New Media and the Public Sphere: Creating Better Public Value in the Emerging Digital Economy
Siobhan Ozege Presented at RIPE 2012 September 4th-7th, 2012 Sydney, Australia Australian Broadcasting Corporation
The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC), like many other public service media outlets across the globe is facing a challenging time in its history. The multi-channel environment has become even more complex with the introduction of new media broadcasting undertakings that are further fragmenting a converging marketplace. The CBC is a unique example of public service broadcasting that highlights the growing complexities of new media technologies. With its deeply-rooted history as an instrument for the cohesion of national culture, it is part of a larger, more complicated system of Canadian broadcasting: a hybridized model facing significant strain due to rapidly-changing technology and funding cutbacks. Unlike other Canadian broadcasters, the CBC is facing a precarious situation with an affront on both sides: decreased funding from the federal government and decreasing share in an increasingly fragmented media market. Given its extremely broad and wide-reaching mandate, it is not surprising that the CBC is under considerable duress. In this paper, I will explore the utilization of new media technologies as a potential avenue for monetizing the public broadcaster amidst these challenges as we attempt to answer the question of money for public value in public service broadcasting (PSB), arguing that value holds both economic and political considerations that we must address in reimagining Canadaâ€™s public broadcaster. Briefly exploring Habermasian ideals of the public sphere, I will argue that in using new media technologies, the CBC can better fulfill its mandate in three ways: by reaching more Canadians; by enabling the CBC to make more content available to suit alternative viewpoints and interests to meet their vision of Everyone, Every Way; and perhaps most importantly, to foster national discourse. In this way, we can mount a defense against both irrelevancy and funding shortfalls, helping to retain PSB value in the larger digital economy. In this paper, I will also provide usage data to demonstrate a very clear correlation between Canadian consumption
of new media technologies and specifically, services provided by the public broadcaster. This presents a very clear case not only for increased funding to the CBC, but for larger discussions of how to re-assess the PSB mandate in Canada and create a public broadcaster that best meets the changing needs of Canadians.
The CBC: A Brief Overview
The CBC’s situation is not unlike other public broadcasters worldwide. As successive Conservative governments in Canada have continued to push a neo-liberal agenda, there has been a marked shift away from public services across all sectors due to changing state ideology and recession politics. The result of this has been ongoing cuts to public services including healthcare, education, and social services. It is unsurprising that the war on public broadcasting rages. The CBC’s situation is complicated by its place within the larger Canadian broadcasting landscape. As Marc Raboy has identified, the Canadian hybridized system places the public broadcaster in an “enclave within a broader industry…the CBC, has never been entirely sheltered from the industrial aspects of broadcasting…no sector of broadcasting can claim to be entirely independent of public purpose, as the Broadcasting Act makes clear,” (Raboy, 1995, 105). In this same way, traditional PSB principles have been super-imposed onto commercial broadcasting structures through public policy mechanisms like content spending and exhibition quotas, production funds and terms of trade agreements. What ought to characterize the Canadian system the best is perhaps its perpetually blurred boundary between public and private interest: the CBC boasts elements of commercial broadcasting through competitive primetime scheduling, imported foreign programming,
advertising and sports. The divisive nature of the hybrid model has been a long time source of strain in the system, creating an often-ostracized public broadcaster. This is not to say that the CBC has always faced perilous times. The Canadian broadcasting system was initially conceptualized as an instrument that would seek to meet public objectives and serve a national purpose, a task that would be accomplished by a public broadcaster. Historically, the CBC has been a predominant Canadian institution that laid the groundwork for the current broadcasting system. The CBC has been a pioneer throughout broadcasting history, and for this reason we need to contextualize its current predicament through a brief historical analysis. Based on this, we might also suggest that the CBC may be in the best position to foster innovation in new media due to its existing platforms and government-bound funding. Notably, they were the first to roll out television in Canada, and were the first public broadcaster worldwide to utilize satellite technologies to ensure distribution, linking Canada â€œfrom east to west to northâ€? (Rabinovich). The CBC has always led the field in terms of technological advancement for the delivery of its services to Canadians. New media is no different. Although it was not established until 1936, some of the founding principles for the CBC were born out of the 1929 Aird Commission recommendations and the lobby movement that followed. Given Canadaâ€™s proximity to the American border, much of the early era of radio was characterized by the struggle against American domination of the airwaves (a dynamic that remains to this day). The Aird Commission was established to make recommendations for creating a Canadian broadcasting system. Finding that Canadians felt underserved and unhappy with the quality of radio they were receiving, the report believed a national public broadcaster would be the most conducive to this endeavour, and could strengthen the relatively young nation. The timing of the report could not have been worse. The findings initially proposed that the model ought to be
