Juneau Reports on CBC

In its 60-year history, the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. has created award-winning documentaries, fine dramas, top-notch journalistic enterprises - and more than its fair share of dreary reports from royal commissions and parliamentary committees.

Juneau Reports on CBC

In its 60-year history, the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. has created award-winning documentaries, fine dramas, top-notch journalistic enterprises - and more than its fair share of dreary reports from royal commissions and parliamentary committees. In many ways, the so-called Juneau report on the future of the CBC and two other cultural agencies, the National Film Board and Telefilm Canada, is different. If nothing else, the study - released last week - is timely: the national broadcaster, in the midst of a three-year budget cut of $350 million and increased competition in a multi-channel universe, has never been under such intense pressure to change. And it is a radical document, proposing sweeping reform, particularly to CBC Television, which it would make virtually commercial-free and almost completely Canadian in content. But the report is also remarkable in another way: the degree of controversy it has created, thanks to its proposal for a new tax on telecommunications services to pay for the CBC. As taxpayers associations and private broadcasters cried foul, the Juneau report's clarion call for cultural nationalism was all but drowned out by the howls of protest.

Titled Making Our Voices Heard: Canadian Broadcasting and Film for the 21st Century, the 299-page document was written by former CBC president Pierre Juneau, TVOntario chairman Peter Herrndorf and Simon Fraser University academic Catherine Murray - members of a mandate review committee appointed last May by then-Heritage Minister Michel Dupuy. The report - nine months and at least $1.4 million in the making - is a broad and ambitious review of the mandates of the CBC, the NFB and Telefilm. But its most controversial recommendations concern the CBC. Its television services, Juneau said last week, "have drifted away from their public service mandate and become too commercial, too preoccupied with ratings and no longer provide enough of an alternative to commercial broadcasting."

Among the committee's key proposals:

1) The NFB and Telefilm should both decentralize from Montreal. The NFB should focus more of its resources on production and reduce full-time staff.

2) CBC-TV should phase out advertising, "freeing up" $200 million a year to private broadcasters, "fully Canadianize" its programming and "drastically reduce" its prime-time coverage of sports.

3) To replace parliamentary disbursements to the CBC, the finance department should adopt one of three options, including phasing in a 7.5-per-cent levy on direct-to-home satellite, cable and long-distance phone services. When fully implemented in 2001, the tax would raise more than $1.1 billion for the CBC - compared with its $1.36-billion income from Parliament and ad revenues last year.

Reaction from the key players was swift - and mixed. In Ottawa, newly appointed Heritage Minister Sheila Copps endorsed the goals of the report and, while sidestepping the tax proposal, vowed to do her "damnedest" to secure stable funding for the CBC. "I believe there is a strong appetite for supporting a distinctively different CBC," she added. Ian Morrison, spokesman for the lobby group Friends of Canadian Broadcasting, hailed the report's CBC proposals as being "really critical to the future of the country."

Calling the report "an exceptionally eloquent defence of public broadcasting," CBC president Perrin Beatty endorsed its recommendation for all-Canadian programming - something he had already announced for prime time last November. "Every second of American commercial programming we put on takes us further from our public policy mandate and makes us look more like a commercial station," he added. However, noting that the CBC has implemented one-time efficiency savings of $227 million, Beatty warned that the committee's suggested additional cut of two per cent a year "would inevitably have an effect on programming."

To the report's many critics, the proposed communications tax was a primary target. Richard Stursberg, president of the Canadian Cable Television Association, estimated that the proposed tax would add about $2 a month to cable bills. That, he said, would stir an outcry even worse than last year's "negative option" fiasco (when the cable industry had to back away from a potentially lucrative plan to bill customers for any services that they had not specifically declined). "It would make the consumer revolt of last January look like a love-in," Stursberg added. B.C. Reform MP Jim Abbott, whose party favors privatization of CBC-TV, scoffed at the report's calculation that the tax plan could give $800 million of government spending back to taxpayers, calling the notion "a flimflam." The report, he added, is just more of the same old thing. "We ended up spending probably $2 million for what turned out to be a cow cud."

In the end, the future of the Juneau proposals will depend on the political will of the government. Finance Minister Paul Martin is attempting to streamline the GST - in part, analysts say, to give the appearance of lowering taxes - a strategy at odds with the creation of any new levy. As eloquently stated as the Juneau report's proposals may be, they must now survive in the decidedly unrarefied air of the lean, mean 1990s - an atmosphere that tends to be hard on high-minded ideals.

Maclean's February 12, 1996