The danger, of course, is that if the dispute drags into the fall, Canadians might just discover they can live quite pleasantly without a daily dose of news and entertainment from a publicly funded national broadcaster. If that happens, they might start wondering why they're spending a billion dollars a year - or about $30 for every Canadian man, woman and child - to keep the CBC on the air.
The problem is especially acute for television. On any given night, the English-language network captures a scant six or seven per cent of the available prime-time audience. And although Canadians still tend to turn to the CBC in times of crisis or for things like election specials, even the flagship information programs are losing audiences.
The result is that if you log on to the Bureau of Broadcast Measurement's Web site and check the top-show listings for any random week (www.bbm.ca/en/top_programs.html), you're unlikely to find a single CBC program among the first 20, apart from the occasional sports special like the Tim Horton's Brier. The only Canadian shows that have made the list consistently in the past year are CTV's newscasts and CTV's hit comedy series Corner Gas. Most of the rest is the stuff CTV and Global buy from the U.S. networks.
Its documentaries and news programs do tell Canadian stories from a Canadian point of view, but disturbingly few Canadians seem interested in watching. And as far as drama and comedy go, CTV's Eleventh Hour and Cold Squad - not to mention Corner Gas and Showcase's Trailer Park Boys - are as good as anything the CBC broadcasts, and as Canadian.
It's unclear just what the future of public broadcasting in Canada should be. For millions of Canadians, the CBC has simply ceased to be relevant, and recapturing their interest is going to be difficult. Plumbing the depths of public taste is clearly not an option, but neither is continuing to produce quality TV for a shrinking elite audience. For a billion dollars a year, taxpayers deserve more than that.
The CBC was founded to provide an all-Canadian network whose programming could compete against U.S. commercial broadcast networks. The current network model was necessary in the 1950s and 1960s, but is an anachronism today.
Canadian broadcasting is not a zero-sum game; the success of Canadian programming on the commercial networks does not detract from the CBC's mission to provide quality Canadian programming.
Yet the CBC itself has retrenched from its own mission, especially in the field of regional programming. Its programming increasingly reflects the attitudes, interests and tastes of the Toronto lib-left elites. Its news programming trades in Torontonian stereotypes of the rest of the country; it patronizes the East, demonizes the West and the U.S., appeases Quebec and lionizes Toronto.
One might wish CBC to be reorganized along the lines of PBS in the United States, if only to experience the malicious pleasure of seeing Peter Mansbridge hawking coffee mugs during pledge week telethons.
Yet PBS's local stations are much more responsive to their local viewers, whose donations top up the shortfall from the annual Congressional grant. Indeed, border stations tend to be even more responsive to their Canadian viewers than CBC ever has been.
Freed from the need to seek commercial revenues, CBC could be the 100% Canadian public-interest channel it has always claimed to be.
Who knows? Maybe more people would watch it.