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A scene from "Being Erica": Not exactly daring programming
A scene from "Being Erica": Not exactly daring programming

John Doyle: Television

CBC's back-to-basics plan to save itself Add to ...

Well, lookee here - the CBC just woke up and recalled that it is, in fact, a public broadcaster.

Tuesday's announcement of a five-year strategy plan, called Everyone, Every way, is, essentially, CBC president Hubert Lacroix's life-saving, interventionist plan for the corporation. It is also, at last, the post-Stursberg CBC unveiled.

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The first thing to note is that the CBC is identified as a public broadcaster in the opening sentence of the corporation's news release about the strategy. That hasn't been a CBC thing for some years, as the broadcaster, especially on its main English-language TV channel, competed for eyeballs and ad dollars with commercial broadcasters and even bickered with Global over which broadcaster was entitled to be No. 2 in Canada in terms of ratings success.

While that approach - all the effort put into creating hits from flimsy reality shows to ordinary dramas - brought some necessary sass and energy into the CBC itself, it isolated the broadcaster as an anomaly. It made it easy to attack the CBC as an outfit benefiting from both taxpayer dollars and commercial revenue, thus making it relevant to ask why anyone should be paying to support its existence.

The problem with the planning in recent years is encapsulated in the thorny issue of Wheel of Fortune and Jeopardy! airing on the main CBC TV network. The idea was to bring in viewers and create a lead-in platform for such homegrown shows as Being Erica and Republic of Doyle. Of course, it's possible to justify airing two American game shows if the result is support for outstanding programming that is better, vastly different and more daring than what airs on commercial channels. But, while both Being Erica and Republic of Doyle are fun, neither can be considered daring programming of the kind that only a public broadcaster would air.

Even in the broad strokes that characterized the announcement on Tuesday, there are two further indications that a shift in direction - back to "public broadcaster" - is taking place.

First, there is the emphasis on regional coverage in all areas - TV, radio and online. If the CBC has any reason for existing, it is precisely that: local content in areas that commercial broadcasters see as too insignificant to make a profit. Mind you, this may be too little too late to save the CBC's hide in parts of Canada. For two years, CTV and Global complained with lurid intensity that the burden of local TV coverage was too much for them. They wanted out. While that played out, the CBC failed to underscore its value in local coverage in towns and cities across the country.

Next, there is the promise of "more homegrown stories, humour and culture." The first two on that list are redundant. The CBC is mandated to tell Canadian stories and, well, it tends to have the humour thing covered in Rick Mercer Report, 22 Minutes, The Ron James Show and other programs. It's the "culture" that matters.

Under Richard Stursberg's leadership, CBC TV walked away from culture, creating an utterly bizarre situation. While it crowed about the success of Dragons' Den, trumpeted the initial ratings success of Little Mosque on the Prairie and brought Debbie Travis on board for yet more lifestyle programming, productions that qualified as arts and culture turned up on other channels. It was for Bravo! to air such work as Emily Carr: Winds of Heaven and Moze Mossanen's Nureyev.

Time was, before CBC-TV's public-broadcaster mandate seemed to disappear in its lust for commercial glory, the airing of arts-and-culture programming was considered essential to the corporation's existence. It was what made Canadians who live far from the opera houses and major theatres thankful for CBC TV. It was what made some Canadians defend the CBC when it was under attack.

What is hinted at in the new five-year plan (it was rumoured that a significant reason for Stursberg's departure was disagreement with Lacroix over this very plan) is a back-to-basics approach, including a role as an instrument for uniting Canada. But there is much that is unsaid in the summary of the new strategy released on Tuesday. Is everybody on The National going to sit down any time soon? Will The National and CBC NN be required to stop being so fatuously lightweight? These might seem like irrelevant questions, but the answers do matter. It is much more difficult to defend the CBC when the CBC itself highlights the inconsequential.

The precariousness of the CBC's value as a public broadcaster and cultural institution has been clear for some time. It has divided, not united, Canadians. And nothing in the new plan is going to stop those droning voices calling for the CBC to be shut down because it costs money, it is left-wing and David Suzuki is an environmentalist. To those people, it doesn't matter that the CBC gets a pittance compared with the support other countries offer to their public broadcasters.

But the CBC has given those voices too much ammunition in recent years. Now, it plans to do something that can be defended. To save its own life.

Follow on Twitter: @MisterJohnDoyle

 

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