Corp creep at the CBC

The national broadcaster is reaching outside its mandate with a free digital music service that has private firms crying foul

A case of corp creep

Mark Blinch/Reuters

The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation is not sticking to its knitting. Until this year, nobody minded all that much. But it is a fact that the corporation’s mandate under the Broadcasting Act is to “provide radio and television services incorporating a wide range of programming that informs, enlightens and entertains.” You see any mention of the Internet in there? When the CBC started colonizing the web, nobody’s ox in particular got gored; any grumbling was destined not to last long in an environment of infinite bandwidth and zero pricing.

But now the grey area befogging the CBC’s mandate has officially become a problem—specifically, with the February launch of CBCmusic.ca, the Corp’s free digital streaming music service. Private broadcasters are crying foul, saying that CBC mission creep has finally gone too far. And they have taken their complaint to the CRTC, the national broadcast regulator.

The heart of the CBC’s new digital service is a set of some 40 “genre streams,” or channels, curated by the Corporation’s existing programming staff. This represents an impressive liberation of the CBC’s enormous library: instead of having to make an appointment to listen to Radio 2’s classical music programming, and suck on a firehose full of Edvard Grieg if it happens to be Edvard Grieg week, you can switch to the website and listen to an all-piano channel, an all-opera channel, an all-chamber channel, or an all-modern channel. If you favour rock, there’s a generic catch-all stream, but there are also specific indie, “classics” and metal channels.

You get the idea. In fact, you are probably already literally getting it on the upper reaches of your cable TV dial if your carrier offers Galaxie, the analogous service founded by the CBC in 1997 and sold to private operator Stingray Digital last year. Stingray, a Montreal-based media holding company that also owns the Karaoke Channel, offers an online version of Galaxie for a small fee. Other private companies, including Astral Media and Quebecor subsidiary Groupe Archambault, have been rolling out similar fee-based online boutique streaming services. The CRTC defines these as part of the “broadcasting” system, and has taken them under its regulatory wing. And there can’t be much question that from a consumer standpoint, the CBC’s service is likely to annihilate them competitively. Free, as the Internet maxim goes, is a tough price to beat.

The CRTC’s new-media broadcasting regulations contains a rule forbidding providers from abusing any “undue preference” to gain leverage. In an April 11 letter to the CRTC, Stingray Digital, acting on behalf of a coalition of private music licensers, argues that this is exactly what the CBC is doing: it contends that the CBC’s free service relies on public funding not available to private broadcasters, and on preferential royalty rates for streaming records that it supposedly receives from SOCAN and other copyright enforcers because of its public, nonprofit nature.

A sharply worded April 16 response from CBC lawyers at Faskin Martineau called (unsuccessfully) for summary CRTC dismissal of this argument. If the CBC couldn’t use government money to “compete” with private broadcasters, the memorandum notes, then the Corp would have to shut down Radio 1 and 2 tomorrow. And while the CBC admits that it is not bound to the same royalty structure as commercial radio, it denies that it has received any “preference” from copyright collectives. “There’s no rights organization out there that doesn’t try to get the best possible deal from a buyer, whether it’s negotiating with the CBC or anyone else,” says Chris Boyce, CBC’s executive director for radio and audio.

The dispute before the CRTC may eventually boil down to a bunch of extremely fine semantic details, but the real question is: is what the CBC is doing broadly okay? With regard to the CBC’s mandate, online “genre streams” arguably lie about halfway between a traditional radio station and a record store, and thus about halfway between something that is obviously kosher and something that would obviously not be. At the CBC Music site, the Corporation is urging fans to write the CRTC in support of the new service, and mail to the commission is running 100 to 1 in favour. But the question cannot just be whether CBC Music represents a windfall for those who like it. Of course it does; and, equally obviously, it would be a windfall for science fiction fans if the CBC started paying Charles Stross and Neal Stephenson to give away their books for free.

