The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation has a looming public-relations problem.
That's because in the eyes of other media, the public broadcaster is seen as an uber predator in an age of diminishing ad revenues.
In fact, iPolitics publisher James Baxter even used this term, "uber predator", in a recent presentation to the Commons Heritage committee.
The controversy has arisen over CBC's insistence on competing with other media companies for digital advertising. And it comes after the Trudeau government announced $675 million in new funding for CBC over the next five years.
Torstar chairman John Honderich pointed out that in the United Kingdom, the publicly owned British Broadcasting Corporation is "not allowed to take advertising". It generates money through licensing fees.
Yet in Canada, the CBC is an aggressive digital-advertising competitor to Torstar and other newspaper companies. And the Crown-owned broadcaster plans to launch an online opinion section, which is designed to harvest more page views.
So far, the prime minister and the minister of Canadian heritage, Mélanie Joly, have not publicly expressed any concerns about this.
It might not be such of a concern if CBC programming was radically different from what's available from private media outlets. But in the 21st century, those lines have become increasingly blurred.
It started in earnest in the 1990s when local CBC Radio programs decided to broadcast snappier, shorter interviews while ramping up traffic, weather, and stock-market coverage to appeal to wider audiences. The local TV newscasts, some of which had terrible ratings, focused more on crime to draw in the masses.
Local TV newscasts were increasingly targeted at suburban viewers, who watch more television than people who live in the downtown cores. And radio became the junior partner to TV, losing some of its distinct edge as cultural coverage was diminished to appeal to suburban concerns.
From 2004 to 2010 when Richard Stursberg headed English-language programming at CBC, walls were broken down between radio, television, and digital divisions. It resulted in harmonized radio and TV newscasts, with one often serving as a promotional tool for the other. TV shows that would normally appear on private channels, like Battle of the Blades and Republic of Doyle, became primetime fare on the public broadcaster.
Over the past two decades, CBC has also hired high-profile hosts from the entertainment world, such as Jian Ghomeshi, George Stroumboulopoulos, and Sook-Yin Lee, further blurring the lines between public and private broadcasting. And a popular radio program that was truly in the public-broadcasting realm, the foreign-affairs show Dispatches, was killed in 2012.
Dispatches featured documentaries and analysis of what was happening far beyond Canada's borders, presenting compelling tales from Africa, China, the Middle East, and South Asia. It was an ideal antidote to the Trumpism and Farageism that's contaminating modern political discourse.
Now that the federal Liberals are pumping up the CBC treasury with hundreds of millions of dollars from the taxpayers, there's no good reason why a show like Dispatches can't be revived to provide a public service. It was distinct, educational, and fell well within the CBC's traditional mandate.
Consider this: local CBC Radio One morning and afternoon programs in Vancouver each have critics who review Hollywood movies every week. But there's no critic invited on these local programs on a regular basis to discuss local artists in dance, theatre, or classical music.
Similarly, the so-called national radio arts and culture program, q, seems far more interested in talking to international celebrities and reviewing the recent U.S. presidential election than what's happening in performing-arts venues in Vancouver or Calgary.
CBC still has some exceptional and distinct programming, such as The Sunday Edition, which is hosted by Michael Enright. The Current, hosted by Anna Maria Tremonti, is another example. But with hundreds of millions of new dollars coming into its treasury, the network as a whole should be aiming higher than aping the private media in pursuit of more and more money, particularly online. For goodness sakes, the Harper era is over.
iPolitics publisher James Baxter made a good point: CBC has become an uber predator. And it's starting to look like corporate platform owners—such as Amazon, Facebook, and Apple—that have devoured competitors in their industries. It's time for MPs and other Canadians to wake up to this fact and start asking questions about what that means for everyone else.