Chairman's Desk

Pierre Poilievre’s wake-up call to Canadian media

This past week, two developments attracted the nation’s attention.

Pierre Poilievre released a 15-minute video on Canada’s “housing hell” that has, at the time of writing, garnered 4.8 million views. And the CBC announced they would be cutting 10 per cent of its workforce.

What does a politician’s message on Canada’s housing crisis have to do with mass layoffs at our public broadcaster?


First, Poilievre’s video. Like many groundbreaking political tactics, it’s less about the message, more the medium. In the 1995 Ontario election that saw Mike Harris win a landslide victory, we (I was part of Harris’s campaign) printed millions of copies of “The Common Sense Revolution”.

The revolution was not just self-styled — nor about the “common sense” message alone. It was also about how that message was delivered. The platform was distilled into a single, accessible brochure. Released a year earlier than was customary, and placed in every mailbox.

Nearly three decades later, Poilievre has managed to do something similar. Not just in this video but through his entire social media strategy.

And, to the astonishment of many, he’s breaking through.

But it isn’t just his political foes who should be taking notes. The CBC’s layoff announcement blamed “fierce competition from the digital giants.” In reality, the competition comes from anyone, anywhere.

The fight for precious clicks and seconds is as wide open as it is cutthroat. And the CBC has been losing, and losing badly, for some time.

Poilievre demonstrated last week that he is not only the CBC’s most vocal critic but its direct competitor. He did not appear on their programs to drive his message. Instead, he simply delivered it directly to Canadians. His own way, on his own channels and for a hell of a lot less than traditional advertising.

The financial pressures and job cuts in legacy media extend far wider and deeper than the CBC. We’ve seen wide-scale redundancies across the industry. The pain felt by this nation’s media is endemic. But so too is the sheer intractability of the challenges they’re facing.

Chopping off your leg is a foolish proposition until a doctor tells you it’ll save your life. The problem facing Canadian media is they don’t know if chopping off their leg will save anything. They can’t properly diagnose what’s ailing them. Nor can they see around the corner to the next technological revolution that will blow up their latest strategy. Who can?

While we can’t look into a crystal ball, we can, collectively, look in the mirror and acknowledge that we can’t allow our nation’s media landscape to get much worse. For it to be the next Kodak, Sears or Blockbuster – those who couldn’t, or wouldn’t – change before market changes obliterated them.

Blockbuster is an instructive example. In 2000, the company had the chance to buy Netflix for $50 million. It balked. It could not see the forest for the trees, despite it staring them in the face. Today, Netflix is valued at around $200 billion and Blockbuster is a relic.

Not all solutions present themselves so conveniently. But here is the teaching moment: the signs were there. Blockbuster ignored them. Canadian media would be foolish to make the same mistake.

This past week, many commentators restated what they’ve claimed for years – that Pierre Poilievre is the worst thing to happen to the CBC in decades.

They’re wrong.

More significant than his criticism, Poilievre’s tactics should be the wake-up call the broadcaster needs, a timely sign of how much its model needs to change, and how fast.

But, in their own way, the tactics are also deeply revealing. They confirm that Canadians now depend on social media and want to consume their news in a new way – their way. And, like it or not, technology is allowing them to do just that.

Mainstream media has a clear choice: It can meet Canadians where they are by innovating fearlessly, embracing new approaches, understanding that failure is a price to be paid and really, really working to understand their audiences. Or it can go the way of Blockbuster.

Let’s not have that.

This article first appeared in The Toronto Star on December 10, 2023.

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