Monday 30 December 2013

CBC's Response to Violations of its Journalistic Policies

The previous post expressed concerns about how CBC has been presenting results of opinion polls and online surveys.  The post was sent to the CBC Ombudsman and the Executive Producer of Power and Politics was good enough to respond and explains that her program will take steps to improve how polls are presented.  Her response follows and afterwards are my comments to the producer: 

From: Amy Castle
Sent: Tuesday, December 24, 2013 11:56 AM
To: bkiefl
Cc: CBC Ombudsman
Subject: Letter to CBC Ombudsman
December 24, 2013
Dear Mr

Thank you for sharing your recent blog post
  with the CBC Ombudsman regarding Power & Politics.  As the Executive
  Producer, I can tell you your feedback is essential to how we do our work.

I must, however, disagree strongly with your
  suggestion that our program is "ignoring a vital area of CBC
  journalistic policy." On the contrary, we're very much living up to our
  Journalistic Standards and Practices.
You raised a number of concerns in your blog post.
 Let me respond to each of them in turn.

In terms of our weekly segment “Political Traction”
with Jaime Watt, you say “CBC should not be implying that this is
representative of Canadians and therefore possibly leading viewers into
thinking that Navigator has conducted representative polling.”

At no point do we characterize Political Traction as a poll.
 Rather, we are clear on the show and on our website that Jaime Watt is
tracking the political conversation in Ottawa
and across Canada.
 The goal of the segment is to discuss which political issues are trending
in the Canadian conversation, and to highlight the differences - if any - in
the conversation being held in Ottawa
compared to the national conversation.

The Traction methodology is explained on our website here:  
I am attaching to this note a detailed breakdown of that

You say that “Power and Politics should be more forthright
about the methodology used by Navigator.”  Although we have the
methodology on our website, I will ensure that we remind our viewers on air
where to find details of that methodology.

Regarding our weekly feature, The Nanos Number, pollster Nik Nanos
draws on a number of polls from reputable sources and we are always clear where
the polls come from.

CBC’s policy states this: We report polls not commissioned by CBC as long as we can verify that the
methodology meets CBC standards.  The sample size, methodology and
interpretation of results of non–CBC polls should be reviewed by the CBC
research department. To help our audience place a poll in context, we provide
relevant information about the methodology and size of the sample along with
the results. Where applicable, we provide the margin of error.

We abide by these rules with the Nanos Number.  All polls
used in the Nanos Number meet CBC standards.  We also provide information
on the methodology, size of the sample and margin of error.  These details
are clearly stated on our website
I agree with you, however, that the information is difficult to
read when we post it on television.  This is due to a new graphics programme
that we recently started using.  I am currently working with our graphics
designer to ensure that our graphics are upgraded to ensure that the font is
more easily readable on air.

You raise concerns that Mr Nanos is using crowdsourcing in his polling.
 In fact the term crowdsource is a Nanos tradename and should not be
confused with a process.  The Nanos polling methodology includes a sample
of random land and cell lines where people are randomly selected to do a study
online.  His methodology is robust and meets our strict CBC standards.

Regarding our daily Ballot Box segment, interaction with our
audience is an important part of our show.  We welcome comments from
viewers, and encourage participation in our daily political conversation.
 The Ballot Box is an important part of that interaction.  

At no point do we refer to the Ballot Box as a poll.  As you
mentioned, we are transparent in showing the number of votes on screen whenever
the Ballot Box appears.

I will, however, ensure that the number of votes gets posted
online along with the percentage results at the end of each day.

Thank you very much for your feedback. It is also my
responsibility to tell you that if you are not satisfied with this response,
you may wish to submit the matter for review by the CBC Ombudsman. The
Office of the Ombudsman, an independent and impartial body reporting
directly to the President, is responsible for evaluating program compliance
with the CBC's journalistic policies. The Ombudsman may be reached by
mail at Box 500,
Terminal A, Toronto, Ontario M5W 1E6,
or by fax at 
(416) 205-2825, or by e-mail at

Amy Castle
Executive Producer, Power and Politics
CBC News Network

My Response to the Executive Producer of Power and Politics:

