CBC needs new financial model, not a new mandate: CEO Catherine Tait

CBC needs new financial model, not a new mandate: CEO Catherine Tait

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OTTAWA — As Canada’s public broadcaster projects a budget shortfall, and with Conservatives threatening to defund it if they win the next election, its top executive says the way it’s funded needs to dramatically change.

“Let’s be clear: the mandate of CBC/Radio-Canada actually does not need to be reviewed,” president and CEO Catherine Tait said.

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“What needs to be reviewed is the financial model and how we are governed.”

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She made the comments Friday to a room full of industry insiders at Prime Time, a conference for the broadcasting, film and media industry.

Tait floated the idea of a long-term financial structure such as a charter, similar to that at the BBC. It has a six-year funding agreement with the U.K. government.

She also pointed to other public broadcasters around the world that have five- to 10-year charters, “so that they can actually plan.”

CBC gets its annual funding based on the parliamentary cycle, Tait said, leaving the broadcaster with uncertainty.

“We live in a perpetual state (on) tenterhooks, not knowing what the next year brings — and if there’s a change in government, what that brings,” she said.

A spokesman for the CBC said Tait shared the idea as part of a discussion, and it was not a formal request to government.

The Opposition Tories have promised to defund CBC and turn its Toronto-based headquarters into “affordable housing,” though its leader Pierre Poilievre has also suggested maintaining support for services tailored to francophone minorities.

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Heritage Minister Pascale St-Onge previously told The Canadian Press that she wants the role of the CBC redefined before the next federal election “to make sure that our public broadcaster is (as) well-positioned as possible for the future.”

At her own panel at Prime Time on Thursday, St-Onge said she’s not looking to do a broad consultation about the CBC’s future because that’s been done many times.

Instead, an expert committee is currently advising her on ways the CBC can be better positioned as the news industry adapts to a digital transformation and competes with big tech for advertising dollars.

“We have other public broadcasters around the planet that we can get inspired by, see what the best practices and best ideas (are), and this is what I’m going to be talking about with the expert committee,” St-Onge said.

The minister didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment when asked about the possibility of the Liberal government legislating a new financial model for the CBC.

But she previously acknowledged that there’s not much time to make changes to the public broadcaster before the Tories could form government.

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“We know that there’s going to be an election at the latest in autumn 2025. No, I don’t have a lot of time. Yes, it’s a big challenge,” she said.

Tait said she “certainly hopes” St-Onge can pull together the expert committee’s “brilliant ideas” before the next election.

“She seems to be very energetic,” Tait said.

When Tait appeared before a parliamentary committee earlier this week, she laid out the CBC’s finances to members of Parliament.

Inflation on goods and services and declines in television subscription and advertising revenues have led the public broadcaster to post an annual deficit, she said.

“In 2018, the structural deficit was $21 million per year. Today, it is $36 million. What this means, practically, is that we start each year with cuts to our budget,” she said at the House of Commons heritage committee on Tuesday.

“Unlike the private sector, we cannot manage fluctuations through loans or bridge financing. We must balance our budget every year.”

In December, the public broadcaster announced it was cutting 10 per cent of its workforce and $40 million in independent production spending as it projects a $125-million shortfall for its 2024-2025 fiscal year, which begins April 1.

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