The standing army of anti-CBC pundits in Canada is never less than 10,000. Or so it seems. They’re a noisy bunch and any excuse to attack the CBC begets reams of prose about the CBC’s irrelevance, bias or alleged incompetence.
Recently, the news that the British government will diminish the BBC’s funding with a two-year freeze on the fee the public pays to watch the broadcaster, brought a round of reform-the-CBC columns in Canada. This was preceded by an uproar predicated on a piece by a disgruntled former temporary CBC employee, who announced that her umbrage at younger employees being “woke” led her to quit. The blather that ensued was pitifully small-minded, begrudging and naive.
Most punditry about CBC TV is drenched in naivete. The majority of commentators know nothing about television or how the medium works. For some, the knowledge amounts to appearing on CBC TV, getting a fee and walking away. It’s understandable, in a way; many in journalism who deal with news, politics, business and sports have no patience with culture. Made-up stories don’t interest them because they deal with true stories every day. Nothing could possibly be as fascinating as the news.
So let’s get one thing out of the way – CBC TV News is a mess. The National is now a low-rated newscast because it’s both confusing and jejune, and CBC News Network is unwatchable. That might be fixed, or it might not.
It’s in comedy and drama that CBC TV is doing well. Son of a Critch is pulling close to one million viewers on old-fashioned, linear TV and the numbers increase by a solid percentage when streaming on CBC Gem is included. Pretty Hard Cases isn’t a huge hit yet, but a critical darling, a cop show unlike any other. As it slowly becomes available around the world, its unique quality as a breath of fresh air in a familiar genre, is acknowledged. As it should be. Sort Of is a small masterpiece of contemporary urban storytelling. As soon as it began streaming on HBO Max in the United States, the rave reviews started piling up.
What unites all three series is the tone and location. They are distinctly Canadian in a way that is not simply explained by being set in Newfoundland or Toronto. These series have a particular kind of alchemy that somehow represents a sensibility that’s just distinctly us. They appeal to viewers because they respond to a deep need to see ourselves as we are, in our singular Canadian mentality. But they’re not just for us. Reviewing Sort Of for New York Magazine, critic E. Alex Jung writes, “Sort Of sets its own rhythms. The eight-episode season is wonderfully confident; the writing is lean and sharply drawn, and scenes aren’t wasted with exposition or explanation. Everyone feels fully inhabited.”
You know, it took years, nay almost two decades, for CBC TV to offer drama and comedy that can stand with the best in the world. Yet in the all blather about the CBC it is sometimes suggested that the broadcaster has no business in this field.
Writing about the CBC in the Toronto Star recently, columnist Rick Salutin predicted the end of the CBC as a “broadcaster” and it inevitably becoming, perhaps like the BBC, a content provider “via whatever distribution, like streaming.” He also said, “There’s no great need for former public broadcasters to make drama or entertainment – there’s already a surfeit. The interesting question is news.” This is naivete itself. Perhaps the assumption is that, with so many streaming services offering drama and comedy, the CBC should stand down. And then where will a distinctly Canadian sensibility be found, like in Sort Of? The CBC made it and HBO put it on its streaming service.
It is simple-minded to think that the superabundance of content on streaming services will continue forever, making the CBC’s efforts redundant. This current period will not last forever. There will be consolidation, and a contraction in content. That’s when a public broadcaster will be truly necessary to present storytelling that matters to a national audience, maybe an international audience, too. And by the way, it is delusional to think that commercial broadcasters can fill the need. CTV’s Transplant is a superb medical procedural, notably Canadian in ambiance, and a hit for NBC, but hardly a ground-breaker. Anyone who has watched Global’s drama Family Law has seen mere inanity.
Every time there’s a new round of anti-CBC blather, whether because some attention-seeker says it’s too “woke” or there’s a misleading headline on a single online CBC story, the attacks are the same – kill it, defund it or radically reform it. Whatever. But who tells the stories that are fundamental to humanity, to our sense of ourselves?
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