It cannot be overstated how badly CBC TV is run. During the coronavirus pandemic, it’s been one stumble after another. It’s hard to even know where to start.
Let’s take the 10th of May, when someone at CBC was busy sending out rejection letters. See, CBC had decided that in response to the pandemic it was launching the CBC Creative Relief Fund, pledging $2-million to develop and produce “a diverse range of innovative, original Canadian storytelling” across multiple genres. In an announcement, Barbara Williams, executive vice-president of CBC, boasted that the initiative “will immediately open up new funding across a range of storytelling.”
Seems like a sound plan during a crisis, a tonic for the creative industry. There were many applications and naturally some would have to be rejected.
Thing is, May 10 was a Sunday and, specifically, Mother’s Day. That’s when CBC sent out form-letter rejections that began with “Hello” and did not address the recipient by name.
Readers alerted me because the TV industry and entire creative community was talking about it, dumbfounded by the insensitivity. Then came a message on Facebook from a prominent young playwright who told me that as both a mother, and daughter to a mother, she cried for two hours when she got the rejection that Sunday. The gist was that she wasn’t angry; she was just very distressed because the fund was supposed to help people like her, not bring hardship on Mother’s Day.
You can see the playwright’s point. Mistakes are made, but by any metric of professional behaviour, aiming form-letter rejections at people on Mother’s Day is appallingly incompetent and cruel. The people at the receiving end had just seen their work arenas shut down and income evaporate, with no reopening or return in sight.
Aside from that stumble, it’s time to assess in broad terms how CBC TV, our public broadcaster, has performed during the pandemic. Has it done well in executing its role as a public service during an emergency? Has it been a vehicle for the public good, as envisioned in its mandate? Has it fulfilled the role – inform, educate, entertain and engage with audiences – that is the underlying reason for the funding it gets?
Well, “no” is the obvious answer. What CBC TV has been during this crisis is chaotic, at times farcical and weak.
As soon as this country was absorbing the shock of the pandemic and lockdown in mid-March, CBC made the extraordinary decision to temporarily replace local evening TV newscasts with “one core news offering” on the cable service CBC News Network. The decision drew anger and derision. As Robert Hurst, a veteran TV news executive, wrote in this newspaper, “What the CBC is actually doing is eliminating more than 75 hours a week of original local news reporting at a time of crisis.”
Particular scorn came from Prince Edward Island Premier Dennis King, who said he was “incredibly disappointed” and planned to speak with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and ask Canadian Heritage Minister Steven Guilbeault to intervene and reverse the decision. “With the health and safety of Islanders at the forefront, it is vital that we continue to share the latest information with Islanders in real time,” King said. PEI is a small province, but King spoke for the country in his angry astonishment at the CBC decision.
Days later, Barbara Williams – yes, her again – was on CBC Radio’s As It Happens trying to explain and sort-of walk back the decision. “Well, we hit an operational challenge last week,“ she said. “And so we made an operational decision to retrench a bit.” The phrases “operational challenge,” “operational decision” and “retrench” epitomize exactly how CBC execs talk. It’s ridiculous but it got them where they are today.
Listening to that interview and reading the transcript later, what struck me was that Williams thought CBC TV was the only media outfit in the world to find the pandemic situation challenging. At one point, she actually said, “TV is a complicated technological event that, you know, we had a bump with.” It was all so inane. The upshot is that local news eventually returned on CBC stations the following week.
The arrival of the pandemic was almost concurrent with the cancellation of playoff hockey, which always takes up a hours on CBC TV each spring. Lacking hockey, CBC did what it always does with a hole in the schedule – aired third-rate British mysteries. Viewers were offered multiple doses of Agatha Christie adaptations and it looked like CBC’s own series Still Standing, about Canada’s small towns, was repeated about 18 times a week. Hercule Poirot and Still Standing host Jonny Harris were pretty much the faces of CBC TV during the first two months of the pandemic.
One innovation CBC TV tried was What’re You At? with Tom Power, featuring the CBC Radio host presenting music and interviews from his living room in Newfoundland. Now, many broadcasters struggled with adapting to no-studio virtual entertainment and chat shows, so one can’t be too hard on Power’s show. But what was notable was that the first episode devoted a big chunk of time to CBC’s own Schitt’s Creek because, one supposes, CBC’s main view of the world is that the world is the CBC. Power has also chatted idly with front-line workers and tried out a curiously jaunty tone. The show’s title, odd as it is, might be replaced for accuracy with, “Well there you go, eh?”