Ms. Castle, thank you for the response.  Below are my comments and concerns:
  1. Navigator or Political Traction: Your suggestion of “…ensur(ing) that we remind our viewers on air where to find details of th(e) methodology” would be beneficial and resolve my concern about Navigator. Putting that information on your web site is good but an on-air explanation is excellent.  I suspect only a handful of viewers have ever seen the web site reference.
  2. Nanos Number:  I think it is good that you are “currently working with (y)our graphics designer to ensure that…graphics are upgraded to ensure that the font is more easily readable on air.”  However, while I recognize that this would improve the viewer’s understanding of the polling methodology, the spirit of the policy on reporting polls would be better reflected if you did more than include a graphic, legible or not, with sampling details, etc.  A half minute explanation of the methodology is warranted and would add credibility to what Mr. Nanos says about results.  Mr. Nanos also appeared recently with Evan Solomon on The House and discussed poll results dealing with the PM’s credibility; there was scant reference to polling methodology.  Poll results from an unspecified source dealing with CPP were reported on December 16, 2013 on CBC News Network and again, there was no reference to methodology. So, this appears to be a wider issue than the Nanos Number on Power and Politics and I would appreciate your alerting Jennifer McQuire to this concern.  
  3. The Ballot Box:  the policy dealing with online surveys, which I had a hand in drafting, was to ensure that viewers/listeners understood specifically that such “surveys” are not scientific in any way.  The policy was to make that absolutely clear and so I suggest you include a reference to Ballot Box being unscientific each time you present the results in graphic form on air.  Moreover, my understanding of the policy dealing with online surveys is that only raw vote numbers will be presented; percentages will not be presented under any circumstances.  I appreciate your offer to “ensure that the number of votes gets posted online along with the percentage results at the end of each day.” But I believe this is a misinterpretation of the policy. Percentages should not be presented in any form.   To quote from the policy: “We report the results by giving the number of votes cast for each option. We do not give the results as a percentage, as we do with bona fide polls.”  So, including raw numbers on air and on your web site follows the policy but including percentages with or without the raw numbers violates the spirit and the letter of the policy.  I note that a number of CBC programs are using online surveys and all of them violate the policy by including just percentages on their web sites.  These include Day Six, Q and The National and I would appreciate your also bringing this to the attention of Jennifer McQuire.  (The online survey by The National gives percentages to two decimal places, giving the impression the results are especially accurate.)

While the above may seem like nitpicking to someone producing a show as fast moving and well produced as Power and Politics, I assure you that my concerns about CBC journalistic policy are much greater than how polls are presented.  CBC journalism has always occupied the high ground and relaxing journalistic standards only plays into the hands of critics who want to get the CBC on their ‘level playing field’. I firmly believe that the future of the CBC will be determined by the quality of its journalism and slippage in journalistic standards will spell the end of CBC TV and radio.
Barry Kiefl

Thursday 5 December 2013

CBC Journalistic Policy Benched?

CBC’s weekday two-hour program, Power and Politics, covers politicians and political events in more depth than any other program on TV.  It carefully balances the time devoted to the political parties, ensuring all the main parties and their views are represented on various panels, etc.  Its choice of topics tends toward political scandal and sins, making it no different than most other media but that’s another topic.  For reasons unexplained, Power and Politics is ignoring a vital area of CBC journalistic policy.  CBC carefully developed journalistic policies relating to opinion polling and posts them on its website. However, basic tenets of the policy are ignored in almost every edition of Power and Politics.

The CBC policy in question states: “We report polls not commissioned by CBC as long as we can verify that the methodology meets CBC standards. The sample size, methodology and interpretation of results of non-CBC polls should be reviewed by the CBC research department. To help our audience place a poll in context, we provide relevant information about the methodology and size of the sample along with the results. Where applicable, we provide the margin of error.”

Two different non-CBC “polls” or what seem to be polls are regularly featured on Power and Politics, The Nanos Number and Navigator.   

Navigator is an example of non-CBC research that seemingly violates CBC policy.  The avuncular Jamie Watt, chairman of Navigator, a successful political consulting firm, appears on his own segment of Power and Politics and presents data that both he and Evan Solomon, host of Power and Politics, imply are representative of “Canadians.” In fact, only after digging into Navigator’s website does one learn that the "tracking" percentages characterized as being representative of Canadians are based primarily on analysis of blogs, online comments, Twitter, and comments on political talk shows (presumably including comments by Jamie Watt and his staff who appear on such programs.)  


There is nothing wrong with someone analyzing tweets and online comments but CBC should not be implying that this is representative of Canadians and therefore possibly leading viewers into thinking that Navigator has conducted representative polling.  We know that relatively few people tweet and research, including some done by CBC, determined that those who bother to write newspapers or call talk shows, etc. are generally not representative of either the audience or the population. Power and Politics should be more forthright about the methodology used by Navigator.