regulated by a “provincial authority…[to] exercise control of programs broadcast by stations located within the boundaries of each province…[and] should be financed…from the revenue from a $3 license fee on receiving sets…and an annual subsidy from the Federal Government of $1,000,000 for the first five or ten years at least,” (Charlesworth, 43). With the onset of the Great Depression, these recommendations were shelved until the lobby efforts of the Canadian Radio League (CRL) pushed for a re-examination of the report. In 1932, the report’s recommendations were broadened so as to instead advocate for a nationalized “self-sustaining [system], supported directly by those who received its services and by such revenues as it might derive from indirect broadcast advertising,” (Charlesworth, 44). The creation of a national public broadcaster was very much rooted in a desire to create a national identity for Canada. Early advocates of this system, like Prime Minister Bennett and the CRL believed that “the radio can be made a most effective instrument in nation building, with an educational value difficult to estimate,” (Raboy, 1990, 39). Bennett proposed a three-point model that conceptualized the CBC as a system that ought to promote “complete control of broadcasting from Canadian sources…for the diffusion of national thought and ideals…for fostering and sustaining national unity”; should safeguard an “equality of service for people of all classes in all parts of the country,” and finally, should preserve “the natural resource of the air for the benefit of all the people instead of turning it over for private exploitation,” (Charlesworth 47-8). For many years, the CBC existed relatively untouched in the Canadian market, serving as both the regulator and public broadcaster. In 1952, the government gave the CBC a monopoly over network television broadcasting, noting the increasing penetration of American programming overthe-air (OTA). By 1955, the CBC television network reached approximately two-thirds of homes in Canada and its network of affiliates continued to grow. Just as with the expansion of the radio
network, one of the founding ideas for a national television broadcaster was that it could serve as a cultural unifier throughout the regions, since any one in any region would know that they were listening to and watching the same news and entertainment programs as other Canadians across the country. However, just as quickly as CBC television began to grow, so too did demands from the commercial sector to be given fair access to compete in the market place, lobbying the government for a commercial network. In the early 1960s, private television in Canada began, and just as it had secured its place in the broadcasting landscape, the CBC began to lose market share, now competing with both American and other Canadian broadcasters. This dynamic has never lessened, causing the CBC to undertake dramatic measures to secure a place for itself as a relevant cultural institution. In its current form, the CBC/Radio-Canada is a massive national broadcaster with holdings in radio, television, specialty, and new media. As the CBC network continued to grow, its mandate expanded to include a Northern Service, and they began broadcasting in eight Aboriginal languages, in addition to existing French and English services. In English, the CBC owns and operates 19 stations (with seven privately-owned affiliates); in French, Radio-Canada owns and operates 12 stations. The Corporation has three analogue specialty channels and two digital specialty cable channels. CBC Radio One has 32 stations across the country, 14 CBC Radio Two stations, 20 Première Chaîne and 12 Espace musique channels. The CBC is also on satellite radio, with CBC Radio One and Première Plus as national broadcasters, CBC Radio 3 and Bande à part (both otherwise only available online), Sports Extra and Radio Canada International (RCI) Plus. The CBC also offers other radio channels, including Espace classique, Espace jazz, RCI, RCI Viva, and Weatheradio Canada. Perhaps its fastest growing field however, is its new media offerings. The CBC has unique websites for each of its television and
radio channels in both French and English. It also has: Tou.TV, CBC.ca, radio-canada.ca, CBC’s corporate website, CBC Music, CBC Books, CBCnews.ca, CBCsports.ca, Explora and espace.mu. Finally, the CBC has a number of mobile apps available across multiple platforms (Blackberry, Android, iPhone, iPad, Windows), including the CBC Music App, the CBC News App, and the CBC Radio App, which aggregates all of its radio offerings, the Hockey Night in Canada App, and the CBC TV app. These new media offerings are very quickly becoming widely used and a major source of innovation in the industry. However, this list also highlights just how thinly spread the public broadcaster in Canada is, further reinforcing the need for a review of its mandate.
The PSB Mandate: Public-Private Tension
In the early 1960s, the CBC conceptualized what it believed its role in the Canadian broadcasting should be. Building on this, the government solidified this in the 1968 Broadcasting Act. Through this, the CBC was obliged it to contribute to the development of Canadian national identity and unity as one of its founding goals. In the same legislation, it also enshrined the basic principles and structures for creating a hybridized model of broadcasting consisting of public and private elements. This is a critical moment in the history of Canadian broadcasting, as it solidified an ongoing struggle for what public broadcasting means in a Canadian context. As Raboy has written, the Canadian system is quite unique, in that although public broadcasting has always been the “major cultural agent for building and maintaining a national political consensus…it was never entirely isolated from the logic of profit as in Europe. Instead, it evolved by meandering between the European notion of public service and the American market approach,” (Raboy, 1990, 353).
