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CBC Television: From arts champion to glorified karaoke club

It's all very well for people to come to the defence of dancer Margie Gillis when she's being mocked and verbally abused by the ludicrous Krista Erickson on Sun News, but where's the support for Gillis on Canadian TV?

Fair question I'm asking here, I think. Not for the first time, I put it to you that the arts have essentially disappeared from Canadian television. And that CBC is reneging on its responsibility as a public broadcaster by failing to present the arts to us on TV.

The other day, along with other journalists, I went to the announcement of CBC's new TV season. Standing in the lobby, as requested, we all looked over the press kit. "Who the hell is Nicole Appleton?," I asked my counterparts from other publications. I was duly informed that Ms. Appleton is a) married to one of the Gallagher brothers from Oasis, b) was in the all-female band All Saints, and c) is from Hamilton, Ont. The reason for my question is that Appleton will host CBC-TV's big new show this fall, Cover Me Canada.

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The show will feature unknown Canadian singers performing cover versions of Canadian songs. Online auditions are already under way, with groups and musicians aged 12 and up invited to submit video performances of Sundown (Gordon Lightfoot), Black Velvet (Alannah Myles), Run to You (Bryan Adams) or Life Is a Highway (Tom Cochrane).

Cute idea. But only cute. It's a neat TV premise only if you're thinking inside the context of cute TV talent shows. Nobody will begrudge somebody getting fame and money for belting out a version of a classic Canadian pop tune. But, in the name of all that's art, is that the best the CBC can do? Maybe Appleton is a great charmer. Or, maybe, the idea of this key Canadian program being hosted by someone who left Canada as a child, has never hosted a live TV program but has some connection to the British pop world, is just a tad ridiculous.

The new CBC schedule is little changed from last year. Nice for CBC Television - it has few holes to fill in its schedule. No disasters to be cancelled and forgotten. The returning shows include Rick Mercer Report, The Ron James Show, This Hour Has 22 Minutes, InSecurity, Republic of Doyle, Being Erica, Dragons' Den and Battle of the Blades.

New programs include the Don McKellar-directed and Bob Martin-written comedy Michael: Tuesdays & Thursdays, a miniseries version of Camelot and, later, a drama about ice pilots in the North. Oh, and a sequel to the Don Cherry biopic Keep Your Head Up, Kid: The Don Cherry Story.

Tucked into the CBC schedule this fall are programs to celebrate CBC's 75 birthday. That's the thing to note, I think. CBC has been with us for three-quarters of a century and in that time one of its primary achievements has been support, funding and showcasing of Canadian artists of all stripes. No more. Now it supports cover versions of tunes from classic-rock radio. In 75 years it has morphed from a cultural institution to a glorified karaoke club.

Who knows what aspects of the past CBC will choose to celebrate. But I am reminded of one CBC moment. In November, 1994, CBC aired a prime-time special, Salute to Dancers for Life. The dancers in the special - Karen Kain, Veronica Tennant, Evelyn Hart, La La La Human Steps, Les Grands Ballet Canadiens and the Danny Grossman Dance Company - represented the very best and most innovative in Canada. As a TV spectacle, it was magical and moving.

It was the first tine I saw Margie Gillis perform. She did a solo work, Torn Roots, Broken Branches, to the music of Sinead O'Connor's I Am Stretched on Your Grave. It was a gut-wrenching, visual and tactile threnody for friends who have died. The combination of elements - the dance, the music and a blood-red background - was provocative and profoundly effective on TV.

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You know, Battle of the Blades and Cover Me Canada are tinpot TV things. Flibbertigibbet fare. CBC is entitled to air both and good luck to it. And yet: Is that all there is? CBC is choosing past-it NHL'ers, Don Cherry and Nicole Appleton over the like of Margie Gillis. Just a sliver of space for art would be nice.

Over on Sun News, Krista Erickson mocks what she doesn't understand and resents paying for. At CBC the position is to simply ignore art and artists such as Margie Gillis. But, as we are constantly reminded, we all pay for the CBC. In so doing, why are we paying for a broadcaster that seems to see Canada defined by hockey and classic-rock radio? That's not all that we are and if we're going to be flabbergasted by Sun News, surely we should be flabbergasted too by the CBC? A fair question, I insist.

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About the Author
Television critic

John Doyle is The Globe and Mail's television critic. His column appears in the Review section Monday to Thursday and on Saturday. He has been the paper's critic since 2000. More

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