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A new model for the CBC: Finding our place in the world

April 16, 2014 Leave a comment

Now that the people of Quebec have settled on their future — opting to stay in Canada with their dismissal of the Parti Quebecois — what are we to do about our second biggest problem: the CBC?

The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation has been around since the mid 1930s, one of the world’s oldest, and arguably most successful, public broadcasters. It created the first national radio broadcasting system, and pioneered in television. At one time, the CBC was both competitor and regulator of the country’s private radio and TV networks. Today, it’s struggling to survive.

The litany of CBC problems is almost endless. Reduced government grants (albeit at a still healthy $900 million per year). Splintered audiences, divided between itself and three private networks and rendered almost invisible by the rise of cable channels and new off-broadcast operations like Netflix.

The outlook is so dicey that Andrew Coyne, the perceptive national affairs columnist of the National Post, figures there is no hope for the CBC but to “limp on, purposelessly, through successive ‘action plans’ and ‘reinventions,’ for no reason other than that no one can be bothered to do anything else — and because no one expects them to.”

This is due in part, Coyne says, to our having  a government without ambition or ideas.

If those qualities are lacking in Ottawa, there is no shortage of suggestions elsewhere — including from this blog.

51mZDR75IYL._AA278_PIkin4,BottomRight,-46,22_AA300_SH20_OU15_The problems of the CBC became critical at least as far back as 2004. CBC television was attracting the smallest audience in its history. Everybody has an opinion on what was wrong: too left-wing, too right-wing, too commercial, too boring.

That year, the powers that be thought one man, Richard Stursberg, might have the answers. He blew into the Mother Corp’s inner sanctum on Toronto’s Front Street with the force of a prairie whirlwind. He left in his wake a demoralized staff cowering in the detritus of a dust storm.

Stursberg has told the tale of his tempestuous time in The Tower of Babel: Sins, Secrets and Successes Inside the CBC (Douglas & McIntyre, 2012). He described his job as Head of English Services as the one “I had loved as no other in my life.”

It’s not a pretty story. Under Stursberg’s watch, the CBC locked out its employees, lost the TV rights to major global sports events (but not the National Hockey League), cut 400 jobs, fought the news department (“Fort News”) and won ratings success with new shows such as Little Mosque on the Prairie and Dragon’s Den. He also had terrible flops.

A new round of CBC navel-gazing has arisen following its loss of National Hockey League games to Rogers Communications, who shaped a $5.2 billion deal to take over broadcast rights. Bizarrely, Rogers is allowing CBC to carry Saturday Night Hockey, but  will keep all the ad revenue, will pay CBC nothing, and will make it bear certain production costs. Another 600+ jobs wiped out.

Surely the time has come to redress the set.

The CBC’s most fervent boosters, the Friends of Canadian Broadcasting, says it’s time to cut loose from  “political interference.”  It says 83% of Canadians believe the CBC protects Canadian culture and identify; 78% tune to the CBC every week, and 81% believe the CBC helps distinguish us from the United States.

Back in 1965 a noted public servant, Robert Fowler, headed up a committee to look into how the CBC could better serve Canada. Its No. 1 conclusion: “The only thing that really matters in broadcasting is program content; all the rest is housekeeping.”

Now a myriad of ideas have been put forth on how to save the CBC. Some see it as a PBS North, sustained by viewer donations. Others, mindful of the ever-growing content brought to us through the Internet, would turn the CBC into a Netflix-style pay to view channel. Then there’s the Coyne alternative; to simply limp on.

Whatever form of technology the CBC might use to reach people, it’s essential that we hold on to this vital instrument of Canadian being. But at its most basic, the CBC should not be a commercial channel for the purpose of delivering, as is now the case, viewers to advertisers. Programs like Four Small Rooms and Recipes to Riches can be fun to watch, but they don’t belong on a public broadcaster. We need no more cheap comedies and simplistic reality shows.

The CBC must stay loyal to the minorities of viewers who wish to leaven their commercial TV with programs that inform, entertain, and appeal to niche interests; Canadian public affairs and news; quality drama, music and art, book talk and intelligent discussion of the world around us, superb children’s programming, all an antidote to the garbage of the Fox Network and Sun  News.

