The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation

Feature by Tammy McCausland || Jun 1, 2010

The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation is Canada’s national public broadcaster. The concept of a public broadcaster emerged during the heyday of radio in the early part of the twentieth century. Radio provided a new way to disseminate news and information, and introduced a new medium for entertainment. With radio stations springing up all over North America as private broadcasters competed for listening audiences, the Canadian government became concerned about the undue influence of American programming on Canadians. The government created a Royal Commission to investigate the matter — the first real step on the road to public broadcasting in Canada.

Currently, the CBC offers services to Canadians on radio, television, the Internet, satellite radio and digital radio. Its mandate is defined in the Broadcasting Act, 1991. The Government of Canada provides funding to support CBC’s programming and operations. This article explores the history, mandate and operations of Canada’s national broadcaster. It concludes with a discussion of issues and debates surrounding the CBC’s efficacy and legitimacy.

History of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation

From failed beginnings to a national cultural institution

Operation of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation

Structured, mandate and priorities, and finances of Canada’s public broadcaster

Debates Surrounding the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation

Public funding, the legitimacy of CBC’s mandate and multiculturalism

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List of sources and links to more on this topic

History of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation

From failed beginnings to a national cultural institution

Origins of Canadian Public Broadcasting

The modern Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) has its origins in the 1920s and 30s, when the federal government first moved to establish a national system of public radio broadcasting. This was motivated by two key concerns. The first was a reluctance of domestic private enterprise to take the business risks necessary to create a national system of broadcasting. The second related to concerns over American cultural expansion into Canada. (Prang, 1965)

Prior to the 1930s, access to Canadian radio programming was highly limited. Canadian broadcasters tended to be concentrated in the larger urban areas with highly limited geographic range. Access to American radio programming, by contrast, was plentiful. American broadcasters along Canada’s border tended to have much greater geographical range, and could easily be heard by Canadian audiences. For the Canadian government at the time, the variety, popularity and predominance of this American programming was cause for concern — that radio, like cinema, would become another avenue for the overwhelming influence of American popular culture in the lives of Canadians. Government intervention in order to create a national system of radio broadcasting was thus viewed as a necessary for promoting Canadian culture and national identity.

In 1928, the federal government, helmed by Liberal Prime Minister Mackenzie King, formed the Royal Commission on Radio Broadcasting. Commonly referred to as the Aird Commission, after its chair Sir John Aird, the Commission’s objective was to explore the feasibility of three possible options for Canada: 1) to establish one or more private networks that would receive a federal government subsidy; 2) to create a network of government owned and operated stations; or 3) to establish stations operated by provincial governments (Nash, 1994). In 1929, the Commission released its report, recommending the creation of a national public radio broadcast network. It presented several key arguments to support its decision: Canadians wanted Canadian broadcasting; broadcasting should be based on public service and operated by one national company; and the main purpose for a national broadcaster should be to produce programs of high standards from Canadian sources (Nash, 1994). The Aird Commission also recognized the informational and educational potential of broadcasting and how it could contribute to a shared sense of national identity within the Canadian fabric (Report of the Standing Committee on Canadian Heritage, 2008).

The recommendations of the Aird Commission, however, were not acted upon immediately. Government attention turned to dealing with the stock market crash of 1929 and the subsequent economic crisis. In addition, the issue of federalism further stalled any further progress, as the provinces, in particular Quebec, challenged the federal government’s constitutional jurisdiction to establish a national public radio network. This issue was eventually resolved by the courts, with both the Supreme Court of Canada and the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council ruling that exclusive control of radio lay with the federal government.

Canadian Radio Broadcasting Commission

With its jurisdiction confirmed by the courts, the federal government of Conservative Prime Minister Richard Bennett moved towards a national public radio network with passage of the Canadian Radio Broadcasting Act in 1932. Central to the new Act was the creation of the Canadian Radio Broadcasting Commission (CRBC), the forerunner of several modern cultural institutions in Canada. Under the legislation, the CRBC was to act as an independent federal regulator, with the power to issue, review and revoke licenses for private broadcasters. In this context, the CRBC was the ancestor of the modern Canada Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission. In addition, the CRBC was mandated to provide a national broadcasting service. As the first public broadcaster in Canada, the CRBC was the precursor to the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.

