The relevant term is “re-imagine.” Dreadful term. But let’s go with it. CBC president Hubert Lacroix said CBC/Radio-Canada needs to “reimagine” itself in a shifting media universe and circumstance of reduced revenue from advertising and government support.
After the numbers are crunched, the layoffs decided and the cuts are cinched, it’s CBC’s main network English TV channel that is in the most need of reimagining.
The situation is dire. CBC TV is at a critical juncture, post-hockey and post-cuts. The loss of live pro sports will put CBC TV in a uniquely vulnerable position in the TV world – it won’t have what now delivers high ratings, ad dollars and must-see buzz for other TV services. Live sports matter enormously in a fragmented TV landscape where broadcasters must worry about measuring and monetizing everything – DVR viewing, online viewing and viral videos. In this new reality the perception is that there is no substitute for the high of huge ratings that live sports deliver.
That’s why Rogers paid a seemingly outlandish sum for those National Hockey League rights. That’s why National Football League games are so vital to U.S. network TV.
Thing is, there are alternatives to sports. Awards shows, live concerts and key, live episodes of such all-inclusive franchises as American Idol, have delivered stunning ratings to traditional TV broadcasters. What CBC TV needs is some of that. Heather Conway, executive vice-president of English Services, has said that CBC TV is getting out of expensive event shows such as Battle of the Blades. Instead it is going with cheaper fare and she cited Canada’s Smartest Person as an example. That sounds like a longshot for surefire TV success. What’s needed is talked-about TV, so perhaps awards shows, feisty chat shows, sports analysis shows and personality-driven political argument content would do better. Cheap and not nasty, but nattered-about.
And what CBC TV needs most of all, and soon, is a dose of the cool factor. And it doesn’t necessarily cost a ton of money to become cool.
Hard to imagine now, but it isn’t so long since some of CBC TV’s content seemed different, dashing and chic. Before the emphasis was on such earnest mass-appeal dramas as Arctic Air and Cracked, both now cancelled, before U.S. cable shows made almost everything on network TV seem tame.
When CBC TV was airing The Newsroom in the late 1990s, the channel instantly had the kind of cachet it needs today. One show, alive with deadpan, subversive satiric treatment of TV news, delivered the sort of bite that CBC TV so desperately needs today.
In its new and reduced circumstances, CBC TV has to do more with less. And while it sometimes seems that the best of TV is enormously expensive to develop and produce, that isn’t necessarily the case. Not all cool, must-see TV has to be as expensive as Mad Men or The Walking Dead to produce.
Was Trailer Park Boys a hugely expensive show? No. And what it became was that magical thing – the cult hit, with the content you had to know in order to be clued-in to the popular culture here. There are many examples of small-scale shows, especially comedies, that were different, inexpensive and ended up as classics. The original Brit version of The Office. Absolutely Fabulous. The current cult hit Moone Boy is another example.
A single chic, must-see show can change everything for a TV channel. And in the new TV landscape, CBC’s main network must, increasingly, be perceived as a quasi-specialty channel. Some call it “the halo effect,” but no matter how the circumstance is described, that chic-effect changes the perception of the broadcaster from outside and within.
Pondering strategies for CBC TV is no longer an idle, futile game of complaint and finger-pointing. It’s vital that CBC TV evolve, with mistakes and misfires along the way. It’s a public broadcaster impoverished and beleaguered. But nobody needs a ton of money to be cool. And if CBC TV fails to acquire the cool factor, it will be too late to re-imagine anything.