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Watching the Watchdog: Quit Complaining, CBC, and Prove Your Worth

I went to the's vapid "Whither the CBC" discussion this week. Apparently, the corporation's enemies are right-wing conservatives who ask "Why should CBC get more than $1-billion a year in public money?" Unfortunately, in 2012, it's a valid question, not entirely based on politics and/or greed.
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I'd hoped I wouldn't have to write about the CBC for a while.

In fact I've already checked out The Naked News (The Program With Nothing to Hide) as a welcome change of pace.

Then I went to the Toronto Star's vapid "Whither the CBC" discussion at the Toronto Reference Library on Monday.

Only interesting part was a catfight between the CBC's investigative reporter Linden MacIntyre (pushing his book Why Men Lie), and the infamous former CBC vice-president Richard Stursberg (pushing his book, Tower of Babble).

The two men first agreed that CBC has been sorely threatened by too many budget cuts from too many governments over too many years. Then they squabbled over how MotherCorp divides the money it does get (something to do with which child gets the only pair of shoes). Neither did much answering of that critical Canadian question -- whither the CBC?

The couple of hundred people in the audience -- almost all at least middle-aged, middle-class and white -- were no better. The normal cause-hammerers did their thing as always at such gatherings, at least one questioner/statement-maker was entirely incoherent, and everybody loved CBC radio.

Audience questions were cut off before I could get to the microphone, so my plan to electrify the place by telling them how to save the CBC and, as a consequence, rescue Canadian democracy, never got aired.

If it had, no doubt the audience and speakers would have risen as one, linked arms, and marched, singing and chanting down Yonge Street to the CBC broadcast centre to liberate it.

I wanted to say there's no longer any real doubt that the CBC has passed its point of no return. That it's so hated and so maligned by so many powerful, political, and financial foes that -- whatever its remaining virtues -- it's impossible for it to survive in anything like its present form.

So let's shut down CBC/Radio-Canada entirely.

And start all over again.

Now the Details:

  • Fire the current CBC/Radio-Canada Board of Directors. It contains few broadcasters and no journalists (even though CBC's journalism is recognized as its flagship programming) and its members are widely derided as ineffectual political appointees.
  • Consult with an all-party committee of MPs and broadcast organizations -- including unions and, yes, private broadcasters -- to draw up a list of people with proven broadcast and managerial skills and at least some understanding of public service.
  • Invite Canadians to vote for a new CBC/Radio-Canada Board from the names on the list. Have the winners elect their own chairperson.
  • Charge the new Board with separating English, French, radio and TV divisions and make them semi-autonomous under the Board's overall supervision.
  • Instruct it, along with eminent broadcasters/managers and all-party MPs, to rewrite the CBC/Radio-Canada mandate.
  • Direct it to drop some of the mandate's more unreachable and controversial goals (perhaps eliminating the word "entertains" from the list), retain those elements CBC/Radio-Canada already does well, and define realistic goals and methods for a new corporation in this new century.

While all that's going on, committees of mixed CBC/Radio-Canada managers/broadcasters and eminent outsiders examine and evaluate every single department, program and job.

The most efficient -- if necessarily brutal -- way to do that is called zero-based budgeting.

It's a system that entirely reverses normal company planning and decision-making -- which starts with the assumption that the baseline budget is automatically approved. And all that's left is for managers to fight over who gets how big a slice of that budget.

Zero-based budgeting starts with the entirely opposite assumption -- that there's nothing in the pot. Nada. Now the manager has to justify why the department, program and jobs should exist at all. And if it does, what's the minimum amount it needs to operate efficiently?

The beauty of zero-based budgeting for CBC/Radio-Canada is that it's based on real needs rather than company history and tradition of which the organization has a great deal, much of it surpassing proud. And that it saves money by identifying inflated budgets. Most important perhaps, is that it eliminates wasteful and obsolete operations.

Just as an example, take CBC's flagship news program The National.

First, its managers and producers will have to defend the need for a national news broadcast at all. If there is a need, does The National really have to air seven evenings a week? And how does it justify its very expensive hour while the privates offer much cheaper half-hours?

And are all those big anchor salaries really value for money? (Presumably, Peter Mansbridge's salary will finally be revealed to those of us who pay it.) And does it really need all those expensive other people, like producers, etc.? And what if it's replaced by, say, the just-cancelled, much cheaper, Connect with Mark Kelley? Or just cancelled and replaced by curling, log rolling or opera?

Then there's CBC Sports: Don Cherry, and his rumoured $800,000 a year salary for seven minutes of rant -- highest-paid seven minutes in all Canadian TV.

And all those ostentatious CBC/Radio-Canada buildings. What if they're replaced by more modest and far cheaper storefronts?

Not incidentally, zero-based budgeting often includes sunset reviews which put a time limit on those departments, programs and jobs that survive the budgeting process. When that time limit is up, they have to justify their existence all over again.

If they can't, they're toast.

And so it goes.

Summation -- CBC/Radio-Canada is Canada's public broadcaster. Which means we own it. It's reason for existence, pure and simple, is public service. Service to us, the people.

The corporation's enemies are right-wing conservatives who think it's a commie-pinko plot (in spite of all those independent surveys to the contrary) and phone companies and millionaires whose sole reason for existence is profit.

For years, the privates have been trying to destroy CBC so they can take over its advertising revenues and make even more profit.

They call it fat, pompous, self-satisfied, self-absorbed and -- most hurtful insult of all -- just like themselves when it comes to quality of programming.

So why, they ask with tears in their voices, should CBC get more than $1 billion a year in public money?

Unfortunately, in 2012 it's a valid question, not entirely based on politics and/or greed.

I submit that CBC should answer that question by admitting that it's lost its war with the conservatives and privates.

And surrender.

And salvage whatever's left that's worth saving.

To that end, I propose that over the next eight months the CBC/Radio-Canada Board of Directors be re-thought and re-constituted and every part of the organization put through zero-based budgeting.

Then at midnight, Monday, December 31, the last day of this year, CBC/Radio-Canada be closed down.

And a new, redesigned, reinvigorated, reformed CBC/Radio-Canada start broadcasting at midnight the following Sunday, January 6, 2013.

May the gods of their choice bless the crew of a new CBC/Radio-Canada and all who sail in her.

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