Forum publishes new study on public funding of CBC’s operations from 1937 to 2019

The CRTC last invited comments on and heard the applications by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) to renew its radio and television licences in 2012, and in May 2013 renewed CBC’s licences from 1 September 2013 to 31 August 2018.

Given changes in CBC’s senior management the CRTC subsequently renewed CBC’s broadcasting licences administratively (without public process) in July 2017 and October 2018.

The current licences expire 31 August 2020, and in November 2019 the CRTC invited comments on the renewal of CBC’s programming services. Interventions are currently due 20 February 2020. As the CRTC itself observed last November, the landscape of the broadcasting environment has changed considerably since the last time the CBC appeared: “The way in which Canadians consume and create content is changing. Online services and platforms are increasingly being adopted across the country.” 

Subsequently the federal Broadcasting and Telecommunications Legislative Review panel issued its final report on 29 January 2020, helping to lay the foundations for new or amended legislation to guide telecommunications and broadcasting in Canada in the 21st century.

The CRTC’s May 2020 hearing will therefore be a pivotal one for the CBC and for its future role in the national conversation about the nation’s communications system.

To prepare for the CBC licence renewal process and further discussion about Canada’s national public broadcaster, the Forum decided in mid-2019 to undertake a contextual and historical study of funding for CBC’s operations. The results of this study are being published today: An analysis of CBC’s financial history from 1937 to 2019: We tried to follow the money. Frodo had it easier.

The study is based on financial and other data collected from collected from 80 of the 83 Annual Reports published by CBC since 1937 to analyze public funding granted to and received by CBC for its operations.  The majority of these reports were located at university libraries, as (at the time of writing) only 18 of CBC’s Annual Reports were available online.

Apart from numerous inconsistencies in presentation throughout the entire period covered by the Reports, the Forum found that:

  • Parliamentary funding for CBC’s operations has decreased in real, 2002 terms by 36% since 1985
  • CBC’s commercial income has decreased by 40% since 2014
  • total public and commercial funding of CBC’s operations has decreased by 28% since 1985
  • when considered in terms of daily life in Canada, the funding received from Parliament by CBC for its operations has decreased 54%, from 14 cents per person per day in 1985, to 6 cents per person per day in 2019
  • funding for CBC’s operations has not kept pace with economic growth:  since 2009 Canada’s Gross Domestic Product has increased by 21% while public funding for CBC’s operations decreased by 11%, and
  • CBC first operated at a loss in 1945/46 and has operated at a loss in 35 of the 79 years for which data were available, in more than half the years since 2000, and in each of the 7 years since 2013.

The paper draws several conclusions from its analysis of the data:

  • the degree to which CBC remains a public service broadcaster is unclear, as its reliance on commercial revenue means by its own word that it is “committed to supporting” advertisers
  • it is difficult to determine whether the 36% decrease in public funding for CBC’s operations is affecting CBC’s programming, as its Annual Reports do not provide the data needed to measure CBC’s expenditures per original hour of produced or purchased programming, or the types of complaints it receives regarding programming quality
  • Parliament’s sovereignty over CBC’s funding has been weakening, not merely because CBC’s Annual Reports now acknowledge ‘government appropriations’ rather than ‘Parliamentary appropriations’, but also because the process through which CBC’s budget is determined and/or later changed is not transparent
  • non-transparent reporting means that CBC’s legislated independence from government is difficult to evaluate; even if CBC’s reporting were transparent, the current Broadcasting Act does not clearly establish where responsibility for identifying and correcting breaches of such legislative requirements lies, and
  • CBC’s Annual Reports provide too little objective information describing how it fulfills its legislative mandate from Parliament to permit its role in the broadcasting system to be understood, and provide so little consistent historical financial information that Parliament’s financial support of Canada’s national broadcasting service cannot easily be assessed. 

It is unclear why CBC’s annual reports do not currently provide

  • accurate historical overviews of its finances in a consistent format
  • information about the availability of its over-the-air and online services in Canada
  • information about the use of its services by different groups within it audience, or
  • information about the programming that it produces, acquires and broadcasts each year.

Reliable audience data showing how CBC serves different groups in its audience, data on the original and repeat hours of programming that CBC broadcasts on its conventional services and which it already collects (to report to the CRTC), and information about the programming that it distributes through its online services are matters that are at the core of CBC’s mandate from Parliament.

The report – Forum for Research and Policy in Communications (FRPC), An analysis of CBC’s financial history from 1937 to 2019: We tried to follow the money. Frodo had it easier. (February 2020, Ottawa) – is available here.