CBC responds to critics on last day of CRTC hearings to renew licence

Canada's telecommunications regulator wrapped up its hearings into CBC's licence renewal application, with senior executives responding to concerns expressed by intervenors about issues ranging from accountability to paid online content.

The regulator will now weigh the evidence, a process which could take months

The exterior of a large building bearing the CBC logo.
The CRTC hearings into the CBC's application for licensing renewals for its English and French programming services wrapped up on Thursday. (Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press)

Canada's telecommunications regulator wrapped up its hearings into CBC's licence renewal application Thursday, with senior executives responding to concerns about issues ranging from accountability to paid online content.

The hearings into CBC's application to renew its broadcast licences for its English and French services, began Jan. 11 with the corporation asking Canada's broadcast regulator for greater "flexibility" as it tries to meet audience needs and makes a bigger push into the digital world.

CBC's senior executives have been fielding questions from the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission and on the final day responded to issues raised by some of the 70 intervenors who also testified.

The CRTC will now weigh the evidence and consider new rules and conditions for the CBC, a process that could take months. 

Earlier in the hearings, stakeholders such as the Canadian Association of Broadcasters, which represents private broadcasters, argued CBC was focusing too much on attracting more viewers and advertisers and disrupting the advertising market for private broadcasters.

Raising concerns

Friends of Canadian Broadcasting, another intervenor, had expressed concerns about CBC's accountability.

But CBC president Catherine Tait said the corporation has consistently received "A" level performance results with respect to access to information requests and has twice won Chartered Professional Accountants Canada's award of excellence in corporate reporting for its annual reports.

As well, the CBC files with the commission detailed logs and reports to demonstrate compliance with its regulatory obligations, she said.

Addressing critics

Tait addressed those who criticized the CBC for encroaching into private sector areas, arguing that the broadcaster's legislated mandate is to provide a wide range of "programming that informs, enlightens and entertains."

When the CBC launched stations in certain regions, it didn't detract from those markets, but added more high-quality news, she said.

"The goal was not to harm private sector stations, but rather to respond to intense public demand – petitions in fact – in medium-sized markets where no CBC station existed," Tait said.

Tait said the CRTC hearings made clear the need for an Indigenous strategy and she stressed that the corporation has heard "loud and clear" that the CBC needs to "better reflect contemporary Canada."

"CBC/Radio-Canada is committed to do more and do better – not only to improve representation but also to combat systemic racism – on all our platforms, in our content and in our workforce and culture," Tait said.

CBC president Catherine Tait said Canadians should be proud of the national broadcaster, which does ground-breaking work and supports communities across the country. (CBC)

Canadians should be proud of their public broadcaster, which continues to punch above its weight and "is one of the most accountable institutions in the country," she said.

"We are admired around the world for our contributions to outstanding news, to great entertainment, to ground-breaking work in our digital offerings and for our support to communities," Tait said. 

"And yet, we have heard during this hearing that for many – all of this is not enough – and for others, it is too much."

During the hearings, the CBC defended its efforts to diversify its workforce and re-think its overall approach to covering news and current affairs to make it more inclusive.

Proposed changes

The broadcaster has proposed making it a condition of licence that it report annually on the percentage of diverse and Indigenous staff and managers hired each year. It's also proposed reporting on diversity in its programming, as well as on the number of and budgets for programs created by Indigenous producers. 

The hearings had also forced the corporation to defend its plans for branded content on its digital platforms. The new marketing division, called Tandem, has sparked criticism 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 organization's integrity.

Kim Trynacity, CBC branch president of the Canadian Media Guild, told the commission: "In this era of growing misinformation, it's a baffling choice for a public broadcaster ... The public shouldn't be put to a test to determine when they click on CBC, is it real news, or is it Tandem."

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

According to its 2019 to 2020 Annual Report, CBC/Radio Canada received a little over $1.2 billion in federal funding. It is asking for a five-year renewal of its current licences. The public broadcaster's last license renewal was in 2012.

    With files from Tom Parry, The Canadian Press