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John Doyle

We’re asking the wrong question about the CBC Add to ...

Who wants to talk about the post-hockey CBC?

Loads of people, I’d guess. The CBC is a polarizing broadcaster and cultural institution. Me, I approach the matter with wariness, but certain issues need to be clarified.

Clarity is a problem in this discussion. Thursday, as CBC staff is briefed on the impact of the latest cuts to its revenue and declining government support, the noisy arguments about CBC’s role in Canada will start up again.

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The arguments are a repetitive loop. Defenders of the CBC praise its role covering Canadian events and telling Canadian stories. Opponents sneer at the hundreds of millions of dollars in public support the CBC receives. (They can no longer bray about the catchy “billion-dollar subsidy” because the Conservative government cuts have taken the figure well below $1-billion.) Accusations of left-wing bias will be shouted. More accusations about overstaffing and overpayment to staff will be thrown around.

It’s all beside the point.

Fact is, the CBC is ever more relevant in the current Canadian broadcasting landscape. A landscape that the CRTC has allowed to come into existence. A landscape in which only three main commercial players exist – Bell, Shaw and Rogers.

Those three look increasingly arrogant, reeking of hubris, and each is, in its own way, in a narcissistic bubble. Each owns multiple outlets and each looks on the competition, other media and the public with scorn. Commercial broadcasting in Canada is protected to the point of being coddled by regulation. And this has created a mood of self-satisfaction, which makes the CBC’s alleged sense of entitlement look puny.

Vastly profitable, thanks to protection, and continuing to fetishize the old and easy business model of buying and simulcasting U.S. network shows, only one thing scares the big three – Netflix. Looking at Netflix, the big three ask, where’s our cut? They exist like three Mafia gangs who have carved up a neighbourhood and are spooked by the arrival of a new player who offers the same narcotic, but cheaper.

And on the subject of “cheap,” I’d assert here that Rogers may have vastly overpaid for those NHL rights. Hockey is not going to be cheap to watch in Canada in the years to come. You, the consumer, will pay more and more to access the NHL games you want. That’s the only way the cost of the deal can be recouped.

This brings us back to a post-hockey CBC-TV. This digital age has made us stupid about many things and CBC’s role in the future is to be smart. To make smart TV, in particular.

And by “smart,” I don’t mean earnest. In the debate about the CBC’s future some specific strategies have gained some attention and most of them involve, as usual, turning CBC-TV into a PBS of the North. News, nature docs, educational discourse and asking the public for donation dollars.

A good deal of this approach is captured in Barry Kiefl’s recent “Strategy for CBC.” Kiefl, a former research director for the CBC itself, now runs the company Canadian Media Research Inc. His 15-point plan for CBC’s future is something that should fill those who care with dread. Among the suggestions is this: “Replace commercials on CBC News Network with regular requests for viewer donations, making it clear the voluntary contributions are to replace ads and make programming improvements that the parliamentary grant doesn’t permit.” And in terms of programming, he suggests, “Double the amount of drama on the main TV network,” and “Drama series should draw upon great Canadian fiction (Davies, Finley, Atwood, etc.).”

These are unworkable. A news service constantly calling out for donations is at the mercy of all manner of forces that simply don’t like what is being reported. And the idea that iconic novels can be turned into compelling TV is, frankly, ludicrous.

At its core the “strategy” reflects what a lot of sincere people want for the CBC – that the commercial broadcasters would provide glamour, while CBC provides the gruel that’s good for you. No, thanks.

Ours is an age of acceleration and the impulse of many is to move the CBC backward. A post-hockey CBC, faced with the reduced circumstances and smaller staff situation that might become clear on Thursday, is offered an opportunity to be different from the big three. Perhaps smaller in scale, but more separate, distinctive. The ultimate worth of a public broadcaster is therapeutic. It can shape our experience of the country that supports it. It’s a two-way relationship. We pay some of the costs and the broadcaster helps us be smarter about where we live.

Our relationship with the big three commercial outfits is one-way, one-sided, and before we hasten to condemn a post-hockey CBC to earnest oblivion, we should ask – what have the big three done for us lately?

Everybody wants to talk about a post-hockey CBC, but the vital question about broadcasting in Canada is the one I’ve just asked.

 

Follow me on Twitter: @MisterJohnDoyle

Follow on Twitter: @MisterJohnDoyle

 

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