In essence, what this has done is create an extremely unbalanced broadcasting landscape. With public objectives spread throughout the system, the CBC is poised as a direct competitor to private broadcasters, competing for audience and advertising due to its ill conceived funding structure. Rather than establish a public broadcaster with a strong, clearly outlined mandate (and a funding model that supports these objectives), the CBC has a broad, sweeping mandate and declining financial resources available for its implementation. The CBC has for a long time, imported foreign programming to gain revenues to subsidize its operations and to attract audiences to flow through for Canadian programming and news. The utilization of the commercial format has also included sports programming and advertising, tactics that have proven to be extremely contentious, though many believe there is no other choice given the CBC’s financial situation. We may believe that “public broadcasters march to a public service mandate which gives priority to purposes or objectives other than sheer audience size,” (Public Policy Forum, 8). However, as Robert Rabinovich, former CEO/President of the CBC remarks, “how can you call yourself a public broadcaster when over 50 per cent of your budget comes from competing with the private sector?” (quoted in Public Policy Forum, 8). This disconnect is something that might be rectified in two ways: increased reliance on new media undertakings, and an examination of the CBC’s mandate, including its funding structure. According to a Nordicity report published in 2011, Canada has the third lowest level of public funding on a per-capita basis at $34 a person (4), with 18% of its revenues coming from advertising and sponsorship (18). Canada is also one of few countries that employ an annual, as opposed to multi-year funding structure, making long-term goals for the public broadcaster difficult to implement. They note, “Canada has one of the lowest levels of government financial support for public broadcasting despite the fact that it has a socio-cultural environment that is likely to generate
relative high potential benefits from public broadcasting,” (13). Lise Lareau, former president of the Canadian Media Guild (CMG) remarks, “television is a very expensive medium and, if it can’t be funded properly as it should be, through public sources, you need advertising revenue,” (quoted in Public Policy Forum, 9). However, this kind of laissez-faire attitude towards the predicament of the CBC is unhelpful for long-term planning and supporting the public broadcaster in fostering a public sphere in Canada, and creating value. The most recent Broadcasting Act (1991) is the first place to turn our attention when discussing challenges for the CBC. In addition to not having been updated since 1991, this Act continues to emphasize the public nature of all Canadian broadcasting. Section 3 (1)(b) of the Act states that “the Canadian broadcasting system, operating primarily in the English and French languages and comprising public, private and community elements, makes use of radio frequencies that are public property and provides, through its programming, a public service essential to the maintenance and enhancement of national identity and cultural sovereignty.” This same section outlines the duties of the CBC, a vague mandate that is nearly impossible to meet with declining financial support. 3 (1)(m) states that the CBC ought to provide programming that “informs, enlightens and entertains” and must do the following: (i) be predominantly and distinctively Canadian, (ii) reflect Canada and its regions to national and regional audiences, while serving the special needs of those regions, (iii) actively contribute to the flow and exchange of cultural expression, (iv) be in English and in French, reflecting the different needs and circumstances of each official language community, including the particular needs and circumstances of English and French linguistic minorities, (v) strive to be of equivalent quality in English and in French, (vi) contribute to shared national consciousness and identity, (vii) be made available throughout Canada by the most appropriate and efficient means and as resources become available for the purpose, and (viii) reflect the multicultural and multiracial nature of Canada.
This is no small task, and it is no secret that the CBC does not have the funds necessary to effectively achieve its mandate, especially in light of recent cuts by the federal government in 2012. After the 1991 Act was put in the place, the government proceeded to cut the CBC’s funding by $414 million dollars between 1995 and 1998 (Nerberg), a trend that was sustained through most of the 90s until present day, other than a brief increase in funding in the early 2000s under the Liberal government (Friends of Canadian Broadcasting). The relationship between the CBC’s mandate and its funding structure is problematic when discussing how to reimagine public broadcasting in Canada for a number of reasons. Primarily, there is a very serious disconnect between what the CBC is asked to do, and how much money it is given to do it. Each time its funding has been cut its mandate has not been reviewed or reduced, meaning that the CBC continually provides services running on empty. Without additional assistance, the CBC has had to resort to measures within its grasp to assist the Corporation in monetizing its operations. This has primarily manifested as a commercialized structure that has resulted from years of successive governments who have either cut or capped funding to the CBC. This has been a longstanding issue from the Corporation, as it has always had commercial elements to both subsidize its operations and to pull Canadian audiences away from American networks. Contrary to many journalists and politicians, the CBC is in the least appropriate position to advocate for a new mandate. It is also not the public broadcaster’s responsibility to decide which services ought to be cut in the face of funding cutbacks. Instead, it is Parliament (and by extension, tax payers who fund the CBC) to reconcile this mismatch between resources and mandate through legislative action. In addition to an outdated Act, the CBC has not had a license renewal since 19992000, although it is scheduled to undertake one in 20121. These are further exacerbated through
Originally scheduled for June 2011, the renewal was pushed back “indefinitely” until the 2012 Federal Budget was
policy frameworks passed down from the regulator, the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) who has continued to push public policy objectives onto private broadcasters. It is clear that “if there is no political will to significantly increase CBC funding, then it is incumbent upon our elected representatives to reshape the mandate to realistically reflect available resources,” (Public Policy Forum).
