Bell Media's brusque announcement that it is killing Canada AM represents more than the loss of a morning news and current affairs program with a 40-year legacy. It is further evidence that private television, now in the hands of a clutch of corporate behemoths, is no longer in the business of serving the public interest.
It may come as a surprise to some readers that in law and regulation, the federal government continues to regard the entire Canadian broadcasting system as a public service-oriented enterprise. Under the current Broadcasting Act, responsibility for providing citizens with quality news, information, and entertainment is shared between private industry and our public broadcaster, CBC/Radio-Canada, both of which are heavily subsidized.
This "single-system" vision has been with us since the earliest days of radio in the 1920s, through the arrival of television in the 1950s, and into the current era of digital media delivered on a kaleidoscope of platforms.
Back in the days when radio and television stations and networks, including CTV, were owned or controlled by larger-than-life broadcast buccaneers like John Bassett, it was possible to argue that there was a genuine commitment to public service ideals in the form of quality Canadian content (including Canada AM), even though this almost always meant reduced profit margins. These individual owners were able to take the financial hit and balance it off against ego and reputation.
But the current crop of owners, as publicly traded corporations, are legally bound to place shareholder equity above all other considerations in running these media businesses. In a nutshell, they have no interest in the public interest. Which means that any notion of the broadcasting industry as a unitary public service enterprise is the purest fiction.
Canada AM had been, since its inception, a vital part of the CTV News operations, and has provided a training ground for countless writers, editors, producers and on-camera talent. But none of that matters to Bell Media, except possibly for PR reasons, which can be managed. What matters to Bell is maximizing shareholder return on investment.
It's time for Ottawa to abandon the fiction of the "single system" in Canadian broadcast media, and to recognize that there are two parallel enterprises. These is the private system, represented by Bell, Rogers, Gogeco, Shaw and Quebecor, and the public system represented by CBC/Radio-Canada. The private system serves private financial interests; the public system serves the public, civic interest.
The sooner the new minister of heritage, Mélanie Joly, and her department acknowledge that fact, the sooner they can begin to make the serious commitments necessary to return the public broadcaster to health and long-term viability. Without a vigorous CBC/Radio-Canada, the public interest in universally accessible, high-quality Canadian news, information and entertainment will be poorly served.
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