The Nanos Number, a product of Nanos Research, is also a regular segment on Power and Politics but featuring actual poll results.  Survey results on some occasions appear to come from a conventional telephone poll, while on other occasions, results are based on what Nanos calls an “RDD Crowdsource random survey of 1,000 Canadians… recruited by telephone through the proprietary Nanos Crowdsource sample and administered a survey online.”   Crowdsourcing has been used to fund entrepreneurs but it is very unclear how it has been used here. The Nanos Number segment, featuring the amiable and professional Nik Nanos, usually provides little or no information about the methodologies, other than an illegible footnote partially obscured by program graphics. One must go to the Nanos website to learn how the surveys have (presumably) been conducted.  So, once again, this seems to be in violation of the CBC’s journalistic policy.  Power and Politics should be transparent about the Nanos surveys and “provide relevant information about the methodology.”



CBC should utilize its in-house experts in survey research.  In one recent Nik Nanos segment on CBC radio’s The House, Evan Solomon did not accurately read the survey question put to respondents, perhaps because the question, which dealt with the Prime Minister’s credibility, seemed awkwardly worded, something CBC researchers and journalists should pick up on.

The third poll-related segment that regularly appears on Power and Politics is called The Ballot Box.  Each night a different survey question is put to viewers and visitors to CBC’s website and they are encouraged to vote online.   The CBC journalistic policy regarding online surveys is exceptionally well thought out and clear: “Online surveys are a tool of audience engagement. Since it does not fulfill any of the criteria set out in polling policy, the questions and the results are not characterized as polls. We report the results by giving the number of votes cast for each option. We do not give the results as a percentage, as we normally do with bona fide polls. If programs refer to online questions, the results are reported in a way that clearly indicates it has no scientific validity and are not meant to represent the accurate range of either public opinion nor the opinion of our audience.”   Power and Politics, which could be re-christened Polls and Politics, is clearly violating the CBC standards with regards to how these online results are being presented. only presents percentages and during the program percentages are presented along with raw results.  In my view this lends an air of polling legitimacy to The Ballot Box, which is not warranted, as any professional researcher and experienced journalist knows.

CBC TV is under greater duress than at any point in its history.  In recent years its role in our lives has been usurped by other broadcasters and media, the most recent example being a much reduced role in the broadcasting of NHL hockey.  Over time the funding that all Canadians provide to the CBC via Parliament has been reduced. Today we give our money, many times more than we ever provided to CBC, to private media conglomerates such as Rogers and Bell; for better or worse they have used those funds to push CBC out of many program areas. The one critical element that CBC TV and radio offer to Canadians still unmatched by private radio and TV is quality journalism.  That quality has been maintained because of the excellent journalists who work at CBC and CBC's journalistic standards.   Hopefully, Power and Politics will re-visit those standards.

While were at it, Power and Politics could you please stop running the same two or three commercials targeted to pensioners and the elderly day after day, hour after hour. Yes, I remember Paul Henderson's goal in 1972!  Does the sales department think CBC's older viewers have such impaired memory they can’t remember commercials aired every day for months and just minutes earlier?

Wednesday 15 May 2013

CBC’s Audience Crisis: CBC TV Audience is Down 40%, Lowest in History

CBC TV has an audience crisis, according to the most recent data released by CBC.  CBC is required by the government to report on its financial and audience performance on a quarterly basis.  Quarterly reporting began in 2011-12.  Reports are issued for the first three quarters of the year and the annual report presents results for the full year.

To its credit CBC is revealing more information about its performance than it has in recent years.  Once upon a time CBC was transparent about its finances and its audiences but competition today has meant smaller audiences, at least in TV, and there has been less for the Corporation to boast about and more to be defensive about. 

The metrics CBC uses to measure performance run the gamut from content percentages to revenues obtained from advertising and other sources.  To measure audience performance CBC uses audience ‘share’, ‘listening/viewing hours’, ‘average minute audience’, ‘subscriber counts’, ‘unique visitors’ and opinion scores.  One needs to be an expert in audience measurement to work their way through this maze of information.  I doubt that many CBC Board members or senior managers understand or could explain it all.

Moreover, the measures are not applied uniformly across all CBC services.  The main TV services are measured by share, the smaller specialty TV channels by subscriber counts (not an audience measure), radio morning shows and supper hour TV programs by weekly listening/viewing hours, the web sites by monthly visitors, etc.  English and French services also differ in the metrics used for similar services.