Let the CBC keep commercials on its News Network; no advertiser dares tamper with Stursberg’s nemesis, “Fort News.” But free the CBC’s main channel of having to deliver seat bottoms to hucksters. Finance the CBC through public funding, viewer donations, and a surtax on the profits of private broadcasters. Let it be different, and let it help to shape our better understanding of ourselves and our place in the world.

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A show of contempt for Canada

March 10, 2014 Leave a comment

A single strand has run through the Quebec separatist movement almost from the day in 1967 that Rene Levesque left the Liberal party to establish the Parti Quebecois as the vehicle by which sovereigntists hope to ride to independence. It is their contempt for Canada.

That contempt was well summed up by former leader and Quebec premier Lucien Bouchard, who said “Canada is not a real nation.”

Canada was and is, however, a “real” enough nation to have guaranteed the continuance of the French language, religion, and civil law after the British victory at the Plains of Abraham. It is further “real” enough to have become a bilingual country under that son of Quebec, Pierre Elliott Trudeau, and to engage in a massive tax transfer that since the 1950s has benefited Quebec to the tune of some $146 billion. Without the $4.5 billion  the province will receive from equalization this year alone, its deficit would be twice the shortfall announced by Premier Pauline Marois.

But numbers aren’t the real issue.It’s contempt that hurts.

This sentiment sank to a new low over the weekend (of March 9) when Premier Marois announced that Pierre Karl Peladeau, the controlling shareholder of Canada’s biggest newspaper chain — Quebecor Media — would be a candidate for the PQ in the April 7 provincial election. Quebecor’s properties include the Toronto Sun and Sun Media chain, plus the Sun News TV channel.

uooGS8hM2WuiOygSrHQEjBJkDsdIa0y-9e2WfALYwXiE804ouBng1L2alx2rE8uek7ho7g=s131Peladeau, whose wealth is drawn from a variety of newspaper and TV holdings in a business established by his father, declared “I am a sovereigntist” and said he was running so that his children could live “in their own country.”

While the law would require Peladeau, if elected, to put his shares in trust, he is reported to have said that he would not sell them, even if ordered to do so.

As one wag observed, Peladeau is the first billionaire to join the PQ. Aside from illustrating his contempt for all the Canadians who have done business with his papers and helped to enrich him, this sets up some interesting dichotomies which Quebec separatists are going to have to deal with.

Premier Marois touted Peladeau’s candidacy as evidence that the PQ will have a strong grip on the economy — previously a weak spot in the party’s armour. He’s seen as a “star candidate,” his candidacy hailed as a “game-changer.” It remains to be seen how Peladeau’s well-known pro-business — and anti-union — stance will go down with party supporters. The PQ is a social democratic party, and most of its followers. besides being Quebec nationalists, stand well left of centre.

The Peladeau adventure also has to set off alarm bells in the executive corridors of the National Hockey League. He’s been a prime mover in the scheme to build a $400 million, publicly-financed, hockey arena in Quebec City. The idea was that the NHL would bring a team to the city once the stadium had been built. The steel frame is already up. But the Peladeau connection is sure to be seen  as a negative by many NHL owners.

Quebec Liberal leader Philippe Couillard is asking some interesting questions about Peladeau’s influence over Quebec media during the electi0n campaign.

It is too early to make predictions on the outcome of the Quebec vote, although the PQ apparently has an edge in the key francophone vote. Overall, according to a poll by CROP, the Liberals and PQ are tied at 36 per cent.

Premier Marois refuses to commit herself to holding a referendum if the PQ wins a majority. But neither does she rule it out. That could scare off nationalist voters who don’t want to see Quebec plunged into a third, and more divisive then ever, referendum.

But it’s Pierre Karl Peladeau’s contempt for Canadians that will count for most people outside Quebec — and many inside, too. He’s used our freedom of the press to gain control of a vast media empire that has given him power and profits.

Will Canadians be much longer interested in subscribing to or supporting Quebecor Media papers, knowing that profits will conti9nue to accrue to Peladeau through his controlling interest?

We have laws in Canada against foreign ownership of news media. Peladeau should think about this when he campaigns for an independent Quebec.

