The Cultural Desirability of Canadian Broadcasting

In 1984, the newly elected Mulroney government was making noises about cutting CBC’s funding. Fearing for the public broadcaster’s survival, a few supporters gathered in the offices of the Canadian Association for Adult Education to create an organization called, quaintly, Friends of Public Broadcasting. Among its founders were Pierre Berton, Dalton Camp, Chaviva Hosek, Peter Herrndorf, Peter Newman, Ian Morrison (the executive director of the CAAE, who emerged later as the group’s spokesperson), and I. In time, Friends of Public Broadcasting would become Friends of Canadian Broadcasting, concerned with the quality and quantity of Canadian radio and television as a whole, but in the beginning our cause was the beleaguered CBC.

There are two ways to look at the Crown corporation’s $1.1 billion annual parliamentary appropriation: it is both a lot of money, and not nearly enough. In its current configuration — two services, English and French, broadcasting news and entertainment, regionally and nationally, in three formats (television, radio, and the Internet) — CBC needs, not $1.1 billion, but $1.5 billion. The corporation generates the difference by selling advertising, competing with the country’s private broadcasters, and, in the process and by slow degrees, remaking itself in their image. To wit: it now offers its English-speaking audience the popular American game shows Jeopardy! and Wheel of Fortune. More people watch such programs than, say, The Fifth Estate or The Nature of Things, so they attract more advertising. The end is thought to justify the means.

The Canadian broadcasting industry is bewilderingly complex, but as one of the Friends I came to understand that the job of the country’s public broadcaster is to provide culturally desirable programming that private broadcasters cannot or will not provide. The hard part, of course, is defining the words “culturally desirable.” Obviously, the country would be no poorer for the lack of Jeopardy! or Wheel of Fortune. But what about Dragons’ Den or Battle of the Blades? A tougher call, although they are the types of nutrient-free entertainments to which private broadcasters are predisposed. But there are no pat answers here — only the obligation, because the CBC is mostly publicly funded, to ask the question: is this a program, unavailable elsewhere, that enriches the culture? The debates are never ending, and they should be.

Until recently, for instance, it was possible to argue that CBC was performing a public service by televising NHL hockey games. Hockey is a staple to which all Canadians should have access, and in remote regions CBC’s was once the only available signal. But no more. In the digital age, private networks have as much reach as the public broadcaster, and just as much interest in cashing in on the public’s appetite for the game — TSN already owns the rights to many weekday games and some playoff series. Still, CBC TV continues to devote an enormous piece of its prime-time schedule to Hockey Night in Canada, not because private broadcasters are unable or unwilling to do so, but because hockey is money. As with Jeopardy! and Wheel of Fortune, the tail wags the dog.

During the recent, brief tenure of Richard Stursberg as head of English Radio and Television — the subject of Trevor Cole’s article (“Dragon Done”) in this issue — CBC’s pursuit of ratings was motivated by ideology as well as money. Stursberg — and he is not alone — believes the public broadcaster is failing Canadian taxpayers if it caters only to the country’s elites. But chasing mass audiences leads inevitably to a type of programming — the broadcasting equivalent of fast food — that makes CBC increasingly indistinguishable from private broadcasters. Which invites the question: why bother? Surely the point of having a public broadcaster is to provide alternatives to the private broadcasters’ burgers and fries — less popular but more nutritious programs that otherwise would not be on offer.

Canada, as our politicians constantly remind us, is a wonderful country. Too few of them appreciate the role CBC has played in the construction of this kinder, gentler place. If they did, we would not rank near the bottom of Western industrialized societies in our support for public broadcasting. And the likelihood of this changing any time soon is remote, because Brian Mulroney’s was neither the first nor the last Canadian government to look upon CBC with deep mistrust, mistaking its independence for hostility. So the story continues. On its website, Friends of Canadian Broadcasting recently posted a chart showing the decline in government funding for CBC, from 1990 to 2010, indexed by prime minister (Mulroney, Chrétien, Martin, Harper) and expressed in 2010 dollars. To read it is to understand that twenty-five years after the founding of the Friends of Canadian Broadcasting the public broadcaster is still beleaguered, and its survival still in doubt.

By John Macfarlane © The Walrus

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