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.
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.
As an author, I’d be indignant if someone profited by reading my books over the air without getting my permission or compensating me for my work.
Yet that’s what happens every day in Canada when you turn on your TV set and pick up a cable signal of your favorite CBC, CTV or Global programs.
There’s a big battle going on in Canadian broadcasting over what the networks call “carriage fees.”
Hard pressed by falling advertising revenues, the networks are asking the CRTC (Canadian Radio and Telecommunications Commission) to require cable companies to compensate them for including their signals in the programming package they sell their customers.
I’ve always wondered why the cable companies were not required to do this in the first place. The U.S. has long had a rule that cable companies pay over-the-air TV stations for carrying their signals.
The networks may have welcomed the added exposure they got as Canadian homes switched from antennas to cable in the past forty years. Now that decision has come back to haunt them.
The specialty channels, like Bravo and the Weather Network, have been treated differently. From Day One, they’ve received a few cents for every cable customer.
Cable companies like Rogers and Shaw claim they’d have to charge customers $6 more a month to give the networks carriage fees. The networks would like the cable guys to cough up the fee from their profits.
As an example of how troubled Canadian broadcasting has become, CTV announced it would have to close three small city stations in Windsor and Wingham, Ontario and Brandon, Manitoba. When no buyer stepped up, CTV boss Ivan Fecan said he’d let them go for a dollar. Shaw Cable immediately offered that princely sum, and it looks as if they’ll get them.
At the same time, Shaw took out newspaper ads blasting the networks for asking for a bail-out.
I wonder if the folks running Shaw and Rogers have ever heard of intellectual property rights. Getting rich by selling somebody else’s property doesn’t seem right to me.
REPORTING ON THE RUN
There is a famous newspaper cliche, first popularized by Ben Hecht’s play The Front Page, that goes “Get me Rewrite.”
It was supposedly shouted by legmen who phoned from police court to pass on details of a trial. Their facts would then be written up by Rewrite and slapped on the front page of the next edition.
Today, a lot of news is transmitted from the scene to the presses — pictures as well as words — via wireless computing and digital photography.
In a landmark court ruling this week, Justice Douglas Cunningham has given reporters covering the trial of Ottawa Mayor Larry O’Brien permission to live-blog and send instant news stories from their handheld devices inside the courtroom. The story’s here.
Reporters used to have to take a break and rush from the courtroom to phone in their stuff, just like in the days of The Front Page.
However, the judge turned down the CBC when it requested permission to put TV cameras in the courtroom.
The Mayor, by the way, is charged with influence peddling.
A REVIEW OF MY NEW BOOK
If you’d like to read a review of my new book, Scott Joplin and the Age of Ragtime, go to my book site and click on News and Reviews (on the right).
My thanks to Nancy Mereska for her kind review.