Reassessing PSB in Canada
The state of public broadcasting in Canada is such that a larger review of how we define PSB must be addressed. Patricia Aufderheide asks, what is public about public television? What constitutes a public, or a public sphere? For her, “a public shares in common the social effects of both private actions and government actions; it also shares in common an interest in addressing these effects in its own defense,” (168). For this reason, she separates consumers and publics, particularly when discussing PSB. In her article “Public Television and the Public Sphere” she noted that financial problems have always haunted PSB, further pushing them towards a format geared towards consumers. For Aufderheide, we cannot exclusively blame poor PSB programming and structure on financial trouble: “money is a symptom of a deeper problem, that of mission. The public television bureaucracy today…is committed to a broadcasting service, not to a public project executed through broadcasting,” (171). When discussing the future of PSB in Canada, we can look to Aufderheide for five thematic questions that can help determine the course of the CBC. We must question whether the CBC is just a single means of serving the “public interest” in the broader broadcasting landscape—should it continue to serve as only one piece of a public service-oriented broadcasting system, or should it be
solely responsible for serving the public interest? Secondly, should the CBC be relegated to only non-commercial and educational programming? Thirdly, does the CBC have a duty to assist in the democratic process by serving as an information hub for Canadian citizens? Fourthly, should the CBC’s mandate centre on a duty to give voice to otherwise under-represented or marginalized minorities in Canada? Finally, must the CBC’s programming by definition be “anti” commercial, or “high brow” programming? These kinds of questions can help us ask whether we are looking to provide better television, or a better public sphere. Given the rapidly changing pace of technology and the blurred distinctions between public and private broadcasters, we ought to re-assess what we want in the 21st century. In doing this, we can better advocate for changes to the mandate and scope of the CBC to create a more reflective and valuable public broadcaster. There has been a continued historic demand for what Raboy has called “socially involved broadcasting” in Canada, which has been expressed through “calls for a less centralized and less commercialized CBC, for grassroots, autonomous or community media, and for access to media,” (Raboy, 1990, 342). He notes particularly, that the entire understanding of “public” in Canada is changing, and we ought to be mindful of what terms like public opinion, public interest and public domain mean to us as a country. Defining these aspects are critical in our policy landscape, given the ever-changing technological tools. He writes, “in all major industrial countries, governments are trying to roll over technological innovation into economic prosperity and are doing so in the name of the public,” (Raboy, 1990, 352). Amidst mounting technological and financial challenges, we must question whether this same model should be employed in Canada. In his article, “Television in a Digital Age” Shaun P. Hargreaves Heap explores the strained relationship between public service broadcasters and new media. He argues that new media opens additional space for PSB to thrive, and that these institutions have the opportunity to be the most
innovative in this field. He writes that the PSB mandate becomes increasingly important in a digital environment for four reasons, especially given that there is an under-provision of information (news, current affairs programming) in the existing television landscape; there is an over production of programs by all players in the system with nowhere to distribute; under-production of “horizonstretching” (or as the CBC may call it, “distinctive”) programming; and finally, there is a low level of innovation in the programming market (Hargreaves Heap, 115). However, even noting these things there is not necessarily a direct trajectory to increased public programming. As noted earlier, Canadian broadcasting has always strived to uphold a public-centric ideological framework. In recent years, this model has been compromised due to two major issues: convergence and fragmentation in the market. Internet-based technologies are making content more widely available and more cheaply through outlets other than traditional broadcasters. This is a problem facing both public and private broadcasters as the market continues to fragment towards new players in the system like Netflix, Google TV, Hulu, etc. Due to these increased financial pressures from declining market share, there is a remarkable trend towards consolidation in Canadian media in an attempt to survive. Unlike other broadcasters, the CBC is not in the position to simply acquire, or be acquired by other larger parent companies. Though consolidation, other broadcasters are able to further monetize content by sharing it across platforms and by reconstructing audiences towards service packages that stitch together content. For the CBC, this is made worse by decreased financial support from the government. As Nicholas Garnham has noted, “the crisis facing public broadcasting is part of a wider political crisis, namely a profound shift in people’s attitudes to the State and to the State’s proper role in social life,” (quoted in Raboy, 1990, 354).
