OTTAWA – The CRTC says the CBC can keep its controversial branded content advertising, ruling that it “remains pertinent” for the federally funded organization’s budget despite serious concerns expressed by media unions, advocacy groups and hundreds of its own.
In a decision renewing the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and Société Radio-Canada’s broadcasting license until 2027, the federal regulator ruled that it would not limit the activities of CBC Tandem, the organization’s branded content division.
“The revenue-generating activities of the Tandem initiative are onside with the general approach that has been taken with the CBC in the past and consistent with the context in which the CBC currently finances its operations.” This overall approach remains pertinent, particularly in light of the CBC’s funding model,” reads the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) ruling.
“As such, the Commission finds that it should not limit the CBC’s commercial activities any further than they already are.”
Branded content is an advertisement designed to look, read or sound nearly identical to a news story produced by a media outlet. It is generally identified as “paid content” or “sponsored content” and has become common in private media such as the National Post, the Globe and Mail and the New York Times.
The Tuesday ruling was applauded by CBC, which claims that it has “more stringent” journalism guidelines than other news organizations “to ensure a clear separation between our journalism and commercial content.”
But it was lambasted as a “disgrace” and a “disappointment” by former executive organizations, journalist unions and public broadcasting advocates.
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The CRTC’s decision comes despite its own admission that it heard significant concerns from a host of experts, journalist unions and industry groups about the public broadcaster producing its own branded content during hearings in 2021.
In fact, the only groups who expressed support for the CBC Tandem were the Association of Canadian Advertisers and the public broadcaster itself, according to the ruling.
“Several interveners … voiced the concern that Tandem could blur the line between a program and an advertisement, which could create confusion for audiences,” reads the decision, citing testimony by various media unions and public interest groups.
groups, such as the Quebec Community Group Network, pleaded that Tandem “could have an impact on the journalistic independence and integrity of the CBC ultimately, that the initiative could destroy the other credibility of the public broadcaster.”
But CBC, which receives $1.2 billion in funding from the federal government every year, told the regulator that losing the revenue generated by advertising and Tandem would put it in an “untenable financial position.”
In a statement, CBC spokesperson Leon Mar said the broadcaster agreed with the decision and confirmed that Tandem remains in operation.
“In December 2020, after a thorough review of branded content directives at CBC and Radio-Canada, we issued guidelines that strengthen and clarify the boundaries between our journalistic content and advertising, so that there is no confusion between the two,” Mar said.
CBC has previously promised that branded content will only appear on digital platforms, that no editorial staff will ever be involved in its creation or publication, and that all such content will be clearly labelled and visually distinct from regular editorial content and would not feature the broadcaster’s logo.
In its Tuesday ruling, the CRTC acknowledged critics’ concerns over “potential confusion” by CBC’s audiences regarding branded content “given that such content, by its very nature, blends in with other content, especially on web-based platforms.”
This is a disgrace and a major setback for the idea of a non-commercial public broadcaster
So it told the broadcaster it “expects” it to “measure” whether branded “is confusing to Canadians” and it wants it to maintain publicly available guidelines on branded content.
The ruling also orders CBC to ensure no journalist or host participate in the production or presentation of branded content.
Those measures are far from enough, according to former CBC Radio managing editor Jeffrey Dvorkin, who helped lead the charge by hundreds of current and former employees against CBC Tandem back in 2020 and 2021.
“In 2009, a CBC spokesperson described CBC Television as ‘a publicly subsidized commercial network.’ It took a few years, but today, the CRTC finally confirmed that vision,” he told the National Post.
“This is a disgrace and a major setback for the idea of a non-commercial public broadcaster in Canada.”
Back in December 2020, the National Post reported that a group of 35 former CBC/Radio-Canada employees, including former Governor General Adrienne Clarkson, who was an executive producer at the network, past CBC News Editor-in-Chief Tony Burman and former CBC Ombudsman Esther Enkin, signed a letter demanding the CRTC “investigate” CBC’s use of branded content.
Shortly after, a group of over 500 current and former CBC and Radio-Canada staff — including former host of The National, Peter Mansbridge and ex-CBC president Anthony Manera — published an open letter calling branded content “insidious” and demanding the public broadcast put an end to it.
In a statement, public broadcasting advocate group FRIENDS Executive Director Marla Boltman said she is “disappointed” that CBC Tandem is allowed to live on.
“This type of advertising does not reflect the higher standard that a national public broadcaster should be held to. FRIENDS continues to urge the federal government to take steps to reaffirm the CBC’s core public service mandate — namely increasing the CBC funding so that it may reduce its reliance on advertising and eliminate programs like Tandem,” she said.