CRTC chairman asks CBC head about transparency as broadcaster calls for ‘flexibility’ on online content

Oversight and transparency took centre stage today on Day 1 of a nearly three-week review of the CBC’s broadcasting licences, as the broadcaster asks Canada’s telecommunications regulator to renew licences for its various English- and French-language services.

CBC chief executive Catherine Tait told the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) board the CBC needs greater “flexibility” to accommodate the shift toward online viewing and listening.

Under the public broadcaster’s application, that digital dexterity would leave it free of detailed financial reporting obligations for online content, such as the CBC Gem streaming platform and CBC Listen app.

“If we do not move with our audiences, we risk becoming dinosaurs on a melting ice cap,” Tait said at the virtual hearing Monday morning.

She is asking the CRTC to renew its licences for five years with slimmed-down regulatory scrutiny of its digital content compared to its radio and television programs.

CRTC chairman Ian Scott questioned the CBC’s push to avoid disclosing digital costs.

Push for greater transparency

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

The CBC has already faced pushback over its efforts to commercialize its online fare. Last month, marquee hosts and reporters joined about 500 current and former employees, including Peter Mansbridge and Alison Smith, in urging the public broadcaster to drop efforts to sell more branded content.

In an open letter to the general public, they warned that a new marketing effort called Tandem would erode the integrity of CBC journalism, saying that paid content that resembles news is “insidious” and will “help advertisers trick Canadians.”

CBC management has insisted that editorial and advertising content would remain separate, and stressed a critical need to generate revenue in response to heavy financial pressures.

The Friends of Canadian Broadcasting is recommending the CBC go a few steps further by following its radio service and making its television and online offerings ad-free.

“They have also been very, very dodgy when it comes to transparency,” Daniel Bernhard, the group’s executive director, said of CBC management.

Calls to invest more in local news

“It’s just an insane idea, that the Canadian public and our regulator have no business scrutinizing activities of the public broadcaster in the digital domain.”

Bernhard also called for more investment in local news as ad dollars fall away from traditional media and into the coffers of Google and Facebook, hollowing out regional journalism.

Seventy interveners are scheduled to begin presentations to the CRTC on Friday and continue over eight days until Jan. 26. The Canadian Media Producers Association will make the first presentation. Other presenters include the Canadian Olympic Committee, Quebecor Media Inc., Friends of Canadian Broadcasting and the Office of the Commissioner of Official Languages.

CBC’s response to the intervener presentations is scheduled for Jan. 27.

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