Why the CBC has outlived its usefulness

Colby Cosh on the futility of the Mother Corp.

Outgrowing the mother corp.

Nathan Denette/CP

The CBC, like many creatures of government, has now lived long enough to outrun several generations of justifications for its existence. It was essentially created in the first place, in 1932, for aesthetic reasons. Radio broadcasting in 1920s Canada was a free-for-all of telephone companies, sharp-dealing businessmen and religious sermonizers. What we would now call “advertorial” programming from American patent-medicine vendors spilled over the border, thanks to the super-powered transmitters they were able to afford by selling goat-gland surgeries. NBC loomed over all and was starting to invade the Canadian market. I would call it “indescribable” but it was actually kind of a grainy preview of today’s media universe.

The CBC was created, as both monopolistic broadcaster and regulator, because what preceded it was all so untidy, unhealthy, unpredictable . . . unpalatable. And politically threatening to the establishment, as the radio-driven rise of Social Credit in Alberta would soon prove.

No one thinks we would be better off now with total state control of broadcasting; Canadians manage to survive exposure to religious cranks, phony health advice, and even NBC. So when the CBC’s regulatory function was taken away in the ’50s, the broadcasting part of the corporation became an oasis of noncommercial values. You were no longer to be forced to watch or listen, but CBC was still there to amuse kids without sneaking in some hidden sales pitch for cereal. It was there for remote communities in need of news and economic information; there to cultivate the artistic pastimes of the elite in a pan-Canadian accent.

In 2013, it hardly needs saying that the CBC has abandoned or grown incompetent at some of these functions, and that there is not much point to the others in a world of infinite bandwidth. (Let’s be honest: It’s not even all that left-wing anymore!) The frozen North is on a near-enough-equal footing with downtown Toronto when it comes to digital access, and children are no longer plunked down thoughtlessly in front of a cathode-ray tube for hours at a stretch. In this environment, the CBC is not proving to be much good at specifying exactly why it is needed.

That helps to explain the brief furor last week over the corporation’s decision to drop a handful of ads purchased on the English-language TV network for Postmedia’s newly paywalled digital properties. A CBC employee raised a stink about “advertising for assets that we compete with”—“we” in this case referring to the CBC’s website. The brass agreed that the CBC is now officially a “competitor” with newspapers, at least insofar as they have websites.

The gesture looks for all the world like a gratuitous, specific cheap shot at Postmedia, whose various owners in recent times have all shared a passionate devotion to trashing the corp. As Postmedia and other newspaper empires pull paywalls down over their digital incarnations, CBC minions on Twitter have been caught crowing about their “no paywall” status, purchased by the taxpayer at the sensational bargain price of $1.2 billion a year.

It may be hard for readers to feel bad for the cartelizing Paywall Gang, but it is surely a tactical error for the CBC to call attention to its incredibly expensive “free” nature. The Broadcasting Act says the Corporation shall operate “radio and television” services; it doesn’t say anything about a website, much less a website that functions as a telegraphic gazette. Of course, times change and new media paradigms develop and blah blah blah, but the distinction here is crucial: The original pretext for the creation of the CBC was the limited, theoretically public nature of broadcast spectrum. To the degree that the CBC is now just one digital content provider among many, with a hypothesized mandate that puts it in a position to compete with newspapers, it can rightly be privatized, or destroyed, or handed over to its own employees, in order to unburden the public treasury.

Polls always demonstrate high levels of purported political support for the CBC. The public subsidy to the CBC is a forced transfer of wealth from people who don’t like it to people who do, and the “dos,” unsurprisingly, like the set-up just fine. In the U.S., donor-funded, non-profit “public” radio is equally adored by fans; the only difference is that they’re asked to chip in for their preferred electronic smarm or go without. No social or economic arguments against privatization of the CBC are possible. It’s nothing but a zombie, slowly sucking up a dwindling fund of goodwill and nostalgia. Mr. Dressup is dead, folks.

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