03/20/2014 05:28 EDT | Updated 05/20/2014 05:59 EDT

Is the Rogers Deal the CBC's Last-Ditch Effort To Save Itself?

The CBC continues to make news, but not in a good away. This week it's the cancellation of the television network's flagship dramatic series Arctic Air, and the departure for the Globe and Mail of CBC news chief David Walmsley. Each, in its way, represents fallout from the dire financial conditions at the public broadcaster.

Less noticed, but arguably far more significant, are two documents prepared by CBC management and recently made public on the corporation's website. Together they point to what appears be shaping up as a desperate new strategy to keep the corporation afloat.

Despite protestations of openness and transparency, upper management processes at the CBC remain mostly impenetrable to outside observers. But there have long been fears that their response to the slow fiscal strangulation imposed by successive federal governments would be the privatizing of all services except, perhaps, the enormously popular Radio One. This is a strategy that has long been favoured within the Conservative Party and by its leader, Stephen Harper.

"Privatizing" could mean many things: in this case it would seem to mean the turning over of the CBC's television assets to private broadcasters through a form of leasing arrangement.

The documents in question strongly suggest that in the wake of the loss of NHL hockey and its associated ad revenues to Rogers Media last November, CBC managers have concocted a strategy for keeping the broadcaster's television services afloat that would amount to a dramatic retreat from its public service mandate.

The first document is the CBC's submission to the Senate committee currently examining the future of public broadcasting in Canada. In concluding an exhaustive survey of the changing commercial market for television and the many new delivery options available to consumers, the presentation asks five "key questions" which urgently need to be answered.

One of these questions stand out: "The industry is highly concentrated and global players are at the doorstep: who should CBC/Radio Canada partner with?"

The notion of "partnering" immediately brings to mind the recent deal between Rogers Media and the NHL which gives exclusive rights to Rogers for the next decade and leaves the traditional home of Hockey Night in Canada with a controversial consolation prize. The CBC gets to carry hockey on Saturday nights and during the playoffs. But all the advertising revenue goes to Rogers, which will have complete editorial control of the broadcasts.

Why would CBC managers have agreed to such a deal? The reasons are listed in the second newly-released document, which appears in a heavily redacted form deep in the CBC's corporate website. Entitled simply "CBC/Rogers NHL Deal," it was presented by management to the corporation's Board of Directors the day before the agreement was made public in November.

At the top of the list of "benefits to the CBC" is the following: "CBC retains HNIC on Saturday nights--fulfilment of the expectation of the public broadcaster to maintain a Canadian cultural icon."

But if HNIC is truly a "Canadian cultural icon" it is surely the program, with its roots in early radio, continuing on through the reign of Foster Hewitt and into the today's hosting lineup of Maclean, Cherry, Hughson, Friedman et al. that's iconic. With hockey in the hands of its new producer, Rogers, the HNIC era will have ended; the icon will be gone, consigned to public broadcasting history.

In what sense, then, is the hockey deal "maintaining" an icon simply by carrying a Rogers Media production on the CBC's television network? It isn't.

The other "benefits" listed relate exclusively to the revenue impact of the fact that hockey will continue to be a feature of the CBC television Saturday night schedule for four more years:

• CBC will "maintain an essential promotional capability for the rest of the program schedule." Promoting the schedule will help to boost audiences, which in turn will increase advertising revenue.

• Continuing to carry hockey "will allow CBC to maintain a market share which will be substantially higher" than it would otherwise be. Again, important to ad revenue.

• Finally, continuing to carry hockey, if only as a Rogers production, "will provide greater revenue security for the balance of the CBC schedule."

Aside from the bogus gesture toward maintaining "a Canadian cultural icon," the emphasis throughout the list of "benefits" emanating from the Rogers-NHL deal is focused entirely on protection of advertising revenue. But at what cost? The corporation has spun the deal as getting the CBC out from under the crushing cost of NHL rights, in return for turning over 320 hours of prime time real estate to a private broadcaster.

But if we are to read between the lines in the two documents cited here, it would appear that CBC management sees the Rogers deal as a template for survival. The desperate, last-ditch strategy would be to effectively lease out the public broadcaster's state-of-the-art distribution facilities, on television and perhaps also on radio, to private broadcasters who want to be able to advertise to a large Canadian audience, but don't want the expense of building the kind of comprehensive network that the CBC -- with massive subsidies from Canadian taxpayers -- has constructed over the past seventy-five years in the name of public service.

The fact is that the only strategy that can save CBC television is one that makes it distinctive and relevant. The best way to do this is to eliminate advertising, and boost the federal subsidy accordingly. The evidence is overwhelming and widely available in the scholarly literature and the popular media. The money needed exists within the system; it just needs to be reallocated. It's a proposal the Senate committee needs to consider.


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