Friday, March 20, 2009

Whither the CBC?

Let me begin by saying that I was a CBC brat. My dad worked at the MotherCorp from 1954 through 1984 -- he has his tenure there worked out to the minute, in fact -- and for most of that time, he was a public affairs producer. (His magnum opus was Klahanie: The Great Outdoors, which was a hit with everyone except the network executives. It ran for 13 years.) My mother acted in CBC radio and TV dramas for over 30 years, beginning in 1948, when she took over the lead role in the serial, "The Carson Family" on the old Farms Broadcast.

I, too, acted in CBC radio dramas when I was a kid, along with a couple of episodes of The Beachcombers and a real stinker of a sit-com pilot that would have shortened a lot of careers if it had ever been picked up. My first professional writing job was on the Rene Simard Show, and I also coached Le SuperKid on his English dialogue. When I desperately needed a job, CBC Victoria was there.

CBC, in other words, has put a lot of meat on my family's tables over the past 53 years.

So why do I have this total lack of sympathy when I hear doomspeak about cuts in federal government subsidies to the CBC? Because the more I look at and listen to that network, the more I think there has to be a complete makeover of its mandate, its direction and how it's achieving its goals.

"Whither the CBC?" is discussed by Will and Ian Ferguson in their book, How To Be A Canadian (Even If You Already Are One). They don't actually discuss the issue, but they point out that it's one of those questions that comes up, like a recurring nightmare, every few years. It leads to endless national navel-gazing (at least by those who give a flying fish about it) about the role of the publicly-funded broadcaster, and often comes at a time when some people question why it's receiving public funding at all.

The CBC handed Heritage Minister James Moore a loaded gun last fall, when it picked up "Jeopardy" and "Wheel of Fortune". Earlier this week, Moore used that shrewd programming move to illustrate the need for such a makeover -- saying the MotherCorp should be developing Canadian programs, rather than spending money on US shows. (Wisely, Moore didn't refer to "Coronation Street", which would have really sparked a firestorm!)

Now, you could argue that the purchase of those shows would actually turn a profit, since they'd be proven ad-revenue generators, but Moore's overall point demands some discussion. If the CBC is getting huge taxpayer subsidies already, what's it doing with the money it's getting now? Can it be spent better? Does it have a viewership base comparable to CTV and Global? And if not, why?

(All this discussion must be bitterly amusing to the people losing their jobs at those two networks.)

For Christians with a small-c conservative bent like yours truly, the distinct bias over the past 20 years against Christian influence -- embracing everything "progressive" (aka contrary to the Word of God) and leaning heavily on political correctness and "inclusiveness" -- is particularly worrisome. One friend of mine, a pastor in Duncan, recently referred to the "anti-Christian CBC", and I daresay he's right. Our tax money goes to the CBC, too, and it's hard to countenance that when it's impossible to listen to or watch a network that grieves the spirit.

It was the CBC that really gave the infamous "atheist bus ads" story traction in Metro Vancouver by running an unverified story that the posters had appeared at a SeaBus terminal and that the atheist organization in question actually had an advertising contract. When this piece of information came to TransLink's attention and it was confirmed that there were no posters and no contract, the CBC radio editor at the time was "furious", but the genie was already out of the bottle.

The episode reminded me of one of the radio dramas I did as a child: an Easter offering on the CBC Schools Broadcast. The Schools Broadcasts aired weekly in the mid-morning, and were heard in class around the province. There used to be Schools Broadcasts on TV, as well, covering subjects like the voyage of Simon Fraser.

Anyway, this Easter play was called "Childe Lacke-Love", and it was about a boy who learns that the route to happiness is to commit to loving other people. At one point, the town crier -- played by Robert Clothier (later Relic in The Beachcombers) -- declaimed, "Think of our Lord upon the Cross / Think of the Blood He shed for us!" Can you imagine anything like that getting into a CBC program today -- especially something going to young tender ears in the classroom?

As for CBC News, the days of Knowlton Nash, Stanley Burke and Norman DePoe are long gone. In my dealings with CBC reporters, they seem more inclined to "gotcha!" journalism than to actually ascertaining the facts and constantly looking for the negative or fear-based story than anything edifying or uplifting. Alas, like those in the newspaper industry, the reporters seem to have this lofty notion that they are not only mandated to uncover the truth, but because they report it, it ipso facto is the truth. Yet in my personal experience, I've seen countless times where a reporter will leave out a salient fact that doesn't fit with his or her preconceived thesis, or report it in such a way as to cast doubt on it.

James Moore would like to see more regional programming, more locally-produced dramas and other entertainment shows. I'll go along with that. Big question: can the CBC do it on the funding it currently gets? What can they do without? Do we really need Newsworld? Do we really need Hockey Night In Canada doubleheaders, followed by HNIC "After Hours" (sportscasters drinking each other's bathwater) and then a "replay" of the game people had already seen? If NBC can have perennial success with Saturday Night Live, then maybe Saturday night is not such a broadcasting wasteland.

Some random ideas:
  • Run one hockey game on Saturday night, and turn the rest of the evening over to "try-out" programs of different sorts. The time slot after HNIC used to be a space where a panoply of programs were used as fillers. There could be different games region by region, and if there's a "need" for a replay, run one of the other regional games -- perhaps give the fans the chance to vote by text message which game they want to see. (I would actually have a personal preference for Radio-Canada to take back the Montreal Canadiens' games, so that those of us in the rest of the country to still bleed bleu-blanc-et-rouge can stay in touch with Les Glorieux.)
  • Increase regional drama and entertainment production, and bring back the "regional exchange", where different regions would swap shows. It was a great way to bring the life and culture of one part of Canada into the living rooms of other parts of Canada. With production facilities in the Far North, it would be a great way to expose those of us living below the 55th parallel to what goes on above it.
  • bring back the CBC Orchestras and give them TV time
  • increase local and regional news, and hire news directors with a mandate to make journalism live up to its lofty ideals: truth over sensationalism, positive over negative, public interest over the station's self-interest
  • hire reporters with actual life experience -- not those who have spent their lives in the ivory tower of the professional journalist (where one looks at the world through morose-coloured glasses)
  • does CBC need a piped-in music satellite channel?
  • does CBC need so many radio channels, or should it be looking at restructuring that, as well?

Back in 2004, I wrote a series of features on the origins of TV in British Columbia for the Victoria Times Colonist. In one of those articles, the late Daryl Duke talked about how television showed British Columbians "themselves" for the first time. The TC article edited Daryl's comments considerably, but he pointed out how early TV in Vancouver gave people a chance to see how they themselves lived, and shows like Cariboo Country exposed people in Vancouver to the way people lived in the Chilcotin. Like the story line of "Window at Namko", it provided a huge picture window. It filled a need that was real then, and is real today.

That's a lot of what the CBC should be about, in my opinion, and I believe that makes it worth saving. "Bringing Canadians Together" was the MotherCorp's positioning statement back in the 1970s, and maybe it's time to take that seriously. Once we have this discussion and re-configure the Corporation's purpose, we'll have a better idea of how much tax money should be spent on it.

No comments:

Post a Comment