Consolidation, bad debts and bad mergers helped trigger media crisis.
by Ish Theilheimer, with Melanie Ogilvie
OTTAWA, March 27, 2009, PublicValues.ca: At a time when the federal government is investing billions in economic stimulus, the failure of the federal government to extend bridge financing to the CBC appears increasing ideological.
Stephen Harper and culture minister James Moore are misleading Canadians about the government's level of support for the public broadcaster, according to NDP culture critic Charlie Angus (Timmins-James Bay). Although the level of government subsidy has gone up with inflation, CBC ad revenues have plummeted. Because CBC — a longtime target of the Harper Conservatives — is publicly owned, it can only borrow from the federal government, which has refused financing to get CBC through hard times.
"We have massive job losses at CBC," Angus said. "That's a major crisis in public television. [It's] a crisis [that was] completely avoidable, the result of ideological cuts forced on them by the Conservatives."
Angus says that instead of being evasive and ultimately turning the CBC down, the government should have responded as if CBC were a private broadcaster. "They would have gone to a bank, and they would have gotten bank loan bridge financing. That was the model. They weren't asking this government for handouts."
NDP culture critic Charlie Angus talks about the crisis in the media: (6:19)
The result has been 800 jobs cut, with the losses felt acutely in regional centres. "You can't look at these cuts in any other way than an irresponsible government that is ideologically opposed to the public broadcaster and not in tune with needs of local broadcasting in a time of economic uncertainty," said Angus.
The loss in advertising revenue provided the Conservatives with a means to attack a long-time target without actually making cuts themselves. "So they allowed the advertising drop to happen, and they refused to work on a plan for bridge financing," said Angus. "So it doesn't really matter that the appropriation's the same. There's still a $200 million hole in the side of the good ship CBC."
Angus is concerned that while CBC languishes, the government could come to the aid of the troubled right-leaning CanWest Global news empire. "We have to really watch how any kind of government support for the private broadcasters will proceed at this time," he said.
"The private sector does a very good job in certain areas in terms of local and regional service. And I'm more than willing to go to bat to help them do that. But I'd be very wary about asking the taxpayer to bail out — say in the situation of Canwest — bad corporate decisions that have left them massively overleveraged. That's not something the taxpayer should be interested in at all. What we should be interested in is how do we make a station like CHCH Hamilton — a great local network — how do we make that viable and make sure that it gets on its feet, outside of it's been spun up by Canwest?"
He feels that much of the problem the news media are facing today is related to the trend toward corporate media "convergence", with giant media companies buying up smaller outlets. "We could say that this crisis in local broadcasting has been going on for at least 10 years. Every time we've had an amalgamation of networks, every time we've had a license renewal, they've cut local services.
"... So now, suddenly, we're in a crisis. And they're saying to the CRTC: let's cut more local. Well, they have done every possible cut to local service, and yet we've not seen any evidence that local service is what's costing them the big bucks. I think we're looking at media consolidation, bad debts and bad mergers."
Ish Theilheimer has been Publisher of the leading, and oldest, independent Canadian online newsmagazine, StraightGoods.ca, since founding it in September 1999. He is also Managing Editor of PublicValues.ca. Melanie Ogilvie is Associate Editor of PublicValues.ca.