Recently, Canadian Broadcasting Corporation/Radio-Canada president/CEO Hubert Lacroix introduced a bold proposal to banish advertising from the CBC in return for a bump in the Corporation’s funding allocation. The proposal came, ostensibly, in response, to Conservative leadership candidate Kellie Leitch’s call to further defund the Corporation and ultimately to end its eighty-year run as Canada’s public broadcaster.
Eighty years is a respectable span of time, and to historians of broadcasting, it represents most of what we consider the broadcasting age. It shouldn’t surprise you to learn that for those of us who study ‘the industry’ and its past, Leitch’s call – and Lacroix’s response – are familiar. Leitch was championing privately-owned stations, and by extension a privatized economic model. The script for defunding and elimination of the public option goes something like this: ‘Public money thrown down the CBC ‘toilet’ (it’s been called worse) would be better spent elsewhere, on real things, not the pet projects of Toronto hippies. If we were meant to get that stuff over the radio or on TV, some private station would be giving it to us.’ Lacroix was doing what his predecessors have done, defending the mission of the CBC by contrasting it with all-commerce, all the time. They weren’t called CEOs, but General Managers and Chairs of the CBC Board of Governors like Gladstone Murray and Davidson Dunton were keenly aware of how broadcasting worked in North America, and had a script of their own: ‘Leave Canadian broadcasting to commercial interests and watch local and regional productions wither. Watch creative Canadians desert their homes for New York and LA. We wouldn’t need to run ads if we had decent support.’
This has been, and continues to be, a feud fought from entrenched positions. As a public broadcaster, CBC/R-C has at various moments been a competitor for the limited pool of advertising dollars available in Canada, and private stations have resented all those moments. During the era before television, some programs on the CBC were sponsored or carried spot advertisements. This was a way to get big budget (usually American) shows out to listeners whose local private station(s) may not have carried them, and to reach listeners in areas that no private station served. Revenue from advertising went back into building the national network and producing unsponsored shows. In the TV era, costs ballooned, and ads stuck around on the CBC, again to the chagrin of commercial stations.
Programming on commercial stations would not be available if it were not underwritten by advertising. Station owners would be idiots to run their businesses without revenue. They did remarkably well in the early radio era propagating the notion that programming was “free” to the listener. However, advertisers did, and continue to fold the cost of advertising into the prices of their products or services, and consumers literally pay the cost of advertising to themselves. I applaud the suggestion that CBC/R-C should let the commercial stations have the whole advertising pie, because dipping into this business weakens the commercial side of the industry. Chasing advertisers weakens a public broadcaster’s ability to provide the sort of programming that gets left out by the private stations, programming that can, and does, find audiences.
Some maintain, as Leitch and media entrepreneurs like Ezra Levant do, that public broadcasters distort the market, but broadcasting is a market always and already distorted by other structural factors. In the age of radio and terrestrial TV, there were only so many frequencies to go around, and physics really did limit the number of stations. Today, any kid in a garage can start up her own YouTube channel, but the costs of professionally producing content to be broadcast remain prohibitive. Getting into the market at that level excludes all but the deep-pocketed, whose right to speech is precisely as important as the kid in the garage. Guarantee funding to a public broadcaster, keep them out of the ad business, and the system can flourish.