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The CBC: Recommendations for Survival in a Digital World

Posted: January 3rd, 2012   |   Category: Blog | Case Studies | Industry News | Open

Static in the air, no reception.
Was it just a bad antenna or your perception
of the silence that surrounds you,
your ears will move to find it.
Don’t do looking,
my heart was tuned to find you

The Acorn, Bad Antenna

Preamble and Apologies

Weeks ago, the CBC celebrated it’s 75th birthday.  While I haven’t said anything yet, I’ll say it now:  Happy Birthday CBC and here’s wishing you 75 (and many) more!

I admit that this is a very, very big topic, but I want to offer some advice for the CBC nonetheless.  I’ve thought a lot about this topic over the past few weeks and I honestly worry that I won’t be able to cover all of the angles, nor will I be able to address some of the concepts that are near and dear to my heart:  digital strategy.  Some ideas may even seem (gasp!) outdated or already part of the plan for ‘the mother ship’.

That said, I’m going to plow ahead and invite you to join this discussion.  Whatever you do, don’t let my apologies dissuade you from reading the awesome article that follows!  Please join along, add your thoughts and engage in the debate.  This is a public organization and I think we should all have our chance to inject our ‘2 cents’ whenever possible.

I’ll also make clear that I may touch on some topics (eg. Media subsidies) with little more than a promise to try to research and write about said topics at a later date.  I hope this works for all of you.  If not, I consider myself an ‘open’ person and will enjoy your feedback, regardless of what kind of feedback you offer.

The Current Status of the CBC

We all know that the CBC is a unique feature in the Canadian news, broadcasting and media creation businesses.  Millions of Canadians seek out the unique shows and programming, but also rely heavily on this broadcaster for updates about national and global events and the occasional (but decreasing) content related to local activities.

For many, the downside is that it’s a government-funded institution to the tune of $1 billion per year (give or take).  Many media organizations want to eliminate the CBC as a news and information option and are pushing for de-funding the CBC.

I believe that for most Canadians, the benefits clearly outweigh these costs and Canadians generally support a publicly-funded media organization.

The CBC is Canada’s only truly ubiquitous broadcaster with a consistent management and information network.  Despite its national mandate, the CBC has proven in the past that it’s capable of delivering functional and valuable local news and information, as well as entertainment.

The CBC is one of the world’s most viable government-funded broadcasters and helps deliver Canadian content to the global stage and facilitates the introduction of Canadians to the world’s diverse cultures, journalists and political activities.

The CBC is innovative, well beyond its mandate.  It was leading the charge with distribution efforts (eg. It was the first broadcaster to test BitTorrent) and has integrated social tools, interactive elements and other tactics to its benefit, all the while avoiding alienating a very loyal majority of Canadian users.

Despite these massive local, national and international successes, the CBC needs to rapidly enter ‘adaptation mode’ in order to survive the next few years, let alone the next several decades.

Is The CBC Accessible?

In order to address the current state of the CBC and to be able to offer some tangible advice, we need to ask and address the question: since we’re funding the CBC, are Canadians getting a public service that is accessible at any time any where?

Canadian should be asking this question more.  As far as I’m concerned, the answer is no.

Canadians have the expectation that since they have paid for the CBC once – through the general revenue of the federal government – they should not have to pay for it again.

However, when I started to think about this article and looked more closely at all of its points of access, I realized that the CBC is no longer as accessible and ubiquitous as we think it is. Let’s look at the different formats:

