Sunday, 15 April 2012

The CBC, ex-CBC Executives and ‘Factortion’

Moynihan famously said: Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts.”  Something very unsettling has been happening in society; facts are no longer cold, hard and indisputable.  Instead, they are being distorted and falsified by politicians, businessmen, journalists, economists and even scientists.  To win an argument, gain an advantage or influence policy, people in respected positions throughout society are willing to fabricate data and statistics, contort and distort the facts (factortion), to a degree previous generations of professionals would never have considered.  There are skilled practitioners in factortion on both the left and right of the political spectrum. The world of polling and research has, unfortunately, been on the cutting edge of the phenomenon.

A recent example of distortion of research facts is the claim by the publisher of Richard Stursbergs new book that He enjoyed the best radio, television and online ratings in CBCs history.  Mr. Stursberg, a former CBC Vice-president, reinforced these supposed facts in the Globe and Mail recently: Nearly every year since the 1970s, CBCs television audiences declined.  By 2004, its ratings were the lowest in its history. Almost nobody was watching.Starting in 2006, the CBC began to re-invent itself...The results were startling.”  He went on to say, For the last four years, CBCs overwhelmingly Canadian prime-time schedule has beaten Globals overwhelmingly American one.” 

For good measure Mr. Stursberg added, (CBC) Radio is enjoying the highest ratings in its 75-year history. Another trait of our times is to ignore history: CBC radio once dominated Canadian airwaves, providing an invaluable service to Canada leading up to, during and after the last great war, and as far as we can tell attracted mass audiences in that era.  Mr. Stursberg says he is concerned about the CBC and wants a review of its future role but are his facts and understanding of CBC correct?

Robert Rabinovitch, ex-president of CBC and the man who hired Mr. Stursberg, also wants a review of CBC and weighed in recently with this peculiar comment in the Toronto Star: Richard is extremely brighthes super-intelligent...and he increased audience share dramatically.”  A few days later Mr. Stursberg repeated in the Star that in 2004 CBC TV had its lowest ratings in history.  Toronto Life also regurgitated these claims about audiences in its last issue.

Stop the presses!  Has anyone verified these facts?  Have the publishers and editors asked the CBC for a comment or visited the CBC web site to see if these claims are true? 

The CBC is required to prepare a corporate plan, which is available on its web site.  It is submitted to the government and therefore must adhere to high standards of truthfulness.  The most recent corporate plan contains an analysis that states: While the shares of other conventional broadcasters in North America have been declining in recent years, CBC Televisions audience share has grown.  In the 2009-2010 broadcast year, CBC Televisions prime time share of 8.7 per cent was its highest in five years.”  Oddly, an accompanying chart compares the share to 8 years previously.  CBC corporate plans and other official documents from recent years show that the share has been steady at about 8-9% but there was a temporary dip 5-6 years ago caused by two factors discussed below.  CBC's quarterly performance report, another report the Corporation is required to file with the government, confirms that in 2011-12 the audience share is in the same range, between  8-9%, all according to CBC's analysis. 

Note that the CBC's analysis in the corporate plan refers to the full 52-week broadcast year.  Another way of distorting audience performance is to cherry pick and only examine certain weeks of the year. The corporate plan is provided to Treasury Board, who provide funds to CBC 52 weeks a year, not selected weeks.

There is nothing wrong with an 8-9% prime time share, maintaining market share today is an accomplishment, but why keep repeating every few years that it is the highest in history or its highest in five years?

Lets take a look at what the CBC said its TV audience share was just as Mr. Rabinovitch  took the reins at CBC, that is about 10 years ago.  (He hired Mr. Stursberg at the start of 2004.)
Its true that 2004-05, Mr. Stursberg's first year, was a very poor year for CBC TV, according to CBC's analysis shown at bottom.  The following year, 2005-06, wasnt much better.  Both years the audience share was under 8%.  Why?  Very simply, because in 2004-05 the NHL locked out its players and in August that year Mr. Rabinovitch and Mr. Stursberg locked out their employees.  Since CBC depends heavily on the NHL to maintain its audience share and on its employees in news, public affairs, etc. for much of the remaining audience, only someone very naive or determined to distort the data would compare CBCs performance to 2004-05.   The CBC's analysis shows that the year before the NHL lockout its audience share was 8.9%, more or less what CBC says it has been in recent years. In 2001-02, early in Mr. Rabinovitch's term as president, the share according to CBC's analysis was 10.0%, higher than the share of any subsequent year.   In other words, it has taken these past few years just to get within hailing distance of the audience levels CBC had at the beginning of the Rabinovitch/Stursberg reign.

