Charting the future of the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. - or any other public broadcaster - is tricky business, in an era of Netflix, Internet-delivered TV and upwards of 200 channels on the average family's satellite or cable package.
Even the venerable and generously funded British Broadcasting Corp. is undergoing a "root and branch" review of what purpose it serves, what audience share it should aim for, how it should be funded and what services it ought to provide.
But one thing is pretty sure: Trying to "minimize" the Canadian broadcaster's reliance on its annual grant from Parliament isn't going to improve its chances of pulling in a credible audience and ensuring its survival as a quality programmer. Yet that's just what the Conservative-dominated Senate committee on transport and communications has slyly recommended in yet another report on the CBC's clouded future.
The CBC already is a cheap operation, compared to other public broadcasters. This year it will get about $930 million from the federal government - a third of what the BBC gets on a per-capita basis - and it will raise $700 million from ads and other sources.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper's government, no friend to the CBC, has cut $212 million in funding in the past few years.
So it's no surprise that the Senate panel has even deeper cuts in mind. In its report Time for Change: The CBC/Radio-Canada in the 21st Century, it brushes off calls for giving the CBC the stable, multi-year funding it needs, saying "the fiscal demands of the federal government" will dictate what it gets. Then it settles down to hostile business.
The CBC needs to "explore alternative funding models and additional ways to generate revenue to minimize the corporation's dependence on government appropriations (our emphasis)," the report says. That could range from slapping an unpopular licence fee on households to forcing viewers to pay extra to get the CBC channel, to the iffy prospect of having viewers sponsor programs or make voluntary donations. Sure, that'll work.
The Senate also wants the CBC to get out of in-house production of non-news and current events programming, and recommends that "a portion of the CBC's funding be reallocated" to a superfund that private companies could draw on to produce Canadian content. While the report doesn't propose a specific figure, it does note that $500 million was suggested by an industry observer. That's more than half of Ottawa's allocation.
However the Senate panel may couch its views, this is all about paring back both the CBC's scope and budget, and putting it on a shakier footing, as Ian Morrison of the advocacy group Friends of Canadian Broadcasting rightly points out. This is a Conservative agenda to eviscerate the CBC, not save it.
Canadians deserve better and Sen. Art Eggleton, a Liberal, argues for just that in a dissenting report. He makes the case for a "robust CBC" to tell our stories, to entertain and to inform us. And he notes, correctly, that the CBC is starved for cash.
"At $29 per capita (funding) the CBC is well below the average of $82 per capita invested in public broadcasting in other industrial countries," he points out. Eggleton says Ottawa should increase the CBC's funding to at least $40 per capita and explore additional funding models to enhance that. He also suggests CBC offer a free, Netflix-style streaming service to Canadian viewers so they can get CBC content on whatever platform they like.
Rather than bleed the CBC dry, Eggleton would have Ottawa strengthen it. That's an issue that the party leaders should address in the coming election campaign.