Columns

Policy Matters: Disrupt or Be Disrupted

Can the CBC “disrupt” its abysmal decline into irrelevance?

Illustration by Dave Donald


In all the years of doing this policy column, I’ve written so many pieces on the CBC that I’ve lost count and vowed I wouldn’t venture down that tedious path again. In part, that’s because there’s a sense that nothing ever fundamentally changes with the “Corp(se)” except more loss: of vision, shelf space for documentary and edgy scripted programs, staff and money. Even common good manners seems to have gone if you’re a producer—they’re appalling at getting back to people in a timely way, which leads one to the distinct and unpleasant conclusion that they just don’t give a damn. But since my last column in the spring, the CBC has rolled out a succession of new shocks and with each one, the parade of usual suspects has valiantly shambled forth to opine on “whither the CBC” one more bloody time. So what the heck? It’s a national pastime and I might as well shinny down the rink.

As for the CBC shocks, we all grimly know them: more layoffs both immediate and planned (possibly 1,500 by 2020); less space and money for programming owing to $130 million in cuts; and a spin document issued to cauterize it all. Called “A Space for Us All,” it was issued in June by the Harperite president, Hubert Lacroix. If you missed it over the rousing din of CBC staffers braying for Lacroix’s resignation, you are well forgiven. (He refused to go, of course.)

So what is this “space” and who are the “us” implied here? In a word, it’s the Internet, and the “us” are the few staffers left and the millions of Canadians who, um, use the Internet. In other words, they want to “disrupt” (Lacroix’s words) what a public broadcaster traditionally does—make content for radio and TV—in favour of making content for mobile and digital platforms. By riffing (badly) on the au courant business start-up language of “disruption,” Lacroix et al. are just trying to migrate to where the eyeballs are or are going—just as every other broadcaster in the world is doing right now (and which, to be fair, the CBC already started to do very well some years ago).

But disruptive? Nope, not at all. And even if it were, according to Jill Lepore’s bracing deconstruction of the cult of disruption in the June 23rd issue of The New Yorker, the history of business disruption is not as smooth and golly-gee progressive as we may think, since a good deal of disruptors actually fail. In any case, what is disruptive is the role wildly successful platforms like YouTube and Netflix have
played in all of this—to wit, policy folks are now using Netflix as a verb: to get Netflixed is to be truly disrupted, i.e., to see your traditional TV business and advertising model go irretrievably south.

Amongst Lacroix’s other “disruptive” ideas are finally some that policy wonks and critics have wanted for a very long time: selling hardware and real estate assets and outmoded technologies, and outsourcing more content to independent producers, save for news, current affairs and the jewel in its crown, radio.

Yet, the problem, as Simon Houpt noted in The Globe & Mail on June 28, 2014, is that it’s been a long time since English-language TV, at least, has played a significant role in our culture. (Don Cherry doesn’t count, and thankfully he has been disrupted.) Moreover, if you’re involved in any way in consuming or contemplating the production of stories for mobile devices or the net, you know they’re not exactly rich offerings. Not yet anyway. Indeed, what the CBC should have done, and still could, is create a service to rival Netflix’s, with a platform that could allow for rich content above and beyond eight- minute mobisodes. Now that would be disruptive.