For broadcasters, a great deal is riding on the outcome of the Canadian election

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      Sometimes, when I read the results of Canadian political polls, I look at them through the lens of a Canadian broadcasting executive.

      The latest nightly tracking from Nanos Research for CTV and the Globe and Mail had the Conservatives at 35.7 percent support, compared to just 30.7 percent for the Liberals. The margin of error was 2.8 percent, 19 times out of 20.

      The headline described Conservative Leader Erin O'Toole as a "political freight train".

      Canadian Broadcasting Corporation senior writer Éric Grenier runs an online poll tracker. It aggregates results of various polls, weighing them by age, sample size, and the polling company's previous track record.

      Grenier's compilation has the Conservatives at 34.1 percent, compared to 31.2 percent for the Liberals and 20.1 percent for the New Democrats. In other words, CBC is forecasting a much more competitive race.

      According to Grenier, there's a 12 percent chance of the Liberals winning a majority and a five percent chance of the Conservatives winning a majority in the current polling environment.

      The CBC poll tracker states that there's a 42 percent chance of the Liberals winning the most seats in a minority and a 40 percent chance of the Conservatives winning the most seats in a minority.

      Meanwhile, the 338canada.com website is currently projecting 143 Conservative seats and 130 Liberal seats in the 338-seat Parliament.

      Media companies have skin in the game

      The stakes in this election are extremely high for CBC, Bell, Corus Entertainment, Rogers, Québecor, Postmedia, Torstar, and other media companies.

      That's because the Conservatives' election platform promises fairly major changes that will drive down CBC revenues. That offers opportunities for the private media companies to increase their market share of advertising.

      Let's first look at the CBC's budget.

      In 2019-20, $1.21 billion of the CBC's $1.71 billion in revenues came from the federal government (including amortization of deferred capital funding). That's more than a 70-percent federal subsidy.

      The Crown corporation posted a $59.1-million loss last year. Yet its retained earnings and total equity still rose by more than $200 million to $921.2 million due to remeasurements of defined benefit plans.

      It means that CBC is in excellent financial shape. The public broadcaster is benefitting from a Liberal decision to allow it to sell digital advertising on cbc.ca.

      But if O'Toole becomes prime minister, he plans a big shakeup.

      While he promises to protect CBC Radio and CBC North, the Conservative platform includes this pledge:

      "Review the mandate of CBC English Television, CBC News Network, and CBC English online news to assess the viability of refocusing the service on a public interest model like that of PBS in the United States, ensuring that it no longer competes with private Canadian broadcasters and digital providers."

      This promise suggests that CBC's English-language TV network won't even be allowed to have paid advertisements. If this is implemented, it would also take CBC out of the race for digital revenue, which is already being dominated by Facebook and Google.

      Here's what the Conservative platform states: "Significantly reduce the amount of money the government is spending on advertising with big foreign tech companies like Twitter and instead direct federal ad dollars to Canadian media, including community weeklies, regional media, and ethnic media."

      That would thrill private-sector Canadian media executives who've been criticizing CBC's "predatory behaviour" for years.

      O'Toole would stop the $600-million Liberal giveaway to Canadian media corporations over five years.

      In place of this, the Conservatives would introduce a "Digital Services Tax" of three percent on web giants' revenue in Canada. Plus, Google, Facebook, and others would have to pay royalties to media companies to ensure they are "fairly compensated" for their content being shared.

      In response, the Liberal platform promises $400 million over four years to CBC/Radio-Canada "so that it is less reliant on private advertising with a goal of eliminating advertising during news and other public affairs shows".

      With the Liberals, public funding would offset advertising losses, but not under a Conservative government.

      This CBC building in Vancouver may have fewer employees if the Conservatives take control of the federal government.
      Stephen Hui

      O'Toole's plans for Radio-Canada

      CBC Radio is actually quite heavily integrated with CBC TV and cbc.ca. This began seriously during Richard Stursberg's tenure as the head of English language services more than a decade ago.

      Therefore, any revenue shortfalls with CBC English TV will reverberate through the English-language radio service, regardless of the Conservative election promise.

      As for the French-language CBC Radio-Canada, the Conservatives promise to create "a separate and distinct legal and administrative structure to reflect its distinct mandate of promoting francophone language and culture".