Garnham has attempted to characterize this shift, and links, in the same vein as Habermas, the destruction of the public sphere to the advent of mass media, particularly television. He writes that institutions charged with promoting public values are under threat and undergoing a significant shift characterized by “a reinforcement of the market and the progressive destruction of public service as the preferred mode for allocation of cultural resources; by a focus upon the TV set as the locus for an increasingly privatized, domestic mode of consumption…by a shift from largely national to largely international markets in the informational and cultural spheres,” (Garnham, 38). We may argue that the CBC’s ability to foster the public sphere is marked by its move towards commercialized television. Symptoms of this ideological shift include the expansion of television delivery services, progressive deregulation and privatization of national monopolies, news aggregation, increased advertising and sponsorship, and a distinctive move away from open and free access to media (Garnham, 39). These are all issues facing Canada’s public broadcaster today. With major challenges to traditional conceptualizations of PSB and more broadly, the state, how can we search for public value? Perhaps more importantly, how do we define this? To understand the challenges facing the public sphere, we ought to look to Habermas to assist us in both conceptualizing and refuting traditional conceptions of the public sphere. Specifically, exploring Habermasian ideals can actually assist us in arguing in favour of utilizing new media to better meet the CBC’s mandate and to find both political and economic value in public broadcasting. As Garnham has identified, PSB is traditionally identified by two characteristics: firstly, it “presupposes and then tries to develop in its practice a set of social relations which are distinctly political rather than economic; [and] at the same time attempts to insulate itself from control by the state as opposed to political control,” (45). The question of ‘value’ when we refer to PSB is both an economic and political question. It is economic in that its
operations must be sustained through financing, and we ought to most efficiently use taxpayers’ money to provide services. It is political in that we can create value in our public broadcaster by helping to foster an institution that promotes public ideals like participation, democracy and seeks to provide something for every Canadian. Particularly in the case of the CBC, we need to assess how we can better meet both of these things if there is hope for survival in this ever-changing environment.
Habermas, New Media and the Public Sphere
New media is the best avenue for the CBC to increase both its political and economic value and to meet broader policy objectives like fostering national identity and culture. The theory of the public sphere is the most appropriate framework for this analysis for a number of reasons, and in utilizing Habermas’ conditions for the creation of a new public sphere, it is evident that employing new media is the best means by which to do this. Habermas has written that the mass media may be the largest threat to fostering a public sphere, as it replaced the world of printed media with a “pseudo-public or sham-private world of consumption,” (160). In this analysis, I believe we can equate his concept of the mass media to the CBC’s commercialized format, and more broadly to mean Canadian television in general. We might pinpoint this as the downfall of the public broadcaster in Canada, having effectively destroyed its formative ideals by forcing it into a commercialized format, forced to compete against other broadcasters. Decreased funding from the federal government without an appropriate adjustment in mandate, increased fragmentation of the market due to new technologies, and the CRTC’s continued imposition of public policy objectives on private broadcasters are all important considerations in this discussion.
Habermas conceptualized the public sphere as something that evolved from the private sphere itself: a collection of private individuals coming together as a public, meeting in places like salons and coffee houses. Habermas believed that these traditionally bourgeois public spheres were complicated by the introduction of mass media, particularly television and radio, as they moved individuals away from the participatory nature of printed media, impeding critical engagement. He wrote, “radio, film, and television by degrees reduce to a minimum the distance that a reader is forced to maintain toward the printed letter—a distance that required the privacy of appropriation as much as it made possible the publicity of a rational-critical exchange about what had been read,” (Habermas, 170). He asserts that the public sphere dissolved when we moved away from the printed word, writing that in the proliferation of mass media, “the public is split apart into minorities of specialists who put their reason to use non-publicly and the great mass of consumers whose receptiveness is public but uncritical. Consequently, it completely lacks the form of communication specific to a public,” (175). Habermas specifically takes issue with mass media because he believed that “the ‘culture’ propagated by the mass media is a culture of integration. It not only integrates information with critical debate and the journalistic format with the literary forms of the psychological novel into a combination of entertainment and ‘advice’ governed by the principle of ‘human interest’” (Habermas, 175). He would argue, that the CBC’s strategy of providing popular programming is ineffective and cannot foster a critical public sphere in Canada. The inclusion of advertising on its television offerings makes it even less distinct for Canadians browsing channel offerings. Habermas believed that the mass media allowed for critical debate to “disappear behind a veil of internal decision making concerning the selection and presentation of the material,” (169). In the case of the
CBC, whose mandate requires “distinctive programming”2, any likelihood to skew programming decisions in favour of ratings, advertising, or suiting the whims of the Conservative government is problematic. Further integration and reliance on new media would actually endeavour them to offer a greater plurality of programming (including back catalogue programming) to a greater range of audience interests and in this way is more participatory. Perhaps most important to our discussion of the CBC is Habermas’ assertion that the state both builds and destroys the public sphere, and that there are avenues for re-imagining and rebuilding a new public sphere. In order for the CBC to weather the storm it finds itself in, and to reimagine its PSB mandate, we must create a new public sphere, ushered in by new media technologies. Habermas identified three institutional criteria as pre-conditions for the emergence of a new public sphere that can be argued in the context of the CBC. First, a disregard of status—every private individual’s status regarded as unimportant to the fostering of critical debate. We can see that the CBC recognizes and prioritizes serving all Canadians through all regions, in many languages in an attempt to ensure that no one group is favoured over another. Secondly, a new public sphere must share a domain of common concern—that is to say, an object of public critical attention. The Broadcasting Act does this by explicitly outlining public policy and social objectives for the system, and enshrines the mandate of the CBC. The Corporation has taken it upon itself to openly put forth its mission as the public broadcaster, identifying key points that it believes are a common ground for discussing PSB. In their 2015: Everyone, Every Way strategic plan, the CBC recognized that public broadcasting in Canada simply cannot mean all things to all people—but, “in its scope, it stakes the claim that we can be something for, and mean something to, every Canadian,” (CBC, 1). They focused on three key areas: a need for more
The CBC provides distinctive programming by being the only broadcaster who has 90% Canadian content in prime time, who produces most of its content in-house, and who provides programming reflective of Canada’s regions.