  1. Television:  with the requirement to convert from analog to digital broadcasting, Canadians will need a digital receiver to get CBC programming or cable or satellite access through a private company.  While there has been a pause on this requirement, most analog options have disappeared.  Of course, the CBC News Network has been unavailable for years, as it’s only been accessible through cable or satellite subscriptions, but the elimination of analog as an option has closed this door to most Canadians that wanted to see their broadcaster without paying for it twice.
  2. Radio:  again, as our government converts airwaves into cash-flow by engaging in massive spectrum auctions, we lose access to the CBC over the airwaves and will have to resort to satellite services like Sirius or XM.
  3. Internet:  CBC.ca and related web sites have never been accessible without having to pay a private service first.  Canadians have always had to access the CBC web site via private ISPs, although access via library or wireless with local coffee shops may be an option for some.
  4. Mobile:  as we enter the age of wireless, the CBC lacks accessibility for the same simple reasons as the Internet in general, but there’s also a wave of competition from the vast marketplace of apps designed to let users gain access to thousands of stations, all customized to personal taste.

As you can see, the central planks of the CBC ‘broadcasting’ strategy are unavailable to Canadians that want public content.  While some may consider this a technicality, I consider it to be a critical component of the recommendations that I’ll make for the CBC as it enters the 21st century.

A Survival Guide for the Digital Era

I believe that Canadians need to rethink our position on what we want from the CBC.

We should be asking ourselves and our politicians a very critical question about what we expect from the CBC:  should the CBC create content, enable content or should it deliver content?  I like to think it should be a combination of all three because, as the saying goes, it takes three legs to make a table stand.

The CBC might be successful with any of these options.  The bulk of this article will explore each of these options, but I’ll close off by discussing some issues related to financing, budgeting and the concept of ‘open’.

Creation of Content

Historically, the CBC has been at the forefront of creating unique Canadian content.  Some people may argue that this content is less than great, like ‘Afghanada’, a thinly-veiled propaganda piece designed to encourage Canadians to have an interest in our war efforts, but there is a process related to content creation in Canada and, like or not, the CBC is at the centre of it.

With the future already here, the CBC must change quickly if it’s going to survive.  Broadcasting as it currently exists is a dying to dead industry and it won’t be long before the likes of CTV, Global and others crawl to the public asking for handouts like they were back in 2008 when car companies were on the rocks.

Without changing its approach, the CBC will get sucked up into a vortex of desperate ‘wait until next week’ cliff-hanger shows or reality TV that would make a seven-year-old want to puke.

The alternative to broadcasting is to take all of our content – Canada’s vast media history that the CBC watches over and maintains – and begin to aggressively negotiate distribution contracts with new points of access.  The CBC could leverage relationships with other platforms and delivery mechanisms like Sony and their Playstation, Netflix, YouTube, iTunes, Kinect, Wii and so on.

As a recent subscriber to Netflix, I have discovered that this strategy would have a two-fold benefit.  First, it would expand content that I can choose to watch anytime, anywhere and it would be without ads.  Second, it would immediately expand Canada’s vast repertoire of content to the rest of the world.  Our culture could gain an instant foothold and finally get the respect that it deserves in a global environment.

Enabling the Creation of Content

If the CBC wanted to enable the creation of content, there are endless tools available to make this happen and the strategy would take on at least two avenues of development.

First, they would have to modify their business structure so that it would be easy for all Canadians to create, swap, share, promote and enjoy Canadian content created by a much larger pool of resources.  Platforms like YouTube, WordPress, Vimeo and other tools can be tapped into in order to allow for unique content to be ‘corralled’ under the guise of ‘Canadian content’.  While the quality may drop in this kind of scenario, the quantity will increase drastically.

Radio offers an exceptional opportunity for this kind of approach.  I can’t stand listening to commercial radio because there’s always some dude yelling at me to buy used cars or get new diamonds at low, low prices.  A better way has been introduced in the US under the banner of Prometheus Radio.  This group has finally received the support of the FCC and they are now responsible for hundreds of local community radio stations appearing across the United States.

By combining existing radio assets, crowd-sourced news and additional funding for local news and information channels (all analog, of course), the CBC could propel the radio business into the 21st century.  A leader with this kind of technology is Paper.li (http://paper.li/) where users can go and create their own instant, daily or weekly “newspaper”.  Perhaps the CBC should partner with these guys?

