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CBC programming would suffer if broken into a 'constellation' of subscription services: CBC

Published: Friday, 10/05/2012 12:33 pm EDT
Last Updated: Friday, 10/05/2012 12:42 pm EDT

OTTAWA—Breaking up public broadcaster CBC/Radio-Canada into a “constellation” of specialty channels and online pay services would not result in more high-quality or Canadian programming, said Mark Starowicz, executive director of documentary programming at CBC Television.

Starowicz reacted to the suggestion by Postmedia columnist Andrew Coyne during a debate Thursday entitled, “Resolved: Canada no longer needs a CBC,” hosted by think tank the MacDonald-Laurier Institute.

Coyne said the public broadcaster as Canadians know it is no longer necessary and that CBC should operate without public funding by dividing itself into a “constellation” of online and specialty channels such as CBC Arts and CBC Sports, with a separate subscriber fee attached to each service.

At a “bare minimum,” Coyne said, viewers should pay for access to CBC online and on television, and the broadcaster should better compete on Internet platforms.

“It could still be a public broadcaster, but it would be one funded by its audience rather than taxpayers,” Coyne said to an audience at the Canadian War Museum. “If its viewers are as devoted as they claim, then they should be happy to pay.”

Coyne said he believes subscription models would lead to a better public broadcaster because it would free CBC from the “shifts of advertisers,” a dependence on federal funding, and the “whims of political favour.” He said CBC could concentrate its efforts towards serving a passionate, paying audience.

As Canada’s public broadcaster, CBC receives $1.1 billion annually in parliamentary appropriations. This year, the Conservative government's federal budget cut spending across the government and announced cuts to CBC that will reduce its annual budget by $115 million by 2014-2015.

Starowicz said breaking CBC into fragments would not be positive for the broadcaster or its audience.

“This is what I call a condo solution,” he said. “Pick up the people living in a housing estate that’s owned by the city, convert the building into tiny condos, and sell them at exorbitant prices.”

Starowicz said the option would not result in the creation of more CBC content or Canadian programming.

Coyne said that, in the past, CBC was “existentially” necessary because viewers did not have the viewing platforms and content choices they have today. “The CBC was what made us Canadian. It defined us,” he said, adding that viewers now have hundreds of channels to choose from that cater to every conceivable need.

He said services like HBO, offered by Astral Media Inc. in Canada as HBO Canada, has produced some of the world’s finest TV programming.

“The case for public broadcasting has accordingly collapsed,” Coyne said, adding that the best programming is no longer on public television and CBC now demands a relatively small share of prime time viewing audience shares.

“The fundamental divide today is not between public and private [television], but between free and pay,” he said.

He referred to the trend of television viewers “cutting the cord” and migrating to online pay services like Netflix or Hulu. “There aren’t going to be such things, before very long, as channels,” he said.

CBC is rolling out a five-year strategic plan called “2015: Everyone, Every Way,” in which the broadcaster aims to bolster its reach in Canada's regions, primarily through free radio and online content.

Starowicz said the need for CBC as a public broadcaster goes back to the creation and distribution of Canadian programming. CBC is needed “now more than ever,” he said.

Starowicz, the creator of CBC programs As it Happens, Sunday Morning and The Journal, said broadcasters should not block emerging technologies or the multiplicity of voices. “You compete,” he said. “You enter the arena. You fight for your viewers. You fight for your listeners.”

He said that unlike private conventional broadcasters that run Canadian programming where it will do the least possible damage to revenues generated by popular American programming, CBC aims to put Cancon at the forefront.

Citing viewing data from a broadcast week 14 days ago, he said that, during the prime time viewing hours of 8 to 10 p.m., CBC aired 94 per cent Canadian programming.

Starowicz said CBC’s prime time Cancon rate contrasted with that of Rogers Communications Inc.'s Citytv at 18 per cent, Shaw Communications Inc.'s Global Television at 7 per cent, and Bell Canada Enterprises Inc.'s CTV Two at 14 per cent. CTV did not air any Canadian content during that week in prime time, he said.

Scott Henderson, vice-president of communications for Bell Media, said in an emailed statement to The Wire Report that more viewers watch Canadian programming on CTV than on any other network. "CTV is home to the country’s most-watched Canadian programming including Flashpoint, which we have scheduled in one of the best timeslots in primetime, Thursdays at 10 p.m.," he said.

CBC officials will go before the CRTC in November for a hearing to renew its television broadcasting licences. The hearing “will examine the public broadcaster’s role in the light of the latter’s powers under the Broadcasting Act,” the CRTC said in a notice for the hearing.

Starowicz said CBC programs The Mercer Report and The Republic of Doyle have more than a million viewers while Heartland and Arctic Air have between 600,000 and 800,000. “We don’t have to be forced to run Canadian programs. This is what the CBC is for,” Starowicz said.

He said breaking the broadcaster apart into specialty or pay channels would hurt Radio-Canada programs Téléjournal, Découverte, and Enquête, and would limit French-language public discourse in Quebec to content from Quebecor Media Inc.

“These English- and French-language flagships would not exist in a stripped down, subscription-only specialty channel universe that Mr. Coyne proposes,” Starowicz said.

According to a quarterly financial statement released Aug. 29, CBC reported $182.7 million in revenues in the three-month period that ended June 30, marking a 1.4 per cent rise from $180.1 million during the same period a year earlier, the report said.

CBC said higher digital revenues from its French and English services contributed to the increase “as did higher facility rentals in French Services and subscriber growth in Specialty Services.”

The financial statement said the broadcaster’s Category C specialty service CBC News Network had 11.3 million subscribers as of Aug. 31, while specialty channels Bold and Documentary had 2.6 million and 2.7 million subscribers, respectively.

Revenues for the broadcaster’s conventional, specialty and online television services reached $105 million in the first quarter, the report said.

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