Options for the CBC: Alternative Roles for the National Broadcaster

Publication, Disruption, Roland Renner

Executive Summary

The CBC has been in the news recently because of the CRTC’s licence renewal hearings. Earlier in 2012, there were executive level exchanges between the CBC and the head of Quebecor, one of Quebec’s most powerful private sector business and media groups, that highlighted the growing differences between the national public broadcaster and the private sector media. Is there a continuing role for a national public broadcaster in Canada? With technological change, new media, Internet TV and market fragmentation, what form should that role take? This Backgrounder looks first at the original rationale for a national public broadcaster in Canada and follows this with a brief look at how the overall broadcasting system works and where the CBC fits into that system. Then it looks at the impact of technological change on the existing system and on the CBC in particular. The backgrounder presents five options for a future role for the CBC and concludes with my preference and a plea for more informed debate.


In November 2012, the CRTC held a CBC licence renewal hearing that inspired a good deal of commentary on the performance of the CBC and its role as Canada’s national public broadcaster. Earlier this year, the CEO of the CBC, Hubert Lacroix, chided Quebecor’s Pierre Karl Péladeau and other critics for not providing constructive options for the role of a public broadcaster, part of a long-running public quarrel between the two media empires. Others have argued that technological change has ended the need for a national public broadcaster. For these reasons, it is timely to consider what options exist and what they might look like. There are big differences between the English- and the French-speaking markets in Canada. The biggest difference is that Radio-Canada (CBC French) and the private sector French-language TV, including drama and variety programming, have always had a larger market share than their English counterparts, because a large proportion of the Frenchspeaking market cannot or prefers not to watch U.S. programming in English. Therefore, I will look at the role of an English TV public broadcaster, leaving French-speaking markets and radio in either language for another day. First, this paper looks at how and why Canada got a public broadcaster and, briefly, at how the Canadian broadcasting system works. Then it looks at the impact of new technology and the current criticisms of the CBC. Finally, it suggests five possible models for a public broadcaster.

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