Thursday, August 26, 2010

CBC At The Crossroads: Part Three


In this final installment, Barry Kiefl of Canadian Media Inc. uses Audience Attitudes and Past History to determine where the CBC goes from here.

"To Infinity And Beyond!"

This brings me to how CBC TV can evolve and perhaps find an important role before the public chooses to turn it off completely.

A warning here: there is nothing new that can be said about CBC TV, no magic formula that I or anyone else can devise to reposition CBC TV.

Every possible strategy has been expressed by someone, sometime. I have done so once or twice in the past. The best that one can do is to go back to the basic principles of public broadcasting and use those principles to see if there is a role for CBC TV.

First, CBC TV should phase out advertising from all but sports programming and some foreign programming.

Some of the time freed up on the main channel by dropping commercials could be filled with a short local newscast at the top of each hour, as done so successfully by CBC radio.

Ads should all but be eliminated on Newsworld, which makes on average only about $100 for every ad it runs, less than most community newspapers make from an advertisement. The other CBC specialty channels should abandon efforts to sell advertising altogether as they don’t make enough to pay a clerk’s annual salary.

To make up for diminished ad revenue, CBC should significantly streamline its organization, beginning with the sales department. Reduce the number of managers throughout the Corporation, keeping the good ones to develop a work scheduling system that does away with duplication in CBC news coverage.


Several levels of bureaucracy should be done away with, starting at the network centres and head office. What remains of head office should be moved to either Toronto or Montreal; significant savings in travel costs would result. There are many areas of CBC that serve little or no purpose but exist only because they have always existed.

Second, the CBC President and Board should ensure creative people, producers, journalists, writers, researchers, are provided an environment that will stimulate innovation. The future of CBC TV lies in their hands, not in those of senior managers playing (games) with one another.

The CBC started losing its way 20 years ago because senior management cut off the flow of ideas within the Corporation. All good ideas within creative organizations come from below, not from outside consultants or senior managers.

In 1990 the President should have seriously researched the repositioning concept, relied on advice from within the organization, and avoided a debacle.

Industry leaders like Google or Microsoft prosper and continue to innovate because senior management encourages ideas from below; all companies cease to innovate when the flow of communication is stifled by bureaucrats protecting their turf.

Management must trust and be trusted by its employees and be unguarded about how it manages the Corporation. To do this, CBC TV should be far more transparent about its costs and revenues, and report detailed financial information in its annual report to Parliament and the CRTC.

The CBC’s official Corporate Plan, a barrage of corporate slogans, says it “would like to be more transparent by increasing the volume of relevant financial information and frequency by which we report results publicly” but makes no effort to do so.

CBC's annual plans and reports should follow the model of the BBC: set meaningful and measurable objectives and report on how well it meets the objectives.

What are CBC TV’s objectives for 2010? You won’t find them anywhere on CBC’s web site or in government filings.

The Corporate Plan contains some numerical audience share targets, which carefully avoid mentioning daytime programming, but this sort of numbers game can be achieved by adding U.S. game shows to the schedule (oh, oh, that’s what happened!). The plan contains some really bizarre objectives like this one: “Develop Newsworld into a ‘hot’ news service with live programming.”

In funding terms, however, CBC should stop comparing itself to the BBC or other public broadcasters. The BBC and many other foreign public broadcasters account for a large share of all TV viewing and radio listening in their countries, which is why they can justify public funding many times greater than the CBC's on a per capita basis.

As a rule, public broadcasting in Europe and the rest of the world cannot be easily compared with the Canadian situation, because the U.K, Italian, Australian and other television systems are not nearly as fragmented as ours.


Third, CBC TV needs to rethink prime-time.

Is the role of CBC to bring us U.S. game shows and cheap reality programs every night? In the environment CBC TV finds itself, it must be distinctive, not just say it wants to be distinctive; it must be a refuge from the cacophony of commercial broadcasting.

Is there a single entertainment program on CBC TV today that one couldn’t imagine on another network? Is there a program about which people say—that’s on CBC! There must be to keep the public interested.

Prime time is primarily for drama and the CBC, as it likes to point out, is the only network with the space for Canadian drama. So, innovative new Canadian drama is necessary. CBC TV still thinks of itself as a 1960’s mainstream U.S. network, ten years after Ken Auletta wrote Three Blind Mice, depicting the end of that model. If it is to survive, CBC TV must create a new model, one that isn’t found on other networks.

CBC relies on sports (read, NHL) and news in prime time, which it apparently must do, but it has never allowed Canadian drama a proper place in the schedule.

Our public opinion survey data show CBC TV does not perform well in the key program areas of prime-time, which includes drama and movies. In the past few TV seasons in prime time (8-11 p.m.), CBC TV aired an average of only one to two hours per week of Canadian drama series and even less Canadian drama specials or movies. Quantity must come before quality.

CBC schedules roughly three times as much foreign drama. Typically, this season CBC will air two hours of scripted drama in prime time, including Little Mosque on the Prairie, which had a brief moment in the sun and all but disappeared from the public’s radar a couple of years ago.


Some weeks there is no Canadian drama in the schedule at all. CBC TV's prime-time schedule should devote as much time each week to Canadian drama as it does to news and public affairs or sports programming, which in each case is about eight hours.

CBC French TV does it and with less money than CBC English TV. There are reasons for this but chief among them is that French TV has experimented over the years and found drama forms that capture audiences without costing as much as Hollywood productions.

To fund this innovative new drama the Corporation should reduce overhead by an average of 20 per cent, creating a $100 million annual fund to produce English domestic fiction. Only fully scripted drama would be produced with this special fund.

The CBC would undertake productions in-house and/or with independent producers, focusing on innovative, new program concepts. To make room for Canadian drama, CBC TV's main channel would have less foreign drama and game shows and less news and public affairs in prime time.

The daytime schedule of CBC TV is so bereft of meaningful programming, including most of the children’s programming, it could be cancelled entirely and not missed by Canadians.


Martha Stewart was supposed to reinvigorate the daytime schedule just two years ago but this icon of the old TV model was quietly pulled off the air this year.

Most of the CBC daytime schedule should be a commercial-free simulcast of Newsworld, supplemented by local news programming. The money saved would be put into prime time.

Public opinion data gathered from a representative sample of some ten thousand Canadians over the past decade reveal that CBC TV is slowly losing the support of Canadians.

Our polling data reveals that CBC TV is still considered important and the best network for national news and international news (also the best at reflecting Canada's regions) by a good margin. But it fails in the most important area: prime time.

During the most important viewing hours of the day, CBC TV is found woefully lacking. Only a small minority of Canadians consider CBC's drama to be of high quality.

CBC management and creative staff, under direction from Parliament, need to take a serious, long-overdue look at both the way the organization is structured and the way it spends its resources and create a working environment that will lead to innovative new programming.

Canadians are telling the CBC they are not satisfied: the CBC must be open to the public’s criticism or the public will eventually turn it off.


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