Public Broadcasting Showdown: BBC vs CBC

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As a Canadian, I have a shameful confession to make. When given the option between the BBC and the CBC, I pick the BBC nine times out of ten. With the CBC’s tagline proudly announcing “Canada lives here,” I feel like I’m turning my back on my country by choosing the UK’s public broadcaster over my own. And yet, preference wins out over patriotism, meaning I find myself at once again.

Before joining a public broadcasting class last year, I never even questioned my BBC loyalty, and though I knew the CBC existed, I hadn’t ever thought to check it out. As the semester progressed and I waded warily into the Canadian public broadcasting pool, I recognized benefits of the CBC and grew to enjoy its offerings. Quirks and Quarks? That’s a neat show. Radio One? Sure, I could listen to that on my way to school. Flip onto the CBC channel while I do my dishes? Why not?

But something kept bringing me back to the BBC. They weren’t big things – they were just little irritants that drove me back to my familiar territory, like a child craving their fuzzy blue blanket. On the morning that the NHL lockout ended, UN members pushed for an International Criminal Court review of the conflict in Syria; the co-founder of Reddit committed suicide after being accused of mass downloading JSTOR documents; and Somali pirates released Syrian hostages that had been held captive for over two years.

However, during the two hours that I watched CBC News Now that morning, only a tiny fragment of the time was spent covering non-hockey news. While hockey is definitely a Canadian theme and the NHL lockout was a big deal to a large part of the nation, the news was played and re-played at the cost of news about a First Nations protest regarding new legislation, a speech by Syria’s dictator Assad, and an update on Nelson Mandela’s health. Frustrated by the fact that random people’s tweets about the NHL hockey lockout’s end were taking precedence over actual news, I turned off the TV and found my news online, on the BBC’s website.

More recently, I flipped on the news in the morning only to find the CBC covering a story on a Chilliwack girl who was saved from a pit bull attack by her pet Chihuahua. The journalist was “on the scene” at the girl’s house, where her father retold the story, which the journalist had just described, while the girl hid in her father’s car. While I do think it’s impressive (albeit not surprising, thanks to experience with my grandma’s feisty Chihuahuas) that a dog the size of a potato managed to scare off a pit bull, I didn’t feel it deserved the attention it was receiving. A story like that could easily make Chilliwack local news, and would be an interesting one-sentence anecdote to be included in regional news – but it wasn’t deserving of the airtime it received. I didn’t even finish the story before I changed channels.

The thing is, not all of my experiences with the CBC have been negative – in fact, many have been positive. Happening upon an interview in which the CBC grilled a question-dodging politician was a pleasant surprise recently, and when a stranger at a bus stop asked me what I thought of the Idle No More movement, I actually felt well informed enough to answer, thanks to the CBC. Had I not caught that segment, I wouldn’t have even known what Idle No More was, since the uniquely Canadian news wouldn’t have made the BBC’s top international news stories.

And that’s the thing: I want to prefer the CBC to the BBC. I want to be able to say that my country’s public broadcasting is the best out there. But as the CBC currently sits, I can’t honestly do that. The heart of the matter is that the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation does some things very well, while it falls short in being well-rounded and consistent in other aspects. This isn’t its fault: the BBC does a fantastic job with the majority of the topics it tackles, but the BBC also relies on $124 per British citizen per year for funding, while Canadians only pay $33-34 a person every year for the CBC. As a CBC blog post pointed out in 2006: “The BBC receives $7.3-billion in public funding, broadcasts primarily in English and doesn’t span six time zones… a little factoid that often goes overlooked when people say, ‘Well, the BBC can do it, why can’t the CBC?!’ Now you know.”

The U.K. also has almost double Canada’s population, meaning they come out far ahead in the financial game. The BBC only has to deal with English for its main news site, station, and channel, while the CBC broadcasts its news in Canada in nine languages: English, French, and seven Aboriginal languages. So while the CBC is far more underfunded than the BBC, it still needs to split itself in nine different directions to accurately serve all of Canada.

However, that is one thing that the CBC does very well. It has excellent local reach, and many small towns rely solely on coverage by the CBC, having no other available outlets. Unfortunately, the fact that the CBC invests a lot of time, effort, and money into covering all of Canada – while also receiving much less funding than the BBC – means that it has a hard time holding a flame to the BBC’s Future, Science, or international news segments online. (The BBC’s website also trumps the CBC’s rather confusing webpage).

In my opinion, what the CBC should do is embrace their role. They offer up what many services can’t, and many Canadians depend on them exclusively for that service. CBC fills a gap in Canadian television by providing 81% Canadian coverage on an all-day basis, shooting up to 91% during prime time, while most private broadcasters hover at the 50% mark, which is required by law. If the CBC manages to be unique by providing this distinctly Canadian coverage, why are they investing in airing the BBC’s Coronation Street, and why have they played Sesame Street in the past for children’s programming? Since the CBC is one of the few channels that offers up all-Canadian drama and entertainment, let the American channels show their American shows and let Canadian shows attract viewers themselves. If they aren’t attracting viewers, then work at making them better.

As an underfunded service that should not be relying heavily on advertising for funding – in order to remain as independent as possible – the CBC should search out what makes it unique. The CBC’s mandate is to “inform, enlighten, and entertain,” and I think the CBC meets all three of those guidelines effectively. However, many other broadcasters also provide these services, which means the CBC should be spending its money on more unique content that other broadcasters do not cover.

For example, Hockey Night in Canada is insanely popular and Don Cherry has practically become a Canadian symbol, but sports on the CBC could afford to be trimmed back a little. The CBC Mandate Review Committee has complained in the past that sports programming takes up 25% of the CBC’s prime-time schedule. Hoskins, McFadyen, and Finn, authors of Refocusing the CBC, go as far as to say: “Much of this program is professional sports, and during the National Hockey League play-offs CBC becomes almost another sports channel.” Yes, sports is entertaining, but should it take up a quarter of our prime-time airing? With many other broadcasters also airing sports, is the CBC really providing something that is unique?

As a Canadian broadcaster, the CBC is original in its broadcasting of international and national news. As Hoskins et al. explain: “The CBC… has more reporters and foreign bureaus than the private networks and consequently relies less on feed from foreign (mainly U.S.) broadcasters than private Canadian broadcasters. It thus provides a greater Canadian perspective on international news.” So although we do have, for example, the BBC to provide international news and CTV to provide Canadian news, they both lack something that only the CBC can provide: a unique Canadian perspective. Redirecting funding from buying American television shows and vying for coverage of playoffs means putting more money towards providing that unique Canadian perspective on news.

It also means that the CBC could put more funding towards doing what many say it does best: covering local news in small cities. CTV and other channels do a good job of covering local news in big cities; in Edmonton, for example, the CBC’s 6pm news comes in last place against three major competitors, with only 4% of the audience. However, the CBC is the major, if not only, broadcaster in many small towns in Canada. While I don’t think that the CBC should stop covering big cities, it should focus on its fame of being the network that essentially connects Canada, which most broadcasters cannot claim to do.

Essentially, what I propose the CBC does, as it loses funding and competes with public broadcasters abroad and private broadcasters here in Canada, is dedicate itself towards becoming even more Canadian (wiping out all American programming), spending less time and money on sports and other topics that are well-handled by private broadcasters, and committing its saved funds and time to national and international news, local news, and Canadian entertainment. (If, in the end, there’s a chunk of money left over, then the CBC could consider redesigning its website, as well.)

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