CBC outlines ‘balancing act’ of linear and digital to CRTC

The public broadcaster is requesting its license be renewed for five years with less regulatory scrutiny of its digital content.

During the first day of its CRTC licence renewal hearing, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation laid out a vision for its future that includes a “balancing act” between linear and digital mediums, as well as the interests and needs of Canadians with various media-viewing profiles.

The public broadcaster is seeking to renew licences for CBC/Radio-Canada, covering its 88 over-the-air radio stations, 27 over-the-air TV stations and five discretionary services – licences which will expire in August. The hearings were initially slated to happen last year, but were postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, along with a temporary extension to CBC’s license.

CBC is proposing numerous changes to its existing regulatory commitments to better meet the challenges of the evolving broadcasting and digital environment.

These changes include enhanced commitments for “programming of national interest,” including news, as well as youth programming and local programming spanning traditional and digital audio-visual platforms; renewed and expanded content commitments for independent production; new consultation and reporting commitments on content created by and for Indigenous people; new reporting commitments for reflecting diversity on-air, in content production and across CBC’s workforce; and new reporting commitments for gender parity in content production.

The National, considered programming of national interest, had a 140% viewership increase from March to July 2020 alone, with 1.6 million viewers tuning into the show during that time. In that same timeframe, visits to CBC’s digital kids’ content were up 75%, roughly 2.7 million visits. Gem, CBC’s digital video streaming service, saw an increase during those months as well, as Canadians hunkered down in their homes and streamed content. Time spent on Gem increased by 100%.

With the Gem platform, “there’s a whole segment of our audience that’s not going to [even] go to TV, [in the future],” Barbara Williams, EVP of the CBC said during Monday’s hearing.

Catherine Tait, CBC’s CEO, told the CRTC’s five-member panel the public broadcaster needs more “flexibility” to accommodate shifts to online viewing and listening. CBC is requesting the Commission renew its licences for five years with less regulatory inspection of the public broadcaster’s digital content, like Gem and the CBC Listen podcasting platform, in comparison to its radio and TV content. The CRTC, however, maintains that nimbleness will require more transparency, not less.

“I know you don’t like expenditure-based requirements, but from the commission’s perspective, with greater regulatory flexibility there’s a greater requirement for accountability and transparency from the corporation. That has to come in some manner through reporting,” said Ian Scott, CRTC chairman.

In terms of predominant media-viewing habits, according to a Media Technology Monitor survey results last spring – which CBC submitted as an appendix to its opening remarks – a viewer segment dubbed “have it alls,” who subscribe to a paid TV service and to an SVOD service, are now the largest viewing segment. These viewers are typically middle aged. According to 2018-2019 MTM data, this segment only made up 15% of Canadian viewers, and during COVID-19 the “have it alls” more than doubled, up 133%.

Transparency and accountability at the CBC has already been a hot topic in recent months amid the response to plans for its branded content division.

The hearings continue until Friday, when presentations from over 70 intervenors will begin.