Monday, August 9, 2010

Media: Not the CBC's Credit (Again)

TORONTO, ONTARIO - The abrupt departure of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC)'s head of English services, Richard Stursberg, on Friday, has opened discussions on his impact on Canada's public broadcaster and what changes his successor may bring. While most of the facts surrounding this event have yet to come out, emotions about Stursberg are flowing freely. Most people seem to view his largest impact on the CBC to be an emphasis on ratings--for better or for worse, ratings for CBC Television and Radio One are clearly up during his tenure (Radio Two, er Radio 2, is a different story with declines in nearly every major market after re-formatting). Most attention will be paid to television, which costs more and was the focus of Stursberg attempt to bring in more revenue through advertising, which required more viewers. However, there is a point to be made about the increase in ratings of CBC Radio One, the news and information network, in recent years.

Much like similar trends in the United States, where public radio stations are at the top or near the top of the ratings in many major markets including Boston, Seattle, San Francisco, and Washington, D.C., CBC is not gaining in the rankings because its programming is getting better. Instead, in my opinion, it is attracting listeners because the commercial alternatives are becoming less enticing.

The trend may be easier to follow in American cities, where the decline in the quality of stations like KIRO (now FM) in Seattle and WBZ in Boston is clear. Two decades ago, I could leave the radio on either of those stations for hours and not become bored. Now, one news cycle (we can argue if that is really 30 minutes or 15 minutes on these stations) is about all I can stand before the repetition of stories and injection of tiresome personality takes its toll. With talk stations generally vapid, that leaves turning to public radio if one does not want music.

Here in Toronto, just spin the dial in the morning. News 680 is okay but like its analogs south of the border is generally only listenable for a half-hour news cycle before it becomes repetitive, AM 640 is generally spewing unlistenable anger about local politics, Radio 1050 is simulcasting television news (never a formula for great radio), and Newstalk 1010 takes on far fewer serious topics than it did just four years ago when I moved here. Furthermore, those information alternatives are on AM--some young people I know have portable radios that do not even have AM capability, just MP3's and FM. On the FM dial, about the only information programming is on CBC Radio One. So, between dial placement and the competition, there's little wonder that Metro Morning on the CBC does well in the ratings with those seeking information, which during morning drive is a sizable portion of the audience.

The story is similar across Canada. In major markets, most often the real commercial competition for CBC Radio One (which is now on FM virtually everywhere) is on AM, and has declined in quality. If anything, CBC Radio One has declined in quality, with more repeat instead of original programming and decreased budgets. However, that decline pales in comparison with the decline in commercial radio, and results in net increased ratings for CBC Radio One.

It would be nice to credit the CBC (or even Stursberg) for the change in radio ratings, but I'm afraid it is not their doing, just like the flow of talent discussed here some months back. It's the decline in commercial radio that has led to increased ratings for CBC Radio One.

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