Feud between CanWest and CBC heads heats up

2/26/2002

Winnipeg, - CanWest Global Communications Corp. today released the following response by I. H. Asper, Executive Chairman of CanWest to a statement by Robert Rabinovitch, President and CEO of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, that was released to the media on February 20, 2002:

"In a news release issued on February 20, CBC President Robert Rabinovitch accused CanWest Global, and myself, its Executive Chairman, as well as a number of Southam newspapers, of criticizing the CBC because of 'blatant self-interest.'

Mr. Rabinovitch seemed particularly upset because of a "recent spate of articles" in Southam newspapers that were critical of the CBC. Yet his contention that this represented some organized plan by CanWest or Southam is utterly and categorically false.

The reality is that the articles and commentary were based on news reports generated independently of CanWest or Southam, and by independent judgements of the editors of the newspapers that commented. First, a former executive director of Radio Canada International suggested, in a speech in London, that the CBC's English television network should be shut down. Then, a Member of Parliament suggested that CBC television should lose its government funding. These events were reported in other news media, not just those owned by CanWest.

But Mr. Rabinovitch would prefer to characterize the reporting and commenting on those legitimate news stories as an "orchestrated" campaign by CanWest and Southam. Mr. Rabinovitch doesn't like the message, so he is trying to discredit the messenger. Instead of making the case for the CBC continuing at the public trough, he decides to attack private broadcasters, and Global in particular. He has even made personal attacks on me which willfully misrepresent my views, and which have nothing to do with the question of CBC's role in Canadian broadcasting.

Implicit in Mr. Rabinovitch's news release is the argument that Canadians cannot be critical of the CBC without having their motives questioned. But what of the "facts" that Mr. Rabinovitch uses to justify the government's annual $700 million subsidy? Aside from not identifying sources for his statistical claims, Mr. Rabinovitch's news release plays fast and loose in its use of statistics. He says two-thirds of Canadians tune in to CBC each week -- but he doesn't say for what or for how long, or whether that is in prime time or over the whole schedule. He says that CBC is doing well in its share of viewing to conventional television. He then goes on to say: "About forty percent of all the prime-time viewing to Canadian programming on all English-language television is on CBC. Less than five per cent of it is on Global."

Now Mr. Rabinovitch appears to have departed from measuring CBC only against other conventional networks, and has focused on "all English- language television." But he leaves out some very important numbers. For example: How much of that viewing is to sports? How much of that viewing is to news? No breakdowns are provided by the CBC in its news release.

The fact is, CBC has a few flagship programs, but most of its programming does not attract audiences. In order to provide a more detailed picture, we asked Statistics Canada to provide a tabulation of television audience data for the Fall 2000 ratings period (the most recent period for which data are available from Statistics Canada). Although the CBC has chosen to focus only on prime time, these data from Statistics Canada cover the entire broadcast day. And the data from Statistics Canada paint a very different picture than the one claimed by Mr. Rabinovitch.

In Fall 2000, the CBC's English-language owned-and-operated television stations accounted for less than 20 per cent of viewing of Canadian programs by English-speaking Canadians. And more than a third of the CBC's viewing total came from its sports programming. If sports programs are excluded from the totals, the CBC-owned English-language TV stations' share of viewing of Canadian programs by English-speaking Canadians drops to less than 15 per cent.

That is a far cry from the "40 per cent" claimed by Mr. Rabinovitch. Excluding sports, Global-owned stations accounted for 20 per cent of viewing of Canadian programs by English-speaking Canadians - more than the CBC, and not the "five per cent" claimed by Mr. Rabinovitch. What all of this means is that English-speaking Canadians are watching far more Canadian programs on private television than they are on the CBC. Why single out sports? Because if the CBC was truly fulfilling its mandate, it would be concentrating on programming that would not otherwise be provided to Canadians. Instead, it bulks up its audience numbers with programming that would be provided by private broadcasters if they were not outbid by a taxpayer-supported competitor.

CTV, which has been repeatedly outbid by the CBC for Canadian sports rights, has long complained about this, and Global is of the same view. Most disappointing, Mr. Rabinovitch repeats the myth of media "concentration," even though a thorough analysis of the facts reveals that there is, in fact, less media concentration, and more diversity, than ever before in Canadian history.

Perhaps Mr. Rabinovitch would like to turn the clock back to the 1950s, when, for most Canadians, there was only one Canadian television choice -- the CBC. Now, that was media concentration! If we leave aside the ill-advised personal attacks on those who have the temerity to criticize the CBC, the core of Mr. Rabinovitch's argument is that the CBC is "an essential public service" and that CBC English television is worth the hundreds of millions that it is allocated every year from the $700 million gift provided by taxpayers. That is an argument worthy of discussion.

And so we would pose these questions for Mr. Rabinovitch: What kinds of programming constitute an "essential public service," and which programs currently provided on the CBC meet that test? Would there be no coverage of sports without CBC? No news? No documentaries? No drama? Answering those questions would be a good place to start. There is only one type of programming that may meet the test of an essential public service. It's certainly not news, where CBC is less watched than private broadcasters. It's certainly not sports, which private broadcasters can and would do if CBC did not.

The CBC should instead focus on indigenous Canadian arts and drama programming that private networks cannot afford to do because of the economic realities of the Canadian television market. And those who want this programming should pay for it - not the vast majority who don't want it. What is the best way to spend the tax dollars that currently support the CBC? The best way is to pay down the high national debt and decrease taxes, both of which are helping to kill the Canadian dollar.

The CBC was created in 1936. It started its television service in 1952. In many respects, the CBC has served Canada well over the last 50 years. But times have changed. The world of media is very different today than 50 years ago, and the media industry will change even more in the next decade. So the right question to ask is this: If we view the world as it is today, and as it is likely to be tomorrow, and if there was no CBC, what would be missing? The answer is very little that can be classified as an "essential public service", to use Mr. Rabinovitch's words.

Unfortunately, the CBC has always resisted that kind of thorough analysis. Every CBC activity is justified on the basis that it somehow meets a need. Even for program types that would clearly be provided whether there was a CBC or not, the CBC tells us that it needs those programs to help pay for other programs. This is not new. I have written and argued publicly for decades, in fact, well before my involvement in the television broadcasting industry, that the CBC, as currently structured, is an anachronism and a waste of public funds. My comments, on an independent television channel, which sparked the unseemly, defensive news release from Mr. Rabinovitch, were not part of an orchestrated campaign.

Coverage and comments of the CBC's supporters and detractors have been ongoing since the CBC's inception. What Mr. Rabinovitch is trying to protect is a huge bureaucracy, of which he is the leader, of overpaid, underworked CBC head office executives who are living well off the taxpayers of Canada and using whatever means necessary to protect their positions. And he willfully uses his own media to do so, while wrongfully accusing others of doing the same. Perhaps Mr. Rabinovitch should spend less time questioning the motives of those who suggest changes for the CBC, and more time trying to answer the real questions about the future of public broadcasting in Canada.

By attempting to discredit the messenger because he doesn't like the message, Mr. Rabinovitch only diverts time and attention away from finding the answers to those important questions."

Signed,

I.H. Asper O.C., O.M. Q.C., Executive Chairman, CanWest Global Communications Corp.

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