CBC won’t abandon TV, radio audiences as it charts digital path over next decades, says president

CBC won’t abandon TV, radio audiences as it charts digital path over next decades, says president

The CBC will continue to provide Canadians with traditional radio and television broadcasts and will delay its move to digital-only service until adequate high-speed Internet is available to all Canadians, said the head of CBC.

Catherine Tait, president and CEO of the CBC, was responding to a report based on an interview she gave to the Globe and Mail newspaper. That article said she plans to move CBC to a digital-only format and abandon radio and TV, but the move isn’t likely to happen over the next 10 years. 

“Let’s be clear. We are not abandoning anyone who’s watching on traditional television or listening on traditional radio,” she said Tuesday. 

“We are looking at a two-decade horizon. The BBC president announced a month ago that BBC would be going to digital-only by 2030. That is not the case for CBC. We are a vast country and until we have ubiquity in broadband delivery in this country, we will leave no one behind.”

Tait said that while the CBC will not abandon traditional audiences, it will use its “limited resources” to ensure that the public broadcaster is “serving and capturing the hearts and minds of those younger audiences too.”

Gregory Taylor, an associate professor at the University of Calgary’s department of communication, media and film, said he’s frustrated by CBC’s push toward an all-digital format when traditional media services still have strong audiences and a digital-only future could be decades away.

“The CBC’s been pushing this for a long time,” Taylor said. “The data does not back this up, and what frustrates me by this is that the data shows an incredible resiliency in a lot of the old, supposed old, media.”

Taylor said that while audiences for older broadcast media may be declining, they still make up a significant share of the market. And while those audiences may represent an older demographic, he said, “they’ve not gone away, and the CBC has been stating that they’re going away for ten years right now.”

“It’ll likely happen at some point, but I see no reason that this needs to be the main fight that the CBC tries to bring forward right now,” he said. 

Speaking before question period on Tuesday, NDP MP Heather McPhearson expressed concerns about a digital-only CBC.

“Folks like my parents, who are avid CBC viewers for a long time, would not” be able to stay in touch without TV or radio, she said.

The CBC and the Conservatives

Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre has said that if he becomes prime minister, he will defund the CBC. He has accused the public broadcaster of being anti-Conservative and pro-Liberal. He also has said he could save taxpayers $1 billion by defunding the public broadcaster.

In Tait’s interview with the Globe and Mail, she described that criticism as a “slogan” being used as a tool to fundraise for the party. 

“They have an online fundraising campaign, which very specifically says, ‘We’ll save you a billion dollars, please send in $20,'” she told the newspaper. 

Tait said that whether Poilievre’s position reflects serious policy or is a means to boost donations doesn’t matter — it’s her job to push back.

“Slogan or not, the reality is we have to respond. If there are detractors to the CBC, I believe it’s my responsibility to respond with explanations of why it is that CBC really matters,” Tait said.

Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre is seen speaking in the foyer of the House of Commons.
Tait said Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre is using the CBC to fundraise for his party. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

Asked if she was concerned that her comments about Poilievre and the Conservatives could undermine working journalists by publicly pitting the public broadcaster against a political party, Tait said she was just doing her job.

“I am not a journalist. I am the CEO. My responsibility is to communicate to all Canadians, including politicians, the value of public broadcasting, whether that’s a Liberal, NDP or a Conservative,” she said.

“I’m telling that same story to anyone who will listen to me. The job of our journalists is very, very different.”

Tait said that she wrote Poilievre to congratulate him on becoming party leader and has asked to meet with him but has yet to sit down with the opposition leader.

‘Amplifying the Conservative message’

Taylor said it’s Tait’s job to ensure the CBC continues to function and if the Conservatives are going to argue for it to be defunded, they should expect some pushback.

“So I don’t see any problem at all that the chair of the national public broadcaster should at least state some sort of defence for its continued existence,” he said. “I don’t see that as something that is targeting any one party.”

Christopher Cochrane, an assistant professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Toronto, said Tait should have avoided putting CBC in direct conflict with a political party.

“Even though it’s understandable that the CBC may want to respond to criticisms it’s received from the Conservative Party, in the process of responding it seems to me it enters the political fray directly opposite the Conservative Party,” he said. 

In doing so, he said, Tait ended up “amplifying the Conservative message and undermining the CBC’s messaging — that it’s not involved in in politics.”

Cochrane said Tait would have been better advised to leave the defence of the CBC to advocacy groups or other political parties in the House of Commons.

On Tuesday evening, the Conservative Party sent out a fundraising email citing Tait’s comments in the Globe and Mail and repeating the promise to defund the CBC.

“The president & CEO of Trudeau’s $1.2 billion propaganda arm, the CBC, is now openly attacking me,” Poilievre says in the email calling for donations. “They’re not even pretending to be unbiased.”

Conservative MP Marty Morantz also tweeted about the interview: “The head of the CBC is now publicly bashing the Conservative Party of Canada. CBC bias is now fully on display.”