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Canada Pubcaster: Identity Crisis in Two Languages

It’s tough times for public TV and even rougher for CBC, with new rules, plus U.S. competition

The recent blackout and restart of ERT in Greece underlines the fact that these are challenging times for public broadcasters — due to government budget cuts, the growing presence of new rivals and increased scrutiny by taxpayers in a tough economy.

The Canadian Broadcasting Corp. is no exception. Its annual budget, approximately $1 billion, was slashed by $115 million by a Tory government that sees the network as a haven for lefties.

CBC is also dealing with the loss of one of its top executives: In late April, exec veepee of English services Kirstine Stewart ankled to take over as head of Twitter Canada, underlining the threat of disruptive media to all broadcasters.

In addition, broadcast regulator the Canadian Radio-Television & Telecommunications Commission imposed new conditions when it recently renewed the CBC license for five years. The org ordered most of the pubcaster’s affiliate stations to increase the amount of locally produced programming from just under 11 hours to 14 hours per week. It also ruled the CBC’s overall schedule must contain 75% Canadian content (80% for primetime).

Even as the government asks the pubcaster to become more Canadian, the country’s commercial channels are scoring well with American TV. Moreover, Canada is the only country outside the U.S. where viewers can directly watch U.S. networks at the same time as Americans, a tough competitive handicap.

In another identity crisis, there has been controversy at Radio-Canada, the French-language division of CBC. In early June, the network announced it would be rebranded as Ici, which led to much confusion and complaining. Days later, CBC president Hubert Lacroix apologized for distancing the division from its original name and said the network would use both monikers, Ici and Radio-Canada.

Despite challenges, the CBC is embracing its Canada-first mandate. It removed “Jeopardy” and “Wheel of Fortune” from the 6:30-7:30 p.m. slot to create a lineup entirely free of American programming. Now, the only foreign series in primetime is Brit staple “Coronation Street.”

“We feel as a Canadian public broadcaster that we shouldn’t be (airing) American programming,” says Neil McEneaney, interim exec veepee of English services. “The (commercial networks) are doing that.”

Indeed, the primetime skeds on commercial networks CTV, Global and City are dominated by Hollywood imports. The CBC counters with local fare that includes “Dragon’s Den,” a “Shark Tank”-like reality show; “Heartland,” a family drama based on the books by Lauren Brooke, but set on a cattle ranch in the Canadian Rockies; and “Republic of Doyle,” a comic cop series set in Newfoundland. Its top performer, as always, is “Hockey Night in Canada,” the Saturday National Hockey League broadcast.

“What distinguishes us is that we have more Canadian content than anyone else,” McEneaney says. “We want Canadians to see themselves in the shows.”

Canucks are appreciative. A prime example is “Murdoch Mysteries,” a detective show set in 1890s Toronto, which was the No. 1 Canadian-produced scripted series this past season. When City-tv decided in fall 2011 to drop the series after five seasons, Stewart jumped in and snapped up the show for the CBC, where it has turned into a hit.

Christina Jennings, CEO of Shaftesbury Films, which produces “Murdoch Mysteries,” notes that the CBC commissions works “that are very much shows about our country.” But she knows the job isn’t easy.

“It would be tough to be sitting there running CBC, to deliver all that content with less money,” she says.

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