Pubcasters, look north for inspiration
We can compete on the Web — CBC.ca does
The Web has become a useful helpmate to public radio and TV, but when will it become a public service that extends their values to the Internet, earns its own revenue and maybe even comes up with its own generic name? That’s a central question at public broadcasting’s Integrated Media Conference, April 28-30  in San Diego (see www.integratedmedia.org). Mark Fuerst, president of the Integrated Media Association, filed this commentary after a trip to Toronto. Claude Galipeau, who figures prominently in this article, will present the experiences and lessons of CBC.ca at IMA Conference sessions.
Public broadcasting’s online efforts are in a bit of funk, at least here, south of the border in the United States.
For all the progress we’ve made, especially at the PBS and NPR sites, we’re still searching for something—a unique sensibility, a business model, a breakthrough—that can take our web presence and push it forward powerfully, the way All Things Considered did for NPR in the mid-1970s.
Heading toward mid-2004, the search for that something has become more urgent. Other web services are building traffic and loyalty. Our listeners and viewers are becoming their visitors, developing habits that will be harder to change the longer they last.
Unless we resolve this dilemma, there is a distinct possibility that public broadcasting’s online efforts will be relegated to the margins, useful but not essential. That scenario carries at least two important implications.
First, station and network web departments will continue to be cost centers, adding to overhead without adding to revenues. Need I say we’ve already got enough overhead.
Second, unless we come up with unique and important services, we will stunt our ability to extend the concept and singular capabilities of noncommercial support into the new media. The next generation of listeners, viewers and web users will grow up in a web-saturated environment where noncommercial media has no real presence. For teens and 20-somethings today, the Web is equivalent to the baby boomers’ FM radio.
After five years of effort on the Web, we need to recognize that we shouldn’t expect to find a single something that will give public broadcasting a unique and powerful presence there. Instead, we will have to build that service using basic functions aimed at basic user needs.
Fortunately, there are models of success for us to examine and perhaps to follow. Specifically, both the BBC and the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. have developed effective “multiplex” websites offering competitive news and features, streaming media and large archives of audio and video on demand, as well as information about programming on their broadcast channels. Both of these national broadcasting services have extended their public service in a way that mirrors their broadcast quality.
In Canada, CBC.ca, the CBC’s principal English-language website, ranks in the top tier of Canadian news and media sites, along with CNN, MSNBC and major Canadian newspaper chains. CBC.ca has moved well past any “dot-org” sites — where we often look for comparisons — to become a premiere destination for millions of Canadian web users.
Much of this success can be credited to the current staff of CBC.ca, including Director Claude Galipeau and Assistant Director Sue Gardner. According to an informal history of the CBC web effort, written by its staff, CBC.ca was “rudderless” when Galipeau first arrived. Now, it is on course.
Galipeau had served as v.p. for new media at Salter Street Films, a Canadian video production house, and, before that, worked for the World Association of Newspapers in Paris. He brought to the CBC the urgency of the commercial media as well as a sense of how the Internet was affecting newspapers around the globe. He also brought political experience as a former advisor to two Ontario premiers, which helped him work the bureaucracy at CBC.
I thank Galipeau, Gardner and their colleagues for their generosity with their time and insights that allowed me to develop this article.
Can we compare?
CBC.ca is a different media organism in a different environment, of course—much less diverse than the web operations of U.S. public broadcasters and much more centralized, with a bigger share of taxpayer funding. CBC, with its radio, TV and web operations in both English and French, has a much greater impact in Canada than public broadcasting has in the States.
Even with these differences, there are compelling similarities between the CBC and U.S. public broadcasting that make comparisons worthwhile.
What is CBC.ca?
The CBC’s primary online entrance to its English-language programs and services—www.cbc.ca—attracted 9 million unique visitors and 25 million hits during January. (The CBC’s French arm, Radio Canada, also operates web services.)
CBC.ca content zones
and the percentages of site's traffic they attract
The staff of CBC.ca sees it as “primarily a news- and information-based site,” divided into large “content zones” — News, Business, Sports, Health and Science, Consumer Information, Arts and Kids.
The site’s top navigation bar hints at a second set of content dividers similar to those in U.S. public broadcasting — namely, online, radio, television and local. The “local” tab provides access to 16 regional sites. There are also links to two niche sites, CBCRadio3.com and ZeD (zed.cbc.ca), both aimed at younger (and far hipper) audiences than one would expect to find visiting a U.S. pubcasting site. These sub-sites probably add to CBC.ca’s constituency, but only a little, by attracting 1 percent to 3 percent of CBC’s web traffic, Galipeau estimates.
CBC.ca is much newsier than most American public broadcasters’ sites, and it has the support of Canada’s largest news-gathering operation. Unlike NPR or PBS, CBC can compete toe-to-toe with major Canadian news organizations.
But there are additional reasons to focus on news. Extensive research, much of it conducted in 2003 by members of the Online Publishers Association, alerted many media companies to the existence of a large online news audience composed principally of workers who use high-speed office connections to check the Web many times a day. The largest continuous Internet tracking study, by the Pew Internet and American Life Project, confirmed that online “news gathering” was the third-most-common daily web activity, after e-mail and search.
Insight is not a plan, however. Even though the CBC controlled extensive news assets, they were not fully deployed online before Galipeau arrived in spring 2002 and made news presentation a strategic priority for CBC.ca.
The results speak for themselves. Traffic to CBC.ca increased 200 percent in two years. In January, for the first time, CBC.ca became Canada’s most visited news site, with more than half of its traffic flowing through CBC.ca’s News zone, according to ComScore Media Metrix
out on top
Millions of unique visitors to broadcast and media websites used by all Canadians, home usage only. Source: ComScore Media Metrix, compiled by CBC Research.
|Jan. '03||Jan. '04|
This fundamental shift toward expanded, general news and away from a program-centric approach illustrates an effect of web development Rule No. 1 as preached by Galipeau: “Put the user first.” Studies showed that users want news. Galipeau concluded: Give them news.