Lies, damn lies, and attack ads

March 16, 2011 Leave a comment

Advertising is a deceptive craft at best. At its worst, advertising can be duplicitous, false, and harmful to the public interest. The scale runs the gamut from the simple bullshit of hair dye commercials to the “Big Lie” fostered by the Nazi Party and others of evil genius.

Advertising can be as crass as TV’s ugly used car salesman pitching his heaps from a littered lot, to the intellectually challenging, graphically inspiring theme of the historic (and since unmatched) Apple Computer “1984” ad. Advertising of this nature requires immense creative and literary talent.

So where do political attack ads — particularly those of the Conservative Party of Canada — rank on the scale?

I’d say somewhere between misleading and fraudulent.

The latest example is an attack ad on Michael Ignatieff’s alleged position on corporate taxes. It supposedly unravels the Liberal leader’s “plan” to increase taxes. Actually, it’s another attempt at character assassination .Dissect this ad piece by piece, and here’s what you find:

Claim: That Ignatieff is pushing for a $6 billion tax increase. Fact: A Liberal government would cancel the Conservative government’s planned $6 billion reduction in corporate taxes.

Does cancellation of a tax decrease amount to a tax increase? Continuing to pay the same tax rate hardly constitutes an increase. (To say nothing of the merits of the issue: should we be borrowing money to cut government revenues by $6 billion at a time when Ottawa is running a $56 billion deficit?)

Claim : That Ignatieff’s “tax increase” would be paid for by workers. Fact: If there’s anything to be paid (which is debatable) it would be paid by corporations and their shareholders, whom Ignatieff would deprive of yet more  largesse from the public coffers, courtesy  of Stephen Harper.

If Ignatieff were calling for an increase in corporate taxes, you could argue that companies would pass the cost to consumers. But that’s not the case here: products are already priced relative to current taxes (not some future lower rate). The competitive climate doesn’t allow companies to boost prices beyond any increases in real cost.

A question the ad doesn’t address: Would still lower corporate taxes lower prices and boost jobs? Debatable, according to leading economists. Look at Ireland, which has cut its corporate tax rate to the lowest in the world. Today, it’s an economic basket case.

Claim: “He didn’t come back for you.” Fact: Another personal slur on Michael Ignatieff which reduces political discourse to the level of a chicken coop diatribe polluted by arguments unworthy of consideration by any intelligent voter. A “Big Lie” perhaps?

The Liberals have had their share of attack ads but none have descended to the depravity practiced by their Conservative opponents. The Green party, less flush than the two big old line parties, can safely boast they’ll not play this game:

The skill of the ad writers for the Conservative party cannot be questioned. But I leave it up to you to decide if your ability to twist, distort and lie about your competition is  a quality you’d want to put on your resume.

Standing up for the CRTC

February 8, 2011 Leave a comment

We’ve got a government in Canada that’s always trying to play the angles. One is to announce new policies via Twitter. Industry minister Tony Clement has become an old hand at this. And this is  how PM Harper’s office let out the word that it wants to roll back the decision of the CRTC to force telecoms to charge Internet users by usage – the more you use, the more you’d pay.

A popular move, you say. No one on  a fixed rate wants to be shifted to User-Based Billing where it would cost extra to down load movies and other heavy data features.

Under the current system, the big Telcos – BCE and Telus, for example – set a cap on how many gigabytes a subscriber can draw down. You get notified when you’re near the limit, and likely to run into more charges. It’s the independent companies — Small Internet Service Providers — who buy bandwith from the telcos and re-sell it to subscribers who would be hit. They’d have to give up offering unlimited downloading, and start charging heavy users extra.

As a result of Ottawa’s blow-back, the CRTC is reviewing the decision. It says it’s doing it “of its own initiative.” Believe that, and I have a bridge I can sell you.

This fiddling with the CRTC decision  on bandwidth is just another example of how the Harper government has made a shambles of telecom policy.

First, they overrode the CRTC to allow Globalive, backed with Egyptian money, to start up in Canada regardless of rules that are supposed to limit the entry of foreign providers. We won ‘t apply the law in this case, the government  said.

Few of us, especially me, have any objection to another entrant in our over-priced mobile telephone market.

