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CRTC Orders CBC Radio 2 To Drop Ads: Could TV Be Next?

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Mark Blinch / Reuters

Here is the good news: the CRTC has ordered CBC/Radio-Canada to end paid advertising on Radio 2 and ICI Musique. The ban begins immediately.

The bad news is that CBC management still seems to think it was doing the right thing when it opened the two radio networks to commercial sponsorship three years ago, with the CRTC's wary approval.

A corporate spokesperson said Wednesday the withdrawal of permission shows "a lack of understanding about the reality of public broadcasting," and "does not help CBC/Radio-Canada serve Canadians."

CBC television has always carried advertising, but the radio networks went commercial-free in 1974.

But the "reality" of public broadcasting, in principle at least, is that it exists precisely in order to provide a service that is not a commercial, for-profit undertaking. It is intended to be distinctive, to be free from the influence of vested interests either commercial or governmental, and to serve its audiences as citizens rather than as consumers.

All of which means that no self-respecting public broadcaster wants to get in bed with commercial sponsors, as the CBC has been forced to do since its creation in 1938. In recent decades, particularly in the Richard Stursberg era, it has been enjoying the experience all too much, relying ever more heavily on advertising revenue and warping both its programming and management ethic to serve that desire.

CBC television has always carried advertising, but the radio networks went commercial-free in 1974. At its license renewal hearings before the CRTC in 2013 the CBC asked for and received permission to re-introduce ads on the two music-oriented networks, arguing that it needed the revenue to enable it to continue fulfilling the many responsibilities assigned to it under the Broadcasting Act.

At the time, Vice-Commissioner Tom Pentefountas issued a minority opinion, calling the decision "crazy." He said, "I am strongly of the opinion that the nature of the service will change as soon as the funding of operating costs hinges even minimally on advertising revenue."

In giving CBC management the go-ahead to begin selling ads on the two networks, the CRTC made its permission subject to a review and reappraisal in three years, a deadline which arrived Wednesday.

In its new decision the CRTC said that in light of the Liberal government's reversal of Conservative funding cuts, the CBC's revenue problem had become less acute. And it pointed out that part of the deal in 2013 had been that the CBC was to maintain its current levels of investment in radio services. Instead, it reduced radio budgets by more than $20 million, transferring the money to television, where it hoped it could increase audiences -- and related advertising income.

That, for CBC management, is the "reality of public broadcasting;" when money is short, you starve your best, most popular services, the radio networks, and feed the least popular, least distinctive services, the television networks. Because that's where there's big money to be made in advertising.

This kind of thinking is, of course, antithetical to a true public service ethic, to the idea that the CBC exists to provide a quality benchmark and to serve diverse programming interests that commercial broadcasters avoid because they're not profitable.

Think back to the glorious, advertising-free Tragically Hip concert in Kingston.

Maintaining well-funded, independent, public broadcasting services is how most modern industrial nations ensure that the nature and quality of their media content--their information and entertainment-- is not dictated solely by commercial interests.

Books have been written about why that's important: for a quick primer, turn on CNN or FOX or MSNBC any time during the current presidential election cycle and see what passes for news and commentary when you have a media environment in which there is no real public broadcaster. Check out a reality show or two. And think of this: the BBC coverage of the London summer Olympics four years ago was commercial free--as is all BBC domestic programming. Contrast that in you mind with the experience of watching the Rio Olympics on CBC television last month.

Think back to the glorious, advertising-free Tragically Hip concert in Kingston.

CBC/Radio-Canada is entitled by law to appeal the CRTC's decision to the Federal Cabinet, which can ask the CRTC to take a second look. It could even take the case to Federal Court. Such a move in current circumstances would only underline the current senior management team's apparent failure to understand the nature of the enterprise it is their privilege to lead.

The federal Department of Heritage is currently engaged in a thorough review of the antique Broadcasting Act of 1991 and the industry it governs, with hearings scheduled for this fall. Minister Mélanie Joly has said that everything's on the table, so major changes can be expected.

Given the Trudeau government's largely favourable attitude to cultural industries--of which CBC/Radio-Canada is the nation's biggest and most important-- and given the fact that the tenure of the President, the Board Chair, and most Board members are up for review and/or renewal in the near future, it seems likely the corporation will swallow the CRTC's ad ban on radio with a minimum of fuss.

Dare we ask: could TV be next?

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