In the interests of full disclosure, I am an ex-CBC employee (1992-1994).
Victor Wong, over at The Phantom Observer, has, over the past few weeks, run a series of posts polling and asking for comment on the CBC and its future. For die-hard Friends of the CBC, of course, the answer is always and forever “more money, fewer strings, hands-off [and why aren't you expanding it?]“. For many on Canada’s right, including many of Canada’s private broadcasting conglomerates, the implicit answer is “please do away with this competitor”.
I am here today to speak out for a reformed CBC; a “new” CBC. CBC Management has made many questionable decisions over the years; I do not seek to defend these. But I also think the CBC has an on-going role to play in our national life: it is not an archaic remnant of our past.
I’d also note that I am not going to speak here of SRC, the Radio-Canada family of networks, mostly because it is a rare day that I tune into any of them: a little RDI extract on a flight, perhaps, and, if a particular news story warrants it, Le Téléjournal. Let someone who knows Francophone cultural needs intimately speak up in its defence.
My listening and viewing pattern is typical (I believe) of what the CBC needs to become. I seldom watch any television off air/cable/satellite: hotel rooms on business trips is about it, but there my station of choice is CBC Newsworld, not the main network, and none of the subsidiary digital channels. For radio, I am (if I am tuned in, typically while driving, which I do far less of these days) resolutely tuned to Radio One, not Two. That was true when Two had its former classical-centric programming; it is true today with the new mix of genres. (Mostly, if I hear Two, I hear it in the periodontist’s chair during a cleaning and examination.)
But I also have to say that I don’t choose Radio One as my first choice, either. Partly that’s the impact of podcasts: the programmes on One that I want to listen to are all available in podcast format, and iTunes graciously delivers them daily for my listening pleasure (also my skipping pleasure if today’s topic does not deliver on its promise). My first radio choice is generally CKNW, despite the fact that the phone-in format is boring: I’m far less interested in hearing the same daily rants from the public than I am interesting guests and competent, hard-hitting interviewers. But on the private station I find more topics of interest, so I’m more likely to turn it on and leave it on.
A reformed CBC must start with content that achieves that “turn it on and leave it on” impulse, be that a radio format or a television format, if the CBC is to “find an audience”. Podcasts, PVR-based time-shifting and the like are for people who already know what they want. The goal is serendipity: to surprise and delight the listener/viewer with something they would not have known was coming.
Now, in today’s world of millions of choices — I myself avail myself of the BBC, Australia’s ABC, NPR, and other “broadcasters” programming daily thanks to podcasts, plus many independent efforts on Internet Radio channels, BlogTalk Radio, etc., plus many private stations’ pod- and vodcasts (and it is a constant challenge of finding and pruning to fit into a day) — CBC needs to refine its voice. It needs to be known for something nationally — a place to turn to.
My recommendation: take advantage of the regions. Widen our horizons, using news analysis and documentary formats.
I could see the programming on Radio One, for instance, unfold through the day as follows: Morning drive (local), a national documentary/interview programme like The Current, then a series of regional lunch-hour programmes starting with Newfoundland and Labrador and ending with British Columbia until afternoon drive (local) begins — then the national news at six and As It Happens, followed by ideas-based programming. The use of regional programming brings our various national accents, world-views and local experts to the country at large.
Such programming, incidentally, is very inexpensive, relative to sports broadcasts or dramatic/comedic productions. Inexpensive enough, in fact, to be free of advertising.
Another advantage of the use of regional programming is that the main charge levelled against the CBC in the regions — its Toronto-Ottawa (or Ottawa-Montréal) centricity — evaporates. If (and I do not say that it does — or does not!) the CBC has a left-liberal bias, it does so because that is the predominant local political culture of these cities and educational institutions, think tanks, etc. (the source of the regular talking-heads of the network). Bring on the different flavours of political thought across the country! Show Torontonians that in the West the division is often between right (Conservative) and left (NDP) — that the West is neither monocultural (as they might well presume based on an electoral map) nor “just like them”. (The same is true for the Atlantic region and for Québec — who amongst us “got” the rise and fall of the ADQ, the passion Newfoundlanders have for Danny Williams, etc.?) Paradoxically, regional programme origination rather than endless rehashing of issues through Ottawa or Toronto-based interviewers should act to tie the country together — and the diversity it unleashes makes the CBC distinctive relative to the other national networks (which are not in any way regional) and local stations (which are not in any way national).
For television, documentaries play a larger role. But these, too, need to tell regional stories. As this past week’s helicopter crash into the Atlantic off Newfoundland showed, Newfoundland’s communities are familiar with the price the sea demands, and pull together in the face of familiar adversity and loss. One might think this a simply human story. But it is not: Newfoundland’s way of doing this is a story that should be told by Newfoundlanders to the rest of Canada. Similar adversity in other parts of the country is met in different ways: some part of Canada are more private in their grief and one does not easily see the “ties that bind”.