In some of those earlier years CBC aired the Olympics, which gave a slight boost to its annual share but CBC lost the Olympic rights to CTV in 2010.  On the other hand, CBC's share is given a mathematical boost by a new audience ratings system, introduced in 2009, which doesn't measure the audience to many U.S. stations, so they can't be counted in share calculations today.

In essence, CBC TV audiences were never at historic highs during or following Mr. Stursberg's era.  According to the analyses CBC submitted to Parliament, CBC had as large or larger prime time audience share in 2001-02 and 2003-04, beating Global in those years with Canadian programs, equaling the results boasted about by Mr. Stursberg.  

Mr. Stursberg never refers to CBCs 24-hour audience share, which CBC's submissions to Parliament indicate is much lower, in the 5-6% range.  What would it be without hockey and U.S. game shows (which CBC began airing under Mr. Stursberg in 2008)? Think PBS. 

Then, why is it that CBC seems to have more viewers for some individual programs today than a few years ago? Well, and this is a fact that few in the TV industry want to address, it turns out that three years ago, in fall 2009, the definition of who was to be counted as being in the audience was changed dramatically by the ratings system.  The majority of programs on all networks for the past three years have had a much larger audience as a result.  Audience share wasn't much affected because almost every station's audience went up. But audiences really didn't increase, just as the temperature is not affected when one switches from Centigrade to Fahrenheit degrees.

Mr. Rabinovitch and Mr. Stursberg both began their careers as Ottawa bureaucrats and learned, as so many in Ottawa have, that if you repeat something often and loud enough, the press (and their readers) will come to believe that it must be true. 

CBC has just suffered the biggest budget cut in its history.  CBC managers argued their case to maintain its funding but members of Parliament and Ottawa bureaucrats recognize factual contortions and distortions and cut the budget.  They are past masters in the art of distorting the facts and presumably didn't believe, rightly so, what the CBC said about how Canadians use its services.  If  CBC is to right the ship and define its role in the years ahead, former and current CBC management must put an end to statistical factortion and present their strategies to the government based on the real environment the CBC faces.

I agree with Mr. Stursberg that somebody should review the role of the CBC, somebody with a deep understanding of public broadcasting, and who is equipped with clear, unadulterated facts, especially facts about what CBC programs and services Canadians use.

Note to readers: the preceding observations on audience are based entirely on CBC's published analysis of its audience performance. 

Update: Stursberg's program scheduling strategy for prime time, 7-11pm, was  quite simple.  He de-Canadianized the schedule.  In his first year he moved Coronation Street into prime time at 7pm.  In his fourth year he added Jeopardy to the prime time schedule at 7:30pm, meaning that 1 in 4 hours every weeknight was foreign programming that would attract large audiences; in the case of Jeopardy he was able to simulcast against U.S. stations, meaning that much of Jeopardy's audience wasn't actually watching a CBC station and couldn't be a 'lead-in' audience for CBC Canadian shows at 8pm.  In his fifth year he moved Wheel of Fortune to the 7pm time slot, hoping for even bigger audiences.  He aired more Hollywood movies in prime time than ever.  When it came time to reporting performance he would use the 7-11pm share numbers, which included the foreign shows, but say that "real" prime time was 8-11pm, suggesting that it was his Canadian shows that were responsible for his performance.  In his book he erroneously states that 7-11pm was defined as prime time for regulatory purposes but that it isn't real prime time.  The CRTC actually defined 6-midnight as prime time decades ago to allow broadcasters to count news in calculations of Canadian content.  The Commission today refers to 7-11pm as "peak viewing time", the hours when audiences are at their highest levels.  

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