If it were left to Quebeckers, the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission wouldn't even exist: Protected by their distinct language, francophones don't live with the constant fear of being invaded by American pop culture. Both Radio-Canada and the private French-speaking broadcasters have been fostering home-grown productions that attract more viewers than Dallas and Seinfeld. Quebeckers don't care much about the CRTC's rules on Canadian content and, in any case, don't like to be told what they can watch.
So it was predictable that the conditions imposed by the federal regulator on the CBC would meet nothing but widespread ridicule in Quebec. Cartoonists described CRTC president Françoise Bertrand as an intrusive back-seat driver and a dinosaur. An editorial in Le Devoir accused the CRTC of being partial to the private broadcasters, whose lobby actually campaigned relentlessly for the CBC to move out of the entertainment business and local news and focus on regional programming, high-brow culture and national unity.
(It is easy to see why the private broadcasters want the CBC to become an elitist operation: They would rake in all the advertising revenue. But once marginalized, the CBC would lose access to both commercial and public funding, since the government would eventually stop financing an expensive operation that is irrelevant for most Canadians.)
La Presse's editorial page editor, Alain Dubuc, summed up the general reaction in a stinging editorial. "The archaic approach of the CRTC, which wants the CBC to reduce its lucrative activities while increasing its most costly productions, is totally unrealistic." Far from making the CBC "a northern PBS," the CRTC's requirements would transform Canada's public broadcaster into another Télé-Québec, he noted.
Télé-Québec is the publicly funded television station that practically no one watches in Quebec. Apart from a few interesting public affairs programs, it is a bland, politically correct operation that focuses on "the regions" (of Quebec) -- something akin to a community channel except the staff is paid at union rates. Mr. Dubuc points out that, before her appointment to the CRTC, Ms. Bertrand's only experience in TV was a stint as president of Télé-Québec.
Let's have a look at some of the CRTC requirements before they get tossed in the shredder, as CBC president Robert Rabinovitch rightfully intends to do.
Few people will disagree with the underlying principle that the CBC should offer high-quality programming that is distinct from what's offered by private broadcasters. The trouble starts when the CRTC tries to micro-manage the CBC and pushes for its own set of recipes.
Why should the French TV network focus on dance and music rather than literature or visual arts? Why four hours of children's programs rather than three? Why couldn't the viewers be offered, as a treat, a foreign movie on prime time, including, yes, American blockbusters? Some of them have as much artistic merit as your typical National Film Board production. What's wrong with Schindler's List or The Talented Mr. Ripley?
The CRTC insists on "cultural diversity." This is a Canadian reality already reflected in CBC programming, but it shouldn't be a goal in itself. Demanding that all programming reflect Canada's "cultural diversity" is not much sillier than saying that Mordecai Richler's novels should include more characters of Chinese origin and deal with aboriginal issues.
As for "regional programming," the CBC should continue to produce some programs outside Montreal and Toronto, but, again, those choices should be made exclusively by the CBC and be based on merit rather than geography. The CBC shouldn't be compelled to produce a given number of regional programs, let alone be forced to broadcast them on prime time.
Generally speaking, it takes a critical mass to produce good movies and good TV programs and this is why, in every country, they mostly originate from major centres. But the CRTC didn't seem to care much about the views of most Canadians (who actually live in metropolitan areas), since it held most of its hearings in small towns.
Contrary to what the CRTC professes, we do not watch TV to see a reflection of "our experiences" on the screen, nor to know our neighbours' views (we can ask them for their views over the garden fence or at the coffee shop).
We look for interesting, stimulating programs about people and events outside our own narrow, daily life. Lysiane Gagnon is a political columnist for La Presse.