CBC, again to its credit, attempts to measure public reaction to its services rather than rely strictly on measures of audience size or ratings.  Ratings data are provided by independent third-party ratings organizations but to measure public reaction CBC commissions its own surveys.  This, of course, means the surveys could be perceived as biased.   Little information is provided about these custom surveys.  We are assured that the sample of respondents results in “a very small margin of error.”  Survey results are provided in each quarterly report as shown in the table below, showing the agreement scores (out of 10) for various traits of CBC radio and TV as a whole:     

In the quarterly reports differences in the opinion scores of .1, .2 or .3 in these or similar traits are described as indicating a trend.  For example the 2011-12 third quarter report claims: “Results…suggest that Anglophones are responding positively to the initiatives that have been announced or introduced since the launch of Strategy 2015. Scores for each aspect of the guiding principles were higher in November 2011 than in November 2010.”

But these small differences in the scores, some of which turned negative by the third quarter of 2012-13 as shown above, are probably not statistically significant.  More importantly, is this the correct way to measure public reaction to CBC services?  Asking Canadians whether CBC radio, TV and web services as a whole are informative, enlightening or entertaining is almost certainly going to elicit a positive average score.  Survey researchers know this. CBC offers many services and some people will be answering for CBC radio, some for CBC TV, some for CBC News Network, some for their favourite CBC shows or personalities or, etc.   Besides, ask the same question of CTV or TVA and you will probably receive similar scores.  So what is the purpose of asking questions that fail to capture year-to-year changes and that do not differentiate between CBC services or other broadcasters?   CBC needs to rethink how it measures public reaction.

The various measures of audience size used by CBC are shown in the table below, taken from the most recent quarterly report for 2012-13:

To measure the size of the audience of, a third-party estimate of unique monthly visitors is used.  The most recent number is 6.1 million monthly visitors, slightly below the target of 6.5 million visitors.  Previous quarterly reports broke down this number to distinguish between CBC online news, sports and entertainment but this was for some reason “discontinued.” The monthly visitor or reach number seems impressive at first glance but if one were to compare this to other web sites, it would become apparent that hundreds of sites generate a large audience reach over the course of a month.  To be counted one need only visit a site for as little as a few minutes in a month. A more telling number would be the audience share of time spent browsing the internet.  However, because the net has thousands of web sites all competing for audience, has a small share of browsing time, not something web sites want to divulge.

To measure the size of the CBC radio audience, a third-party estimate of audience share is employed.  The most recent share for CBC radio is reported as 15.3%, a full share point ahead of the target for the year.  CBC radio, despite internal and external budget cuts remains strong.  Unfortunately, Radio 1 and Radio 2 are not broken out separately, so we don’t know if one is trending higher and the other lower. 

Without explanation, CBC employs a different audience metric for Radio 1 morning shows, reverting to weekly listening hours.  Since share is simply the percentage of listening hours of CBC compared to time listening to all radio stations, it would be simpler to use share here as well.  CBC French radio in the same report uses share. However, millions of hours sounds more impressive.  The silver lining: listening hours allows one to compare to the viewing hours of CBC TV’s supper hour programs, which, interestingly, are only half the size of the radio morning shows.  The radio morning shows and the supper hour TV news programs are the most important local programming offered by CBC.  (Note to CBC researchers: the footnote sourcing the radio listening hours is incorrect.)  

The metric that shows the most change in the latest quarterly report is the audience share of CBC TV. 

The prime time share of CBC TV is reported as 5.3% at the mid-point of the TV season.  This is a loss of over 40% compared to the 9.3% share in 2010-11.  The report comments on this decline:  “For CBC Television, reduced programming as a result of the funding decreases announced in Federal Budget 2012, the absence of professional hockey due to the NHL labour disruption and the phasing-out of the LPIF contributions had significant programming and revenue implications on our conventional and digital platforms. CBC Television’s share performance fell from the prior year’s results and is trending below target.”  Not mentioned is that 2012-13 also marked the first year without U.S. game shows in the CBC’s prime time schedule, which, combined with NHL hockey, served to cover up weaknesses.  With the return of the NHL mid-season and some extra games added to the schedule, CBC’s share would recover somewhat but at best would be 2 share points or 20% lower than two years ago.

The first and presumably most important factor used to explain CBC TV audience losses, cuts in the federal funding, also affected other CBC services but they managed to exceed or come close to targets.  Worth noting: CBC radio’s share is now three times larger than the audience share of CBC TV. 