Stingray Digital’s complaint offers one potential loophole for the Corp to pass through and escape the quarrel. Its real problem with the CBC’s digital streaming service, it notes, is that the site, being full of American and international music content, is indistinguishable from the existing user-pay services. CBC Music has a French-language equivalent, Espace.mu, that focuses almost exclusively on French-language Canadian artists, and the private broadcasters admit that none of them have provided an analogous French service; they have no objection at all to Espace.

They suggest that CBC Music should become more like its French sibling: an “exclusively Canadian service directed to the exposure and promotion of Canadian artists”. That, in fact, is the defence many fans of CBC Music are already making to the CRTC: they like the idea of the site promoting Canadian artists, and feel that this is an important function of the CBC. The problem, as the CBC’s Boyce rejoins, is that “ghettoizing” Canadian music on an all-Canadian website almost certainly wouldn’t be the best way to promote it. “People don’t get out of bed wanting to listen to Canadian music; they want to listen to good music,” Boyce says. “Creating a service that’s counter to how people consume music would mean giving up an opportunity to expose Canadian artists.” The CBC has a May 17 deadline to file its final response to the Stingray complaint with the CRTC; the commission will also cease receiving public comments on that day, and will turn to Stingray and the other plaintiffs for their counter-counter-submission.




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Corp creep at the CBC

  1. Too bad, so sad. If the CBC is provides a QUALITY product when others won’t (for the sake of maximizing profit) that’s great! Twenty years of zero increases folowed by a ten percent cut in the budget, and you still can’t keep up with our underfunded national broadcaster, cry me a river …….
    Cut the cheap shots; instead of crying, try applying!

  2. A sad, yet classic example of the dinosaur private radio broadcast industry attempting to squash innovation.

    I live in Victoria, BC: a wasteland of terrestrial radio stations. Classic Rock, Modern Rock, and “today’s pop crap” stations, the only time I tune in briefly is while driving.
    I’m a 41 year old white male who loves hip hop, reggae/dub, R&B and funk, and of course alt-rock, and some classic rock. The current local radio stations do not meet my needs. Where am I going for my variety of genres? Online of course.
    I thought private sector was suppose to drive innovation, not the public sector (?). CBC is meeting emerging trends and demand for sophisticated music listeners. Private broadcasters participating in this CRTC complaint should bloody-well ashamed of themselves.

    • i disagree. I listen to Galaxie all the time, but look what CBC ostensibly did — created a model which it sold off successfully to Stingray, then launched a competing service that they know Stingray can not match… nasty.

      I think Cbc should, if it wants to do this model, stick to Cbc-owned recordings — theybhave a ton — mixed with pure 100% Canadian content.

  3. Considering that the CBC is the only decent source of quality Canadian programming, we should be encouraging the CBC to increase its online presence. After all, a large portion of Canadians spend more time online than listening to their radios.

  4. You should have disclosed in this article that Rogers, publisher of Maclean’s and owner of 55 radio
    stations, is directly threatened by CBC’s website in numerous ways.

    • It’s the providers of other online streaming services that are raising a ruckus, so I don’t know of any “direct” threat. (Rogers isn’t involved in the complaint–yet.) Any media company is “threatened” in a broad sense by a successful entertainment enterprise, but I admit I didn’t pause to think “Maybe I should point out to people that the media they’re consuming is produced by a media company.” Is there something more specific I missed?

    • Can we just blame it on Ted Rogers anyway?

  5. Umm , , . in an article published May 21 the author days the CBC “has until May 17″ to respond. Would that be May 17, 2013? Given the other factual errors/miscues in the article, I won’t be putting a lot of credence in the author’s opinion.

    • Sorry for my ignorance – what are the other factual errors/miscues?

    • Published ON THE WEB May 21. (And how would that be an error of anything but verb tense anyway?)

      • Really, it could have been a small typo. If you change “has” to “had”, problem solved.

  6. Fabulous! Incredible! Good for them! Let the others compete instead of crying foul – what’s foul about the nationally-owned broadcaster offering quality product to its listeners? Notice the lack of negative responses – I guess they’ll have to hire someone to write them.

    • Is that you, Emily?

  7. I don’t have a problem with the digital streams in principal, but I sure wish the CBC would use its meager sum of remaining cash to keep good radio shows like Dispatches and radio drama on the air instead.

