stories that others don’t touch.”

Carlson explained that she often watches or listens to interviews on the CBC and has all of the hard-hitting questions she wants answered tackled. But when she looks at other Canadian broadcasters such as CTV or CanWest Global, “they don’t say anything.”

For Pimlott, the CBC is essentially a standard against which other Canadian media can compare, because broadcasters tend to ask public figures “the harder questions” that Canadian citizens are seeking the answers to.

“That’s what we need as citizens. We need to hear all of these people held accountable.”

Evaluating the CBC

Although the CBC is making strides on behalf of Canadian media as a whole, Pimlott explained that there is a large engrained problem that often prevents the CBC from meeting its mandate.

“You can’t have the CBC operate to a mandate that’s largely based around a mandate-model of private media where you have to meet ratings.”

Niles echoed his sentiments, explaining that the CBC staff experience this problem on a daily basis.

“Constantly we’re told that this is a business and that you have to keep your ratings up, but to do that you need to sometimes go outside your mandate,” Niles explained.

He brought up the example of American shows such as Wheel of Fortune and Jeopardy, which the CBC has bought to boost its ratings but which do not fit the CBC’s mandate of consistent quality Canadian programming.

“You’re constantly being pulled in different directions,” he stated.

Pimlott also touched on the CBC’s lack of freedom and time for planning, which differs from other public broadcasting models, such as the BBC.

“What we see in Canada is there’s a greater degree of interference, especially from the present minority government and the particular brand of Conservatives which are more about trying to undermine the CBC,” said Pimlott.

“Control needs to be left with people who know what they are doing,” agreed Tremblay.

“Rather than just on a whim.”

The cuts

With programming disappearing, budgets decreasing and a total of 800 positions to be eliminated so far, panelists were concerned about the effects cuts will have on Canadian programming.

Carlson explained that few people have been properly introduced to Canadian programming; this number will dwindle even further if cuts continue.

“Some people don’t get the chance to realize how important CBC is because they don’t get that exposure,” said Carlson.

“So if these cuts keep coming and they’re scaling back programming and we have to rely on more American shows, we’re going to lose out on those stories that people don’t even realize that they should hear.”

With vital programming disappearing, Tremblay explained that not alienating the CBC’s younger audience is crucial for its ability to thrive in the future.

“I think the big concern is going to be if cuts affect what could bring young people in, you’re never going to get back to it,” he said.

“If you’re not consuming something that the CBC produces by the time you’re 20 or 25 when are you going to start? … If there’s no effort made to keep and bring in new generation, then CBC is gradually going to fade out.”

Brown’s show Search Engine was recently cancelled from the CBC and has moved to Television Ontario (TVO). He and Niles echoed similar concern over positional cuts within CBC, stating that most of the cuts have been coming from the bottom.

“Senior staffers have placement over younger staff members,” said Brown. “In a bizarre way some of them can come in and sort of usurp the young web producer, somebody who often has no experience in that area whatsoever….”

Brown highlighted the odd reality of situations when radio shows such as Q, which is targeted at young people, has its content produced by an older generation.

“So what we’re talking about here is the possibility of a young producer at Q, and Jerry from Saskatchewan who’s 42 years old replacing him and booking indie rock bands,” he continued.

Niles explained that this “chopping from the bottom” threatens to cut out an important source of new ideas – young people who may have less experience but are often much more knowledgeable in the area of new media.

“Think about it as a war where you’re only losing 20-year-old men.… What could happen here is that if you’re losing the young people you’re losing an important demographic.”

Pimlott stressed the “intangible effects” of positional cuts, referencing his experience in the United Kingdom working in radio during a similar economic downturn in the nineties.

He explained that many positions were brought back on contract and only paid for a small amount of time.

“They weren’t around to help develop and pitch documentaries,” said Pimlott.

“This is what I see with CBC. You’re losing those elements that are like a brain trust. The soil where you can build the programming, you can build the ideas and nurture young talent like the web producers, masters and such.”

Looking forward

While cuts are already in effect, everyone present agreed that the situation is not hopeless.

“Speaking casually about it with coworkers over a beer, the first thing people worry about is ‘Am I going to lose my job?’ The second thing is that people actually get excited about this shuffling of the cards. They wonder if we can maybe get our priorities in check and make better use of the resources,” said Brown.

There’s no lack of talent, he explained, adding that, “If you let broadcasters broadcast, the ideas that you’ll hear of what people would do if they only had a chance, they’re all great ideas.”

The panel generally agreed that all of the resources to create solid content are still intact despite cuts.

They came to the consensus that if the CBC uses the inexpensive nature of new media to its advantage it will be able to thrive

“There is that opportunity with new media…. You can do it with very little money. There is still is that possibility that if they have the mandate to go out and do it,” explained Joseph.

Carlson agreed, stating that new media will be key for the CBC in the coming years. She stressed that the CBC must ensure that cuts do not occur towards the use of technology and new media in its programming, as this is part of what draws young consumers in.

“I think they have to be very careful not to alienate our generation and the young generation that will be making decisions in the future,” Busta said.

But beyond more effectively utilizing the resources the CBC does have, Pimlott explained that other changes will need to occur in the long run.

“I personally think on the one hand that I would like to see people lobby the federal government to rescind the cuts…. [The government] could also give them the loan they asked for,” he stated, adding that completely eliminating advertising would also increase the quality of the the CBC’s production by reducing the “censoring effect” advertising has on journalism.

He also explained that the CBC should be given a five or seven-year period to plan with funding provided so that it can produce quality programming without government interference.

“Unlike the BBC, the CBC is not given the same arm’s length and time to plan and prepare,” he explained, adding that the BBC is given a seven-year timeline during which it is funded and then evaluated after the term.

The discussion ended on a constructive note, with panelists focusing on the potential for restructuring in this period where deficit has forced the CBC to question its model.

“I feel with what we have if some very tough decisions are made, there is enough funding there to provide on all platforms what we’re supposed to provide,” said Brown.

Recent cuts

800 positions cut in March to make up a $171 million economic shortfall in the 2009-2010 fiscal year

$125 million in assets to be sold

$56 million in cuts for the 2010-2011 fiscal year

The panelists

Herbert Pimlott: Associate professor of communications studies at Wilfrid Laurier University

While currently a professor at WLU, Pimlott has worked abroad in the United Kingdom as a radio journalist and television documentary editor at a private media broadcaster.

Jesse Brown: Former CBC Radio Host

Host of Search Engine, which formally aired on CBC Radio One and then was broadcasted as a podcast, Brown’s radio show will air on TVO beginning in the fall. Brown is also a freelance humor writer.

Steve Niles: CBC News: Business

Former Laurier student and volunteer at the Cord, Niles currently works at CBC creating hourly hits from the Toronto Stock Exchange and producing the CBC News: Business evening show.


Shannon Busta
Fourth-year English student and Features Editor at the Cord

Laura Carlson
Laurier graduate and Editor-in-Chief at the Cord

Daniel Joseph
Fourth-year history student and former Arts and Entertainment Editor. Runs an independent website called ultrakillbot.com

Jeremy Tremblay
Third-year communications student and Production Manager at the Cord