Posted by: Alvin | June 11, 2009

More on the CBC: Thinking like the Web

Hockey NightTwo more interesting posts to share with everyone about the CBC as a follow up to yesterday’s post. I suppose in light of declining revenues, the CBC being put under asset review by the Conservatives, and the ongoing battle over local TV fees with the CRTC and cable companies (like Shaw), the future of the CBC has become the topic du jour.

The first piece is a viewpoint article on the CBC from Jeremy Kinsman called “Rethinking the CBC.” It’s an interesting article that brings up many good points. Among them includes the debate over funding (the CBC gets $34 per Canadian, while the BBC gets about four times that amount). This in turn provokes questions about what the CBC should broadcast. Because of stagnant funding from parliament (declining when you take into account inflation) advertising now makes up more than half of the ceeb’s source of funds. This means the network has been forced to broadcast more “mainstream” programming that’s cheap to buy and easy to sell ads to. Kinsman then goes on to point out that advertising need not be a huge part of a mainstream CBC by stating how on the Island, CBC Radio (without ads) is the number one station (same goes for Vancouver in the last two months). Now CBC TV will always have ads, but the point is that they shouldn’t be so reliant on them that it dictates programming. Finally, Kinsman mentions the web, and that brings me to my second interesting point.

He mentions how the CBC needs to embrace the web more (and to be fair, they have done the best job in Canada with the web). The problem though is that the CBC retains the same skittishness exhibited by the rest of mainstream broadcasting with regards to the web. Broadcasters see the potential, and they see their audiences there on the web, but they remain paralyzed by the old idea of the captive audience. There is no such thing anymore. The idea of the captive audience is that you can trap your viewership into viewing your content the way you want them to, so you can better sell advertising and make money. This approach has been largely extended to the web by mainstream broadcasters. Drive traffic to your website so you can showcase content and sell ads. The problem is that the web is fucking gigantic! There are flows on the web, and people want to see the content they like where ever they are. This is as much a physical question as it is an internet space question. People want to see the content they like on their phones or laptops but also on their favorite sites (facebook, myspace, twitter). The CBC has done a good job with Twitter, but it’s still far behind NPR (National Public Radio) in the states.

That’s the topic of this second piece I wanted to share, a great Fast Company magazine article called “Will NPR Save the News?” It brilliantly outlines some of the innovative and risky decisions it’s made and how they’ve largely paid off. At a time when broadcasters in the US are shuttering local bureaus, NPR is opening new ones and now has more bureaus than CNN. NPR listenership has doubled since 1999 and it shows no sign of slowing down. The beauty of NPR is that they ignored the skittishness I described earlier, instead of going for the captive audience, NPR became an organization that thinks like the web: open, flexible, and without barriers. The one quote from the piece that sums this all up perfectly is from Jeff Jarvis, author of What Would Google Do? Jarvis applauds NPR saying, “It’s got very smart people thinking about its online strategy…Like the BBC, it sees itself as a public trust, so its aim is to get its content distributed as widely as possible. Old media expected us to come to them. Now they need to come to us.”

Read the whole article for a great primer on what the modern broadcast organization should be doing, it’s amazing. I believe that the CBC has the innovative people in house to really grab these ideas and run with them. If Canadians view the CBC as their version of the BBC or NPR, a historic national institution that has the right to not only represent our nation’s views but also question and criticize them, we need to take a page from those two. The mantra at the ceeb needs to be “Open or Bust.” The CBC needs to not only challenge Canadians, but challenge themselves at the same time. But if it can’t or won’t, it’s inevitable slow death might not be that much for our nation to lament.

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