CBC/Radio-Canada ‘balancing act’ to serve all Canadians at core of licence renewal hearing: Tait

CBC/Radio-Canada President and CEO Catherine Tait delivers her opening remarks at the public broadcaster's licence renewal hearing on Jan. 11.

CBC/Radio-Canada’s 13-day virtual licence renewal hearing got underway Monday morning with the public broadcaster reaffirming that it’s “building a bridge to the future” and not abandoning traditional radio and television.

Four days of questions from the commission on programming strategy and commitments opened with a query from CRTC Chair Ian Scott on the regulatory balancing act between prescribed conditions of licence and the CBC’s desire for flexibility as it increasingly chases a digital audience.

“We think we’ve come up with a path forward that allows the commission to be very much aware of the direction we’re heading in, but at the same time gives us some flexibility…to go where the audiences are going,” said Tait.

CRTC Chair Ian Scott

“I think this is going to be a theme that we’re going to discuss many times in many different ways,” replied Scott, following up with a question asking if prescriptive measures were removed, how the CBC would ensure it continues to meet its programming mandate.

Among the accountability changes CBC/Radio-Canada is proposing to its existing regulatory commitments are:

  • Enhanced commitments for programming of national interest (PNI), children’s and youth programming, and local programming spanning traditional and digital audio-visual platforms;
  • Renewed and expanded commitments for independent production in audio-visual content;
  • New consultation and reporting commitments on content created by and for Indigenous people;
  • New reporting commitments for reflecting diversity on-air, in content production, and across our workforce; and
  • New reporting commitments for gender parity in audio-visual content production.

Tait also touched on the timing of the licence renewal, saying industry challenges heightened by the pandemic should inform the regulatory approach.

“We have the issue of managing accelerated change in the industry…the structural decline of linear; the challenges that COVID has put on the economics in the business; the profound loss of local news outlets, which was already very much underway prior to COVID but has been accelerated; and the unbelievable tsunami of choice that Canadians – and particularly in the English market…that Canadians have from foreign outlets, so in an overall system where there is weakening of the domestic media system, how does the regulator provoke the outcomes that it wishes? And specifically with the public broadcaster, flexibility is going to be really, really important in that changing marketplace,” Tait told the commission.

In her opening remarks, Tait referenced the increasing gap between traditional radio and TV and digital platforms, taking the opportunity to quote New York Times CEO Mark Thompson.

“Thompson said ‘You can’t invent the future if you’re spending 80% of your time on legacy operations’ and I would add to this observation…it is impossible to remain relevant to a dramatically changing population of Canadians without adopting change and innovation as critical to the DNA of the public broadcaster,” said Tait. “Since our last licence renewal hearing in 2012, Canada has welcomed over 2.5 million new Canadians and by 2036 we know that racialized communities will represent between 31 and 36% of the population. But there are other important demographic shifts – an aging population, a growing, younger Indigenous population…Canada is changing and we the public broadcaster must change with it.”

Tait said at the core of the hearings is the issue of how CBC/Radio-Canada can effectively juggle serving the interests and needs of all Canadians in a time of “galloping technological change, accelerated audience and platform fragmentation and increasingly challenged business models for our media industry.”

“If the public broadcaster is to remain relevant, we believe we must be bold and embrace change. We must imagine what a digital future will look like and make sure we are there,” said Tait, noting that public broadcasters around the world are grappling with the same issues.

“We all agree that if we do not move with our audiences, we risk becoming dinosaurs on a melting ice cap,” said Tait.


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