    • CBC Radio Drama? Noooo, Thank you

  8. Now if the CBC could hear my desperate wails from Australia and allow me, A Canadian, to access their websites filled with Canadian content.
    I have I.D., I am Canadian, why does my IP address disallow me access?

    • It’s not the CBC, it’s international copyright. The ceeb can’t afford to pay the fees to allow them to broadcast all of that music outside of Canada. Radio 2 and 3 are available internationally.

  9. What kind of comment is that?
    “People don’t get out of bed wanting to listen to Canadian music; they want to listen to good music,” Boyce says
    therefore… Canadian music is crap?

    • No, that’s the wrong inference.
      Rather given the choice, people will favour a service that provides “good music” over “Canadian music”, which might or might not be good.
      Put another way, all “good” music is “good”, but not all “Canadian music” is good. Of course the CBC might choose to limit their service to exclusively “good, Canadian music”. Unfortunately “good music” is not easily defined.

  10. So one website run by our public broadcaster is unfair competition for Stingray? Have they checked Tunein or Shoutcast? It sounds like Stingray is just taking advantage of the CRTC’s complaint process to get some publicity of their own. Where is it written that only the private sector can be innovative and leading edge? I applaud the CBC for providing a quality product that pushes the boundaries and promotes the Canadian music industry. If Stingray can do better, prove it !!

  11. Given that:

    so many people appear to really like this new CBC online service; and

    the CBC is facing funding cuts for the next few years; and

    the non-Canadian content, as the article points out, is outside the CBC’s mandate of providing (free) exposure for Canadian artists.

    Why doesn’t the CBC charge for the service, a competitive rate, similar to other providers of streaming content? This could help the CBC’s finances, so as to keep the radio and television broadcasts free and advertising-free, at least to the extent that they have been.

    I admit that I have checked the site out, but I prefer the regular CBC radio channels and my own, quite extensive and still growing, CD collection. I find that this new CBC site has a lot of artists that are unknown/uninteresting to me and/or are ones that I would not consider to be the crème de la crème of their respective genres.

  12. I get out of bed wanting to listen to good Canadian music.
    It is not unusual for most people to want extra exposure to their own country’s media and arts. Except here. Canadian music is at an all-time high. Only a Canadian, blindly following the stale myth that we are second rate, in particular to the US, would suggest it’s ghetto.

    • Ugh. You understand the difference between the term “ghettoizing” and calling something “ghetto”, right? So do you only want to hear Canadian music? If yes, then that seems pretty xenophobic. If no, then you’ve proved Mr. Boyce’s point.

      • Play on words, my pabulum pal. And yup, I favour Canadian music.
        Thanks for calling me pretty.

  13. I myself prefer a non profit driven organization in the middle of the current bought and paid for media conglomerates that control way too much of our media.

    There are plenty of places to get royalty free music, especially of unknown artists, on the web. Example: Have you ever been to Band Camp? http://www.bandcamp.com

    Other industries face the same situation, hell, Universities have
    started giving quality courses away for free. Example: Stanford’s
    Coursera http://www.coursera.org

    “The medium is not the message” The medium has always evolved as the message has evolved. Example 8mm movies to DVD Recorded Discs. The medium has always evolved.

    Old School Traditional Business needs to evolve and get with the times or their model will die and the service will be reborn in others already native to the web.

    As for free books google “Gutenberg” and be amazed. Maybe read a more current favourite “Creative Commons” licensed “Free” ebook such as “Little Brother” by Cory Doctorow and get enlightened as to what the future may hold for our children if the governments continue down their present paths. http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/30142

    New technologies are much cheaper, faster, more innovative, more collaborative, socially effective & widely available through the web.

    The “Free & Open Source Communities” are dominating the medium. Communities of people that work tirelessly on what they love because they love it and humanity progresses. If they could each and every one of them do it for free just for the love of what they do.

    Many businesses today have had or used products, services or systems born from a root in open source and they have kept on quietly profiting from the free labour, till now. Viva la revolution!

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