There have been a few smart moves by CBC. Airing some documentaries from the Hot Docs Festival was shrewd and, given that documentaries are the CBC’s strongest asset, it mattered. The addition of new material to the streaming service CBC Gem, especially the internationally acclaimed Normal People, was a great idea. But it’s what CBC Gem is supposed to be doing all the time, pandemic or not.
CBC has also benefitted from the fact that TV production around the world has paused. Its series Coroner has been picked up by The CW in the United States and by Channel 4 in Britain. It’s a seller’s market and CBC TV has some English-language shows on the shelf.
What CBC hasn’t been selling to Canadians, though, has been its core service of news and information. In the 14 weeks of this pandemic crisis, CBC has offered one national town hall across all its platforms, to share information and provide answers to questions. Yes, just one. That was on April 15, when COVID-19 in Canada: Virtual Town Hall, hosted by Heather Hiscox and Ian Hanomansing, was offered to the nation.
Another town hall happened on May 13, Living with COVID: Your Money, Your Job. Your Future. But that did not air on the main TV network. Possibly because it would interfere with Hercule Poirot solving a murder mystery.
Given its vast resources and its specific, publicly funded job as the national broadcaster, CBC TV has a special role to play at this time of national need, and it has obligations and responsibilities far greater than commercial broadcasters. CBC’s interests are supposed to be synonymous with the nation’s interests. It seems shockingly inadequate to present, during a 14-week period, just one truly national conversation about the pandemic in Canada. For a billion dollars a year, we expect better.
The pandemic crisis has highlighted many elements of a functioning society that were presumed to exist but turned out to be bare-bones or never there at all. And the CBC TV’s utter failure as a public broadcaster has been exposed now. CBC is revealed to be disconnected, out of touch and, quite honestly, irrelevant right now. I’ve said it before and will say it again: CBC is at its weakest in a generation. Under its current leadership, the ineptitude of management is staggeringly obvious.
Meanwhile, back at that now notorious Creative Relief Fund, the farce of appalling behaviour continues. On May 29, the Relief Fund was still sending out rejection letters. In some cases, the rejection e-mail cc’d hundreds of other applicants, thereby revealing the names and e-mails of many applicants. And some people received rejection letters for funding they had never actually applied for.
As stand-up comedian Michelle Shaughnessy wrote sarcastically on Twitter: “Just got rejection letter for the CBC Creative Relief Fund, Playwrite category. Which is devastating cause I’ve never written or pitched a play to them, or anyone, and now I don’t have the confidence to ever do so. They’ve crushed a dream I don’t even have.” There followed plenty of dark humour from many rejected writers on social media.
And it’s funny, that farce, but also perverse. It bespeaks contempt for creative individuals in this country, individuals who CBC is mandated to nourish. Further, the farce exemplifies the shambles of CBC’s reaction to the pandemic crisis. Back in January, CBC president Catherine Tait said about CBC’s job as a public broadcaster, “Our investors and shareholders are the Canadian public.” That clearly was a platitude, not a pledge.
What isn’t funny at all is CBC’s declining share of the audience in Canada. According to one internal ratings report I’ve seen, for one week in April, when audience numbers were soaring and people were watching more TV than ever, CBC’s share of the TV audience in Canada had shrunk to 3.8 per cent. In fairness, CBC TV would normally be airing the NHL playoffs during that week, but the number is a shocking indictment of a national broadcaster not doing its job during an emergency period. Cometh the hour, cometh CBC TV’s failure to engage.
Finally, in the matter of form-letter writing, let’s talk June 1, when CBC president Catherine Tait sent an internal letter to staff, with the headline “Our stand in solidarity.” It addressed the “shock and horror of events we have seen unfold over the past days and nights across the United States.” In the blather that followed, the word “Black” was never used. Anti-Black racism was never mentioned. You have to wonder if CBC TV is capable of responding adequately to the current seismic shift on anti-Black racism. For instance, why is CBC’s own fine mini-series The Book of Negroes, from 2015, based on Lawrence Hill’s great novel, sitting in obscurity in the CBC Gem library when it needs to be seen now on the main network?
Tait’s letter was roundly ridiculed by CBC staff. It’s not their fault that the corporation, especially TV, is badly run. Management is doing one stumble after another, after another.
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