In pursuing its mandate to provide a national broadcasting service, the CRBC constructed a patchwork national radio network. It acquired radio stations from the Canadian National Railway in Ottawa, Vancouver and Moncton, as well as leased or established stations in Montreal, Chicoutimi, Quebec City, Toronto and Windsor. The CRBC also hired private stations across the country to carry it programming for a limited number of hours per day. To promote Canadian culture, the CRBC produced a range of Canadian programming, including newscasts, hockey broadcasts, and drama series.

The CRBC, however, was short-lived. This was due to a number of factors, including underfunding, an uncertain mandate, and administrative difficulties (Eaman; Vipond). In 1932, there were more than 80 radio stations in Canada alone, and Canadians could also tune in to American stations providing popular programming. In this environment, the CRBC struggled to find its place, demonstrate its relevance and prove its credibility as a leader of the development of radio in Canada. The institution ultimately failed because it “had not, by 1936, gained the credibility and legitimacy necessary to become a ‘force in the life of the community.’” (Vipond)

Canadian Broadcasting Corporation

While remaining committed to the idea of a national public radio network, the federal government instituted several key reforms. In 1936, it passed a new Canadian Radio Broadcasting Act, which provided for the replacement of the CRBC with the Canadian Radio Broadcasting Corporation (CBC). Under the Act, the CBC was created as a crown corporation, with the authority to operate a national radio system, establish new stations and acquire private stations by purchase (Canadian Communications Foundation, 2000). In addition, the CBC was given responsibility to administer the licensing and practices of private radio stations in Canada.

The CBC was created with a better organizational structure, more secure funding through the implementation of a licensing fee system, and greater independence from political interference. (Eaman) The early CBC was headed by a board of governments, constituted by unsalaried members representing the various regions of Canada. This board was responsible for formulating general policy, and regulating private stations in Canada. In 1944, federal legislation was amended to provide for the appointment of a full-time salaried chairperson to head the CBC, with a three-year tenure.

At its creation, the CBC operated with eight stations and 16 privately-owned affiliates. During the 1930s and 1940s, the public broadcaster aggressively expanded its reach, increasing the broadcasting range of its stations in the country’s major urban centres, while building new transmitters in rural areas of British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba and the Maritimes. Initially, the CBC relied predominantly on American and British programming to fill its airwaves. Beginning in the 1940s, however, the CBC began to develop Canadian programming, including agricultural and children’s programs, as well as public affairs and news programming. During the 1940s, war reporting gave rise to the creation of CBC News. Over the course of the CBC’s history, Canadian programming has been expanded considerably. Today, the public broadcasters provides a wide range of Canadian radio, television and internet content, including news, public affairs, sports, documentaries, dramas, and comedies.

The CBC has been responsible for broadcasting innovation in Canada. In 1946, it introduced FM radio to the country. The CBC began operating its television broadcasting service on September 6, 1952, with the opening of CBFT in Montreal, followed by CBLT in Toronto two days later. On Canada Day, July 1, 1958, CBC’s television signal expanded from coast to coast. CBC was the primary provider of television programming until the launch of a private network, the Canadian Television Network (CTN), in 1961 (which later become CTV). In 1978, CBC became the first broadcaster worldwide to use an orbiting satellite for television service. Since then, CBC has continued to expand its services, including moving online in the 1990s as the internet truly came into its own as an information source.

CBC as a Federal Regulator

The CBC was created with the responsibility not only to act a public broadcaster, but also as an independent regulator of private broadcasters in Canada. Between 1936 and 1958, the CBC’s board of governors oversaw the issuing, revoking and administration of licenses for Canadian radio and television stations.

