Some would say CBC-TV should be left alone to get on with the grim business of laying off staff and cancelling some shows. Others would say the situation offers an opportunity to breathe new life into the broadcaster. I’m with the “others.”
“Our job is to adjust, take this in, and move on,” CBC president Hubert Lacroix said recently to journalists. And he’s right. Move on, move forward. A smaller, stronger CBC must be the goal. A CBC less fluffy and more feisty.
Two things have to be kept in mind about the budget cut the corporation must absorb. First, the current federal government is obviously hostile to the CBC as it has existed and performed in recent years. Second, its enemies are not just those in power right now.
And what truly matters is that CBC has some enemies within. In his book The Tower of Babble, Richard Stursberg, the CBC’s former head of English services, makes this crystal clear. Of course, as Stursberg sees it, “the enemy within” is composed mostly of people who challenged his plans for change. However, to anyone outside the vast corporation, there emerges a picture of vast layers of management, people who like to rely on outside consultants to tell them what to do.
To me, it’s rather like having somebody pick and choose your clothes. What the CBC needs is an emphatic style of its own. And, by style, I mean an assertiveness about what it does well, a ferocious insistence on the importance of a small number of shows that stand out. Not Dragons’ Den knock-offs. Not the CBC News Network as it is now, with its endless repetition of gee-whiz footage of a fire on a California highway.
If it happens that Arctic Air and Republic of Doyle have fewer episodes next season, because of the budget cuts, then their special qualities must be proclaimed. Not in terms of CBC’s mandate but in terms of the style and verve of those shows, the style that separates them from the mass of U.S. network dramas. In television, style is substance. Put your style out there.
By that, I don’t mean some CBC exec trawling for praise about the ratings for the shows. Trumpet the creators and the cast. And in calling for an empathic CBC style, I do not mean a CBC devoted to an antique version of European “high” culture as seen in Canada. If Bravo! has abandoned covering the arts, high and low, as it did with panache for some years, then the CBC can take over. Not by devoting an entire day to the Montreal Symphony Orchestra, but by making programs that are cool television, such as the recent Love Lies Bleeding, a strong adaptation of Alberta Ballet’s “semi-abstract ballet” set to the songs of Elton John. Artsy but sexy, eye-popping TV.
As I write this, news comes that Bell Media is killing Fashion Television. Can’t the CBC do a fashion television show? Right now, one imagines that if the idea arose at the CBC, the first impulse would be to involve Don Cherry and Kevin O’Leary.
If there is less money for news coverage, then what can be covered better with fewer resources? Don’t, for heaven’s sake, strike a committee to study the question and bring in outside consultants.
As Stursberg points out at the end of his book, “The CBC issued its five-year plan a few months after I left. It is called ‘2015: Everyone, Every Way.’ ” The mere title strikes fear into anyone who hopes for sass and style from CBC-TV. From what I’ve seen, there is a lot of self-serving blather in Stursberg’s book, and his loathing for shows that are “dark” ( Da Vinci’s Inquest, Intelligence) is comical. But he’s correct that there is something genuinely appalling about CBC’s hand-wringing about where it goes, and the phrase “Everyone, Every Way” is maddening.
A smaller, stronger CBC must be more nimble, less given to spending years thinking about its future and arriving at something as innocuous as a plan to keep doing “signature events” such as Live Right Now and Hockey Day in Canada.
The CBC is a polarizing broadcaster and cultural institution. Now that it has taken a budget hit, some of that polarizing aspect will fade. And it’s not the only public broadcaster to face new economic realities. Across Europe, public broadcasters have been faced with budgets cuts since the economic downturns of 2008. Those broadcasters had, and still have, more substantial funding than the CBC receives. They will survive.
The CBC will survive too. But if it is to thrive, it needs to find its style. And style doesn’t cost money. Just as money doesn’t buy taste.