CBC right to ask for $400M in additional funding, executive Heather Conway says on Metro Morning

CBC executive Heather Conway defended the public broadcaster's request for more funding on Tuesday, saying millions more in funding for an ad-free network isn’t outrageous and could even benefit other Canadian media companies.

Critics have blasted plan, saying CBC should be dismantled rather than invested in

CBC executive Heather Conway told Metro Morning that she hopes a stable, well-supported public broadcaster can help usher in a cultural renaissance in Canada. (Eduardo Lima/The Canadian Press)

CBC executive Heather Conway defended the public broadcaster's request for more funding on Tuesday, saying millions of dollars more for an ad-free network isn't outrageous and could even benefit other Canadian media companies.

CBC/Radio Canada submitted a position paper to the federal government Monday asking for an additional $400 million per year with the goal of going advertising-free.

Conway, the executive vice-president of English services, was on CBC Radio's Metro Morning to discuss the big ask with host Matt Galloway. Here's a transcript of that interview, which has been lightly edited for clarity. You can also listen to the full audio interview by clicking the attached clip.

Galloway began by asking about a bold quote from the position paper that states the CBC is at: "a critical juncture in our evolution, continuing to operate under a business model and cultural policy framework that is profoundly broken."

Matt Galloway (MG): "What does it mean to say that CBC's business model and cultural policy framework is broken?"

Heather Conway (HC): "Well I think it's something that affects the whole sector. The business model piece, particularly, affects us. As you know, we have a hybrid model where we are given an appropriation funding and then we are supposed to raise the rest of the money through advertising and other commercial activities. As the advertising model has shifted, we really have no way to replace that funding or figure out a way forward with stability and predictability."

MG: "The business model is one thing. But what does cultural policy mean?"

HC: "I think the cultural policy has been a bit piecemeal. It tends to wax and wane with the government of the day. What we're saying is, 'When you look at other countries in the world who have made a very clear decision to invest in a cohesive cultural investment strategy and look at the creative sector as a strategic part of the economy, these are good jobs, they're high-paying jobs, nobody can outsource your culture, so they're sustainable jobs.'

And when you look at a model like Creative Britain, where they made a very deliberate decision about 25 years ago under Tony Blair to invest in their own culture, they made the BBC a foundational piece of that. As a result, they nearly doubled employment in that sector, they nearly doubled their exports in that sector, and they tripled the funding for the BBC.

What we're asking for is not just an investment in the CBC. It's really a much broader ask to say, 'Look, why don't you actually look at this sector as one where we could potentially have a strategic, competitive advantage?'"

MG: "The headline, obviously, is the money. Why should the CBC get $318 million more per year, in taxpayer money?"

HC: "Part of it is obviously to replace the ad funding that we need. If we get out of ads, we lose $253 milllion. If you're not producing ads, then you're not producing programs that are 22 minutes long, you're producing a program that's half-an-hour long. And you can't just say to the independent production sector, 'Make me a longer program, but I'm not going to give you any more money.'"

MG: "It's a lot of money…"

HC: "Well we've been very successful in going out and getting advertisers to support our programs. But it also has an inherent tension. It means that your focus is on what can be commercially successful that we can sell advertising for, as opposed to, 'What is our cultural impact?'"

CBC executive Heather Conway said some of the requested federal funding would replace the money lost by not running ads, while the rest would be spent to fill programming gaps left by the lack of ads. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

MG: "The response from Jason Kenney, former Conservative MP who wants to lead the Progressive Conservative party in Alberta, is: 'it's never enough.' How do you respond to that?"

HC: "I think it's a pretty modest ask, to be honest, Matt. It sounds like a lot of money, but the CBC is the third-worst funded public broadcaster in the world if you look at a list of the 18 comparable countries. This proposal would take us one step up. One notch. So we'd be the fourth worst-funded public broadcaster in the world. I don't think it's an outrageous ask in that context. And I don't think it's an outrageous ask given the ambition of what we're trying to do.

We're not in the business of trying to compete with the private sector. We're trying to invest in Canadian creators, in Canadian content and making sure it's successful, that Canadians see themselves reflected on television.

If I want to see American values, there's lots of places to do that in Canada. Endless places."

MG: "It does come though, at a time when there is real discussion about whether we are competing with private broadcasters, or newspapers or online services like iPolitics. There are a couple of Conservative leadership candidates who have raised this; there are a number of people from newspapers and beyond who say that we shouldn't be competing in that realm. Is this a response to what they have been saying?"

HC: "It's not a response to what they've been saying. But I do think there's a benefit for those organizations. The whole sector is facing a huge transition as we're all trying to compete with giant technology companies that aren't even media companies who are sucking up a lot of the advertising dollars in the market.

For example, the digital ad market in Canada is about $4.6 billion. We take about $25 million. So a relative drop in the bucket, as it were. That said, there's no question that newspapers in this country and some of the broadcasters are competing with big foreign companies.

Our proposal would see roughly two-thirds of our ad revenue would go directly to Canadian media companies — about $158 million. Our hope is that that will help them manage through some of this transition."

MG: "Do we need to have a better sense of what it is that we are doing and should be doing before we ask for more money?"

HC: "We live with the legislation that governs us. The mandate is to inform, enlighten and entertain by the most efficient means possible."

MG: "Those means have changed dramatically…"

HC: "Digital is an efficient means. We need to be where Canadians are. If we're not where Canadians are then our relevance starts to disappear.

You've reference a couple of different political actors, and their views on it.

One of the other proposals that we've put forward is to say: 'De-link the CBC's funding from the political cycle. The public broadcaster belongs to the people of Canada, it does not belong to the government of the day. Taking our funding away from that annual budget cycle allows the public broadcaster to plan.'"

MG: "It's like the national past-time to argue about the CBC..."

HC: "Do you know what I love about that though, Matt? I love that people care. I love that people send me emails. I love that I hear from everybody about their views of the CBC."

MG: "But some of them also want it gone. What's your response?"

HC: "Well look, I'm a Canadian nationalist. And I believe in public broadcasting and I believe in the CBC. I've been in private broadcasting and I've been in public broadcasting. If you want to see American values reflected in this country, you can go anywhere, any night, to hundreds of channels and see that. If you want to see, over 90 per cent in prime time, Canadian creators, Canadian artists reflected, Canadian news perspective, Canadian current affairs, you have the CBC."

MG: "Do we need that kind of big national gut-check conversation? Do you want the CBC, and if so, what kind of CBC do you want? Is now really the time for that?"

HC: "The minister put forward a proposal that said everything is on the table. And I think it would have been irresponsible of us not to put forward a vision for the CBC for the future that's stable, strong, at the heart of a cultural and creative renaissance in this country.

I think the public broadcaster has an obligation to be there, and I think Canada's creators and artists would agree."  

With files from Metro Morning