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How would you reimagine the CBC? Add to ...

The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation on Thursday announced it was “out of the business” of competing with private broadcasters for professional sports, and cutting 657 positions in the face of a $130-million revenue shortfall projected for the 2014-15 broadcast year. It is a truly pivotal moment for the national broadcaster. So The Globe reached out to creative and cultural thinkers across the country and asked them, how would you re-imagine the CBC?

Dan Mangan, Juno-winning musician, based in Vancouver

If I had a magic CBC button, I’d focus on allowing CBC television to execute its mandate as a public resource, rather than trying to compete with private broadcasters at a game they’re better and more hawkish at.

I’d put a nominal tax on all new televisions sold in the country and eliminate advertising on CBC television. I’d cull television to one channel – a 24 hour resource dedicated to news, sports, documentaries, children’s programming, comedy, mini-series and specialty programming.

I’d stop trying to compete with big-budget American dramas by producing crappier, lower-budget versions of them. I’d take funding saved from the new television platform and give much of it to radio. I’d make sure that every remote community in Canada had access to radio, and that their local programming was relevant to their community. The CBC would be even more daring, weird, funny, intelligent and articulate. I’d move further away from old-school terrestrial broadcasting and incorporate forward thinking online resources into both television and radio.

In short, I’d like to see CBC thrive as a unique access point between all Canadians. It shouldn’t need to compete with private broadcasters because it should be playing a different game.

George Jamieson, former CBC programmer/producer

When I started working at the CBC the place was rich enough for this: Producers and managers would suggest programs that didn’t fit existing molds. Bosses would say “we’re not sure, but we like the idea, the imagination, the energy. Here’s a budget, give it a try.” Together, they reinvented the CBC of the 1950s and 1960s. They created what we call “the radio revolution.” They brought television into the world of multi-channels, colour, and cable. They made a CBC that nobody had seen or heard before. They were bold, because they could afford to be.

These days I hope the CBC is poor enough to do the same. Try new programs, measure them by imagination and energy, not by whether they fit a mold. Make a CBC that hasn’t been seen or heard before. Be bold, because you can’t afford not to be.

Some qualities of the CBC I worked in have been ground down recently. It would cost little to restore them, and it would pay big dividends.

For example, rebuild what has been denigrated as “unit culture.” The people who’ve tried to kill this think programs should not have individual identities and loyalties; instead they should be parts of a service, swapped in and out as required. They don’t notice that Coaches Corner is the alpha and omega of unit culture. So is The National. So were the George Stroumboulupoulos programs. So is any program involving Kevin O’Leary or Michael Enright. It’s a good quality. Give it oxygen.

Also, embrace “creative disobedience.” Creative people sometimes have an excess of this. Let them say “shit” now and then, or piss off somebody with a title, or tell a boss to get out of the way. If they’re smart programmers, the CBC will be better for that. If you don’t believe me, check out the work of Allan McFee and Peter Gzowski.

Stop telling programmers what they can’t do, and ask them what they can do. Then help them do it. The German poet Friedrich Hölderlin wrote a line, generally translated as, “where there is danger, that which will save us also grows.” Makes sense to me.

Richard Stursberg, former head of English-language services at the CBC, 2004-2010

There are a number of principles that should guide the CBC’s future.

1. CBC should offer – to the maximum extent possible – only Canadian programming.

2. The corporation should focus on making popular shows. It is financed by the taxes of all Canadians and should serve as many of them as it can.

3. CBC should not duplicate the work of the private sector. There is no point spending public money on things that are already being well done without it.

The application of these principles leads to some broad conclusions about programming strategy:

1. The Corporation should abandon local television newscasts. The private networks do this very well and the CBC is typically third in the markets it serves. The CBC should focus instead on national and international news to let Canadians better understand their place in the world.

2. The Corporation should focus its prime-time strategy on the creation of popular, distinctively Canadian dramas, comedies, documentaries and reality shows. The private networks cannot do this because their deep prime-time schedules are inevitably dedicated to U.S. shows.