The resulting news and information from crowds might look like this:

  • Automatic broadcasts across the network for specific emergencies:
    • Weather
    • Political/news
    • Amber alerts
    • Traffic alerts
    • Fire / police emergencies
    • Users can opt in for specific issues
    • Targeting would be a function of the broadcast message
      • Local
      • Provincial
      • National
      • International
      • Language:  Canada has to move beyond the ‘two language’ debate and accept that we have many people, from many countries and cultures around the globe.  Being able to access news and information in your own language would go a long way to fulfilling the CBC’s mandate of accessibility.
      • Additional media sources:  with so many blogs, indie publications and alternative news sources available, the CBC would be a great aggregator, like Google’s new Currents project or even something like DIGG.
      • Posts and other comments should have an expiry date:  when I post something to my wife, there’s no need for it to exist in the digital universe for more than a couple of minutes, let alone eternity
        • Users can modify their settings so that they can choose how long comments will last

An example of how this is happening in the market?  Spotify, although some disagree that Spotify is the way to the future with radio.  Perhaps the CBC can partner with Spotify or a similar Canadian organization to create custom radio stations across the country that are supported by feeds from the CBC?

Of course, radio is just one format by which this crowd-sourced news and information is distributed.  Apps, TV and other platforms might have custom points of access through which we can get this information, vote on its rank, its importance, commenting and so on.

The CBC could even takes things one step further and become its own social network.  Who needs Facebook or YouTube as a middle-man?  There are dozens of platforms like Buddy Press or Ning which enable the implementation of unique social networks that have their own privacy guidelines (we know that Facebook’s is full of holes) and uses of information.

Finally, there is a dark spectre that few Canadians seem to be aware of.  News and information in Canada is rapidly being ‘privatized’ and a bottle-neck has been created with the creation of the recently privatized Canadian Press.  Few people have followed that Bell, TorStar and Gesco now control most of the content that is spread via broadcasters, including the CBC, and this is not an ideal way to create an honest news environment for Canadians.  In summary, news and information should be relevant and it shouldn’t exist simply to make a profit.

The solution to this situation is simple:  the CBC needs to respond to the privatization of news with a Canadian news and information co-op.  Canadians would essentially offer up competition to the corporate PR machine that gets thrust on us throughout the day.

A second option for the CBC is to become the country’s leading ‘culture investment fund’, with plans to invest in different aspects of culture, allocating our public funds to independent creators of content as well as the mainstream producers.  I won’t get into how allocations would be made, but I’d suggest something like a public / professional / private board that looked at how funds would be split up.

Delivering Content

Finally, Canadians should begin to seriously ask about how public funding might result in a ‘bigger bang for the buck’ scenario.

We need to think about how the CBC can become a tool for delivering content.  I don’t think this concept has been talked about much in the public sphere, but I’m going to put that idea forward now and encourage others to embrace it as well.

The basic idea is that we begin to think of the CBC like we might have thought about Canada Post 100 years ago.  At the turn of the 20th century, Canadians needed a way to communicate with each other by mail.  We needed a publicly-owned service that we could trust to deliver our content from one person to another (or broadly) with minimal cost, quick service, reliability and privacy.

Today, we need exactly those considerations (privacy, reliability, etc) when thinking about our digital communications.  And if we agree on this, then the next leap in recommendations is very logical:  the CBC should be Canada’s leader when it comes to investing in digital communications infrastructure that all ISPs, from mega-monopolies like Bell and Rogers to the ‘guy next door’ ISP, can tap into and deliver to Canadians as wholesalers.

Middle-men like Bell, Rogers and Quebecor would be eliminated and everyone would have access to the pipe, so long as they were a committed ISP.

Don’t forget that the Canadian digital infrastructure started this way:  it was built with Canadian funds and then sold off to private communications companies for a song.

