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CBC needs to fight the threat of privatization

By Lise Lareau
National President
Canadian Media Guild

It is time to get Canadians excited again about public broadcasting, instead of simply focusing on one problematic programming decision. There is no question that CBC TV is taking a direction that should be troubling to Canadians ? and is worthy of a national debate.

Our public broadcasting network is now completely obsessed with ratings and revenue targets, to the point that it is measuring the performance of journalists who create news and current affairs shows according to audience numbers. CBC TV has stooped to using employees and audiences to make money. And that means that it is not treating viewers respectfully as citizens with a desire to know and be engaged in the important isssues of our day. It is abandoning innovative and, yes, distinctive programming that doesn’t garner one million eyeballs right away.

This is Wonderland and Da Vinci’s City Hall are gone, victims of the quest for ratings-above-all-else. ZeD TV and Morgan Waters, two critically-acclaimed shows for younger audiences, were also axed this year.

For now, CBC TV runs on a slightly different business model from the private TV networks in Canada. A big part of CBC’s government subsidy comes directly from a parliamentary appropriation. And there lies the kernel of public television. Private networks, on the other hand, make do quite nicely with subsidies composed of grants from the Canadian Television Fund and tax credits, as well as from regulations that allow them to simulcast US fare and reap the commercial rewards.

But it doesn’t take much imagination in this political climate to figure out that the more CBC goes down the commercial route, the more likely ? and quickly ? it will be privatized altogether. As the National Citizens Coalition ? former home of Prime Minister Stephen Harper ? asked this week, if CBC TV acts like a private network, why should it receive any parliamentary appropriation? CBC brass has not responded to that question yet. For Canadians’ sake, and particularly for the sake of cultural workers in this country, I hope they have a very good answer.

If CBC TV goes the way of a fully commercial network, that will be the end of English Canadian programming on the public airwaves in prime time. The private networks have made it plain as day. It is not profitable to run Canadian shows, even subsidized ones, when you can simply, and more cheaply, buy the license to run a pre-made American show that will draw more viewers and garner four times the amount of advertizing dollars.

So, instead of just one American reality show pre-empting the National, the CBC schedule could easily soon be filled with crime procedurals (CSI and its clones) and reality shows.

We must never forget that it is actually possible to have a real public broadcaster in Canada. A Senate committee has endorsed the idea. Most Canadians say they want it. Many other countries have one.

But defeatism will not help us.

The NDP, the Liberals and the Bloc Qu?b?cois all voted last month in favour of a motion to “maintain or enhance” parliamentary funding for public broadcasting. The Conservatives voted against the motion and have said nothing of substance on their plans for the CBC. Canadians deserve to know what our government has in mind.

In the meantime, the people in this country who support the idea of public broadcasting, and can imagine the possibilities beyond the current reality, should make their views known whenever and wherever they get a chance.

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