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CBC eating private media’s lunch

Imagine, for a second, that Via Rail started a pizza delivery service. Canada already has plenty of pizza delivery businesses, of course. But those pizzamakers don't have what Via Rail does: A massive, recession-proof chest of public money.

Imagine, for a second, that Via Rail started a pizza delivery service.

Canada already has plenty of pizza delivery businesses, of course. But those pizzamakers don't have what Via Rail does: A massive, recession-proof chest of public money.

And Via Rail is technically in the transportation business, so why not gussy up the normally dour year-end report with an easy win? Canadians love pizza.

So, bolstered by a vast war chest of public cash, Via Rail proceeds to utterly steamroll the Canadian pizza business.

Pizza ovens are installed at train stations and ticket takers are set to doing dough prep during slow shifts.

Meanwhile, Panago and Pizza Pizza franchisees are forced to look on helplessly as a taxpayer-subsidized monolith snaps up their best drivers, bids up their suppliers and uses its immense advertising budget to utterly dwarf them in public exposure.

Sounds pretty frustrating, right?

Well, this parable provides a small window into why Canada's beleaguered private media is more-than-usually upset at the CBC right now.

The CBC is a broadcaster with resources the likes of which most can only dream. It has bureaus in every province and territory. It has correspondents in virtually every Canadian ethnic and linguistic community. It has $1 billion in stable government funding and an extra $150 million per year to come.

In the right hands, this kind of wealth could be wielded in awesome, history-changing ways.

Look at NPR. Even with a budget only five per cent supported by government, it has rolled out revolutionary projects like Planet Money. NPR member station WBEZ, meanwhile, provided seed funding for Serial. Both projects have permanently changed the face of the podcast medium.

Or the NPR One app, a listening app that uses state-of-the-art metrics and A/B testing to automatically generate a personalized radio stream for each user.

Across the Atlantic, the Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation has pioneered "slow television," a strategy of broadcasting hours-long commercial-free specials featuring nothing more than a camera mounted on a ferry, train or birdfeeder.

It was a huge risk, but it paid off: the NBC's slow TV specials have seen up to 20 per cent of the Norwegian population tuning in.

So it's this kind of stuff that CBC could be doing. Instead, they have a really bad habit of simply cribbing their notes from the private sector.

First there was CBC Comedy. In an internet utterly overflowing with comedic videos and satirical news sites, CBC decided that Canada needed one that was state-sponsored. The site's utter absence from your Facebook feed should be a clue to how well it's going.

Then there was the CBC News App, a smartphone app that primarily offers text content, much of it reprinted from Reuters, Canadian Press and other wire services. In the words of iPolitics executive editor Stephen Maher, the app (and CBC's various websites) makes the CBC the "biggest newspaper in Canada."

And now there's CBC Opinion, a newly opened section of the CBC website devoted solely to written opinion.

Somehow, a room full of CBC executives came to the conclusion that Canada is critically in need of more people spouting their opinions on the web.

I need not remind you that this is all coming during a time of unprecedented constriction and competition in the online news business.

Having a Crown corporation busily developing new ways to crib revenue streams isn't helping.

The whole point of giving taxpayer money to a broadcaster is so they're able to perform a service that wouldn't exist without government support.

This was the reason the proto-CBC Canadian Royal Broadcasting Commission was founded in the first place.

Private capital wasn't up to the task of sending radio into all corners of the world's second-largest landmass, so a government agency was struck to do it instead.

CBC is supposed to fill the gaps that regular broadcasters can't: getting news coverage to remote areas, backing years-long investigative projects, taking risks that just aren't possible for a programming director who has to answer to investors at the end of a quarter.

Instead, CBC acts as if it's just another fish in the Canadian media pool - albeit one that doesn't need to worry about ratings, debt or subscriber numbers.

In fact, the CBC strategy can be easily broken down into a two-part equation:

A: See what everybody else is doing.

B. Do the same thing, but free.

This isn't just uncreative, it's predatory - and has the predictable effect of kneecapping CBC's non-subsidized competitors.

Take the Olympic Games. For every single Olympics between 2014 and 2024, CBC has successfully outbid its private-sector competitors for the Canadian broadcast rights. The price of these rights are not disclosed, but they can hover close to $100 million per Games.

Why would CBC feel the need to do this? Canadians get Olympic coverage in either case; we don't need a public broadcaster to help us watch speed skating. Hell, we don't even need them to watch Hockey Night in Canada.

And yet, apparently devoid of other ideas for attracting viewers, when Olympic bidding time comes around CBC turns to its strategy of muscling out the competitors that - conveniently - help to fund its budget every April 30.

It's like the Royal Canadian Navy trying to stay relevant by opening up a container shipping division. Or the National Arts Centre outbidding private promoters for the next Justin Bieber tour. Or the Royal Canadian Mint bidding up the licensing rights to manufacture Star Wars action figures.

I get it: nobody watches CBC anymore, and you're trying to get people to come back. But here's an idea, CBC.

Take a good long look at your towering pile of might, resources and potential and think to yourselves "maybe we could start using all this for something that wouldn't exist otherwise."

And maybe give slow television a try.

I may not know much about the Canadian character, but I think a camera bolted to the front of a Marine Atlantic ferry for nine hours will utterly slay Murdoch Mysteries in the ratings.

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