3. The CBC should be out of sports completely. The private networks do sports very well.

4. The CBC should reflect French Canada to English Canada and English Canada to French Canada, so that both linguistic communities can better understand each other. The CBC is the only broadcaster – public or private – able to do this.

A CBC that looked like this would provide an enormously valuable service that is unavailable from the private sector.

Bramwell Tovey, music director, Vancouver Symphony Orchestra

After the announcements of this week’s cuts at CBC it’s clear that the traditional blueprint for public broadcasting, still followed successfully in Britain and Australia, has failed in Canada. Government support for CBC has waned and the corporation has lost curatorial focus.

Under Herbert Lacroix, CBC has lost over 2,000 jobs since 2009, lost public support and, most importantly, ceased to be an icon of idealism. Lacroix has failed to win allies on Parliament Hill and as the hockey debacle clearly shows, he does not have the skill set to negotiate the exploitation of CBC’s considerable commercial value.

If CBC were a listed corporation the shareholders would vote him out. He should do the honourable thing and resign.

The opening line of CBC’s current strategic plan brings further confusion:

“Our new five-year strategy 2015: Everyone, Every Way, recognizes that the public broadcaster can’t be all things to all people.”

Over-extended by numerous collective agreements negotiated in better times, support for public broadcasting declines as the corporation dumbs down in pursuit of better ratings. Arresting the slide will take more than The Grateful Dead, Miley Cyrus and The Spice Girls (all featured on CBC this week.) Besides, why is CBC duplicating the independent sector? And why is 5 per cent of the programming budget being wasted on the tabloid-style music website?

As at the BBC, much greater use should be made of independent producers. Personally, I’d love to see creative figures like Robert Lepage or Murray Schafer let loose at a few hours a week on CBC Radio 2 – as Lepage said in a recent interview:

“Forget global, think local – then you’ll be universal.”

Imagine that as the opening line of CBC’s next strategic plan.

Bill Richardson, former CBC radio host

The CBC. Is the problem one of money or one of faith? I’m not sure why I raise the question; even if it could be answered, nothing would be solved. Public Broadcasting – as we understand it in Canada – is like God. You believe in it or you don’t. And if it’s about money, well, we’re hooped there, too. Hockey or no hockey, there’s never going to be enough to satisfy the requirements of the believers, and the nay-sayers will always find a way to whine about the lavish feed disbursed to the hogs at the trough.

So maybe the path to re-imagining the CBC is to look at what works, or seems to work, on the existing service. Whether you appreciate it, or whether you don’t – and no program makes me shout at the radio more – Q works. It doesn’t belong to radio or television or the Web, it ably straddles “platforms,” as apparently we’re meant to call them. It’s been smartly constructed, deliberately positioned, it’s informed by youthful sensibilities, and it has an international fan base.

If someone made me God for a minute, I’d unplug the CBC, all of it, for a month. I’d say to the executive producer of Q, your job is to create a vibrant radio service that somehow manages to take the rest into account. Make radio that works as TV. That’s the brief. Otherwise, there are no rules. You can kill whoever needs killing. Sell all the buildings. Thirty days from now, we’ll meet at some Tim Hortons and you can show what you’ve come up with. Then we’ll see what we can do about getting back to Eden.

Mark Damazer, CBE, Master St Peter’s College, Oxford, and former BBC executive

The great tradition of public service broadcasting in Canada is just about clinging on – and now minus its ice puck. Public service broadcasting is a great and noble ideal about the value of information, education and entertainment for citizens, not for consumers. Of course we are all also consumers too – but at its best public service broadcasting plays to our aspirations and curiosity and asks its audiences to sample points of view and modes of expression – in every field – that may not entirely accord with our prejudices, or with received wisdom. Fight for that.