In 1955, the federal government created the Royal Commission on Broadcasting, commonly known as the Fowler Commission, after its chair Robert Fowler. The recommendations of the Fowler Commission formed the basic structure of federal broadcasting policy. For example, the Commission recommended that Canadian culture goals should not be met strictly by public institutions, such as the CBC. Instead, private broadcasters should also be required to provide Canadian programming. This eventually led to the Canada’s modern Canadian content rules, which require media organizations to provide a certain level of domestic programming.

The Fowler Commission further recommended severing regulatory responsibilities from the CBC and the establishment of an independent agency to oversee broadcasting. In 1958, the federal government implemented the recommendation with the creation of the Board of Broadcasting Governors (BBG), which is responsible for overseeing all public and private broadcasters in Canada. In 1968, the federal government replaces the BBG with the Canadian Radio-television Commission (CRTC) as the new federal regulator of broadcasters. The CRTC took its contemporary name, the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission in 1976, as its jurisdiction expanded to include telecommunications companies.

Operation of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation

Structured, mandate and priorities, and finances of Canada’s public broadcaster

Legislative Framework of the CBC

As a federal crown corporation, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation is owned by the Government of Canada. The basic operation of today’s CBC is set out in federal legislation — specifically, the Broadcasting Act, 1991.

Under the Act, the CBC is intended to operate with some independence of the federal government, particularly in regard to the freedom of expression of journalists, and creative and programming independence. That said, the federal government appoints the chair of the CBC, and the institution is directly accountable to Parliament through the Department of Canadian Heritage. The CBC is required to submit a yearly corporate plan to the federal cabinet and an annual report to the federal Parliament.

The Act further sets out the governing structure of the CBC. The crown corporation is governed by a board of directors, comprising 12 members, including the chairperson, president and chief executive officer (CEO). The president and CEO set the strategic direction for the institution, but must ensure this direction is aligned with the CBC’s mandate (see below for more information).
In addition, the CBC, like all other Canadian broadcasters, must meet Canadian content requirements for radio and television.

Mandate and Priorities of the CBC

The CBC’s mandate is set out in the Broadcasting Act, 1991 and is intended to reflect its role as a promoter of Canadian culture. More specifically, CBC programming should:

  • Be predominantly and distinctively Canadian
  • Reflect Canada and its regions to national and regional audiences, while serving the special needs of those regions
  • Actively contribute to the flow and exchange of cultural expression
  • Be in English and in French, and strive to be of equivalent quality in English and French
  • Contribute to shared national consciousness and identity, and reflect the multicultural and multiracial nature of Canada
  • Be made available throughout Canada by the most appropriate and efficient means (CBC, 2009).

On its website, the CBC identifies the following priorities, which are to:

  • Ensure distinctive programming of the highest quality
  • Recognize the importance of regional reflection and of the changing face of Canada
  • Ensure the sustainability of CBC/Radio-Canada’s Canadian schedules
  • Demonstrate that CBC/Radio-Canada is a well-managed company and generate cash flow to re-invest in programming
  • Strengthen CBC/Radio-Canada’s commitment to all its employees — to those who create and those who support them
  • Position CBC/Radio-Canada to enhance its ability to fulfill its mandate through selective alliances and partnerships
  • Reinforce the capacity of CBC/Radio-Canada to work as one integrated company
  • Enhance/strengthen CBC/Radio-Canada’s stakeholder relationships (CBC, 2009)

CBC Services and Programming

In serving these mandates and priorities, the CBC offers a number of services on a broad range of mediums, including television, radio, satellite radio, digital audio, the internet, and wireless WAP and SMS messaging services. (CBC, January 2010) In addition, the CBC has an in-house recording label, CBC Records, which focuses on developing and promoting Canadian talent in the music industry. Television and radio services, however, form the core of businesses of the CBC.

CBC creates programming in both of Canada’s official languages; in eight Aboriginal languages; in nine languages on its international Radio service (RCI); and in eight languages on its web-based radio service (RCI viva), dedicated specifically to immigrants to Canada. (CBC, October 2009) The CBC also provides services or specific regions that are often underserved, such as CBC North, which offers television and radio broadcasts for northern communities in Canada.