national, regional and digital programming to help meet their mandate. The CBC believes that these are the areas that concern Canadians the most: “Canadians expect meaningful content from their national broadcaster; content that provides value,” (CBC, 1). Finally, and perhaps most importantly, to create a new public sphere, it must promote and maintain inclusivity for its participants. The public sphere should always be immersed in an inclusive public open to private persons. It is this point where I believe the CBC is in the best position to utilize new media as a platform for fostering a public sphere in Canada. In their strategic plan, the CBC highlights the importance of utilizing digital programming to create inclusive and interactive programming so as to connect Canadians where and how they want to be connected to “create new spaces and to make new links between the country’s public broadcaster and the public we serve,” (CBC, 2). Habermas’ theory asserts that otherwise private institutions can create the public sphere. This is exactly what is happening in Canada in the wake of new funding cuts to the CBC that are seeing a $115 million dollar funding cut over the next three years (CBC News). Habermas writes, “wherever the public established itself institutionally as a stable group of discussants, it did not equate itself with the public but at most claimed to act as its mouthpiece, in its name, perhaps even as an educator—the new form of bourgeois representation,” (36-7). The CBC is poised for a significant renewal as social groups have begun to undertake larger questions of PSB into their own hands to begin a national dialogue surrounding what Canada wants in its public broadcaster. New media is ushering in the ability to do this.
New Media in Canada
Seeing the daunting task before the CBC, we must begin to contemplate prescriptive methods for how we can combat irrelevancy in a multi-channel environment amidst funding shortfalls. New media offers a new space for Canada’s public broadcaster to not only thrive, but also to better serve its mandate and foster a public sphere. To do this, we need to reimagine the CBC, particularly as it pertains to its PSB mandate. As Davidson Dunton has written, Canada is already naturally in a position to import American programming due to its geographic location, where the most populated parts of the country are closer to a US border than to one another. This poses a significant challenge in trying to establish a strong cultural foothold. He writes, “if Canada is to exist as a truly independent country, in the long run, it must produce at least a reasonable measure of the food for its people’s minds; Canadians must be able to communicate with one another, at least to some extent, through their media; and Canadian creativity must have a fair chance,” (Dunton, 64). As an existing innovator in the field, the CBC should continue to invest in its new media undertakings in order to monetize its content and to provide better economic and political value to Canadians. Aufderheide cites Lawrence Daressa in her article, who writes, “public television…would foreground the audience rather than its own programming: it would place the audience in the picture not in front of it…it would invite the audience to remake its world,” (Aufderheide, 179-180). The CBC is already fostering this kind of relationship with its viewers through its commitment to regional representation, national storytelling, and through its participatory online and new media forums. Indeed, perhaps truly public broadcasting is an endeavour that makes programming that fortifies the public sphere, but if we look to the CBC’s current mandate, it is obvious that it is
poised to implement that kind of programming, it just may not be through traditional channels. New media boasts the potential to foster a public sphere. As a country, Canada is a ripe environment for such kind of innovation for a number of reasons. Canada is a geographically dispersed country. This fact is one of the reasons the CBC’s mandate is so difficult to implement. The cost alone of maintaining a massive radio and television network is an arduous, expensive task. The CBC’s recent application to shut down its analog transmitters is a very clear example of this. Unable to afford the cost of the transition to digital, the CBC is instead planning to shut down transmitters in “nonmandatory” markets. The cost of radio and television is absolutely prohibitive to the CBC. New media, on the other hand is a much more cost-effective avenue that requires significantly less capital investment. Canada is one of the highest Internet-using countries in the world. It was ranked 9th of OECD countries in the 2011 Broadband Report for highest number of households with broadband access. It is also one of the fastest growing broadband markets, having more than tripled since 2001, from 21.6% to 72.2% in 2009 (OECD), growing at an average rate of 6.3% a year. At this rate, we can expect nearly 100% broadband penetration in Canada before the end of the decade. It is not just that Canadians enjoy using the Internet they also increasingly have the tools to access high speed broadband in the home. Canadians have a very high number of households with access to a computer, at 81.7% in 2009 (OECD). Since 2000, this number has grown from 55.2%, with an average yearly growth of 2.94%, a number that will only increase as technologies become less expensive. The CBC’s new media undertakings are already extremely well utilized by Canadians. As data indicates, usage continues to increase across all platforms. In a single week3, the CBC reports 3.69 million viewers on CBC Digital, 1.48 million using CBC apps, 1.16 million to CBC.ca and 3.1 3
Data procured from CBC’s Research Department for usage from April 15, 2012 to April 21, 2012.
