The CBC will run out of money before excuses

(This article was originally published on December 8, 2012 in iPolitics )

Some weeks ago I attended a memorial for Jim Murray.  For many years Jim was the executive producer of the CBC’s The Nature of Things with David Suzuki.  The show won numerous awards for the quality of its programming and, in discovering David Suzuki, gave us one of the world’s most accomplished environmental spokesmen.

As I listened to his many friends offer their fond remembrances of the man, I couldn’t help but reflect on the sorry state in which the CBC finds itself now.  Last week saw the CBC pleading before the CRTC for permission to expand revenue-generating commercial activities.

Downsizing yet again after another parliamentary budget cut and pulling diminishing audiences that now represent only 5 to 6 per cent of the total television audience in Canada, the broadcaster is on the ropes.  Even loyal supporters of the CBC will soon be hard-pressed to justify spending over $1 billion annually on a broadcaster that almost nobody watches.

The CBC could learn a thing or two from Jim about connecting with Canadians.

As a television producer, Jim was unyielding in his drive and determination to create compelling television for the widest possible audiences. This intensity stood in sharp relief to his personal qualities — his humility, modesty and generous humanity.

Getting big audiences was not just a lucky happenstance for Jim. He wanted them. He switched from radio to television for that reason. He engaged big, important ideas that affected the lives of Canadians. Sharing these ideas with as many Canadians as possible seemed like the proper thing to do. After all, the broadcaster that funded his shows was owned by Canadian taxpayers.

He learned as much as he could about the behavior of audiences: what programming ideas worked, what didn’t and, most importantly, why. He was a master at applying this knowledge in a way that held audiences, even when the complexity of an idea made viewing a challenge. Also, he surrounded himself with some of the best people in the business.

Jim was keenly aware of the power of mass media to influence public opinion. A widely-watched television show generates numerous conversations among family, friends and workmates. People hear and read about it in other media. It creates opinions, attitudes, debates, decisions and actions.

A show attracting a large audience becomes a powerful engine of cultural change in society. For a small-audience show, the engine sputters … and dies.

In its heyday, episodes of The Nature of Things often attracted well over a million Canadians. His Midas touch with audiences was also apparent in his eight-part documentary series A Planet for the Taking, where individual episodes attracted over 2 million viewers.

Jim also produced the docu-drama series The National Dream based on Pierre Berton’s book about the building of Canada’s transcontinental railroad. It attracted a weekly audience of more than 3,000,000 viewers.

What makes his achievements even more remarkable is that his shows often dealt with provocative ideas. They included diverse topics like clearcutting in the forest industry, the collateral damage to the environment of extracting oil from tarsands, and safety issues in nuclear power generation.

In Canada’s commodity-driven economy, his programs struck at the heart of our wealth-producing industries. Their CEOs didn’t take kindly to having their operations criticized, especially by a public broadcaster. It took some guts to stand up to the withering attacks of our captains of industry. Jim bore it well, and in the spirit of fairness, gave them an opportunity in his shows to make their case.

Jim had an enduring admiration for the CBC.

For his kind of show, he knew it was the only game in town. Commercial broadcasters would balk at bankrolling a show that was critical of corporations buying advertising on their network. Jim knew very well that given the choice between vapid, formulaic mass-audience programs and equally popular — but provocative and risky — programs like his, a commercial broadcaster would opt for the former without remorse.

He fully appreciated that the primary responsibility of those working for the CBC was to serve the best interests of the Canadian public. He felt that commercializing the CBC profoundly undermined this central responsibility. The interests of the companies paying for these commercials too often were inconsistent with what was best for Canadians.

This inconsistency bothered him greatly. How, for example, does a viewer of a show about the unhealthy consequences of mass-produced, growth hormone-injected, antibiotic-fed beef rationalize the McDonald’s commercial that cuts through the middle of the message? To suggest it’s a source of cognitive dissonance for viewers is an understatement.

This is not an abstract concern. Some years ago the CBC program Marketplace did a show based on a consumer survey showing a large number of Ford vehicle owners were dissatisfied with how quickly their cars rusted. The company, a major advertiser on the CBC, forced Marketplace to broadcast a humiliating public retraction as a result of the pressure it applied on the broadcaster. The lesson for Marketplace producers was simple: don’t pick on large corporations with deep pockets.

With such conflicts of interest, it seemed just a matter of time before commercialization would start to unravel the production culture within the public broadcaster. Loyalty to both public and advertiser interests cannot coexist. It is a prescription for organizational schizophrenia.

To put it another way, the $300 million or so that the CBC receives yearly from commercial revenues undermines the $1.1 billion investment of Canadian taxpayers. In time, the $300 million tail ends up wagging the $1.1 billion dog.

Jim knew the future of a commercial CBC: it was a terrible deal for the broadcaster and no good could come of it.

Many years later, the prescience of Jim’s insights were brought home when the CBC was roundly criticized for buying Hollywood game shows for the sole purpose of delivering the audiences demanded by advertisers.

Many who defend the CBC argue that the organization suffers from insufficient funding. There is some truth to that. Tim Harper of the Toronto Star recently noted that compared to the 18 industrially advanced nations that have a public broadcaster, the CBC is near the bottom of the list. Its government subsidy amounts to $34 per person, while the average across all the countries surveyed is $87. If the CBC’s budget were raised to the average amount, it would be about $2.9 billion.

