Monday, 8 September 2014

Canada - The CBC's Worst Enemy


Without the vital service of our public broadcaster, who will break expired dog-treat re-packaging scandals?

When the Conservative government finally won its elusive majority in May 2011, I was well-prepared for the possibility that the CBC, Canada’s national public broadcaster, would before long cease to exist.  In all honesty I had even expected it.  I had already been an observer of Canada’s media and political landscapes for a long time and it was not unreasonable to expect that the Conservative party, who was ideologically opposed to the idea of a public broadcaster, deeply suspicious of this public broadcaster’s political leanings, and now had carte blanche in Parliament, to finish the job successive governments had started by repeatedly weakening the CBC with budget cuts.  It was hard to imagine that a government which had already displayed a penchant for a high degree of control in a minority Parliament would accept the ongoing risk of being the subject of investigative reports and/or unfavourable editorial content by an organization whose purse strings it held with a majority in Parliament. The logic of much of the government’s “base” and even some of its own members would seem to dictate that if a demand for such content existed, it could surely be met by the private sector.  Some Conservative M.P.s have already mused publicly about the fairness of a national broadcaster that, in their mind, espouses “liberal” political views, and even the most disinterested observer would have had to concede that, from the point of view of a Conservative, their argument was not entirely without merit.  So, you could see where this was headed.
It was an emotional issue for me.  Although I did have my own critiques of the CBC and wouldn’t go as far as to publicly identify myself as a “friend of the public broadcaster”, I consider it vital.  Like many Canadians, my affinity for the CBC had been developed over many years through a patchwork of auditory and visual experiences, some of which were moments of national communion: the 1996 Olympics and Donovan Bailey, Mr. Dressup, Hockey Night in Canada, Sidney Crosby’s Golden Goal, Cross Country Checkup and Stuart McLean while driving in the car, to name a few.  Like all Canadians, I had never actually paid directly for or requested the service yet there it was, my whole life, appearing in the corner when I least expected it and providing information and entertainment.  In addition to this what I would term “average” level of exposure to the Corporation, I had actually studied the history that led up to the creation of the CBC.     As a major in Mass Communications at Carleton University in Ottawa, a large part of my first two years of university studies were spent learning about the origins of this institution and the regulatory regime behind it; that is to say, reading a lot of incredibly dull and arcane academic texts that I’m sure 95% of Canadians have never read or, if they have had the misfortune to read them, will never read again.  That John Aird’s commission recommended to Parliament in the 1930s a national public regulatory regime and broadcaster to give the nascent independent democratic nation-state of Canada a cultural industry and national cohesion that it did not have is not unimportant history; it just looks pretty inconsequential beside the Battle of Hastings, the Fall of the Roman Empire, or the invention of the automobile.  Would-be media types who thought they had signed up to learn how to work in media left the program in droves; international students paying two, three, or four times the Canadian tuition rate no doubt considered asking for their five-figure sums back.  I discovered a niche had been created in Canadian academia studying a version of history that posited the CBC as an integral achievement within Canada’s ongoing nation-building project: a narrative that is hardly accepted with unanimity by an increasingly indifferent Canadian population.
Therein lies the death spiral that undercuts any discussion about why the CBC matters: Canada is insignificant, at least culturally on a global scale, therefore our society is insignificant, therefore our stories and events are bound to be by and large insignificant, and the media through which these are diffused is therefore insignificant.  Canadians are nonetheless significant to themselves – (how could they not be?) and it is also significant that well-meaning and enlightened individuals saw the importance of equipping the nation with institutions that could respond to its specific needs and act as a bulwark against the exploding American TV, film, and radio industries. These were bound to overrun whatever we managed to establish here before it even got off the ground, yet in today’s grand scheme of things, it is uncertain what they achieved.  What legacy will these institutions have when their trajectory under the current regime is certainly leading towards death by a thousand cuts and American pop culture remains more popular than ever?  Who will shed tears in Canada for the CBC, the NFB, Telefilm Canada, et al, when they cease to exist, when there remains so little left to cut that it becomes patently absurd to do anything else but shutter operations?  Why would they when they remember that $1,000,0000,000 per year gave us, among other things, Republic of Doyle and Being Erica (full disclosure – never watched either – like, I suspect, most Canadians) while Canadians tuned into Mad Men and Game of Thrones in droves without the Canadian government spending a dime (I never watched those either lest I be suspected of personal bias.  I don’t have cable. I did love Breaking Bad and House of Cards).  The only sure thing it seems the money spent on producing Canadian TV shows will buy is the certainty that no one will watch them.
Talking about this subject seems to inevitably follow a defeatist and cynical line of self-derision which makes the discussion itself seem hopeless.  Yet this situation need not bring about despair, and what will improve it is a new regime which sees the value in producing public broadcasting, news, and content with public dollars.  It will only work when all pressure to generate ratings, buzz, and popularity is removed; only the absence of pressure will eventually generate risk-taking, and then hopefully, authenticity and watchability.  In Canada our public media institutions have been in crisis for a long time, simply because conversations start with their entire existence being called into question.  How can anything be successful with a sword of Damocles constantly hanging over its head.  It’s like bringing a ten-year old in the kitchen every week and saying “We’d really like you to go to a prestigious school and be a huge success junior…if we decide to keep feeding you”.  This manufactured crisis of our own making is the result of this practice we Canadians are constantly engaged in, and if anything is going to be salvaged from our public media institutions it must stop.
Canadian pundits often bemoan the mediocrity of the CBC when they discuss its fate often compare it to the public broadcasting regimes of European countries which are popular and well-liked.  These organizations have, unlike the CBC, a simple, straightforward mission entrusted to them:  government gives adequate funding, government takes its hands off, organization produces enjoyable content a sizeable part of the population likes, because it is generally good.  What the CBC deals with is: government provides less funding than it did last year, another round of layoffs and cuts are announced, high-flying executives in the network’s byzantine structure of bureaucracy and management make statements filled with corporate jargon about “synergies” and “efficiencies” and “exciting new partnerships”, that nobody but them will ever be excited about, and the public becomes just a little more indifferent than it was last year, as the network struggles to deal with persistently lower ratings and declining revenues, pressures which successful public broadcasters do not and should not have to deal with.  Finally, we have a slew of commentaries and articles in the mainstream media ridiculing the CBC, a lot of which ridicule it frankly deserves because of this incoherence and self-inflicted calamity, and here we are right back where we started.

There is a simple solution to the CBC’s never-ending troubles, one that does not involve any more round tables, royal commissions, pie-in-the-sky proposals or national hand-wringing.  Double its budget, get rid of all the dreck and reruns in its schedule, stop chasing ratings with shows nobody takes seriously anyway, and allow anybody to come in and pitch stuff like a private network does.  That last point will be hard to implement as it will require a culture change of that union-seniority/public servant/gatekeeper mentality but this is a life or death struggle here.  But a stable ,multi-year funding commitment needs to be restored, because what the government is doing is in fact a much savvier calculation than if they had just eliminated the CBC right away, which they could have.  They are forcing it to do more with less with each passing year, making it fall backward flailing its arms into the abyss of redundancy, ensuring that with the passage of time it will be so universally reviled by Canadians that there will be no pain when the last remaining round of budget cuts – the final one – is announced.  

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