A second difference between the Yanks and CBC.ca is that the Canadians put much less emphasis on streaming audio and video on the Web. It offers limited live streaming, largely because it’s so expensive, and downplays archived audio and video on demand. The decision seems consistent with Galipeau’s Rule No. 2: “Focus on the basics (production standards, usability, navigation, core content).” On public radio sites in the States, streaming is often cited as the most important content feature.
A third difference is that CBC.ca places lower priority on sub-sites for individual programs. Even major programs such as As It Happens, Red Green and The National have modest program areas, with most resources invested in the whole service. Only 6 percent of visitor traffic comes through program-specific pages, compared with 54 percent for news. That direction is likely to continue in the years ahead.
A viable mission
Gross tonnage of visitors was never the goal of CBC.ca. While Galipeau’s team may be pleased with their rising visitor count, it remains dedicated to the CBC’s social and journalistic values. Thus Galipeau’s third rule tells the web staff to “Reflect public broadcasting values online.”
And it does. Like their U.S. counterparts, CBC.ca staffers see their work as fundamentally different from private web operations, driven by public service instead of profit, serving citizens rather than consumers.
Remaining loyal to traditional public service values has been the easy part, compared to developing support for online service within the broader CBC hierarchy. “Selling the value of the Web in a broadcasting organization” has been the single most difficult task in his two years at CBC, Galipeau said recently.
His pitch to his colleagues was masterful. He combined research from the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post, which focused on the large “in-office” daytime audience, with basic dayparting information. Radio is strong in morning and afternoon drivetimes and TV rules in the evening. For the Web, daytime is primetime. Out of this mix he synthesized a classic statement of vision that is simple, compelling and sellable: “CBC.ca completes the day for the CBC audience . . . Combining radio and TV with the Web allows CBC to provide news when Canadians want it, in the form they want, wherever they are.”
Twenty years of hard work have improved but not eliminated the famous midday sag in the public radio audience. This elegant summary—which views the Web as a third midday tent pole—may be the single most powerful argument to increase our online service investment.
Bringing it back home
In mid-November, when our Integrated Media Association delegation from the South met with CBC.ca staffers, almost everyone from the States was surprised to learn how little CBC was spending on the Web. Its presence seemed so large; the graphics so eye-catching. This must cost a fortune, we thought. Contrary to our preconceptions, we discovered CBC.ca had a base operating budget for 2004 of $6.7 million, with $746,000 for special projects and capital spending of $500,000 a year (all figures in U.S. dollars). This represents less than 1 percent of the CBC budget.
While there are no well-documented statistics on total web spending by U.S. public broadcasters, the amount is probably between $15 million and $20 million. We’re already spending 50 percent to 100 percent more than CBC.ca does.
The CBC.ca staff staff totals 125 people, including news writers, researchers,
copy editors, producers, designers and encoders. The largest contingent (30
web staffers) is assigned to the national news desk in Toronto. CBC.ca doesn’t
stretch to provide a complete news/feature service 24 hours a day, but it
comes close: 21 hours a day, with the most emphasis given to the online primetime,
from early morning through late afternoon. Online staffers are integrated
into CBC newsrooms, where they use the same reporting and wire services that
flow into radio and TV.
What can we learn from the Canadian experience?
First, a relative lack of money may not be our greatest problem. As a group U.S. public broadcasters are spending a reasonable amount—although not a lot—on web services. Combining staffs of PBS, NPR, area stations and producers, we have 30 people working on the Web in Washington. As a group, we probably have more than 200 additional staffers around the country. But our investments are not concentrated and the effect is muted.
Second, we lack a content center. The successes of NPR.org and PBS.org demonstrate the value of aggregating large amounts of content at a single address. But we have no location with the aggregating power of CBC.ca. Our news assets—potentially our strongest magnet for web traffic—are spread over a variety of destinations, including NPR, some strong local news station sites, the NewsHour, Frontline, The World, Marketplace and elsewhere.
Third, we still haven’t developed a vision of service, which undermines our capacity to compete forcefully. Our discussions, here in U.S. public broadcasting, are focused inward, more at our deficiencies and boundaries than our strengths and opportunities. CBC’s discussion is focused outward, on its audience, on what people want from it, on the competitive environment. Its capacity as Canada’s largest news-gathering organization may be the largest piece of the puzzle, but that capacity was unleashed online only after it was translated into a vision that can be communicated quickly and effectively to every person at the CBC.
Armed with that vision—“CBC.ca completes the day for the CBC audience”—Galipeau’s colleagues believe they can compete to keep the loyalty of their traditional audience. Two years into Galipeau’s tenure, they are winning the competitive battle against organizations that can invest many times the CBC’s web resources, beating CNN and other American sites as well as Canada.com, the website of CanWest Global Communications, owner of the National Post and other major Canadian newspapers.
Until January 2004, Canada.com could claim to be “the first choice
of Canadians” in online news and information, as measured by Media Metrix.
Now that title goes to CBC.ca.
Galipeau and his staff have established CBC.ca as a significant new public service that “treats visitors as citizens rather than as consumers.” That is a remarkable accomplishment, even with the assets that CBC brought to the table.
U.S. public webcasters, like their counterparts in Toronto, must develop
a powerful, concise vision we can share with our colleagues and transmit to
millions of listeners and viewers. Like the people at CBC.ca, we have a responsibility
to champion the value of noncommercial online service, and like our Canadian
counterparts, we must do a far more effective job of defining the value of
online service in terms that our top managers and colleagues can use in their
Web page posted April 7, 2004
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