CBC’s Cancon at 20-year low: study

Watchdog org finds 25% of the pubcaster's prime-time schedule is made up of foreign, mostly U.S. programming.

Friends of Canadian Broadcasting’s latest report on TV programming content across ten Canadian markets, released this week, found that CBC English TV’s prime-time Canadian content has reached a 20-year low, with 25% of the pubcaster’s prime-time sked made up of foreign, mostly US, programming.

The findings, taken during the spring sweep period from mid-February to mid-March (when Nielsen measures audiences), are based on an annual sample of TV programming in major markets across the country. They show that while CBC English TV increased prime-time domestic content from 22.5 hours a week in 1990 to 27 in 2000, it now only broadcasts 21 hours of Canadian content during its 28 hours of primetime weekly programming.

‘I think that the CBC’s move in the direction of largely American programming was intended to boost audiences, therefore advertising – and may not have done that,’ FCB spokesperson Ian Morrison tells MiC. ‘CBC may be still ahead from a business point of view (on the expense reduction side) by buying the foreign shows, but it won’t be on the revenue side.

‘CBC may have overestimated the advertising potential of programs like Jeopardy and Wheel of Fortune,’ says Morrison. ’50+ is not a desirable demographic for advertisers. It’s not that [the demo] doesn’t spend money, it’s rather that they’re easier to reach and therefore aren’t as valuable a commodity for the broadcasters,’ he says, noting that CTV dropped Jeopardy after carrying it for over a decade. ‘Presumably it’s because they noticed that, while it had good numbers, they weren’t the kind of numbers that advertisers liked so the cost-benefit ratio wasn’t very good.’

But CBC spokesperson Jeff Keay tells MiC the move isn’t surprising given the current economic climate. ‘As we’ve done for many years in the early hours of primetime,’ says Keay, ‘we make use of selected non-Canadian programming to attract viewers to the Canadian programming and to generate revenues. Especially these days, we need to, given our current financial challenges.’

‘Some of the CBC executives apparently thought that by getting substantial numbers of people watching shows like Jeopardy, the audience would carry forward and build volume for their shows that go on at 8 pm and 9 pm,’ says Morrison. ‘But they probably didn’t take into account that a third of the people watching Jeopardy were really tuned to an American channel, and they were just switched by simultaneous substitution to CBC: As soon as you get to 8 pm, if you don’t change the channel, you’re watching what ABC or NBC or CBS is broadcasting, rather than following to CBC’s Canadian shows.

‘The research we have done suggests that the audience for both Wheel and Jeopardy is an older demographic; I’ve seen research that shows Jeopardy got close to 900,000 to a million people over the past season on CBC, but only a quarter of those people are under 49,’ he explains.

‘I think the shows attract reasonable numbers,’ says Keay. ‘We program for a broad spectrum of Canadians, consistent with our mandate so there may be some shows that skew somewhat older and some shows that skew somewhat younger, like Dragon’s Den. We cover a lot of ground – as a public broadcaster that’s our mandate and we’re happy to do that.’

But the independent watchdog org spokeperson says programs like Dragon’s Den, ‘are south of half a million’ and therefore ‘not a major delivery of eyeballs to advertisers,’ says Morrison. ‘It would be modest interest.’

‘In making decisions about prime-time programming, and what kinds of programs to go for, the CBC may be deciding to air things like The Day the Women Went because they believe that they would attract a younger demographic,’ adds Morrison. ‘ I think the idea that the CBC should be less dependent on advertising is around and about now – and I think that is interesting because if CBC were to remove itself from the advertising market, even if it has modest audiences, that would change somewhat the supply and demand of ad avails on television, and that would probably not be in the interest of advertisers.’

For complete FCB data for TV programming in ten Canadian markets go here.