Back in 1936, every Canadian wanted a radio set. And as prices finally dropped as low as $30 ($500 in today’s currency), one million households welcomed the new technology into the living room, mainly tuning in to American stations with such shows as the beloved Amos ’n’ Andy.
That wasn’t quite what Ottawa had in mind when it founded a national radio network a few years earlier. So on Nov. 2 of that mid-Depression year, the government decided to rechristen its on-air effort the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, granting the network its independence and a mandate to provide Canadians with Canadian entertainment. The new broadcaster cheerfully picked up the competition ( Amos ’n’ Andy as well as various American soap operas) but also added The Happy Gang variety show and hockey games to the mix.
These days – as the CBC gets ready for a 75-day countdown to its 75th anniversary – what Canadians want is any gadget that streams content from the Internet. Three-quarters of us have broadband access at home and increasingly we use it not simply to read e-mail or surf the Web but to watch high-quality video programming: Almost one million Canadians have already subscribed to Netflix to stream Hollywood movies and TV shows.
The old dilemma – how to create original Canadian shows when it is much cheaper to pick up popular American ones – now has a new urgency. The borderless world of the Internet is putting intense pressure on the system Canada has created to produce Canadian programming both on the CBC and on the commercial broadcasters that grew up alongside it. The government regulator, the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission, is trying to untangle the knot created by the arrival of “over-the-top” services such as Netflix that don’t face the same requirements to air and fund Canadian shows that Canadian broadcasters and cable and satellite providers do.
“The debate between Netflix and the cable providers is moving very fast,” warns Bart Beaty, a communications scholar who heads the English department at the University of Calgary. And, he points out, “The CBC is kind of being left out of this discussion.”
The paradox is that as commercial choices and international choices proliferate, a public broadcaster of Canadian programming becomes more distinctive and more relevant, not less. The CBC is not a sideshow, but rather a solution.
“It is going to be increasingly difficult to create content within the confines of national boundaries and national models,” observes media consultant Jerry Brown, an associate partner with PricewaterhouseCoopers. “[Yet]it’s vitally important each culture and each country tell its own story. … If it’s hard to see how you are going to continue to produce commercial programming that is Canadian, that speaks to the role of the CBC.”
The public broadcaster is an existing non-profit public organization in which Canada has invested heavily, which doesn’t need to be regulated into delivering Canadian content, and which is positioned to do it across multiple platforms. Whether the CBC is about to become painfully isolated or gloriously distinctive, though, depends on how successfully it positions itself as the first source of Canadian choices in a digital age, and whether its government and its audience help it embrace that role.
Too much of the time, discussions of the CBC devolve into subjective criticisms of particular programs, pitting fans of Republic of Doyle against those who lament Peter Mansbridge’s lost chair as visions of distinctively non-commercial programming bump up against the reality that the CBC needs the advertising dollars and the government approval that come with ratings.
“Public broadcasting is edifying or public broadcasting is [too]American: We are stuck in that,” observes Carleton University communications professor Ira Wagman.
Regardless of what it programs, an on-demand world in which viewers seek out high quality and specialized programming should create a strong niche for the CBC as a champion of Canadian content. Prof. Beaty suggests one way to deliver that: He points out that aggregators such as the online newspaper The Huffington Post and the magazine Salon.com are the successful Internet content models and wonders how the CBC could play that role.