I do not know enough about how best the programming should be orchestrated to convince the public that the CBC should not be whittled out of existence – that it is part of a valuable Canadian identity and that its abolition would be a serious loss to many millions of people. But perhaps, despite the job cuts , getting hold of young talent – and ensuring that the main networked news programs are better, more rounded, deeper than anything provided by the commercial sector – is a tactic. Others will know better.

Judy Maddren, radio news host

It’s about acknowledging and celebrating our Canadian-ness. It’s about valuing our country’s story and our own individual stories. It’s about Canada’s place in the wider world. But it is not about competing for viewers, listeners and readers.

Working in CBC Radio News and now as an audio biographer, I know that we learn from stories, and we change behaviour when we hear stories that move us or shock us, or entertain us.

I also know the CBC makes us a community. No matter where you go in Canada, you are in the neighbourhood, connected during the day by the same CBC radio programs, Web pages, and to a degree, by television. If you are in Squamish, B.C., you can tune in to the same programs as the folks in Antigonish, N.S. We all become part of the Canadian story. Our neighbours in the United States don’t have that.

So my list for a re-imagined CBC would include funding for a strong news-gathering team, an emphasis on radio nationally and in our communities (radio is relatively cheap), and if there is some room in the budget, a Canadian-told and crafted array of visual news and stories on television. The CBC should be reflecting Canadians to Canadians. As the saying goes, “You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.” The CBC should be helping to tell all Canadians what we’ve got

Peter Klein, director of the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of British Columbia, U.S. current affairs TV producer and documentary filmmaker

Imagine for a moment that Canada has no national broadcaster, and the government has decided to invest hundreds of millions of dollars to build a network for the 21st century and beyond. What an exciting prospect, but where to start?

First and foremost, we’ll need some great journalists – reporters who are hungry for important stories, and can tell those stories well through a variety of media – so they should know how to report, capture video and audio, present, write and engage thoughtfully with the audience.

Let’s blanket the country with these 21st-century reporters, so they can develop local sources and find those hidden stories that mainstream news organizations are missing. Let’s package their stories by theme, location and other relevant organizing principles and present them through the medium of choice for the audience of the future – the Internet.

There will likely be good audio in many of these reports, so why not pull together some programs that can be broadcast through traditional radio waves for Canadians stuck in rush hour traffic? And “talk radio” is so popular on commercial broadcasts – what if we did a smarter version of talk radio, with cutting-edge, creative hosts. (I hear that guy from Moxy Früvous is a great interviewer – let’s check him out.)

There’s surely going to be some compelling video too, so let’s find ways of delivering video packages through streaming mobile apps and TV. And perhaps most important, let’s be careful not to replicate what everyone else is doing. This is public money, after all, so let’s spend it in the most efficient way possible.

Rudy Buttignol, president and CEO of British Columbia’s Knowledge Network Corporation; president of BBC Kids

The CBC losing NHL hockey was inevitable. In my opinion, however, the CBC’s crisis is not about money – it’s about mandate and governance.

Three public policy proposals hold the most promise for fundamental, structural change. The most essential is the elimination of all advertising. It distorts the public service mission and treats viewers as consumers to be captured and measured for the benefit of advertisers. With the elimination of advertising all other decisions will follow. That’s the job of the talented professionals; to interpret the public interest and design a relevant strategy that connects the public broadcaster to its public.

Secondly, the CBC’s president is currently a political appointment made by the federal cabinet. Instead, following best practices in contemporary governance, the CBC’s board of directors needs to be empowered to hire its chief executive. This would establish a true arm’s-length relationship between the CBC and government.

Finally, over the last three decades, it has made little difference whether the party in power is red or blue. It is clear there is no new money forthcoming from government. Instead, the CBC’s public service mandate needs to be fundamentally restructured in order to match its resources to its most important priorities.

The CBC needs to regain the trust and loyalty of all Canadians. Critics spend too much time on operational issues best left to professional management, and too little time explaining how to convince the CBC’s major stakeholder, the federal government, to make fundamental changes to its governance and mandate.

