OTTAWA – The CBC has been given permission by the federal broadcast regulator to introduce advertising on some of its radio networks, breaking a four-decade tradition of commercial-free service.
The change, contained in a licence renewal decision, will only apply to the public broadcaster’s secondary radio networks, the all-music Radio 2 and its French-language equivalent, Espace Musique. Advertising will also be limited to four minutes every hour.
As well, the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission said the CBC will need to seek permission to continue airing commercials on those two specific networks after three years.
But despite the parameters, the decision drew immediate criticism from one of the CBC’s biggest boosters.
Friends of Canadian Broadcasting called the decision a “serious blow” to public broadcasting and warned that it will pave the way for advertising on the main radio network, Radio One and Radio-Canada.
“What it really means is the CRTC and the CBC have conspired to end almost 40 years of almost proudly non-commercial public radio in Canada,” said group spokesman Ian Morrison.
Morrison pointed out that 893 of the 965 interventions in the licence renewal process opposed allowing the public broadcaster to introduce national advertising, even in a limited manner. Opponents of the move included commercial radio stations, which will now have one more competitor for advertising dollars.
In its release, the CRTC said it had not complied with CBC’s request for unlimited advertising on the networks and had tried to keep the ad intrusions to a minimum — a maximum of two blocks each hour adding up to a total of four minutes.
CRTC chairman Jean-Pierre Blais dismissed criticism that the ads breakthrough on the secondary networks constitute a “slippery slope” to commercializing the main radio service, noting that the CBC will need to seek permission to continue with the ads after three years.
“I think it is a measured and prudent approach,” he said, adding that the CBC had made the argument it might not be able to continue the “richness” of its services — such as airing live concerts — without the extra revenue.
“In an ironic way … some of the loyal listeners would have lost some of the quality of programming that brings them to that service,” Blais said. “They may have a little more advertising, but in exchange they’ll be able to continue to enjoy a quality service.”
The decision also drew criticism from the Canadian Association of Broadcasters, wihch said it was disappointed the commission did not completely reject the CBC’s request to air advertising on Radio 2 and Espace Music.
“While we appreciate the three-year window has been established to review and analyze the impact that advertising on Radio 2 and Espace Musique will have on specific English and French markets, we remain concerned that this decision will fundamentally alter the balance of public and private broadcasting enjoyed by listeners,” Paul Ski, CEO of the association’s Radio Council, said in a statement.
“This decision will be difficult to reverse now that funding from advertising is available to these services.”
Blais said the three year window was not an experiment, but the decision notes that the CBC will need to show the “advertising has not had an undue adverse effect on advertising markets, that listeners have not been unduly inconvenienced by the advertising, (and) that the level of investment in radio broadcasting has been maintained” in order to get an extension.
And after three years, “maybe the CBC will say, ‘You know what, we’re not interested in continuing with this,'” he said.
Overall, the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. was granted the five-year licence for its English- and French-language television and radio services that it requested, but with conditions.
The public broadcaster is required to maintain a national bilingual service with a strong regional presence and offer a wide array of programing, including airing Canadian drama, comedy and documentaries, as well as award shows celebrating Canadian talent.
In a new condition, CBC television will be required to air 15 hours of children’s programming each week in each official language.
“Their fundamental mission has not changed,” said Blais. “What our decision does is ensure we require a certain amount of local and regional programming.”
Blais said the CRTC is also requiring more accountability in reporting with the broadcaster’s ombudsman’s office, an implication the regulator is not satisfied with the independence of its public complaints system.
The decision asks that the CBC codify “the presence of and the process for nominating” ombudsmen responsible for examining public complaints of news, current affairs and public affairs content.