This is based on verbal defense I offered for my dissertation entitled “Canadian public service broadcasting in the information age” (2014), which was (thankfully) approved by the examining committee, at the Department of Sociology on the Fredericton campus of the University of New Brunswick.
Democracy relies on the engagement of informed and educated citizens. Canada has a long history of using government policy and regulation to support and/or manage the relationship between the public, the market, and media. One such policy is “Freedom of the press and other media of communication”, which is listed as a fundamental freedom in Part I, 2. (b) of Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms . Other protective policies have been developed at various points in time to encourage the growth of strong communications systems because it was believed they would help preserve Canada’s national sovereignty, culture and economic autonomy in the shadow of the United States .
The public service principles of universality, independence, diversity, and distinctiveness have been central in broadcasting policy since the 1930’s, while telecommunications policy has typically focused on supporting market objectives. All broadcasters are part of a public system. Private media companies, and the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) in particular, are held to a set of ideals that are intended to serve the “public good” by informing, educating and entertaining Canadians with distinctive and representative content. My PhD research  examined the CBC as a compelling case study of how public service ideals eroded during the expansion of the information society.
The growth of the information society was characterized by the convergence of broadcasting and telecommunications technologies and policies. These convergences enabled the widespread adoption of technologies, international information exchange, and growth in transnational trade. The information society became a policy priority in the mid 1990’s for a federal government that was equally entranced with the economic potential of a market-based ‘knowledge economy’, and fearful that Canada would fall behind if there weren’t policies in place . Communications regulations and policies to support the information society were informed by the neo-liberal approach of reducing the role of government and expanding market control into more areas of public life.
The government and Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) developed policies and regulations in consultation with the telecommunications industry, using processes that excluded the public. Not surprisingly, these policies emphasized economic objectives over public service ideals and independent media.
Successive federal governments, and the CRTC under orders, have mirrored the global trend of elevating the importance of economic over the social and cultural priorities with long term and detrimental consequences for Canada’s pluralist democracy. An opportunity to reverse the damage lies in a rejuvenated vision of public service, with a renewed commitment to the core principles of universality, independence, diversity, and distinctiveness, across broadcast and non-broadcast media.
The concept of universality has been applied to various facets of public broadcasting. Traditionally, universality describes a “push” model of service where the onus is on the producer to provide equal levels and types of service for all citizens regardless of age, sex, geographic location, or socio-economic status. Public broadcasting is also a universal service because it is funded by all citizens equally whether they use it or not. Starting in the mid-1930’s, universality was interpreted as the need to expand the range of private and public broadcasting signals to reach all Canadians, wherever they were. When complete signal coverage was (almost) achieved in the 1960’s, universality expanded again to include the idea of Canadian companies creating content that told stories about the country and its citizens.
As the public moved online, the CBC revised its own definition of universality by adding online services. The move was not without risk, because these technologies were regulated in accordance with commercial rather than public service objectives. However, the CBC justified the move by saying it was providing avenues for faster, more direct, feedback. It was also able to offer more choice over what, where, when, and how content was available to the public. New media formats created opportunities that had not been possible in traditional broadcasting platforms, to engage the public in media production, and another mode of entertainment.
Broadcasting and telecommunications policy have fundamentally different approaches, in that the approach of the latter is about providing “access” to services, within limits. Services are installed based on their profitability within a competitive, market-based model. Development is usually determined by the access to municipal infrastructure, which depends on population distribution and density. Digital divides still exist in Canada because telecommunications companies are motivated by profit, and so will not build in remote or sparsely populated regions. The market framework means that universality is not an option because there are no alternatives to market-based services , and access is contingent on the ability to pay for a subscription.
Historically, the CBC as always had to struggle to maintain its independence. Early choices around the structure and funding of the CBC betrayed the federal government’s desire to control the institution and centralize its power at the expense of provinces, regions and communities . Friends of Canadian Broadcasting has argued that the system (under review) of political appointment for the Board of Directors, Board Chair, and CBC President positions puts the organization at risk of direct political interference.