If the share of CBC TV was just over 5% in prime time, it is below 5% on a 24 hour basis; CBC daytime schedules have traditionally performed poorly compared to CBC’s prime time. Making matters worse is that the audience to about half the U.S. TV stations available in Canada are no longer being measured by the ratings company and neither are services such as Netflix or Apple TV, meaning that CBC’s share of all TV viewing is actually lower than the numbers suggest. This is the lowest audience share in CBC’s history and yet there is no hint of the severity of the TV network’s situation in the quarterly report.  CBC TV audiences are sold to advertisers and with less audience to sell, 2012-13 revenues, shown in the table above, are almost $40 million less than at the same point the previous year, creating a revenue shortfall that, when added to federal cuts, may be crippling.

There has been some public debate about whether or not CBC is in crisis.  The CBC’s latest report confirms that many programs on the main TV service, despite efforts to be more “popular,” have fallen to audience levels not much greater than many specialty channels.  Those who deny the crisis fail to realize that Canadians prefer Duck Dynasty to most CBC shows, including the national news. The most important and costly CBC service has an audience crisis and CBC needs to respond to it.  Is it time to rethink the role of CBC TV?   

Friday 10 May 2013

Do We Want Canadian Movies or Drama Series on TV?

Movies have been a staple of TV networks since the dawn of TV.  I fondly remember spending Saturday afternoons in the early 1950’s at my grandfather’s house watching old westerns on CBC TV.  Granddad was the only one on the block with a TV and we lived just down the street, so I never missed a Saturday. When we got a TV a few years later the only show it seem to pull in was Bishop Sheen, the first TV evangelist.  Because it seems old fashioned there are some TV network honchos, who we'll keep nameless, who think movies on TV are passé and people are no longer interested in watching movies on TV networks. Well, what do the people have to say about this?

CMRI has tracked public opinion about what types of TV programs people are interested in for the past decade. We present a list of 40-45 different genres of programs to people, depending on the year, and ask them to tell us how interested they are in each genre.  Not surprisingly, local news has always come in first when ranked against all other types of program.  Infomercials have finished last every year.  Drama series score quite high with about 60% of viewers saying they are very interested/interested and the results have been consistent over the past ten years: 

But Hollywood movies get even higher scores with over 70% reporting they are interested in seeing Hollywood flicks on TV.  In fact Hollywood movies are the highest ranking fiction genre in our surveys year after year.  What's more, about 1 in 4 viewers say they are very interested in Hollywood fare, significantly higher than the proportion saying they are very interested in TV series:

Now for the bad news.  The percentage of Canadians saying they are interested in Canadian drama programs is well below that of drama in general or Hollywood movies.  Under 40% of people express interest in seeing Canadian drama, a problem that has been addressed here:

There's a silver lining, however.  For the past 5 years we have asked about Canadian movies on TV and, interestingly, Canadian movies fare better than Canadian drama series.  On average over the past five surveys, approximately 60% of people say they have an interest in seeing Canadian movies on TV.  That is equal to the interest in all drama series, including U.S. series:

Perhaps people instinctively feel that the quality of Canadian movies is greater than Canadian series.  A movie or mini-series often takes more risk and is less subject to bureaucratic funding rules and creative interference from networks.

So the representative sample of 15,000 or so people we have interviewed over the past decade say they are more interested in movies on TV than TV series.  The TV network honchos might be well advised to spend some time talking to actual viewers before jumping to conclusions about what people want.

The 2011 survey results are from CMRI's Media Trends Survey conducted November-December 2011 among a representative national sample of approximately 900 Anglophone respondents aged 18-plus.  Margin of error +/-3.3%.  The Media Trends Survey has been conducted for ten consecutive years and has surveyed over 15,000 Canadians in total. In our analysis we usually only report Anglophone results.   Both Anglophones and Francophones have been surveyed in this period, using questionnaires in each respective language.  Francophones have been surveyed in 5 of the 10 years.  To compensate for poorer response rates among younger adults results are statistically weighted in keeping with industry standards.  It is the only survey to have measured media use and attitudes continuously over this decade. The Media Trends Survey is not sponsored by any one industry or affiliated with a media company.

Wednesday 24 April 2013

Oops, Sorry Mr. Commissioner, I Meant to Say...

Michael Geist summed it up: asking the CRTC for mandatory subscriber fees from cable and satellite customers is the last chance for failed broadcasting business models.  Personally, I think one or two of the new applicants can make a case, notably Starlight which is at least offering to make decades of  Canadian movies more widely available and, given Canadians' love of movies, would probably draw an audience. The results from CMRI's annual Media Trends Survey confirm this.