million on the mobile browsing site (CBC Digital). For a public broadcaster who is spending less than five per cent of their annual budget on new media undertakings, it is clear that Canadians are inclined to turn to the public broadcaster for new media. The numbers should also be framed in Canada’s relatively small population of 34,126,000 (World Bank). Since April 2011, CBC mobile device visits have stabilized at an average of 2,346,320 weekly users. Online usage is prominent particularly for CBC Radio, with many of the most popular daily programs (The Current, As it Happens, Ideas and Q) averaging over 100,000 online listeners in a day. These same programs average nearly 275,000 podcast downloads (CBC Digital). As the data demonstrates, the CBC’s radio is at its strongest in podcasts, truly meeting the vision of providing CBC services where and when Canadians want to listen to them. It is not only the larger format, high budget dailies that are receiving this kind of response. Some of the CBC’s weekly shows are averaging over 133,000 downloads for programs like the Vinyl Café, which is comparable to shows like Q that are receiving 138,000 podcast downloads weekly. The trend is quite obvious: if the CBC were able to direct funding towards new media research, development and innovation, it might continue to grow its market share in the digital realm, arguably better servicing Canadians. This does not necessarily require a funding increase from the federal government, but rather a commitment to the three pillars of the CBC: radio, television and new media. By reassessing its services, we can better understand the role of the CBC in a digital environment. The CBC’s application to remove its analog transmitters is a major turning point in terms of accomplishing this. Acknowledging that Canadians have a high cable and satellite subscription service, the need for a complex OTA television network is questionable amidst funding shortfalls. One of the greatest benefits to moving the CBC towards a greater reliance on new media is that proportionally, the costs are much lower than in analog media. Unlike OTA, the CBC does
not need to maintain a coast-to-coast network of transmitters, broadcasting stations, etc. In fact, it can further centralize some of its operations to reduce costs. The financial benefits to using new media are speculative, but promising. By making more of its back catalogue content available online, the CBC might further monetize its existing content while also serving niche markets in a similar model to Netflix. The more content the CBC makes available to its users, the more aligned it is with its strategy of creating something for every Canadian. Additionally, new media can facilitate individualized programming for radio, a model that has been made very popular by the CBC’s existing online-only stations Radio 3 and Bande à part, its French sister site. The highest percentage of online users in Canada are between 16-24, new media undertakings may be the most attractive to this demographic. Further, we can assume that as users become more familiar with the CBC’s new media offerings, they may migrate across platforms, integrating apps, mobile browsing and online radio into their daily media consumption.
Potential Issues with New Media
There are two predominant issues that arise when suggesting a move to new media by the public broadcaster: 1) the digital divide, and 2) “isolationist” fears over high Internet usage. The CBC has already asserted a certain amount of dismissal on this issue due to their decision to shut down their OTA network. If television remains the primary delivery method for the CBC, then this is arguably more problematic than proposing that the public broadcaster ought to spend more on digital. In an ideal scenario, the CBC would have the capital to do both of these things. In reality, it does not, and should be treated as such. This being said, the CBC does have a mandate to serve all Canadians, but this is unclear in terms of practical implementation. If we interpret this to mean that
all Canadians should have access to a CBC service, then we can safely say that even with the shutdown of analog OTA and an increased reliance on new media, the CBC would still be reaching Canadians in some way. However, if we interpret this to mean that all CBC services (digital, television, radio) should be made available to all Canadians, then this is a larger public policy problem in terms of universal access to technological infrastructure, and would again reflect the government’s disconnect between the CBC’s funding and its mandate. I would argue that the interpretation of the mandate should be the former. In 2009, Statistics Canada reported that the digital divide in Canada was beginning to close based on factors including income, education and age between 2007 and 2009. They noted that Internet use among all groups increased at different rates (up to 98% from 96% for users 16-24; up to 66% from 56% of users 45 and up), but that the 45 and up demographic accounts for 60% of new Internet users since 2007 (Statistics Canada). Overall, the trend of regular home use, and higher Internet speeds in the home is noticeably increasing. Perhaps most remarkably, they reported that in communities of 10,000 or more, 83% used the Internet compared with 73% of those from communities with fewer people. In 2007, these numbers were 76% and 65% respectively, which demonstrates a quickly closing gap for Canadian users (Statistics Canada). Although this is still not perfect, when we juxtapose this information against the data from the OECD and the CBC, it is evident that Canada is ripe for Internet usage, which would justify further expenditure on new media. The second issue is the assertion that a reliance on Internet-based technologies to foster a public sphere will only create an “isolationist” group of individuals, and not a participatory group. There are three lenses through which to view changing social interactions: isolationist, participationist and networked (B. Veenhof et al.). When discussing whether the CBC could
