CRTC peppers CBC with questions about plans for controversial branded content

The CBC was forced to defend its plans for branded content on its digital platforms as Canada's top regulator peppered senior executives of the public broadcaster with questions about the controversial decision at a CRTC licensing hearing Friday.

More than 70 former CBC employees sent letter to CRTC asking it to investigate Tandem

The exterior of a large building bearing the CBC logo.
The CBC was forced to defend its move to produce more branded content on its digital platforms as Canada's top regulator peppered senior executives of the public broadcaster with questions about its controversial decision. (Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press)

The CBC was forced to defend its plans for branded content on its digital platforms Friday as the CRTC peppered senior executives of the public broadcaster with questions about the controversial decision at a broadcast licensing hearing Friday. 

CBC's new marketing division called Tandem, which creates branded campaign content for corporate clients, has sparked criticism, including denunciations, an open letter and a petition from a number of stakeholders, including former and current CBC journalists.

They worry that the paid content blurs the lines between advertising and news and will erode the integrity of CBC journalism.

In November more than 70 former CBC employees sent a letter to Canada's broadcast regulator asking it to investigate Tandem. The CRTC is currently holding hearings into CBC's application to renew its various broadcast licences for its English and French services.

During Friday's hearings, CRTC Quebec commissioner Alicia Barin asked the corporation how the Tandem initiative aligns with the broadcaster's public service programming mandate to not be unduly influenced by the brands with which it partners.

"The concerns that have been expressed very publicly are about the risk of CBC's journalistic reputation being compromised by even participating in branded content," Barin said. "So can you please respond to those concerns?"

CBC President Catherine Tait told the commissioners that the network shares those concerns, but said that the Tandem initiative has nothing to do with the underlying journalism and other content that the broadcaster produces.

'Guardrails' in place

Tait said she believes much of those concerns were expressed prior to the CBC putting what she called "guardrails" in place that she said would ensure there is no confusion between CBC journalism and commercial advertising.

"Now that we have very, very clear guidelines that are going well beyond anybody in the industry, let's see how it goes and let's monitor it," Tait said.

CBC President Catherine Tait said she believes much of the concerns over the CBC's new marketing division called Tandem were expressed prior to the broadcaster putting guardrails in place. (CBC)

Some of those guidelines, which were introduced after concerns were raised about Tandem, include: 

  • Restricting branded content to digital platforms
  • Ensuring no CBC/Radio-Canada journalists or hosts will be involved in the creation of branded content.
  • Ensuring branded content will not appear on national news digital pages.

The CBC has stressed that initiatives like Tandem are needed to generate revenue amid big financial pressures.

Still, Barin pressed the CBC on how the Tandem initiative complies with one of the principles of the broadcaster's Journalistic Standards and Practices, which states it cannot commercially exploit the brand of the corporation's information programming.

Users are sophisticated, executive says

Barbara Williams, CBC's executive vice-president of English services, said the CBC has to make it very clear that the content is advertising "so that you are not commercially exploiting the content, you are selling the advertising, and you must be very clear about the two."

 "We do understand that viewers and users and listeners are sophisticated. They have seen this kind of content across many, many organizations," Williams said. "When we make it clear, they understand the difference and they're not confused. And therefore we have not exploited commercially the content."

Tait also explained that the CBC has been using branded content since 2016-17. Barin asked why she believed it hadn't been noticed before or made an issue in the past.

Tait said she believed that the launch of the name Tandem and "possibly some particular campaigns that caused concern among some of our own employees" were what provoked the response. 

On Thursday, the CBC is defending its efforts to diversify its workforce and re-think its overall approach to covering news and current affairs to make it more inclusive.

The CRTC consultations on CBC licensing will continue through January. The CRTC will hear from individuals, industry and advocacy groups. The CBC will have an opportunity to reply to those submissions on the final day of hearings.


Mark Gollom

Senior Reporter

Mark Gollom is a Toronto-based reporter with CBC News. He covers Canadian and U.S. politics and current affairs.

With files from The Canadian Press and Tom Parry