Some of those who appeared before the CRTC the first day of the hearing could be mistaken for a Monty Python skit and some were beyond bizarre, especially those tossing around survey research showing the vast majority of Canadians don't seem to want their service.  The misuse of research has been described here as 'factortion' and we were treated to an abundance of it at the CRTC hearing on day one. The first prize for research factortion at the hearing for mandatory subscriber fees goes to the channel called Dolobox, a channel meant to bring Canadian youth back to TV.  The channel's rationale, and that of another youth-oriented channel, seems to be  based on the assumption that young people have abandoned TV.  CRTC commissioners seem to accept this as a given.

Dolobox engaged Nordicity, who in turn engaged Strategic Inc., to undertake research and analysis to support their case.  Their analysis of ratings data concluded that TV viewing among young people is down over the past three years by as much as 10%.  The key evidence put forward is depicted in the chart below and can be found on the CRTC's web site:

The problem is that the BBM data examined by Strategic Inc. are for English Canada only. This is not mentioned anywhere in the report. Had the BBM data for Francophone Quebec been included, it would have shown that at least one young group, 25-34 years, increased their TV viewing in the three years.  In addition, not all the data quite match published BBM data for English Canada.  Every number matches with published data except for Teens 12-17 in the final year.  Strategic Inc. shows teen viewing flat in year three, while BBM data shows that teen viewing increased slightly in the final year. 

TVB Canada has analyzed viewing trends for the past eight years.  Their analysis of BBM data shows that when the PPM was introduced in 2009-10, it reported an increase of 4-5 hrs/week in viewing by younger groups.  Weekly hours have been in the range of 22-24 hours the past three years.  In 2009-10 levels were slightly higher but this was likely related to the fact that that year BBM did not include cell-only persons in its sample, many of whom are younger people.  BBM also experienced problems with getting younger respondents to co-operate in year one of the PPM and has made methodological improvements since.  Comparisons with that first year should be made with caution as a result.   

Nonetheless, had Strategic Inc. examined viewing by all younger groups, English as well as French, as the report implies it did, it would have found a very small decline in viewing, one which, if statistically significant, could be explained by the simple fact that the 2010 Vancouver Olympics were included in year one of the analysis.  The 2012 London games were excluded in year three of the Strategic Inc. analysis; the Olympics normally attract younger audiences and their inclusion/exclusion accounts for most if not all the "decline."   Case closed.

Thursday 18 April 2013

60th Anniversary of Canadian TV: Why We Don’t Have Hit TV Series

In January 1982 MacLean’s cover story read “The CBC’s Daring New Gamble,” and described the biggest programming risk a Canadian TV network has taken in the past 30 years.  CBC decided to move its national news to 10 o’clock and follow it with The Journal, an in-depth current affairs segment.

Maclean’s explained, “The public image of CBC television has rarely been worse. CBC’s share of the English-language audience has dropped from 34 per cent in 1967 to under 20 per cent and will fall even lower with the move to 10 p.m.”  Thirty years later CBC’s audience share has fallen to less than 5%.

CBC legends Peter Herrndorf, Mark Starowicz, Trina McQueen and Tony Burman designed the revolutionary concept around hosts Barbara Frum, Knowlton Nash and Mary Lou Finlay.  The move had to be finessed through the CBC’s Board of Directors and when presented an audience forecast predicting the audience would increase significantly, Herrndorf said to bury it, since he had already convinced the Board that increased service to the public was worth losing audience.  The audience for the 10 o’clock hour increased by over 50 per cent and may have saved CBC or at least bought it another decade or two. 

Not every gamble pays off, especially ones that ignore the odds.  With bureaucrats in control of CBC a decade later, The National was moved to 9 o’clock with disastrous results.  That mistake lasted one season.

Ever since, CBC has steered away from taking risks and today builds its prime time schedule around programs that have been around for 40 years or longer: NHL hockey, local and national news, fifth estate, Nature of Things, Marketplace, Disney, Coronation Street, Hollywood movies, holiday specials and safe, middle-of-the-road entertainment reminiscent of programs the network aired in the 1970’s.  Renewing 22 minutes for a 20th season or purchasing the rights to a proven series like Murdoch Mysteries or the Lang/O’Leary show are the riskiest programming moves CBC takes.  Perhaps that is why CBC TV made little fuss about its 60th anniversary last September, which coincidentally was also the 60th anniversary of Canadian TV.  Instead the network  celebrated the 60th anniversary of Hockey Night in Canada.

Why are Canadian broadcasters so reluctant to take risks?  Does it explain why Canadian drama and comedy programs virtually never make the top 10?      
These questions have perplexed some very smart, creative people in Canadian TV for decades.  In the late 1970’s it led CBC to study trends in Canadian program audiences.  One of the findings that surfaced shocked senior management: the audience to Canadian programs had lagged U.S. programs since the beginning of TV in Canada, when CBC TV was essentially the only channel available to most Canadians.

