Editorial: Whither the CBC?

Recent comments by former CBC president Robert Rabinovitch about the tenuous nature of the Ceeb’s future certainly stirred the hornet’s nest.

But one needs to be fair. The CBC is hardly alone in this. Writ large, the numbers just don’t look good for public media.

In the UK, for example, the BBC has an operating expenditure of about £4.26 billion (or $6.9 billion). (Source: BBC Executive 09/10 financial statement.) The money to pay these bills comes from a combination of revenue streams, but primarily from a £145.50 ($235) annual license fee imposed on British TV viewers.

That fee is now frozen until 2017, so the Beeb can’t expect any revenue increases on that front for several years. In fact, the governing BBC Trust estimates that the freeze may have cost a potential £144 million ($234 million) in revenue from this year’s budget alone.

Additional revenues come from sources such as distributor BBC Worldwide, which will turn a record £147 million ($238 million) profit this fiscal, but for the foreseeable future the lion’s share of revenue will come from British tax payers.

And that’s not terribly good news for the BBC.

The U.K. is facing extreme austerity measures, and they will be widespread. This past week, for example, it was announced by the U.K. Chancellor of the Exchequer that £83 billion ($134 billion) in government spending cuts would be measured out over the next four years, to the possible detriment of 600,000 public sector jobs.

It would be difficult to imagine a scenario in which those cuts didn’t impact the Beeb. It was proposed this week as part of the government’s Comprehensive Spending Review, for example, that the BBC should assume costs for providing free TV for households with viewers aged 75 and older. The BBC Trust estimates (probably somewhat shrilly) that such a move would cost 25% of the broadcaster’s total programming budget.

Recent events in the U.S. also suggest an ominous trend.

PBS reported revenues of about US$2.85 billion ($2.9 billion) in 2008, down slightly from US$2.92 billion ($2.97 billion) the year before.

While a portion of PBS’s funding comes from Congress – US$400 million ($406 million) was allocated to parent body CPB in 2009 – the vast majority of PBS’ funding comes from private donors; about 60% at last count, again down slightly from the two years previous. (Canadian viewers who enjoy U.S. spill may be familiar with the frequent interruptions to Monty Python marathons and the like…)

Donations have been a revenue source that has remained fairly steady since PBS’ inception, but what long-term impact the current economic turmoil in the U.S. will have is anyone’s guess. Even a drop of a few percentage points would represent tens of millions in cuts at PBS.

But, even beyond the uncertainty of revenue models dependent on the whims of public generosity, things have been far from stable in the PBS camp of late, as was evidenced by the recent decision of L.A. member station KCET to go independent as of January 1, 2011.

And the divorce, as is so often the case, was all about money.

It has been reported that last year KCET’s dues to PBS were nearly US$7 million ($7.1 million), or almost one-fifth of the station’s US$37 million ($37.5 million) operating budget. Although KCET asked for a break in those fees, PBS would not budge – likely fearing the inevitable cascade effect that would play out when other member stations came calling for their discount too.

Jeffrey McCall, a media expert at DePauw University, explained the impact of the pull-out to the LA Times: “it signals to other PBS members that affiliation isn’t that important anymore.”

And, he noted, it also increases the uncertainty about the long-term future of public broadcasting in the U.S.: “PBS certainly does not play the essential role it once did in the nation’s media landscape,” he ominously observed.

One would have to think that PBS is casting a wary eye on WGBH, WNET and the other powerhouse stations within the public fold. Should one of those somehow be pried loose, the impact on PBS would be catastrophic.

Which brings us north.

The CBC runs on about $1.7 billion in operating expenses, down from about $1.85 billion the year before. (Source: CBC 2009/10 annual report.) Much of that funding comes from parliamentary appropriations – about $1 billion this fiscal.

The CBC is already well into some tough cuts but, in the face of mounting federal deficits, one could reasonably expect that the pubcaster will be dancing to a similar dire tune throughout the next decade. Unfortunately, the Ceeb is far too easy a target for spin when it comes to electoral politics.

And, with federal surpluses drying up and more austerity measures looming, there is every reason to expect the rhetoric will be ratcheted up – both domestically and internationally – with conversations increasingly turning to the fundamental viability of, and expectations placed on, public media.

Who should it strive to serve, and how?

Expect broadsides from the two vocal and conflicting advocacies:

In one camp, there is the expectation that public service media exists to reflect the full diversity of the audience. That is – as the CBC strives to – it should entertain and inform all of its constituents, filling the media gaps for under-served audiences. (The needs of the one out-weigh the needs of the many, for you Star Trek fans out there…)

In the other camp, there is the belief that public money should be used to fund programming that the majority finds appealing. It’s not a commercial model, per se – rather it’s a populist model. I recall the outrage early in the new millennium when German pubcasters ARD and ZDF paid about $100 million for the rights to 24 World Cup games. (i.e. The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the one…) Expect to hear more from this camp presently.

The nature of public media is changing. It has no choice. The constituent elements of the media mix have altered irreparably, and public broadcasters will be impacted more than anyone else.

The question is: what is it changing into?

If you have an opinion, express it now. In a very, very short period of time it’s going to be too late.