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john doyle: television

One thing to keep in mind on this, the day of the slash-and-burn federal budget, is that Our Glorious Leader (OGL) doesn't watch Canadian TV news. He said so in 2009, the very week that CBC jazzed up its news coverage with a new look. OGL could not care less.

See, it doesn't matter if CBC's funding is cut by 5 per cent or 10 per cent today. The CBC must take a hit because CBC represents the Canada that is "a northern European welfare state in the worst sense of the term," as OGL famously described Canada in a 1997 speech. Fifteen years later, a reduced CBC will be presented, like a head on a bayonet, another small but viciously achieved victory in the war against all that northern-European-welfare-state stuff. More important, there will be cheering among government supporters, those braying for the crushing of the CBC for years. The braying mob will get what it wants.

But the main thing to keep in mind is that the CBC has been asking for trouble. It has failed to defend itself adequately. It has been naive. For CBC, and all its radio, TV and online platforms, this Prime Minister is an implacable foe, as imperious in his dismissal of Canadian TV news as he is in dismissing anything that smacks of that European welfare state. For the government, the CBC is a symbol that must be diminished and denigrated.

And, here's the crazy thing – the CBC does not merit that stature. In recent years, CBC has failed to transcend mediocrity and forcefully explain what it does. The CBC is mandated to be more than a broadcaster. It is mandated to be a cultural institution, an incubator of artistic talent, employer of talent from many genres and provider of unique programming that other broadcasters fail to deliver. Every dollar spent on the CBC is supposed to be a dollar well spent. Last year, a Deloitte report estimated the CBC adds $3.7-billion to the Canadian economy annually.

Yet CBC has done little to hammer home this last point and, in programming on English radio and TV, has been utterly feckless, constantly diminishing its own standards. It has leaned right and ostentatiously pro-businesslike, a nervous Nelly anticipating criticism before it arrives. It has abandoned excellence in countless areas. On many nights, the main CBC English channel schedule looks like a mishmash of game shows and lightweight news and docs.

The National is sometimes a disgrace, a meandering journey though the mind of a flibbertigibbet who spent the day garnering news bits from a hodgepodge of online sources. Bizarrely, it treats Ottawa politics with grave and tedious seriousness, failing to see the theatre that is obvious to everyone else. Every night on CBC seems to end with George Stroumboulopoulos doing a half-baked late-night talk show that neither he nor the audience cares about. Every week seems to bring some new, desperately conjured tweak of Dragons' Den. The result is that the public broadcaster has been out of sympathy with its traditional supporters and resolutely out of sympathy with this government.

Whatever this budget brings, here's a message to CBC – suck it up, you should have seen this coming; now use the opportunity of retrenchment to redefine your mission and values.

The worst possible result for the CBC is actually the most likely outcome from the reduction to its budget – somewhere between what it is now and the teensy, PBS-style, public-donor-funded public broadcaster that many bray for it to become.

Diminished, it will continue to struggle as neither one thing nor the other. At a time when the Canadian media landscape is dominated by a small handful of companies, Bell, Rogers and Shaw, none of whom is actually a broadcaster, CBC should be a vitally important crucible. As others vie to produce yet another tinpot Canadian knock-off of a U.S. reality show about real housewives or fame-seeking bachelors, CBC has had the opportunity to offer distinction and originality, and trumpet that fact. It failed. It went for the jibber-jabber of chatty news and a ceaseless stream of Dragons' Den knock-offs.

What's needed is a new seriousness. Oh, the ingredients brought to the CBC schedule by Republic of Doyle and Heartland and Arctic Air are fine. But a blinding sheen of lightweight nonsense covers the schedule. Its executives are addicted to ratings bumps for gimmicky TV such as Battle of the Blades. There isn't a single serious-minded cable-quality drama on CBC. There isn't a single searing comedy. There's nothing to compel anyone to note that no other broadcaster would air such a program. The tragedy is that CBC is not what the government sees it as representing. Nor is it what it should be.

The thing to remember is that Our Glorious Leader doesn't watch Canadian TV news and only cared about the CBC as a symbol. The CBC had the chance to make him, and Canada, care more, and failed. So suck it up, and move on. It's a defeat in a war and it's not over. Gird yourself, CBC. Get serious, do better and become worth defending.