The CBC’s independence has also come under threat from its attempts to balance expectations with resources. Unlike the British Broadcasting Corporation, which has a predictable revenue stream and multiple sources of income, the CBC’s main funding comes from an annual appropriation that is subject to Parliamentary approval. Occasional “one-time” infusions of cash are intermittent and the result of political whims. The CBC’s attempts to make up shortfalls through advertising across services has increased the relative importance of commercial objectives, and it reflects on the programming. The CBC relies on a variety of partnerships with private companies to keep up with developments in technology and to produce content.
During periods of economic instability, the CBC has reinvented itself through restructuring. In the mid-1990’s, the CBC owned significant infrastructure and property across Canada. When successive governments slashed the annual budget and ordered the CBC to behave ‘competitively’ within a concentrated media market, management adopted private sector austerity measures to find efficiencies. The work force and services were cut; holdings, infrastructure and services were leased, sold or rented; and operations were centralized at the expense of regional services. As the CBC became more like a profit-driven corporation in how it did business and what it produced, the public trust was significantly damaged.
Content is meant to serve different purposes in public and private media. Ideally, public service broadcasting would provide diverse media content that serves cultural and social minorities, not just markets or majority audiences. The main goal of commercial media is to serve the needs of shareholders and advertisers by maximizing profit. The value of content is measured in its ability to attract and deliver audience members to advertisers. As a result, a common practice in Canada has been to carry American content because it is less costly than creating original programming, it is familiar and desirable for Canadian audiences.
New technologies have enormous potential for expanding the ideal of diversity by providing access to whatever content the audience wants, whenever, wherever and however it wants. And yet, both the federal government and the CRTC have focused on market objectives with policies and regulations that lift controls and liberalize ownership rules. Neither has provided any regulatory support for public service ideals in the new media technology sector. Even so, the CBC was well ahead of private broadcasters in adopting the Internet and new media. For a number of years, the CBC drew from its television and radio budgets to develop its online presence, as well as provide streaming audio and video content, music, games and content for children.
To be entitled to public funds, public service broadcasting is expected to be distinctive from its commercial counterparts, and answer needs that private media either can or will not provide. Two distinctive requirements for the CBC are universality and equivalent service in English and French. The Corporation has also produced content for some Indigenous populations and operated Radio Canada International in multiple languages and various formats.
Maintaining the distinction between private and public is not always easy. When the public system was designed in the 1930’s, the CBC held a dominant role in the marketplace, but that position gradually eroded. By 1991, the most recent Broadcasting Act  relegated the CBC to “complementary” status, as one of many companies operating in hybrid system. The CBC has been responsible at different points for building and maintaining transmission infrastructure that both it and private broadcasters would use. As the television network expanded, the CBC produced content for affiliate stations that were owned by private broadcasting companies. The distinction is blurred further when private broadcasters access public monies through various federal funds.
The distinctiveness of the CBC is undermined by its dependence on advertising revenue, and cutting the Radio Orchestra and Radio Drama. The CBC restructured in the 2000’s to become a ‘content company’, withdrawing from content production to partner with private companies instead. It also amalgamated the television, radio and new media production teams on a cross-platform production model. All of the services have become increasingly commercial, and content is packaged and recycled on various platforms.
Opportunities for change
The public service principles of universality, independence, diversity and distinctiveness are effective tools to counter pervasive and insidious threats to free and independent media, and by extension, democratic ideals and institutions. A reinvigorated view of public service across media has the potential to benefit artistic expression and cultural diversity in ways that a commercial focus never could . Representation for diverse groups, not only to themselves but to other audiences, is essential for encouraging understanding, a sense of belonging, connection and participation in healthy, pluralist democracies.
Non-broadcast media platforms have intrinsic characteristics that facilitate greater transparency and accountability, both of which are desperately needed in an increasingly volatile news and information sector. Mobile and ubiquitous technologies expand the idea of universal media and provide opportunities for engaging the public in new ways, whether as consumers, producers or policy-advisers . If the CBC became a public service media entity in the truest sense, universal, politically and economically independent and embodying diversity, it would automatically achieve distinction.
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