Further analysis revealed that in the 1950’s CBC TV relied heavily on shows like Ed Sullivan, Father Knows Best, Perry Como and I Love Lucy. These American shows attracted huge audiences with ratings of 20%, 30% or even 40%, numbers unheard of today, when a show with rating of 2% is considered a success.

Here’s a snapshot from an old report showing that even in 1960, prior to the launch of CTV, U.S. programs captured roughly two-thirds of Canadian viewing (6pm-midnight). The 2:1 ratio remained constant through the 60’s, 70’s, 80’s and 90’s and is unchanged to this day, despite 60 years of trying.  Over the years these efforts included the launch of dozens of new Canadian channels, the shift from free over-the air TV to pay TV, the creation of new funding sources, new funding agencies, tax incentives, billions of tax dollars provided to CBC and other broadcasters, regulatory incentives by the CRTC and numerous other measures. 


Incidentally, this ratio is almost exactly the opposite in French TV, where Canadian programming predominates, although even in French Canada U.S. drama and movies capture substantial audiences.

Al Johnson, president of CBC when The National and The Journal were introduced, was one of those shocked by the audience data.  He asked the research department to make large poster size versions of the chart below and presented it to members of Parliament.  He launched a concerted effort to bring attention to the fact that Canadians were being swamped by a foreign culture.  Only in the supper hour news period and late-night news period did Canadian programming account for a substantial audience share.  In the heart of prime time foreign content crushed Canadian content.  Ironically, a chart of viewing patterns in 2013 looks very much like the 1979 chart.

Part of the reason that U.S. shows perform so well in Canada is that we import U.S. stations on cable and satellite and in recent years U.S. stations from all time zones have been made available to cable/satellite subscribers, permitting Canadian viewers unparalleled access to U.S. programs. Not even Americans are offered distant ABC, NBC, CBS or Fox signals from other time zones. 

Of course, all the Canadian stations, including CBC, also carry foreign programs, usually giving them prime time slots. CTV, CITY and Global prime time schedules are mostly American programs, scheduled to broadcast simultaneously with the U.S. networks. Many specialty channels are built around U.S. programs and even use the same names as their U.S. counterparts (OWN, Lifetime, History, Discovery…) So, while the resources put into Canadian programming have increased, they have been matched by U.S. programmers.

Here’s another chart that Al Johnson presented to Parliament over 30 years ago.  It shows the correlation between the amount of foreign programming in English TV and its audience share.  Overall, some 67 per cent of programming available was foreign, so no wonder it captured a large audience share. Note that what is true today was true then: in news, public affairs and sports, Canadian programming accounted for a majority of the programming available and an even greater share of viewing in those genres.  We have always been good at news, public affairs and sports and people watch in large numbers, being interested in what affects them directly.  That was a key factor in the success of The National and The Journal. 

However, in drama and other entertainment we not only produced much less, we drew a ridiculously small share of the viewing audience in 1979 and that remains true today, as I have documented and confirmed annually in CRTC and CMF trending reports.  Because drama and entertainment account for much more viewing than other genres, foreign programming continues to predominate.  But it still leaves the question, why can’t we produce top 10 hits?      

The decades-long stranglehold U.S. programs have had on English TV, despite the efforts of Al Johnson and hundreds of other well-meaning executives and programmers over the past six decades, seems to be a permanent condition.  It may be as inevitable as winter in a country that shares a border and a language with the largest economy in the world. Given that French TV can produce top-rated hits, the key factor is language and shared culture.

An example: when a disaster strikes in the States, such as 911 or the Boston Marathon bombing, English Canadians flock to CNN.  Ratings for Canadian news channels increase too but nothing compared to the CNN audience.  For several weeks in September 2001 CNN was the number one network in Canada, capturing an audience share greater than any Canadian network.  When major awards shows such as the Academy Awards or the Emmys are broadcast, celebrating U.S. movies and TV, they are without fail the most watched show of the night, if not the year.  English Canadians are keenly interested in American culture and will tune to such quintessential American fare as Duck Dynasty, Storage Wars and Pawn Stars in greater numbers than Americans. This is not going to end whether or not we have hits of our own.