Tony Burman, former head of CBC News and Al Jazeera English. Teaches journalism at Ryerson University

Reimagining the CBC for the 21st century, we can be certain that Canada does not need a low-rent clone of its commercial rivals. But it does need – now more than ever – a strong, innovative and commercial-free public broadcaster that provides Canadians with what the commercial media marketplace is unwilling to produce.

In poll after poll, the majority of Canadians have indicated they want a strong national public broadcaster. They want groundbreaking news and current affairs journalism, and distinctive Canadian drama and entertainment. But if we were inventing a new CBC for this century, it would likely look very different from what it is today. In an exploding digital environment, conventional broadcasting is losing its lustre, and Canadians are increasingly turning to other sources – such as the Internet and on-demand services such as Netflix and Apple TV – for information and entertainment.

A new commercial-free CBC needs to be radically reinvented to thrive in this new era. In the absence of any direction from Parliament, the CBC needs to initiate this process itself. A reinvented CBC requires a dramatic narrowing of what its mandate is. It needs to ditch those activities that are secondary to its core mission. And it needs a totally new funding formula.

As a starting point, there are countless ideas already on the table. The only thing missing now seems to be the will to do it. But as recent events have shown, clinging to a fading status quo is no longer an option.

Stéphane Dion, Liberal heritage critic

The CBC deserves and needs stable funding in order to plan because they have difficult challenges in a world in which many people don’t watch TV any more because of digital access. They have to adjust; they need what the BBC has: stable funding. All these ideological cuts one after the other are preventing them from having the strong approach they need.

I would prefer both [a niche service and a broadly popular one]: niche because you are in market where it is more and more specific what the people want, but at the same it is good in a society that in the evening many people watch the same show, the same movie or same event on TV and in the morning they discuss it together. We have that more on Radio Canada than on CBC in English because of the competition of the American networks. And it’s something we like in Quebec; the day after Tout le Monde en Parle we all go and discuss the same interview. It is something good in a society and worth protecting.

Robert Lantos, film producer

CBC has been stumbling around looking for an identity for a long time and has managed to hurt itself significantly along the way, by misguidedly trying to compete with the private sector, Global and CTV, by putting the same shows on the air that they would put on as opposed to sticking to its own niche and its own identity and its own kind of programming – programming that is strictly about Canadian perspectives and Canadian point of view, Canadian news and Canadian stories, Canadian perceptions, whether its world events or national events, whether its fiction or news or children’s. CBC has instead over the years become a mishmash, a little bit of this, a little bit of that, a carbon copy of programming that could just as well be on one of the other networks.

There has to be a future for the CBC – I can’t imagine Canada without one – but the future has to be restabilizing a culturally important and relevant network that makes no attempt to compete with the private sector and proudly sticks to its mission which, summarized in one word, is Canada.

The overwhelming majority of CBC funds should be spend on programming, not on infrastructure, not on staff, not on equipment but on what goes on the air. Anything that the public doesn’t see is really secondary. It’s about what is on the TV set and the radio, not what is in the building and having a fully staffed department of this and department of that. Even after the cuts, look how many employees the CBC has.

Wade Davis, author and professor at the University of British Columbia

I see the CBC as being a place where neither polemics nor politics nor the whims of fashion are allowed to dominate the discourse. I see it as a place that stands above the whiplash of daily political conflict. I see it as a place that speaks to mythic threads of memory that is our country. It’s a place that invokes the very best of those who have inspired us – from the great poets to the great writers to the great signers to the great politicians. I see it as a place that every single day taps into the essence of who we are as a country; what Gzowski always did… Whatever this big messy thing called democracy is, it needs both those who generate great economic growth and those who reflect upon the poetics of landscape to come together in this great dream of Canada. And the CBC should be the voice piece. It’s the podium; it’s the pulpit of what we are as a country. It’s the most incredible institution that our country has.…That’s what it should be. What it’s become is this kind of monolith which is constantly fighting for its own survival.

