Another week, another fuss about the CBC. In a confusing and ceaselessly changing world, it’s heart-warming that you can rely on a fuss about CBC coming at regular intervals.
On this occasion it’s the abrupt departure of Jennifer McGuire, general manager and editor-in-chief of CBC News since 2009. McGuire was responsible for English-language news content and programming across the public broadcaster’s multiple platforms. The announcement came on Thursday and McGuire’s last day was Friday.
What’s that about? Probably the mess that has been the tinkering with The National. If only CBC-TV’s flagship news broadcast had as many viewers as there are Twitter warriors claiming Liberal bias on CBC’s part. But it doesn’t. The National is now a zombie newscast, half-dead and lurching along.
In the larger picture, I will assert here what I told a group of journalism students (I was a guest speaker, not a prof.) last month: CBC TV is at its weakest point in a generation. It also has the weakest leadership in a generation, in president Catherine Tait and in Barbara Williams, vice-president of English services in charge of English-language TV, radio and digital services. Look at the needless confusion over production deals with Netflix. Plus the frantic attempts to establish Family Feud Canada as a money-making hit. Look at the parking of CBC documentaries – the CBC’s jewels – in the worst possible time slots. And look at those endless adjustments to The National. All these factors suggest a leadership that is clueless.
Into the frame, of course, come the people with radical solutions for CBC. Writing in the Toronto Star, former CBC News executive Tony Burman quotes with approval a new book, The End of the CBC?, written by journalism professors David Taras and Christopher Waddell. The gist of the suggested radical makeover of CBC is this – get rid of sports, cancel drama and scrap advertising.
Now, I have a lot of time for Tony Burman and respect his achievements and views. But: No, no and no. The last thing this country needs is a CBC aiming to please journalism professors.
In the matter of sports CBC TV should have Olympics coverage and coverage of our national men’s and women’s teams. Canadian taxpayers fund a great deal of sports in Canada and the very idea that the public broadcaster can dodge coverage of what we fund is reprehensible. In particular the public broadcaster should be offering more, not less, women’s sports. That’s part of its public-service job.
Recently, CBC TV has a poor record in drama and a middling record in comedy. But throwing away the production of both genres is madness. A vast ecosystem, a workforce of creative people in Canada, depends on CBC TV production. The real issue with CBC TV drama and comedy is mediocrity. As I’ve often pointed out, what exactly has Canada contributed to this golden age of excellence on TV? Almost nothing.
The fact is, current CBC top management has no grasp of excellence. A less radical solution to what the two J-school professors suggest, is doing less drama but aiming for greatness. If that means quality over quantity, fine. Besides, I’m not sure Los Angeles has room enough to hold the vast army of bitter Canadian creatives who would assemble there if CBC TV cancelled scripted programming.
Getting rid of advertising on CBC TV sounds peachy. But the sudden loss of revenue would be catastrophic. There are other solutions. In Germany the public broadcaster ZDF has limited advertising and sponsorship but they still exist as additional sources of funding. Commercials are legally restricted to a maximum number of minutes per day on weekdays, and no commercials are broadcast after 8 p.m. or on Sundays and public holidays. How hard can it be to move toward that model with CBC TV?
Since the BBC was launched almost 100 years ago, and then other countries launched their own public-broadcasting services, politicians and public intellectuals have endeavored to diminish publicly funded broadcasters, or control them. It’s hard to know, in Canada, whether the politicians or the public intellectuals have done the most damage. Right now, with the fuss about the departure of CBC’s top news executive, one could say the damage is being done from within.
As a journalist, a citizen and a taxpayer I believe firmly in the importance of our public broadcaster. This country would be impoverished intellectually and culturally without it. It needs to be better and better-run. Do-better isn’t the most radical solution, but it’s the best, heart-warming hope.
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