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Public broadcaster in danger of becoming irrelevant

Photo courtesy of Cathy Browne (cc)

With the NHL trade deadline come and gone, many media pundits have declared that George Stroumboulopoulos’ switch from CBC to Rogers is the biggest acquisition of the hockey season. But the analogy falls short because of how little the CBC is getting in return for the trade of its star.

The overarching effects of the CBC losing one of its most visible personalities is a signal that Canada’s public broadcaster is in trouble on TV.

It doesn’t matter how Stroumboulopoulos does as the new host of Hockey Night in Canada (HNIC), viewers will be tuning in regardless. With the exception of Coach’s Corner, the talking heads on any hockey broadcast have always been the filler between the play and commercials. If the Toronto Maple Leafs are playing on Saturday night, they will always get a great draw. It doesn’t matter if Ron MacLean, Stroumboulopoulos, or even my grandmother is hosting the program.

This isn’t to say that Stroumboulopoulos will do a poor job. In fact, I think he’ll do fine in his new role. He’s a versatile broadcaster who has earned the trust and respect of Canadians and is sure to bring the principles that has made his talk show an important part of Canadian culture to his new gig in the sports department.

But lost in the great HNIC  shuffle is that Rogers was able to snatch away one of the CBC’s most important personalities at a time when the Mother Corp was already hurting.

After losing national NHL broadcasting rights, CBC president Hubert Lacroix struck a deal with Rogers to keep HNIC on the air. The public broadcaster opened up its doors for a private broadcaster to take over its primetime programming and iconic properties in exchange for advertising the CBC’s fledging entertainment roster to their largest audience of the week on Saturday nights.

If the CBC were an NHL team, the fans would be calling for heads to roll because they got cheated.

To make matters worse, HNIC accounted for 50 per cent of the advertising budget for CBC TV, and without that influx of cash, the belts at the CBC just got even tighter.

Ratings have also been an issue for the CBC. Since August 2013, outside of HNIC and the Olympics, the station has only had four programs crack the top 30 weekly TV programs in the country, according to BBM Canada — not promising stats for an organization that is looking to prove its worth to Canadians.

There have been some positives for the Mother Corp, such as the recent coverage of the Winter Olympics. The CBC provided more hours of TV and online coverage than any other broadcaster in the world, setting the standard for how Olympics should be covered in the new television landscape. Yet, even with these recent accomplishments, CBC TV needs to get even more innovative and find a new way to be relevant to Canadians.

The British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) and Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) are both excellent examples of public broadcasters that refocused their content to service a younger audience. CBC programmers need to look to their successes to figure out how to better fulfill the mandate of the public broadcaster to be predominantly and distinctively Canadian. Focusing on Canada’s strong music scene by emulating a program like the wildly popular Later … with Jools Holland on BBC Two, or attempting to make a new comedy program in the vein of Ja’mie: Private School Girl on the ABC1, would push the CBC outside of the comfort zone it has stayed in for years.

Producing another Arctic Air or Rags to Riches isn’t going to solve the structural problems that CBC TV has with its content or help show Canadians that the CBC is a relevant part of their lives. Neither will Stroumboulopoulos hosting Rogers’ version of HNIC. Taking chances on CBC Radio is what has made the network a leader in both ratings and content on that platform, and it’s about time the television side did the same thing.