      In a sop to the Quebec government, it will be allowed to appoint members to the board of the new Radio-Canada. And it will no longer charge user fees for online streaming services or operate branding services like Tandem in competition with the private-sector francophone media.

      The Peladeau family, which controls Québecor, couldn't be happier with that Conservative promise. Coincidentally, or not, the chairman of Québecor is former Conservative prime minister Brian Mulroney.

      For CBC executives, a Conservative victory would mean endless headaches dealing with unions as the corporation is forced to downsize operations in the face of diminishing revenues.

      Polls can build momentum for candidates and parties. So if the pollster for CTV and the Globe and Mail conveys the impression that O'Toole's campaign is like a "freight train", it's only going to help the Conservatives attract more volunteers and more donations going forward.

      That type of language still hasn't appeared on the CBC website.

      Still a long way to go

      O'Toole still faces some obstacles on the way to becoming prime minister.

      His foremost problem is that the Conservative vote is poorly distributed. He'll pile up huge majorities in the Prairies, but might not have enough votes in Ontario and Atlantic Canada to get enough of his candidates across the finish line in first place.

      In this regard, his predicament is similar to the Democratic Party presidential candidates winning the popular vote in 2000 and 2016 in the United States. They lost the Electoral College both times.

      Seat-rich Quebec is another problem for the Conservatives. Voters in that province almost never vote en masse for parties led by people born outside of Quebec. O'Toole, however, was born in Montreal, though he grew up in Ontario.

      The Conservatives won only one majority government under a non-Quebec-born leader in the last 60 years and the Liberals never won a majority under their non-Quebec-born leaders over the same period.

      If O'Toole ends up with the most seats in a minority government, he'll need the support of either the Bloc Québécois or the NDP. That's not very likely, given the ideological disposition of many Bloc and NDP voters.

      My guess is that O'Toole's support for the fossil-fuel sector, including a promise to revive the Northern Gateway pipeline, poisoned the chance of him ever winning over Bloc Leader Yves-François Blanchet.

      This means that O'Toole probably needs a majority of Conservative seats to become prime minister. That will require him to get up to the 38 percent range, at a minimum, in the popular vote.

      He might be able to achieve this if this election turns out to be a referendum on whether Canadians want to boot Justin Trudeau out of the prime minister's office. Trudeau probably didn't realize how vulnerable he was at the outset of the campaign when he called an unnecessary election.

      But this so-called "political freight train" that goes by the name of Erin O'Toole still has other obstacles in his way.

      Ontario, for example, is ruled by the Conservatives provincially. In the past, Ontario voters have sometimes demonstrated a tendency to prefer having one party in power provincially and another power in party federally.

      We still don't know what effect Premier Doug Ford's unpopularity will have on the national campaign. Right now, the Conservatives and Liberals appear to be in a dead heat in Canada's most populous province.

      Finally, there's Atlantic Canada. The Conservatives might do well in Nova Scotia, but New Brunswick, Newfoundland and Labrador, and Prince Edward Island are going to be tougher nuts to crack.

      New Brunswick and Nova Scotia have both elected Conservative premiers, but the Liberals still appear to be leading in the Atlantic provinces.

      It could all come down to the suburbs of Vancouver. Former Conservative leader Andrew Scheer improved upon predecessor Stephen Harper's performance in 2019 by taking back seats in Langley, the Tri-Cities, Richmond, and White Rock. But the Liberals still own the North Shore, which often went Conservative in the past, as well as most of Surrey, which used to elect Conservative MPs.

      Trudeau has also demonstrated surprising strength in past elections in other suburban areas, including Brampton, Markham, and Mississauga in the Greater Toronto Area.

      But this time, GTA voters have one of their own leading the Conservatives, rather than a prickly, hard-right candidate from the Prairies.

      And in B.C., some are tiring of Trudeau's oft-stated claims to be a prime minister who can deliver economic growth and environmental salvation.

      Environmentally minded B.C. voters are having trouble getting past Trudeau's support for a pipeline expansion that will generate more annual greenhouse-gas emissions than produced by the entire province of British Columbia every year.

      The Conservatives' newest slogan—"We can't afford more of the same"—is rallying their base against Trudeau. It has the potential to bring over right wingers who are currently planning to vote for the harder-right People's Party of Canada.

      Therefore, the idea of Prime Minister O'Toole isn't out of the question. Nor is the evisceration of CBC's English-language broadcasting services should he wind up with a majority of seats in the House of Commons.

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