feasibly foster a public, we should explore the latter two viewpoints. In their report “How Canadians’ Use of the Internet Affects Social Life and Civic Participation” by B. Veenhof et al., they argue that Internet users are at least as social and spend as much time with family, friends, and in their community as non-users. As a participatory tool, the Internet can exist to assist individuals in building larger social circles to not only interact, but also build a knowledge base through common interests and discussion. It is also used to facilitate face-to-face interaction. Internet users have as much in-person and phone interaction as non-users, and in fact, many use the Internet to increase their total connectivity with friends and family. The report explains that Internet-users can further the participatory nature of the Internet by creating groups or networks. This is the most salient to this paper, as it attempts to answer the question of whether Canadians would continue to be integrated into solid social groupings (family, friends, colleagues), or whether their immediate communities become more sparsely knit and complex social networks because of the Internet. The authors write, In such networked situations, people maneuver between—and link with— multiple, partial, specialized communities. The argument is that cars, planes, phones and the Internet all mean that people are less confined to their neighbourhoods for their social activities, that dual careers have supported complex networks that are increasingly friendship-based, and that the personal communication systems of mobile phones and the Internet are fostering person-to-person activities (B. Veenhof et al., 7). New media presents the CBC with a unique opportunity to create larger social cohesion through public broadcasting in a way that radio and television have never accomplished. By being able to connect Canadians in real time through online platforms, the public broadcaster can foster discourse and dialogue around questions of national interest, Canadian culture, and can bring together the country’s otherwise disparate regions. The CBC’s new media endeavours need not only look towards a national scope for fostering the public sphere. Because each of the CBC’s television and
radio offerings have their own local website, these can also serve as local or regional public spheres, bringing together otherwise private individuals in their own communities.
Hope for PSB in Canada
If the recent round of budget cuts affecting the CBC has done anything in Canada, it has sparked a national conversation about how we can reimagine the roll of the public broadcaster. In a shining example of how the Internet and new media can foster the public sphere, the group Reimagine CBC has led Canadians online towards a nation-wide discussion about what we want to see in our public broadcaster. The objectives of the campaign are built on a forward-looking fear for the CBC: “as digital technology is breaking old business models, it is also enabling new forms of participation in our culture, economy and governance. Perhaps most importantly, it’s connecting Canadians as never before,” (Reimagine CBC). In the same vein as this paper, the campaign seeks to reimagine PSB for three reasons: 1) the creation of an informed citizenry; 2) noting a digital deficit in Canada in terms of access, speeds, pricing and innovation, and argues that the CBC is already an effective and efficient platform for digital media; and 3) the history of the CBC and more broadly, the Canadian broadcasting system requires that we keep with the tradition of PSB and reimagine it in our new digital environment. Timed to coincide with the CBC’s license renewals in the Fall of 2012, the premise of the campaign is that Canadians can utilize the web to submit their ideas, and the community at large can debate, discuss and even vote for what their favourite ideas for the CBC are. In conjunction with this, Reimagine CBC is encouraging Canadians to both attend their planned national events, and to also host their own community events to discuss the future of PSB in Canada. Ultimately,
the campaign hopes to accomplish three objectives: “1. Ignite a national conversation to reimagine the role of public media in the age of participation. 2. Develop a crowd-sourced plan to enable the CBC to take on a leadership position in the digital era. 3. Enable the CBC to delve deeper into exploring online tools and web-inspired practices for collaboration, civic engagement, conversation, innovation and new forms of storytelling,” (Reimagine CBC). They ask users to rank six values in terms of preference for a public broadcaster in Canada, including whether the CBC should be primarily: open and participatory; informative and in-depth; a digital innovator; community-driven; uniquely Canadian, or exist as a watchdog over powerful interests (Reimagine CBC). In only a few short months this campaign has garnered support from tens of thousands of Canadians, each seeking to have their input on the CBC heard, asking what is value for public money?
In this paper I have attempted to overview the question of creating both economic and political value for Canada’s public broadcaster. By exploring the CBC’s history alongside Habermas’ theory of the public sphere, I have argued that the CBC is in the best position to create value for Canadians by fostering a national discourse through the public sphere. However, in order to do this, the current mandate and legislative framework of the CBC must be addressed by parliament. In doing this, we might hope to re-assess PSB values in Canada and begin the process of discussing what Canadians want in their public broadcaster. As we move towards an increasingly digital, multi-channel environment, in light of funding shortfalls, the CBC must seek to monetize its operations while also providing value in the public sphere. New media
undertakings are in the best position to assist the CBC in both achieving their mandate, and giving value for public money. As the data in this paper has shown, Canadians are already high consumers of new media platforms, particularly those of the public broadcaster. If given a renewed mandate that would allow them to focus on a digital strategy, the CBC would be poised to create a participatory public sphere in Canada, fully realizing a dream imagined long ago.
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Published on Nov 19, 2012
Siobhan Ozege, a Communication and Culture graduate student at Ryerson University, has written an interesting exploration of the potential...