Also, despite the promise that privatizing pipelines would bring lower rates, we’ve had to suffer through the opposite.  The cost of accessing content has increased dramatically in recent years because we allow ourselves to be controlled by monopolies.  Canadians pay the highest rates in the world for cable, satellite, wireless and internet communications and this has to end.

I know.  This is a ‘powder keg’ solution waiting for a match, but think about what the mandate of the CBC is (or at least should be):  universal access to news and information.  Many Canadians, particularly in rural areas, do not have access to any kind of information, mainly because the CBC isn’t allowed to extend itself to specific underpopulated areas, but also because private companies won’t extend themselves for economic reasons.

I didn’t really think about this issue much until later in this summer when a little rural town called Goderich got hammered by a surprise tornado.  While this happened, millions of other Ontario inhabitants knew that something was happening, but there really didn’t seem to be a centralized news and information source that offered up warnings and updates that we could trust.  Social platforms were abuzz with speculation and commercial stations were crammed with loudmouths complaining about the state of CBC funding (and other things).

Another consideration is the mode via which content is delivered.  The CBC has already gambled (and lost) with distributing programs via Bit Torrent, but there will always be other avenues that they could test.  Technology is always being developed related to Peer-to-peer (P2P) platforms (example:  http://www.masternewmedia.org/the-alternative-p2p-wireless-internet-network-the-netsukuku-idea/) and it’s time the CBC took up its role as leader in this category again.

Let’s face it:  this limited array of accessible and up-to-date options is dangerous for Canadians and we need a better way to create, promote and distribute information.

The Irony:  Non-Digital Solutions to a Digital Crisis

I’ve mentioned a few times that the critical question to address centres around accessibility.  What’s the point of having a digital TV network if an increasing volume of people can’t watch your programming?

Recently, the CRTC decided that the CBC would be given an extension on the requirement to convert to digital, but this requirement, regardless of when it’s implemented, insults all Canadians that refuse to subscribe to cable or satellite services (a number that’s growing by leaps and bounds every year).

In this situation, the CBC has a clear strategic option:  if they’re forced to stick with a more basic infrastructure, both radio and TV should focus on analog distribution, ie. over the airwaves.  It’s the only way to ensure public accessibility.

As everyone else races to lock Canadians into expensive rate plans, this strategy would give the CBC a unique leg-up with the competition as it’ll be the only organization that has access as part of its mandate.

The second path is one of innovation, most of which I’ve outlined above.  Implementing new tools and continuing to leverage existing analog infrastructure will go a long way to creating an engaged public as it relates to news and information.

If the CBC doesn’t take one of these paths, we’ll basically have to pay for it twice.  And at extremely high rates to for-profit companies.

Canadians need to understand that this has already happened under our watch and we need to reject it.

Epilogue:  Funding the CBC

Canadians have lead themselves to believe that there aren’t a lot of options when it comes to funding the CBC.  We’ve been lead to believe that we pay our taxes, they get allocated to the CBC and the CBC just … is.

More importantly, the financial activity of the CBC is under attack, particularly from Sun Media and other right-wingers that believe all news should be privatized.  To be honest, I’m actually OK with the CBC opening its books, as I believe all government organizations should open their books and not just the CBC.

Of course, in the interest of consistency and in order to avoid the perception of favouritism, I would include the Department of Defence, Finance, Environment, Health and other government organizations with this spirit of openness, as they account for substantially larger portions of federal budget and also need to be exposed for Canadian review.

So yes, for once, I’ll find myself agreeing with the likes of Quebecor President Peledeau and Ezra Levant, but would expect some consistency across the board with the idea of ‘open’ and what it should mean to all Canadians.  I don’t want to single out the CBC simply because it’s obviously the ‘George Bailey-like’ competition to ‘Potter/Peledeau’ and his organization that would have us renting media like ‘Pottersfield’.

