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The CBC must survive Harperland

By Karen Wirsig

In Harperland, it is easy to get the impression there is widespread doubt about the country’s need for a public broadcaster. It’s not that Harperland has no culture. Harperland’s favourite TV show title is Father knows best. In Harperland’s version of the famous biblical story “David and Goliath,” the bully is smart and disciplined and thus rightly wins the day and wraps a flag around it. Dinosaur bones are an ethical and harmless source of fuel that may or may not be renewable but we don’t want to ask too many questions about that.

Harperland exists on a plane of reality propped up by endlessly repeated talking points and active curbing of public discussion, debate and dissent. In this context, public broadcasting is not just unnecessary. It might also be counterproductive. So it is striking when an iconic public figure openly contradicts the storyline, as Lloyd Robertson did after being inducted into the Canadian News Hall of Fame on May 16.

“Canada needs a public broadcaster and always has,” said English Canada’s longest-serving news anchor, who spent his most high-profile years on the desk of private network CTV’s flagship newscast.  These are not the words of a long-haired anarchist. His is the beloved voice of middle Canada, stating a truism that suddenly sounds radical.

The space for public broadcasting is squeezed more than ever – especially in English Canada. CBC is cornered among emboldened private communications conglomerates, Bell, Rogers and Shaw, which now control most of the lucrative media content as well as the means to distribute it. Coping with much diminished public funding, CBC/Radio-Canada is cutting costs (read: capacity and programming) and looking evermore to secure independent sources of cash: moving radio programming to the web where a commercial revenue stream is possible; putting ads on Radio 2 and Espace Musique; selling off or renting out its buildings to commercial tenants.

As for diminished capacities, CBC/Radio-Canada is closing regional music recording studios and remote recording facilities; scrapping Canada’s only TV production studio east of Montreal – the Halifax home of 22 Minutes; shuttering shortwave transmission of Radio Canada International; shutting down the national network of over-the-air transmitters that serve as the only alternative to for-profit broadcast distribution by cable, satellite and internet TV companies.

The one public priority that seems unshaken by the recent budget cuts is the commitment to local and regional programming. However, that may soon be in for a blow. The Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) recently held a hearing on whether to retain the Local Program Improvement Fund, money that goes to TV stations in communities of less than 1 million viewers to support local TV production. The fund comes from cable and satellite revenues (via companies such as Bell, Rogers and Shaw); CBC/Radio-Canada gets about $40 million per year and uses it to air more local programming in small markets in both official languages than any other broadcaster. Most cable and satellite companies told the CRTC they want to kill the fund. The decision about its future is expected later this year. If the fund goes, CBC/Radio-Canada’s local and regional programming will necessarily shrink without an alternative source of public funding.

If CBC caves in on itself, Harperland will sit back and enjoy the spectacle.

But all is not lost. Canadians who refuse the price of admission to Harperland, or have exited through the turnstile, are taking part in lively discussions about the future of their public broadcaster. Reimagine CBC, Friends of Canadian Broadcasting and even the Toronto Star are running online and in-person events to explore ideas and suggestions for CBC. Tous amiEs de Radio-Canada and J’aime Radio-Canada are running online campaigns in support of Radio-Canada.

Canadians who support public broadcasting need to speak up now, through the campaigns mentioned above and in conversations with their local MP, before it’s too late. We need CBC. Don’t take it from me, take it from Lloyd Robertson.

Karen Wirsig is the communications co-ordinator for the Canadian Media Guild. Follow her on twitter: @karenatcmg or reach her at karen@cmg.ca .

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