The shindig to announce a new season of CBC stuff is always a bit fraught. A person attending gets the feeling that the CBC does these events reluctantly. The people in charge would prefer if they were left alone to get on with producing CBC stuff, as though the CBC has a severe allergy to scrutiny.
This ain't unique in the Canadian TV racket. Most executives are hostile to scrutiny. But those executives come and go, and after a few years of buying U.S. programs to fill their schedules, they move on to a role even less taxing.
But the CBC is there permanently, looming over everything, and last week's shindig was more peculiar than usual. It was less about announcing a new season of CBC TV and mentioning some radio achievement than it was about announcing that the CBC is the crucible of Canadian culture. The CBC's own perception of itself is that in a chaotic, shifting media landscape, the CBC is reliable, trusted and more Canadian than anything or anybody in the country.
Sitting as it does, awkwardly at the intersection of commerce, culture and mandated nation-building role, it is dangerous for the public broadcaster to think of itself as defining the country and its culture. A good portion of the Canadian population is oblivious to what the CBC does. When CBC executives talk about "inclusiveness," which they do a lot, they need to remember those who are oblivious.
At last week's shindig there were a lot of bland, smug assertions about the CBC's role. The first exec to speak, Bonnie Brownlee, executive director of marketing, communications, brand and research for the CBC's English-services division, told the audience – most of whom are employed by the CBC in the first place – that "We love our jobs." Also, there would be "an exciting year ahead" and she reminded people that an Ipsos survey on the top-10 most-influential brands in Canada in 2016 had the CBC in the top 10. True, but the CBC is No. 10 (Google is No. 1) and returned to its position after being out of the top 10 places for a while.
Besides, that survey came out in January and, since then, the CBC has been in the embarrassing position of having to apologize for some of the content in Canada: The Story of Us. And last week's event came just after Steve Ladurantaye, the managing editor of The National, was reassigned following his bizarre intrusion into the social-media war about the issue of cultural appropriation. What he put on Twitter was "inappropriate, insensitive and frankly unacceptable" according to Jennifer McGuire, the general manager and editor-in-chief of CBC News.
A person could sense the nervousness about the potential perception of the CBC as out-of-touch and insensitive. The words "diverse" and "inclusion" were used a lot by Heather Conway, the boss of bosses at English CBC. The public broadcaster seems to cling to a sense of self that has been bruised and it worries about being revealed to be disconnected from the reality of a livid public argument about indigenous culture.
In this context, the extraordinary emphasis on the CBC's role in Canadian music seemed apt, if slightly desperate. The Juno Awards are returning to the CBC and one got the feeling that the CBC hasn't been as excited since some time in the 1980s. A video was shown, which had numerous Canadian musicians saying the same thing – the CBC is great for Canadian music. Well, yes it is. But that's its role. It's part of what the taxpayer money is for. Boasting about it is a bit unseemly and preening.
And it can't be all about the Canadian music artists. It would have been more appropriate to talk about the audience, too. It's great that the broadcaster plans to re-air The Tragically Hip: A National Celebration on June 24. Especially after it was announced as a once-only live event last year. And the CBC is obviously proud of that event. Again, mind you, that is its role The thing is, the CBC sometimes seems to be its own audience. There is a merry-go-round in the Canadian culture, one in which the CBC does stuff and the organization approves of itself, thus defining what's good and what matters.
The media landscape is certainly chaotic and changing. In this context, the CBC has many advantages. It has multiple platforms and, yes, it's a known brand. But it does not define Canada or the culture. Nobody does that. The country is too mercurial, shifting and happily shapeless – it's an idea with many histories and cultures.
When we hear any organization claim to be defining a country and culture, we should be nervous and suspicious. Some dubious kind of pseudo-patriotism is behind it all. Canadians consume a lot more than what the the CBC offers across its platforms and they are no less Canadian for doing so.