In producing his popular shows, Jim had adequate funding. Without it he would not have the production quality — or the audiences.

Adequate funding should be a sine qua non of any CBC strategy to increase its audiences. With the CBC laboring under increasingly reduced budgets, insufficient funding may be the culprit. If senior managers at the CBC believe that is the cause of their failure to deliver bigger audiences, they should say so publicly. They never do.

If they did they would lose their jobs and be replaced by others more amenable to government cuts. What they invariably do say however, is that regardless of the nature of the budget cuts, the CBC will be reorganized to ensure that its programming mandates will be fulfilled. Since popular Canadian programming is not a mandate, guess what’s last on the CBC’s priority list.

One thing is clear: the CBC uses the funding excuse far too often. Surely an annual outlay of nearly $1.5 billion should have delivered at least a few big audience successes over the past few television seasons. One or two CBC shows in Nielsen’s weekly top 10 would be a huge shot in the arm in the CBC’s battle for public support, but the corporation hasn’t delivered.

This inconvenient truth suggests the fundamental problem isn’t insufficient funding, but a lack of leadership.

CBC management is so intent on pleasing the bureaucrats (for the ostensible purpose of ensuring next year’s budget) on the one hand and advertisers (ensuring contractual obligations to deliver audience demographics) on the other, that it fails in its central responsibility — to create popular Canadian programming.

Management’s job is to find talented people like Jim Murray and, once it signs off on producers’ program ideas, to provide them with organizational cover. This gives producers confidence that if a show provokes controversy and external threats, political or legal, management has their backs.

Instead, what we have at the CBC today is a production culture where management encourages self-censorship, ensuring little risk of political censure and resulting in programming of little interest to the average Canadian viewer.

How does the CBC create a more adventuresome management system?

It should do what successful corporations do to achieve their goals: link a significant chunk of senior management’s salary to audience targets. Other targets may be conjured, but at this juncture nothing is as critical as increasing the CBC’s audiences. It’s also relatively easy to measure objectively.

Here’s a plan: If senior managers don’t achieve their audience goals at the end of the year, they only get half their pay. If they haven’t achieved their audience goals by the third year, they’re fired. If, on the other hand, they outperform expectations, bonuses are in order. Follow these three policies and I can pretty well guarantee that in three years’ time, Canadians would see a very different CBC.

If we’ve learned anything from the 2008 economic meltdown, it’s that compensation of senior executives of major corporations needs to be tied to company performance. If, in the case of the CBC, programming outcomes are not tied to salary and job consequences, why should the public continue to have confidence in the broadcaster to deliver the goods? Why should CBC staff have confidence in senior management when their record of failure is rewarded by well-paying jobs and gold-plated pensions?

Of course, linking compensation to performance carries the risk that the CBC will end up producing the same junk as the American networks. This risk, however, is mitigated by the CBC’s legislated mandate. Junk shows are not part of the mandate. What the mandate does require is programming that speaks to Canadians on matters they care about.

The combination of a goal-oriented, responsive management, unfettered by the needs of advertisers, could unlock the creative capacity of many talented CBCproducers who are currently operating in survival mode. Their efforts over the next few years could produce exceptional Canadian programs that will attract mass audiences no one at the CBC even dreams of today.

Whether they know it or not, Canadians need the CBC now more than ever. Media ownership in Canada has reached unprecedented levels of corporate concentration, and with BCE’s pursuit of Astral it may get worse. The conflict between public and corporate interests has become a divide that threatens democracies everywhere, Canada included. Public broadcasters like the CBC have a very important role in presenting the facts of this conflict and ensuring that democratic principles are not undermined by corporate interests.

The fact that the CBC is owned by Canadians gives it a degree of accountability and transparency that cannot be matched by its commercial competitors — a huge reservoir of public trust that money cannot buy. If it’s abused, of course, this reservoir can dry up pretty quickly.

The CBC needs to be shielded from government interference. Constantly threatening the CBC with budget cuts is government blackmail. If it continues it willdestroy an already gravely weakened CBC. Stable, long-term funding with a thorough CRTC assessment of performance goals on a regular basis is a wiser and more efficient approach.

For the CBC’s part, it should stop running from controversy. Provocative programming that stirs up public and media debate needs to be a regular staple of theCBC diet, to boost ratings. Canadians must be made to feel something about the CBC — good or bad, but not indifferent.

At some point in Jim’s illustrious career there were rumours of his moving to a senior management role. He dismissed them. The politics of management didn’t interest him in the least. He wanted his feet planted firmly on the production floor.

I sometimes wonder what would’ve happened if he had taken that leadership role. I’m certain he would have been a success, as he had been in everything else he’d done. He’d bring to life smart, courageous, well executed and well-watched shows about important ideas.

And commercials? They’d be history. He was, in that sense, the best president the CBC never had.

About Oleh Iwanyshyn

Oleh Iwanyshyn has been involved professionally with surveys from the mid-70s when he started as a methodologist at the Institute for Behavioral Research at York University. Later, while at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation his focus shifted to media and election surveys. He now runs his own survey research company, ViewStats Research, established in 1997 and specializing in online surveys. Public opinion surveys is an essential communication tool between a democratic society and its leaders. Unfortunately, surveys can be very easily manipulated. Revealing such manipulations and their consequences is the raison d'être of the poll stuff blog.
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