But we either have laws or we don ‘t. That’s why the Federal Court, in a stunning slap at the Harperites, has told Ottawa it had no basis to allow Gobalive in. So now the future of their Wind Mobile is up in the air, and investors are scratching their heads as to whether telecom in Canada is something that it’s safe to invest in.Not a healthy situation.

Clearly the Harperites are seizing on every populist opportunity to try to make friends and influence voters.

How about trying to do it in a rational, sustainable way?

In principle, there’s nothing wrong with user-based billing. The problem is there’s not enough competition in telecom in Canada. That’s why our cell phone costs are so high, and why South Koreans pay a fraction of what we do for ten times the Internet bandwidth we enjoy.

In principle, it’s a good idea to encourage foreigners to invest in Canadian industry when new competition will be beneficial to consumers.

But the idea of allowing one company to circumvent the foreign investment rules, or stopping an eminently sensible user pay system for the internet, makes for an incoherent, unpredictable, and risky public policy.

These decisions might seem  beneficial to consumers in the short run, but their demoralizing effects on investment will do Canada no good in the long run.

So here’s my idea: Let the CRTC do its job. Makes rules for the telecom players. And if we want to lower the cost of cell phone and Internet access, open up the market to anyone who wants to provide service.

Competition, anyone?

Requiem for the National Post

October 30, 2009 Leave a comment

The long, painful and inevitable death throes of The National Post — at least in its present form — seem near an end.

In Toronto, a court spent most of Friday (October 30) mulling a request from CanWest Global Communications Corp. to roll The Post, along with its other newspapers, into a new corporation separate from CanWest TV holdings.

The accounting strategy is to free up the newspapers from the colossal debt of the company’s TV arm, now around $4 billion.

Grant Robertson has an engrossing story on the failures of debt-laden CanWest in the current ROB Magazine. You can read it here.

The papers, market leaders in major cities such as Vancouver, Edmonton, Ottawa and Montreal, are all money-makers although all are bearing wounds of the recession, and the fragmentation of media markets caused by the Internet.

CAN_NPBut the National Post is a different animal. Launched by Conrad Black in 1998, it was meant to provide a Toronto outlet for his cross-country chain of former Southam newspapers.

It also shook up Canadian journalism. Espousing a frankly right-wing bias, it brought excellent analysis and features to readers at a time when the dominant Globe and Mail was about as dreary and predictable as a newspaper could get.

From day one, the advent of the Post forced the tired Globe to wake up and reinvent itself. To its credit, it has done so, brilliantly, and is now a far superior paper to what it was eleven years ago.

The Post has never turned a profit. It lost $60 million in 2001 and is said to now be losing a million and a half a month. It owes CanWest’s parent holding company $139 million.

The big mistake of the Asper family — first the late Izzy Asper and now son Leonard — was to fund their acquisitions via debt. Now, carrying a debt load that its reduced earnings can’t handle, CanWest’s future is bleak.

Will it get so bleak that there’ll be no solution but to stanch the losses of the National Post by killing it off? And would that be enough to save CanWest from a take-over by bottom-feeders? Probably not.

A solution short of shutting down the Post completely would be to resize it as business daily, like its predecessor the tabloid Financial Post. Some potential buyers are said to be weighing this possibility.

But a successful newspaper needs to find a multi-layered audience. The Toronto Sun has done it with a weird three-way mix of heavy sports, tons of ads from electronics retailers, and crazy right-wing columns and editorials. It’s worked for the Sun, because none of these three demographics gives a damn about what else is in the paper.

It seems to me Canada isn’t big enough — especially while we’re recession-ridden — to support two national newspapers. The Post has become what I call a “broadsheet tabloid” — a paper printed in the traditional large size format of a serious newspaper, but with big headlines and sensationalist content that is better suited to a tabloid. And the two don’t mix.

The end of ‘The National’?

October 27, 2009 Leave a comment

They’ve finally done it — it’s the end of The National on CBC-TV as a serious, trustworthy, watchable account of the day’s news.

Their endless tinkering with proven program formulas reached its nadir last night with an abysmal, production-poor effort that is certain to drive away more viewers than it will attract.

CBC’s reliance on confusing, rainbow-colored graphics that provide nothing but a distraction is truly mind-boggling.

