As the board, brass and programmers of the CBC contemplate once again the future of the corporation, they should think of Borgen.
Against all odds, Borgen has become a worldwide phenomenon – a Danish television series about, of all things, Danish politics.
Denmark is an admirable country, but it has just 5.5 million people, smaller than Quebec's population and roughly a fifth of Canada's non-French-speaking population. A Danish film, In a Better World, won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film in 2010. And another recent Danish TV series, The Killing, became an international hit. So the Danes know how to do high-class productions.
Still, nothing proved more astonishing than the success of Borgen, which has been shown in more than 70 countries – although in not Canada. In Britain, it became one of BBC Four's most popular programs ever. A few months back, a front-page story in the Financial Times used the word "Borgen" as a metaphor for political complexity without even explaining it, assuming that readers would understand.
Borgen has been going for four seasons, tracing the political career and personal life of Birgitte Nyborg, who is prime minister and leader of the Moderate Party. She tries to hold together her multiparty coalition while grappling with challenges at home, including two children and a philandering father whom she divorces. Always nearby is her press secretary and principal adviser, who deals with another omnipresent factor: the media.
Ministers, prime minister, advisers, press: The ingredients for political drama are all present. But what makes Borgen sing, apart from the luminous and brilliant Sidse Babett Knudson in the lead role, is its realism.
Borgen is not House of Cards, all dark and conspiratorial. Nor is it as sunny and uplifting as The West Wing. It's about the complexities and choices politicians must make in high office – what leaps from its scripts are real-life, in-your-face dilemmas.
The prime minister's party campaigns on withdrawing Denmark from Afghanistan. When Danish soldiers are killed, the U.S. secretary of state calls, urging persistence, and the country's senior military men argue for staying the course. What's a prime minister to do?
The prime minister wants equality for men and women on the country's corporate boards. When the head of the largest industrial conglomerate in the country threatens to pick up stakes and move, what's the right answer?
The show is all about Denmark, yes, and entirely in Danish (with subtitles), but the dilemmas in Borgen transcend one country's politics. How does the press operate? And what should be the relationship between the press and politicians? Where does idealism enter politics, and what happens when it crashes against reality?
The personal drama goes far beyond politics: a working woman conflicted between the needs of the family and the crushing demands of her job. She watches herself get tougher, scarred and even a bit cynical, longing for a time when life was simpler and getting things done seemed so much easier.
Why dwell on Borgen? First, because it's a shame the main CBC/Radio-Canada channels haven't bought the show. And second, more important, because it demonstrates what public television should aspire to be.
Borgen was obviously a risk. The producers never dreamed that a production in Danish about Danish politics would sell in more than 70 countries. It was intended to be a show about Denmark for Danes.
It aimed high. It assumed an intelligent audience and found one. A third of Denmark's population watched the show at 8 p.m. on Sundays.
Borgen sought to portray Denmark as it is, fictionally of course, but with a high dose of reality. It sought to show politics as it is – with gamesmanship and manipulation, to be sure, but also with idealism. Knaves and egotists are part of the political theatre, but so are decent people, doing their best to pursue the public interest.
The CBC has chased its own tail for so long it barely knows a way forward. It tried dumbing itself down in the vain quest for audience. Politics is presented as a horse race or a farce.
Instead, the network's executives should watch Borgen and be inspired.