Lydia Miljan: Why should Ottawa replace CBC advertising money?

Why does CBC get the lion’s share of government largesse while attracting the fewest viewers?

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What should we do about Radio-Canada? This question has plagued policy makers for decades. The media landscape has changed dramatically over the past few decades, and digital broadcasting and on-demand news and entertainment are making CBC’s cause increasingly difficult.

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Conservatives have been CBC News’s harshest critics, arguing it is biased against them. In recent years, they have cited Rosemary Barton and her seemingly friendly relationship with Prime Minister Trudeau as evidence. It does not help Radio-Canada when, during the election campaign, the Liberals said “Canada would not be the same without Radio-Canada. That’s why Justin Trudeau and the Liberals invested $675 million in funding to revitalize Radio-Canada. It’s hard to appear impartial – or even be impartial – when one side has been so solidly behind you.

Additionally, the 2021 Liberal platform promised to update CBC’s mandate to distinguish it from private broadcasters and increase national and local news production. To keep those promises (which reappeared verbatim in the mandate letter from the Minister of Canadian Heritage in December), the Liberals have earmarked an additional $400 million over four years to make the CBC less dependent on private advertising. This is beyond the broadcaster’s annual government funding, which has exceeded $1.4 billion Last year.

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In short, the Trudeau government wants to make news on the main television network of Radio-Canada without advertising. Radio-Canada would retain its ability to charge subscription fees, which it does for some online content, and also earn advertising dollars on its digital platforms—much to the chagrin of newspapers across the country). In other words, the $400 million would fund The National, select public affairs programming (excluding CBC Newsworld), and local television programming only.

From a value for money perspective, this seems like a losing proposition. CBC News has been a ratings loser for decades. Increasing the public subsidy for these programs is unlikely to improve their audience share. Across Canada, CTV’s local evening news averages 1.7 million the viewers , CTV National News at 11 p.m. averages one million, and Global’s weekend news averages nearly one million. The National averages less than 500,000 viewers per night and sometimes strays below that . Therefore, it is hard to remember the last time The National ranked among the top 30 TV shows. By contrast, CTV National News consistently ranks in the top 10. Before the pandemic, in the lucrative 25-54 demographic, it increased its lead over Global to 75% and The National to 115%.

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By any objective measure, CBC News loses to its peers — badly. When the Liberals claim that “Canada would not be the same without Radio-Canada”, what Canada are they talking about exactly?

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As one prominent television critic put it, “CBC TV News is a mess. The National is now a low-rated newscast because it’s both confusing and jealous, and CBC News Network is unassailable. Asking Canadians to invest even more money in shows they choose not to watch is more Liberal vanity than a coherent policy choice.

Even Radio-Canada seems to understand its lack of relevance. An order from CBC report which examined the issue of advertising concluded in 2011: “Eliminating advertising on CBC/Radio-Canada services would be bad public policy. The report assumed that all advertising would be cut without additional government funding to make up for the loss, which is not the Liberals’ intention, but it remains fascinating reading as it makes a strong case for the CBC to retain, not eliminate , its advertising. income.

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For example, according to the report, advertisers who want to target CBC/Radio-Canada audiences would lose out if the ads were banned. And local advertisers would have fewer options to reach potential customers. Moreover, if Radio-Canada did not compete for advertising space, television advertising rates would increase, especially in small markets. This would benefit the Canadian private sector, but also US broadcasters reaching border communities.

More importantly, the report found “no good public policy reason to eliminate or seriously reduce advertising on CBC/Radio-Canada television services. This does not affect its public broadcasting mandate.

All Canadian television is subsidized to some degree. But why does CBC get the lion’s share of government largesse while attracting the fewest viewers?

Lydia Miljan is a professor of political science at the University of Windsor and a senior fellow at the Fraser Institute.

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