The recent decision by the federal government to reduce the CBC's funding has sparked debates about what its mandate should be. Unchanged since at least 1991, that mandate is now somewhat obsolete and, in view of the CBC's current activities, I believe it should be reviewed.
When it was first created, the CBC was by far the prominent player on the Canadian broadcasting market. Now, it is only one of several important players. Yet, it still receives a lot of money from taxpayers: nearly $1.2 billion in 2011, or close to two-thirds of its total budget.
I would not necessarily have an objection against this if it were not for the fact that, too often, the CBC uses those funds to replicate private alternatives. As professor Yves Rabeau pointed out in a publication released by the Montreal Economic Institute on July 19th, the CBC plays on the same turf as the private sector when it selects the shows it broadcasts on television and radio.
The best illustration, as mentioned by Rabeau, is the case of the Crown corporation's free Internet music broadcasting service, CBC Music. If you want to listen to Lady Gaga's most recent song, for instance, you just need to use this service, provided freely by the CBC.
But there's no such thing as a free lunch – someone has to pay royalties to copyrights holders.
Private corporations must pay these royalties out of their own pockets. Consequently, they have to ask consumers to pay a price. Meanwhile, the CBC uses the funds it gets from taxpayers to provide the same service free of charge.
In light of the technological progress and the increase in the number of private broadcasting channels since 1991, the use of taxpayer funds to directly compete with private firms seems particularly unfair. Yet, if the mandate of our state broadcaster were to be changed to insist on Canadian culture and information, this unfair competition would at least be lessened.
After all, when the CBC makes Lady Gaga's music available for free or when it broadcasts game shows, it is hardly promoting Canadian culture (whatever that may be).
Providing viewers a continuous news channel with foreign correspondents in all of the hotspots of the world can be considered too expensive for private broadcasters, which operate within the relatively small (compared to the U.S.) Canadian market. The CBC, however, is ideally suited to provide such types of services. It should also focus on public affairs shows and scientific programs to enlighten and inform Canadians. For example, Radio-Canada (the French division of the CBC) produces a show called Decouverte – a popular science show that tackles in a very interesting way current issues.
If the CBC were to put a greater emphasis on such programs, it would have more resources to allocate to them and would therefore become a better public broadcaster. By the same token, it would reduce unfair competition toward private broadcasters.
In short, everyone (that is Canadian citizens, private broadcasters as well at the CBC itself) would gain from such an update of our public broadcaster's mandate.
Michel Kelly-Gagnon is President and CEO of the Montreal Economic Institute. The views reflected in this column are his own.
* This column appears in Sun Media newspapers, published both in several of Canada's key urban markets (Toronto, Ottawa, Calgary, Edmonton, Winnipeg and London) and in its 28 community dailies.