FRIENDS calls for ad-free CBC/Radio-Canada, more transparency

Daniel Bernhard, Executive Director of FRIENDS of Canadian Broadcasting, appearing at CBC/Radio-Canada's virtual licence renewal hearing Monday.

Current CBC/Radio-Canada management decisions continue to undermine the public service orientation of the public broadcaster, FRIENDS of Canadian Broadcasting told the CRTC’s licence renewal hearing Monday.

The donor-funded CBC watchdog is calling for more transparency, particularly around digital activities, in addition to a gradual phase-out of all advertising in all languages by the end of 2021. FRIENDS has also revised its intervention to recommend a three-year licence renewal term, citing the public broadcaster’s refusal to disclose COVID-19 financial impact data, among other information.

“Oversight is essential because this CBC management group has repeatedly demonstrated that it does not fully respect the public service part of public service media,” said FRIENDS Executive Director Daniel Bernhard, going on to accuse President & CEO Catherine Tait of pawning “the CBC’s core asset – public trust.”

Bernhard questioned the CBC’s continued efforts to embrace advertising given declining net revenue.

“Programming and scheduling decisions should not be governed by concern for an ad business that alienates audiences and makes progressively less money each year,” said Bernhard, who cited the precedent of the CRTC’s move to make a struggling CBC Radio ad free in 1974, ushering in “an era of renewal and innovation.”

With CBC seeking lighter regulatory obligations in exchange for “expectations,” FRIENDS has serious concerns around what Bernhard termed the “$300 million a year digital black hole.”

“Right now, the situation is that digital is a black box. We know, for example, that station-produced programming…has dropped from $92 million in 2012 in English to $37 million in English in 2020. We know that television news in the last decade has dropped by almost $87 thousand a year across both services. If that is made up in digital, maybe it is, but typically we don’t regulate on a trust basis,” said Bernhard. “We are trying to find a way to limit the amount of money that can disappear into this black box…it’s important to limit the amount of money that escapes scrutiny.”

FRIENDS is recommending that no more than 25% of local news expenditures be permitted to be spent on digital.

“We support the CBC’s desire to do more in digital. By imposing cross-platform expenditure obligations the CRTC can create a flexible, but no less rigorous regulatory framework that supports CBC’s modernization while binding it to uphold its public purpose.”

Speaking further to CRTC Chair Ian Scott’s questions about trust, Bernhard said exceeding or meeting requirements doesn’t justify removing or eliminating those requirements.

“Just because we follow the rules doesn’t mean the rules have no place…the desire to reduce those is suspicious and makes us wonder what they have in store,” said Bernhard.

Accountability

When challenged by Scott as to how the public broadcaster could be held accountable should the commission adopt an approach that doesn’t include expenditure or PNI obligations, Bernhard suggested more disclosure around expenditures for both linear and digital platforms.

“At the very least, if the corporation would disclose to us…here are our production expenses for various different types of content, here’s content that we produce on TV that we spend money on digital to distribute, etc., we’d have a much better understanding of what’s appropriate, but right now when it comes to digital a lot of this is hypothetical because their disclosure has been rudimentary,” responded Bernhard. “At the very, very, very least we should just see what’s going on and if there are other ways of regulating that better reflect the way that the corporation operates and intends to operate throughout the licence term, we could see that and make adjustments.”

“If the corporation wants to innovate and wants regulation that reflects its innovative operations, we need to see what their operations look like and right now we can’t…if they want to change how they’re regulated, we welcome regulation that accurately reflects how they operate…but ‘just trust us, it’s in the $300 million, $400 million, $500 million box,’ I don’t think that cuts it.”


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