CBC programming is predominantly of Canadian origin. In the 2007-08 broadcast year, CBC Television featured 80 percent Canadian programming over its full broadcasting day, including news and information, sports, feature films, drama, comedy, and children’s programming. (CBC, October 2009) For its part, CBC Radio aired 99 percent Canadian content over its broadcasting day. In addition to airing domestically produced content, the CBC also creates its own Canadian programming, including documentaries, series, sports, and news and public affairs shows.

CBC Funding and Expenditures

In the 2008-09 fiscal year, total funds available to the CBC amounted to $1.8 billion. The table below reflects funding for the 2007-08 and 2008-09 fiscal years respectively:

Fiscal Year




(millions of dollars)

Government Funding



Advertising Revenues



Amortization of Deferred Capital Funding and Working Capital




Other income, financing income and specialty services






Sources: Canadian Broadcasting Corporation 2008-09 Annual Report; Canadian Broadcasting Corporation 2007-08 Annual Report
As the table shows, while the Government of Canada provides the large portion of the CBC’s annual funding, not all the public broadcaster’s revenues are from government sources. The corporation also generates revenue through advertising and program sales, other income, and specialty services. For example, CBC Television and the CBC’s websites sell advertising, while cable/satellite-only services such as Newsworld collect subscriber fees (Cavenger, 2008). CBC Radio does not sell advertising, except when required by law (such as to political parties during election campaigns).

The CBC’s expenditures for 2008-09 totalled $1.85 billion. CBC’s television and radio services form the largest portion of total expenditures, with CBC Television alone totalling 39 percent. The table below shows a breakdown of the crown corporation’s expenditures for that year:

Fiscal Year



(millions of dollars)

CBC Television


Télévision de Radio-Canada


CBC Radio


Radio de Radio-Canada


Corporate Management


Amortization of Property and Equipment


Specialty Services


Distribution and Affiliates


Workforce Adjustments




Source: Canadian Broadcasting Corporation 2008-09 Annual Report
Overall, for 2008-09, CBC ran a deficit, with expenditures topping revenues by approximately $50 million. In a March 2009 press release, CBC predicted a larger deficit of $171 million for the 2009-10 fiscal year. In its statement, the CBC attributed the deficits to a convergence of factors, including declining advertising revenues caused by the economic recession, increased programming and infrastructure replacement costs, and a base salary funding shortfall. (CBC, March 2009)

Debates Surrounding the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation

Public funding, the legitimacy of CBC’s mandate and multiculturalism

Over the years, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation has endured its share of criticism. Critics have questioned its legitimacy and relevance as an institution, while proponents have staunchly defended its existence. Primary points of contention revolve around questions such as whether Canada needs a public broadcaster, if the CBC’s mandate is still relevant today, and whether, in its programming, the CBC truly reflects Canada’s multicultural society.

Public versus Private Funding

The debate about whether Canadian tax dollars should be allocated for Canada’s public broadcaster is an age-old one. Opponents contend that public money used to fund the CBC could be better spent on other social programs and necessities, and that the corporation’s funding should instead come from private sources, such as advertising. Opponents of public funding for the broadcaster have further argued the CBC should adopt a structure such as collecting a licence fee (like European public broadcasters) or rely on contributions from individual viewers and listeners [like the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) and National Public Radio (NPR) in the United States] (Cavenger, 2008).

Proponents of the CBC contend the broadcaster fills a niche that private media organizations do not. Private networks fill their primetime schedules with American series acquired for a fraction of what it would cost to produce equivalent productions in Canada (Cavenger, 2008). In this context, the corporation’s proponents contend that the CBC and its Canadian programming fulfill a valuable role in Canadian society, promoting Canadian culture and cultural industries. They further contend that all the cumulative cuts to the CBC’s budget (over a 20-year period), coupled with the efforts of recent management, have resulted in a CBC that is more efficiently run (Neville, 2006) than ever. To this end, an analysis conducted for CBC in 2005 found that Canada ranked sixteenth out of 18 western countries in financial support for its public broadcaster, ahead of only New Zealand and the United States (Report of the Standing Committee on Canadian Heritage, 2008).

