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Television How low will CBC TV bosses go in search of ratings and ad dollars?

My friends, it’s time for a resistance. Specifically, a resistance against the direction that current management is taking CBC TV.

First came the news that CBC TV is investing heavily in the advertiser-friendly game show Family Feud Canada and bringing back the reality show Battle of the Blades. That’s bedrock commercial TV stuff, a craven move to get ratings and ad dollars. It’s fine, as long as the fluff is balanced by a plan to air substantial material. What CBC executives like to call “cerebral” content.

What do TV executives do when they're desperate for ideas, John Doyle asks? They return to what's tried and true, namely Battle of the Blades, in CBC's case. Guest judge Don Cherry is seen with regular hosts Sandra Bezic and Dick Button during the show's initial run.

Was Canada pining for the return of Battle of the Blades? Were there torch-lit processions in towns and cities that I didn’t hear about? Nope. The show was done before and can be done again. That’s what commercial TV executives do when they’re desperate for ideas.

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The desperate search for ideas recently became a very public issue when The Globe and Mail revealed that the bosses of the fifth estate had proposed a series of programs on the crimes committed by Paul Bernardo. Negative reaction from inside and outside the CBC was swift. And in its corporate reaction, CBC TV has been oddly defensive.

The very notion of a series focusing on Bernardo gave this country the creeps and understandably so. It’s a repulsive idea.

What the program proposal raises is the question of values at CBC TV. What moral compass do these CBC bosses have when it comes to balancing the need for a ratings win with the moral sensibility of this country? The health of a society, in a physical, mental and moral sense, can be measured by the actions of its publicly funded broadcaster. CBC likes to trumpet the fact that it is a trusted brand in Canada. Well, trust isn’t easily achieved but it is easily broken.

There is no doubt that CBC TV has suffered a financial blow, with a substantial decline in advertising revenue in recent years. Every traditional media company has – and CBC TV is a traditional linear broadcaster – and most people would respond with “Cry me a river.” Newspapers have seen ad dollars flow to Google and Facebook. Commercial TV has seen viewers flee to streaming services that have no advertising.

CBC’s plan to boost the fifth estate ratings with a series about Paul Bernardo divides staff and angers activists

CBC’s The National acknowledges missteps and looks to retool — while pledging to keep its four hosts

CBC executive Barbara Williams on public broadcasting, ad revenue and Family Feud skeptics

Everybody impacted is obliged to adjust, to refocus and build on strengths. CBC TV’s approach, it seems, is to go low in search of a ratings win and more ad dollars. With this proposal to use the fifth estate as a vehicle for a series about Bernardo, CBC TV looks like it’s gone rogue.

That’s what we can extrapolate and it’s what we need to resist. But we are all just looking for clues, searching for patterns among remarks made by CBC TV executives and strategy documents seen by this newspaper.

Among those clues is an internal document – obtained by The Globe’s Simon Houpt – citing previous true-crime explorations of the O.J. Simpson case and the Lorena Bobbitt case as examples that a Bernardo series would emulate. There are several things CBC TV bosses should keep in mind.

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First, Simpson was found not guilty. Second, his trial unfolded in the initial, intense wave of tabloid-TV in the United States. Third, there was a significant race issue, uniquely playing out in the United States. (The most cogent examination of the Simpson case came in FX’s drama The People v. O. J. Simpson: American Crime Story, created mainly by Ryan Murphy. With all due respect, there is no one of Murphy’s genius at CBC TV or in Canada.) Fourth, the Bobbitt documentary series for Amazon Prime Video was about Bobbitt as a victim of domestic abuse and sexual assault. And specifically how the case was viewed in that very same intense wave of tabloid-TV in the U.S.

Put all these points together and only one truth emerges: We are not the U.S. This is Canada and CBC TV exists to inform and entertain Canadians. While we share cultural tastes with the U.S., we do not necessarily share a media history, or indeed a moral compass.

This might be useful time to remind CBC TV executives that while the broadcaster is a curious hybrid of public and commercial outlet, it is not a mirror image of other Canadian commercial TV. Those who would like to remake CBC TV on a model that mainly involves importing U.S. content and ideas, are in the wrong job. This is Canada and when CBC goes low, we resist.

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