The Lesson of Spartacus

The Toronto Star has put together a timely special section all about the uncertain future of the CBC, called The Network. To add a little levity to the situation, I’ve been invited to do a weekly tongue-in-cheek video column — minute-long rants offering unsolicited advice to my former employer. Links to the first two instalments below.

At the end of January I posted here about “Reimagine CBC,” a positive, citizen-driven project that taps into the same underlying feeling: that the public broadcaster is at a crossroads. Decisions made now, in the throes of severe budget cuts, will significantly shape Canada’s public conversation moving forward. Will the CBC innovate or stagnate? The stakes are pretty high.

I uploaded my own suggestion to the Reimagine CBC forum — that the public broadcaster dump TV as a medium entirely, focusing its efforts on digital content while there’s still room to experiment.

An editor at the Star saw my Rick Mercer spoof/homage and asked if I could do another dozen or so. I said yes, yes I could.

The first column was called “CBC, meet the Internet” and it went up last week. My core point was that traditional broadcasting operates differently from web publishing. Instead of a one-to-many, unidirectional flow of information, the Internet allows users to find, share, and respond to content — mechanisms the CBC could better harness.

The tone of my column got some people a bit cranky.

A commenter on the Star site named “Kevin O’ Gorman” identified himself as working on, saying “It is true that the Archives site could use a little love, and our search service could do with some improvement. As it happens, both of those are under development. Obviously, being one of the most underfunded PSBs in the world doesn’t help with that, but we make the best of what we have.”

I agree. And the overhaul is good news, especially given budget constraints.

CBC’s executive vice-president of English services weighed in via Twitter:

Stewart, who replaced Richard Stursberg in January 2011, is right to be proud of these things. I think she and I would agree that CBC’s digital services punch way above their weight. At 2.5% of total spending (deduced from page 13 of CBC/Radio-Canada’s 2010-2011 annual report), that puts online programming costs at around $45 million. Please check my math. My point is that for a relatively modest investment, and report 7.5 million unique monthly visitors, with more than 86 million video views last year.

As Stewart points out, the CBC is making a serious effort to meet Canadians where they’re already getting content — online, and on their mobile devices. This is important.

However, for the most part these new platforms are being used as if they’re extensions of traditional broadcasting technology. As if the Internet was another one-way channel for rebroadcasting content created for radio and television.

The lack of any easy way to embed CBC video clips on your Facebook timeline or blog is one example of this philosophical disconnect.

So, irony time. I can’t embed my Star column here, either. It lives on another proprietary video player. As other comment-section wags point out, “sadly, I cannot view it as it doesn’t WORK ON MY IPAD” and:

I’m happy to wear some of that egg on my face. Cockiness rarely goes unpunished for long.

As the weeks go by I’ll be offering more specific examples of what the CBC (and other Canadian media companies) might do with their new friend, Internet.

Meantime, here’s the link to video column #2: “The Lesson of Spartacus“. I argue that, with the budget cuts now a reality, it’s time for the CBC to stop tiptoeing around the people who want to see it crippled and dismantled.

I recorded this before we had the details of the federal budget.

Now we know what Heritage Minister James Moore’s pledge was worth to “maintain or increase support for the CBC”. (Read Tyee chief Dave Beers’ op-ed, “Minister Moore’s Sucker Punch to the CBC” here.)

Even in this climate of austerity, the CBC is facing disproportionate hardship. As Reimagine CBC’s Tyler Morgenstern pointed out in a release, “The 10.4% cut is larger than the 7% cut facing the Department of Canadian Heritage, which suggests the CBC has been specifically targeted.”

So, time to innovate. Time to invest in low-cost, high-yield platforms. Time to build a community out of a broadcasting corporation.

  1. I can nod and go along with your suggestions that the CBC move towards a more online and mobile format but then I think of Radio-Canada and suddenly it becomes very problematic for me. I LIKE Radio Canada just the way it is, thank you very much. There’s emphasis on international news and investigative reporting (at least there was until the budget cuts). Is TVA going to send someone to the Middle-East to report the news from there? Never in a million years. It fulfills a need that isn’t being met by the free market and I’m a better informed citizen because of it.

    So I lean more towards the opinion that we should have more of “The Fifth Estate” and less panel shows that subject us to the talking points of Dean Del Mastro. If that can only take place through a web format, then I’m for it but I’m not convinced that I have to choose between on and the other.

    • I like Radio-Canada too. Enquête is like the Fifth Estate on steroids — and they can take the lion’s share of the credit for Quebec having a public inquiry into the construction industry. Content like that transcends the medium, I think. Sure it has impact on television, but that kind of journalism would go bonkers viral and drive weeks of catch-up coverage by competitors if it was a web exclusive, too. Plus the distribution infrastructure is cheaper, so for the same budget you could spend more on the content.

  2. I looked in vain for your name and face among the six (count ’em) “great Canadians” chosen by Friends of Canadian Broadcasting to be the People’s Pick for CBC Board Chair.

    Some of us are ready for a digital revolution at the CBC, but not Ian Morrison.

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  4. Eric said:

    “I argue that, with the budget cuts now a reality, it’s time for the CBC to stop tiptoeing around the people who want to see it crippled and dismantled.”

    Hear, hear. Margaret Atwood reportedly told a relevant tale during the first ‘Free Trade’ election in 1988. The (male) beaver when cornered by a mortal enemy, she said (perhaps inventively), as a last resort chews off his testicles and offers them to the opponent. But it doesn’t help the beaver, and Canada didn’t get much from giving the U.S. everything it wanted in the FTA (and later NAFTA). Neither is the CBC accomplishing much by attempting to soothe the Harper beasts.

    O’Leary, Cherry and Murphy — it would be hard to find another public broadcaster giving so much airtime to curmudgeons dedicated to opposing most of what a public-minded broadcaster should stand for. Hence I couldn’t sign any Friends of Canadian Broadcasting petition with the line “I love the CBC …” — but I did support Reimagine CBC.

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