Given that audience ratings for English television are not high enough (Report of the Standing Committee on Canadian Heritage, 2008), some may argue the CBC is a marginal network with very little impact. Such criticisms may have even stronger force in the modern internet age, when the CBC’s core businesses, television, and radio, are losing their importance as mediums of mass media. While the CBC has instituted an online presence with its websites and internet services, a major issue going forward is whether the public broadcaster can maintain relevance in the face of a declining television and radio broadcasting model.

In the short term, the issue of public funding will be central to the CBC and the direction it charts. Beginning in 2008, the CBC experienced significant operating deficits, with a projected shortfall of $170 million in the fiscal year 2009-10. (CBC, March 2009) As a result, the CBC expected to undergo a severe round of cost-cutting in order to address these financial pressures, reducing its staff, and offices. This in turn may have important consequences for the public broadcaster’s mandate and priorities as it attempts to provide quality Canadian programming for a wide range of regional, linguistic, and cultural markets.

Provider of Programming

According to the CBC’s mandate, the organization’s programming should reflect Canada both nationally and to its regions, contribute to cultural expression, and be made available throughout the nation (CBC, 2009). While this imperative may have been important at a time when the nation was expanding and developing and people were not as well connected as they are in the 21st century, some contend the cultural necessity for public service broadcasting has passed (Ferguson, 2007). Taking this argument a step further, some argue the CBC is not essential to promoting Canadian unity because technology — such as the internet, satellite TV, and radio — have reduced the obstacles to widespread communication and dissemination (Ferguson, 2007).

On the other hand, while the Internet and other technologies have enabled distribution of programming to audiences as never before, there may be even greater concern that the “Canadian voice” and “Canadian identity” will get lost amid the plethora of voices competing for eyes and ears from today’s multi-platform universe — a universe that includes YouTube and other yet-to-be-developed technologies. In essence, things have come full circle: when the CBC was born, there were overwhelming concerns that Canada’s cultural voice would get lost amid the already established and popular programs coming from America.

Yet another perspective is that despite the availability of new technologies, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation is, and will remain, an important national resource (McCormick, 2008), particularly as the corporation has a rich heritage of audio recordings and television broadcasts that are being preserved, transferred to digital formats, and restored. Furthermore, the CBC provides coverage of Canadian events unlike any other media organization in the country. Former CBC chair Carole Taylor stated that CBC has played “a critical role in helping Canadians identify with each other from one region of this large country to another” (Neville, 2006).


As mentioned earlier, the CBC is a significant public and cultural institution. It provides national and regional programming in Canada’s two official languages, and local programming in the languages of Canada’s indigenous populations. However, given the ever-growing plurality of Canadian society, questions continue to arise as to whether the CBC truly reflects the multicultural nature of the country.

According to its 2007-08 annual report, the CBC is the only Canadian broadcaster to air programs in both official languages across Canada, in eight Aboriginal languages in the North, in nine languages globally on Radio Canada International (RCI) and in eight languages on RCI viva for new and aspiring Canadians (CBC, 2008). In 2008, the corporation made select games of its Hockey Day in Canada extravaganza available online in Mandarin, Hindi and Cantonese at in an effort to reach out to audiences, as the web provides opportunities for additional language options (CBC, 2008). In addition, CBC has recognized Canada’s growing diversity by airing programming, such as Little Mosque on the Prairie. On radio, CBC also creates explore cultural, social, and regional diversity. In terms of the depth and breadth of its programming, the CBC fulfills a niche that private broadcasters do not.

The CBC’s mandate was developed at a time when Canada was less diverse than it is now. Given that a number of media outlets providing ethnic programming exist in Canada though, it remains unclear whether the organization should try to develop programming that is already being done — and done well — by other media outlets. It may be a matter of clarifying the scope and nature of content that should be produced, or perhaps reassessing what the term “public broadcaster” means for 21st century Canada (Neville, 2006).

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