What I would also demand – and millions of other Canadians will likely agree to – is that companies like Quebecor should also open their books to the levels of subsidies, over-the-top ad campaigns by their buddies on Parliament Hill and other excesses that are directed specifically for the benefit of private media companies and not for Canada at large.  Quebecor runs many magazines and other media publications that get millions a year in subsidies under the guise of ‘content creation’ (or porkbarreling) and it’s time it comes to an end.

In addition to opening the books, I would want the CBC to become independent of government funding.  Too often in the past, the CBC has become the mouthpiece of the government of the day and this must change.

If you look at other models, both in Canada and around the world, you’ll see that there are all kinds of options available:

  • We could create a co-op that Canadians can invest in and own directly.  Every Canadian should be able to buy a share, but no Canadian should be able to have more than one vote.
  • A Kickstarter campaign could encourage donations.
  • We could join ThePoint.com and make something happen.
  • The government could convert the status of the CBC to charity status so that donations to the ‘mother ship’ are tax-deductible.  Engage Canadians in annual or semi-annual sponsorship drives to generate more funds for programming.
  • Yet another conversion option:  make investments in the CBC (or parts of it) RRSP-eligible.

This is ‘tip of the iceberg’ when it comes to funding solutions and it would get people like Ezra Levant off the back of the CBC.  More importantly, I like these options more than I like advertising and if we’re successful with even a few of these options, we could declare the CBC to be an ad-free zone, something that I’m sure all Canadians would enjoy.

Conclusions:

It’s time for Canadians to demand more from their public broadcaster and with the advent of new technology, they can also take part in its growth and change.

The CBC can be a critical part of content creation, both within the organization and also with the help of Canadians, and also become central to the delivery of content, particularly if we focus on CBC-funded infrastructure.

If we don’t demand change from the CBC, it will fail.  And when it fails, we’ll all lose out.

In the short-run, you can at least join the hundreds of thousands of other Canadians that are supporting the CBC and petitioning for the protection of funding for the CBC.

Resources:

http://cupedoll.blogspot.com/2011/07/news-of-world-kai-nagata-omnibus-crime.html

http://original.antiwar.com/justin/2011/08/16/the-media-is-the-enemy/

http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/politics/conservatives-summon-sun-journalists-to-testify-in-cbc-fight/article2182010/

http://www.cbc.ca/news/arts/tv/story/2010/03/23/crtc-cbc-protest-decision.html

http://www.michaelgeist.ca/content/view/5985/135/

http://www.michaelgeist.ca/content/view/5980/125/

http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/national/time-to-lead/whats-a-75-year-old-public-broadcaster-to-do/article2130712/

READ COMMENTS:  http://thetyee.ca/Mediacheck/2011/08/30/Canadian-Digital-TV-Transition/

CIA Manipulation of the media:  http://www.boilingfrogspost.com/2011/09/30/the-eyeopener-cia-in-the-news-media-2/

http://www.ic.gc.ca/eic/site/ic1.nsf/eng/06786.html

New Hamilton Service:  http://www.thespec.com/news/local/article/618356–cbc-to-start-online-service-in-hamilton

http://rabble.ca/news/2011/11/creating-cbc-order-build-nation

Canadians support the CBC:  http://farnwide.blogspot.com/2011/11/massive-support-for-cbc.html

http://www.clickz.com/clickz/column/2130629/ipad-look-2012-tv-app

http://www.breakmedia.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/12/Video_Study_2012-12-8.pdf

http://www.michaelgeist.ca/content/view/6203/125/

http://cupedoll.blogspot.com/2011/07/news-of-world-kai-nagata-omnibus-crime.html

http://original.antiwar.com/justin/2011/08/16/the-media-is-the-enemy/

http://www.cbc.ca/news/arts/tv/story/2010/03/23/crtc-cbc-protest-decision.html

http://www.cbc.ca/news/technology/story/2009/08/11/canada-cellphone-rates-expensive-oecd.html

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