Its focus on contrived news such as Adrienne Arsenault’s report from London on the survey showing Canadians are indifferent to the monarchy is troubling to anyone who cares about understanding what’s important (or even interesting) in today’s world. Ho hum – we’ve known for decades that Canadians don’t give a damn about Prince Charlie. For the past thirty or forty years, we’ve viewed the Queen as no more than a nice lady.

Even the set on the new National looks dismal. They’ve got Peter Mansbridge standing around like a school teacher about to bring out the strap, while errant pupils like Amanda Lang (business reporter) and Wendy Mesley (muck-raker) line up for their punishment.

For years now, the CBC’s been trying to fight audience losses. It’s strategy has been to opt for more American low-brow shows like the dreadful Jeopardy and to glitz up its graphics in the hope that style will win out over substance in pursuit of younger viewers.

CBC: People who want wavy colors (pink, blue, orange) fluttering over their screen aren’t interested in the news. You won’t get them, anyway.

I have a marvelous idea: Prop a man or woman in front of a TV camera and let them read the news, calling in correspondents around the world whenever you have some meaningful film to show. This is what the BBC does.

And by the way, I resent losing BBC World News at 6 on CBC Newsworld (or News Net or whatchamacall it). I always admired the job Evan Soloman did on CBC Sunday, but his new “Power and Politics” format (what else is politics about but power?) just doesn’t excite.

We appear to be watching yet another unfolding CBC disaster that is sure to embarrass and antagonize what’s left of a loyal audience, without any offsetting gains.

For another opinion on The National, here’s Greg Quill’s take in the Toronto Star.

At CBC, all that’s old is new again

August 12, 2009 Leave a comment

It is truly the “dog days” of Summer when your TV screen is filled with endless repeats. Repeats that no one really wants to watch anyway, compared to the better uses we can make of our time.

But this Summer, the re-runs are more prolific than ever on CBC-TV. What really hurts is that they come at us during a lousy — cold, wet and rainy — time when our options for diversions are fewer than usual.

The weather’s better around our place this week. But when even The National starts running old news items — as it did this week with a piece on Canadian asbestos exports — I say it’s time to ask what’s going on?

The repeats are even more obvious on CBC Radio. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard endless repeats of Dispatches items, replays of The Debaters, or the endless repetition of features from The Current.

The CBC warned us, back in May, that the network’s $171 million shortfall this year means more repeat programming. As one example, they’ve cut in half the old two-hour noontime call-in shows (surely one of the most economical types of broadcasting) in favor of jamming in more re-runs.

Come August 31, the CBC will expand its supper-time local TV newscasts from 60 to 90 minutes. But listen to this: CBC spokesman Chris Ball cites the increase not as a means of delivering a fuller range of local news, but as “as a way to do things smarter and do things on a cost-effective basis.” Cheaper, in other words.

At the bottom of the CBC’s soul-searching is the conflict between buying high-priced American shows that will draw ad-rich audiences, and of fulfilling what should be its primary role of giving Canadians information and cultural content that supports our uniqueness in the world.

You can see an attempt to do this in the two-part mini series, Iron Road, that began last Sunday night and winds up next Sunday. It’s the melodramatic and not entirely historically accurate story of a Chinese girl who comes to Canada (Gold Mountain) in search of her father, lost during the building of the railway in B.C.

BoyinPictureI watched with a critical eye because I’m just finishing up work on my Young Adult title, The Boy in the Picture. It’s the story of young Edward Mallandaine, the boy whose shining face peers out from the famous picture of the driving of the Last Spike of the CPR.

Part sex drama, part kung fu movie, The Iron Road has some beautiful scenes and well played out vignettes. It’s the first joint Chinese-Canadian film production in 22 years and it’s based on what was originally an opera.

The Iron Road, however, is more fiction than fact. The Canadian Pacific Railway is replaced by the Nickel Railroad, and none of the characters even suggest the real people who recruited six thousand Chinese workers to drive the railway up the Fraser River canyon and across the mountains into Alberta.

Whether a production like this creates an appreciation and understanding for Canada’s heritage is highly arguable. It brings the fact of the railway building to a broad Canadian audience. But it tells us nothing of the struggle than brought it into existence, beyond providing a worthwhile recognition of the ordeal of its Chinese laborers. That’s entertainment!