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Republic of Doyle is an example of a good, populist drama series on the public broadcaster.
Republic of Doyle is an example of a good, populist drama series on the public broadcaster.

john doyle

Why newness, not nostalgia, is the way forward for the CBC Add to ...

Bores abound. There is the-man-who-can-explain-why-fighting-is-important-in-hockey. There is the wine bore, a hobbyist with knowledge of French reds so tedious in the telling that you decide to drink beer for the rest of your life. Just to spite him. There is the cheese bore, a similar type, who compels you to assert that Velveeta is a gift to civilization.

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A specifically Canadian variation is the CBC bore. The person with the how-to-fix-the-CBC speech. I don’t want to become a CBC bore. But it behooves me to react to the recent NHL deal with Rogers and its impact on the CBC.

Specifically to respond to assertions made in this newspaper about what it all means. Everyone’s a critic, but I’m the television critic and things must be said.

I respectfully disagree with my colleague Konrad Yakabuski, who pointed a finger at “the light and fluffy CBC” and asserted a return to seriousness. To illustrate the seriousness he has in mind, he cited Patrick Watson’s series Struggle for Democracy, Barbara Frum moderating a debate about the free-trade agreement and the series Canada: A People’s History. He also pointed to the current schedule with “sitcoms and dramas as weak as they are forgettable.”

I also disagree with CBC president Hubert Lacroix, who asserted in this newspaper that the new NHL/Rogers/CBC deal points to a future CBC that involves “partnerships” that will refocus and strengthen the broadcaster.

It’s unwise to posit a recalibrated CBC on the antiquities of the past. Nostalgia for The Journal, Barbara Frum, and Patrick Watson’s series is understandable, but there is no going back to the good old days. The TV landscape has changed utterly. Nostalgia is not the way forward. The audience for mainstream TV is smaller, and to imagine that contemporary versions of The Journal and Canada: A People’s History would have the same impact is delusional. Talking-heads TV appeals to pundits, not the larger public. And it’s wrong to assert that all of CBC’s dramas are weak and forgettable. Murdoch Mysteries and Republic of Doyle are good, populist shows with strong ratings. They have intense followings, and anyone who witnesses the cast members of these shows meeting the public sees the devotional following that broadcasters crave.

Lacroix’s reliance on partnerships is a red herring. Of course it makes sense to use partnerships with other broadcasters to deliver big sporting events. But to cite “collaboration” with giant private-broadcasting conglomerates as a general panacea is a mistake.

CBC-TV’s future is being both niche and broad – and distinctive; its mandate must not be diminished by “collaboration.” Look, there is nothing wrong with Dragons’ Den being a hit show. The BBC sees nothing sinister in its success with The Great British Bake Off, its biggest audience draw of the moment.

The unusual hybrid status of CBC-TV, as both public broadcaster and advertising-driven network, means that it can and must air provocative, challenging, cable-quality drama as well as Republic of Doyle. One can balance the other.

Its news and documentary coverage must be different. That means more progressive voices heard, filling a huge gap in the Canadian media, an arena dominated by centre and right-wing views. The politically-progressive base in Canada remains stable and remains largely unheard. It’s the CBC’s job to fill that vacuum. Less of the Don Cherry-style dismissal of “pinkos out there that ride bicycles” and more attention to those who reject the right-wing, Big Business view of the country.

Most of all, CBC as a broadcaster needs to engage more fully with its audience and grow it, especially the young, who are suspicious of mainstream media. This is not a matter of Twitter chats with the stars of Arctic Air, but more a matter of reminding the young that they pay for CBC and therefore have a stake in it.

To begin with, and I say this for the umpteenth time, CBC needs to put art on the air and cover the arts and media with a vigour that no commercial broadcaster will allow. Not more Giller Prize Galas and not George Stroumboulopoulos in unctuous conversation with some aged Canadian star of sports or American TV. Instead, a sharp questioning of establishment views and establishment stars. Something to make people talk about – whether it’s the demolition of received opinion or the creation of an artistic work for TV that makes your eyes pop and your mind reel.

It’s a fact that CBC is presented with a new circumstance, less reliant on, and preoccupied with, hockey. There is a new vice-president arriving, after a bizarrely lengthy delay. There is a future to be grasped. Pardon me if I seem like a CBC bore, but the future cannot be found in nostalgia for a fondly remembered past or in endless collaboration with the enemy. The future is niche and broad, both the new and the familiar.

Follow me on Twitter: @MisterJohnDoyle

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