Sonny Assu, Montreal-based visual artist

I’m going to start off by saying: I heart the CBC! So much, in fact, that I bought a vintage CBC logo t-shirt a while back and proudly wear it from time to time. Ok, maybe I wear it a bit too much. So much, in fact, I get asked if I work for the CBC. I’ve even had some homeless folks shout at me, “Hey CBC MAN! I have something to say to you!” So maybe it’s time I retire the shirt?

Instead, here’s how would I re-imagine the CBC:

  • A separate indie music channel with world indie mixed in for depth.
  • Local community music programs, available for streaming on-line.
  • A return to local community programming. I’m not going to lie – this one is completely self-serving. I’d like to be the First Nations Bob Ross! Happy little Ovoid next to this happy little bitumen pipeline rupture...
  • Working with remote communities to create relevant content for those communities.
  • More efficient, competent, objective moderation on the CBC news website. Too much ignorance, bigotry and hate gets slipped in past the “moderators”.
  • Lengthening the arms reach of the government. Especially the current government. Not privatization, that would be disastrous.
  • Less American rebroadcasting and more original content. Broadcasters like HBO, Showcase and now Netflix are showcasing great Canadian content. If the CBC took some risks, unbuttoned its top collar a little, something other than hockey or curling could keep this important broadcaster relevant.

Partnering with a company like Netflix to create that innovative Canadian content.

Mina Shum, Vancouver-based filmmaker

There’s an unfortunate trend that’s been strangling cultural creation for too long. It’s known as “four quadrant programming.” Quadrants are the demographics of your audience broken down into four major groups: male, female, over 25 and under 25. The big tent pole franchise blockbuster movies try to serve at least three, if not four, of those quadrants. And those big studios are really good at it. I’m not sure that Canadian culture should model themselves entirely after big studios. Perhaps our private broadcasters can compete in this way, but clearly our public broadcaster cannot.

So my vision for the CBC: BE BOLD. Don’t chase the trend; start creating them. Start by specializing to hook the viewers. When asked who your audience is, don’t say “everybody.” Instead get really specific and fearless. Imagine your viewers as the smartest, funniest, emotionally aware, critically curious, deepest humans you know. And make cost-effective shows that serve them. Those specific audiences will join with others to make CBC a necessity in their lives because no other broadcaster will speak to them like you do. And if CBC becomes a necessity in more homes, that could create a wave of positive change not only for the CBC but for the country, as we become unified by the diverse yet visionary programming of our public broadcaster.

The CBC has reached the bottom of the second act in their survival tale. And like any compelling hero journey, in the bottom of the second act, in the pivotal “all is lost” moment (when all you hold dear is threatened), the hero musters up the courage to do, think, act like she’s never done before. And with this often painful but liberating change comes real transformation.

Andy Barrie, former host of Metro Morning on CBC Radio One in Toronto

Okay, this is going to be really boring. See, the fact is that every CBC I can imagine would be unimaginable unless one thing happened first: Every appointment to the CBC’s board of directors, from the president on down, must have a background in, or a passion for media, culture, technology and an understanding of how these three can combine to strengthen, educate, entertain and sustain this country. Until these patronage appointments become arms-length appointments, fuggedaboutit. Oh, yeah, you say, like Canada’s Chief Statistician and Electoral Officer? Well, at least these two men had the chance to speak truth to power while the government of the day was attempting to kneecap their institutions, and in the latter case could actually affect the electoral support of that government. Fact is, if any actually attempted to close down the CBC, they would get murderized. But reduce its presence in people’s lives incrementally, and some day those pesky people will be gone. I’m with those who believe CBC television should be like CBC radio – distinctly Canadian, commercial free, funded at a level above the pathetic crumbs it gets now (a fifth per capita of what Norway gets). But sadly, this will not happen because a former morning man wants it to. Which brings us back to the board. Imaginings are only as good as the minds that dream them. Fix the top and the rest just might follow.

Submissions have been condensed and edited.

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