One response has been to find excuses, arguments and rationales for the condition.  A favourite tactic is to point out that there are many U.S. shows that have smaller audiences than Canadian shows. (Those soon get cancelled in New York.) Another is to say that promotion for Canadian shows can’t match the Hollywood publicity machine; this seems outdated given the role of social media today, plus the fact that research has shown many people just turn on TV and look for something to watch.  A third is to blame broadcasters who are more interested in the revenues they receive from airing U.S. shows than in supporting Canadian programs.  A fourth is to blame our small scale and the fact we can’t do pilots. 

When all is said and done, the fact is that only rarely does a Canadian show, other than news and sports, crack the top 10 program rankings issued week after week by the ratings agencies.  There have been exceptions, such as Corner Gas or the first few weeks of Little Mosque on the Prairie but they are exceptions.  Canadian TV doesn’t produce hit drama or comedy programs. 

I have never watched a bad Canadian TV program.  Canadians have produced some of the highest quality television in the world and there is much to be celebrated.  We have the talent, witnessed by the many actors, directors, etc. in Hollywood.  But we don’t have our own hit shows.

The real reason that we don’t have our own hits is not talked about publicly.  That is because producers and others employed in Canadian TV are reluctant to point the finger at the obvious reason.

TV is a collective endeavour requiring writers, producers, actors, directors, cameramen, broadcasters, lawyers, accountants and many others.  It is a complex business.  But the best TV usually starts with one creative individual, be it a producer or a writer, someone with a creative idea for a series. In the U.S. individual creativity is encouraged by a system that recognizes that a successful series can make one rich.  While there is a complex system of studio and network approvals, the individual creator is allowed to develop a series.

In Canada, lacking the economy of scale and financial incentives, to try and compete with the U.S. we created a complex financing system that every producer must straddle before even dealing with the networks.  If you want to produce a series in Canada you need to secure funding from Telefilm, the Canadian Media Fund, private funds set up by a cable or media company, as well as the network that will broadcast the series.  Many TV producers in Canada are also lawyers or accountants for good reason.  The financing system is so complex companies have been established to help producers through it. 

The funding agencies have incredibly complex guidelines and rules to determine who gets what share of the funds; they employ hundreds of people to administer the byzantine funding system. The money comes from taxpayers and cable/satellite subscribers, so the government, cable and media companies have an elaborate governance system that sets policy to distribute funds on a quota basis to ensure English and French, different regions, different media and different broadcasters receive funds.  A good idea for a TV series is as likely as not to receive funding.

The financing system is not only complicated and bureaucratic, it is geared to eschew risk.  To get approval a producer needs pre-approval from a broadcaster and  “envelopes” of funding are set aside based on historical factors including past audience performance, track records of the producer and the broadcaster.  In other words, new producers are at a disadvantage and producers and broadcasters are encouraged to do what has worked previously, which means copying past formulas, using the same writers, actors, etc.  Innovation is discouraged by the system; the programs that result are often good but not great.   

Change for a sixty year-old system is not easy and not welcomed by those who administer the system.  I suspect that unless the system is changed to encourage risk taking, we will never achieve what Al Johnson wanted. 
Currently the funding required to make TV programs is held captive by the funding agencies and their bureaucracies.  The solution to this might be a lot simpler than one might think.  TV programs appear on TV networks.  If the funds were provided directly to the networks, who after all should be good at spotting and developing talent, the need for the agencies would all but be eliminated and more efforts to innovate and take risk would result.

There’s one problem.  The reason that Telefilm and ultimately the CMF were created is that decades ago, even before the time MacLean’s published its article on The National/Journal, the government felt CBC had too much control of the TV industry and wanted to encourage independent producers, so it created Telefilm to provide funds to independents.  CBC, whose budget was cut to fund Telefilm, didn’t want to be left out, so to access these funds, CBC agreed to broadcast a minimum percentage of independent production. 

Somewhat later cable companies were required to set aside 5% of all subscription revenue for another production fund and the government agreed to basically match these funds.  The cable companies despised the notion of giving some of this funding to CBC and even withdrew funding at one point; reluctantly, CBC is given access to this fund today. 

So the government is providing two streams of revenue for independent TV production and cable/satellite companies provide another.  The logical solution is for a portion of the government funding to go directly to CBC, exclusively for independent production and matched by internal CBC funds.  The rest of the government funding and the 5% cable fund should be provided directly to the private TV networks, for use by independent producers, and matched by private networks.  Conveniently, all the private networks happen to be owned by cable/satellite companies. The government’s only role would be to audit the system.

No bet is a sure thing but removing the bureaucratic funding agencies and providing production funds directly to networks would increase the appetite for risk, put the decision making in the hands of programmers, ensure all the funds go to programming and maybe create some hits of our own.  The CBC might even take a few chances.