For many Canadians, hockey has been the only reason they ever tune in to the CBC. For a besieged public network desperate to show it matters, Hockey Night in Canada has been its ticket to big ratings and a spot in the consciousness of the nation it is, by law, supposed to "enlighten."
That era is ending with Rogers Communications Inc.'s purchase of exclusive NHL broadcasting rights beginning next season. For the following four years, the CBC will continue to be a vessel for HNIC games, but as only one of several networks in the HNIC family, and one without a whit of control over the content pumped into Canadian homes over its broadcasting signals.
Ceding editorial control over 320 hours a year of prime-time content would be troubling enough were it not for the fact the arrangement is likely a transitional one. By 2019, the CBC will probably be out of the business of broadcasting professional hockey altogether. But then what?
The loss of NHL rights actually frees the CBC to refocus. It removes the taxpayer-funded network from the professional sport bidding wars it should never have entered in the first place. After the 10-per-cent cut to its annual operating subsidy imposed last year by Ottawa, it should force the broadcaster's leaders to reimagine a leaner, cleaner CBC where quality is not a dirty word.
It couldn't come soon enough. The past decade has been a lost one at the CBC under programming gurus Richard Stursberg and Kirstine Stewart, now thankfully departed. They took the network from dumb to dumber with purely populist pulp that condemned it to utter insignificance.
The CBC has mistaken Canadians for airheads, feeding them silly reality shows such as Battle of the Blades and Dragon's Den, and sitcoms and dramas as weak as they are forgettable. Does it figure the lowest-common-denominator approach is the only way to compete and justify its $1-billion subsidy?
The thing is, CBC remains a ratings laggard, rarely placing any shows beyond HNIC in the weekly Top 25. Instead of viewing this as an invitation to aim higher, it sinks lower. (Did you make it through the Jack Layton biopic?) Most serious shows have been purged from the lineup. Whoever fought to save The Nature of Things, the exception in an otherwise weightless schedule, deserves being named to the Order of Canada.
The public-affairs programming is as cream-filled as the rest. The Fifth Estate long ago gave up probing the weightier issues of our democracy (in its heyday, Adrienne Clarkson discussed cruise-missile testing) to become a Canadian hybrid of Cops and 48 Hours.
The National is an overproduced, scattered mess of overwrought or feel-good segments passing for reportage. This week, Peter Mansbridge is trying out the bobsleigh run in Calgary. ("Awesome!" he tweeted.) Discussion panels are no longer forums for spirited debate but marketing vehicles for self-important talking heads promoting their own brands.
Coming of age, I remember watching Barbara Frum moderating as Mordecai Richler and Rick Salutin sparred over the cultural impact of free trade. Between Mr. Salutin warning there wouldn't be "anything Canadian about Canadian writing" left and Mr. Richler bemoaning artists' "self-pity" and the "dubious wines of Niagara," there was plenty for a politically unformed brain to process. Thoughtful political debate is verboten today. Mindless cheerleading is de rigueur.
The CBC once made me a better citizen. It engaged me in the national conversations only it could lead. The programming was often challenging – Patrick Watson's demanding Struggle for Democracy was a natural fit. Today, that might be the title of a badly written CBC sitcom about the machinations of a bunch of hapless political aides.
Canada: A People's History, the ambitious retelling of our story that aired in 2000-01, marked the last serious collaboration between the CBC's English and French networks. Radio-Canada has become so Quebec-centric that it even tried to drop the "Canada" from its branding. And you'd hardly know from watching the English CBC that it is the public broadcaster of an officially bilingual country.
In fact, you hardly know it's a public network at all. The light and fluffy CBC left by Mr. Stursberg and Ms. Stewart is just another channel you never watch.
Once HNIC becomes a multinetwork show, the CBC will have nothing distinctive left. It's a chance to either reboot or turn out the lights.