Few amongst us, for instance, recall that the engine behind the Reform movement at its founding was as much if not more British Columbian than Albertan; that Vancouver, with its mix of Liberal and NDP MPs was the place a populist uprising in Canadian politics happened. (Many Central and Eastern Canadians of my acquaintance thought of Reform as “those bloody right-wing Albertans”, with a dismissive shrug that “they’re not really like us”.) But explorations of how Alberta politics actually works, or why the three Westernmost provinces have seen parties merge, recrystallise, etc. over the years, would show elements of the Canadian matrix of opinion not easily found working exclusively in Southern Ontario.
These need not be hyper-expensive. It should not be the role of the CBC on television to travel the world; just travel Canada’s two lane roads with people who live in those regions to talk to people of the same region. Let us hear the dialogue, focused around an issue (a six week exposé in half-hour segments of the dying bounty of the oceans and how that destroys or rebuilds communities, for instance). These, in turn, could be sold as views on Canada outside the country.
In turn, not all of CBC television needs to be CBC-produced. All entertainment programming, yes (if any). But buying in similar high-quality programmes — for both radio and television — from the BBC, the ABC, etc. also makes sense. There is, for instance, nothing in BBC Radio Four’s In Our Time that would not suit an evening’s listening on CBC Radio One. Last week’s show was on the Library at Alexandria. Previous weeks have examined issues in physics, the life of Charles Darwin, etc. Solid educational programming done in an entertaining and engaging conversational format. The ABC’s Big Ideas series would offer public lectures given by people Canadians may not have heard of, but should. Some exchanges like this already occur: Big Ideas rebroadcast the CBC-produced Massey Lectures. Let’s do much more of it.
In turn — because the Millennial Generation and their younger siblings growing up digital do not watch television or listen to the radio other than rarely — all CBC programming ought to be available as pod- and vodcasts.
Finally, other than a programme like Hockey Night in Canada, there should be no advertising on CBC Television. (Most of CBC’s commercial revenues are sport-programming related in any event.)
Radio Two? A good question. I don’t have an answer for that. I think the recent changes were a plausible thing to try. The reality is that if I want to listen to classical music or jazz — and I have an extensive library of both — I’ll put on a disc rather than turn on the radio. If I want to listen to “the music I grew up with” (1960s-1970s), it’s on my iPod. I suspect I’m not alone in these habits. (I certainly don’t find commercial AM or FM music radio worthy of my time.)
Newsworld? This — not the main television network — should be the flagship station for CBC News and Current Affairs. But don’t overlook offering diversity: most viewers of Politics with Don Newman, for instance, know what angle Don’s interviewing will expose even before he welcomes them to the “brawdcast”. (I listen to the show via podcast as the visual element offers little to nothing over the soundtrack — and the podcast is commercial free.) But why not also have a Michael Coren, and an Adrienne Carr, hosting a political show? (These are two names chosen at random to broaden the spectrum.) A Green-biased show would handle economic stories far differently, as would a right-wing Christian moral perspective. 90 minutes (three 30 minute shows) of Politics with very different outlooks on stories would be far better than 60 minutes with one (and it matters not whether you agree or disagree with that outlook).
Just don’t go down the “let’s shout each other down” format used in the US media! (Interestingly, when we lived in The Netherlands, we discovered that the main channel there was turned over to different interest spectra on different days. The Catholic right got one night, the Labour Left another, etc. No attempt was made to be balanced; fairness was achieved by allowing obvious skews of opinion to be aired. This would work here, too, where the voices of region come with different outlooks, agendas, political philosophies, etc.)
I would very much like it if Newsworld could also be free of advertising, but that is probably not possible. Still, it should be a goal — perhaps beginning with commercial free news (so adverts only go into opinion/analysis shows).
As with BBC World, Newsworld should also look to put on programmes that expose other parts of the world to our view. Not only does this make more use of the extensive field resources the CBC has already deployed, it gives people a reason to tune into Newsworld as opposed to BBC, CNN, FoxNews, etc. (Most news channel watchers turn it on and let it run in the background of what they’re doing.)
… And Some Relief
Elements of the Broadcasting Act that controls the CBC require that off-air transmission of Radio One be available to very small communities, and off-air transmission of CBC Television be available to communities that are still on the verge of towns from being villages. Given Canada’s extensive geography, this means that CBC must invest hundreds of millions in physical plant — all of which must be maintained — to fulfil this requirement. This is money that by and large could be used for programming and elimination of some advertising.
So, Government should amend the Broadcasting Act to allow satellite-based transmission, receipt via cable, etc. In addition to the CBC’s channels on Sirius Satellite Radio, it would be possible to offer a simple gadget for use in an automobile or home that received only the CBC and SRC feeds from one of Canada’s satellites. Many remote repeater towers could then be dismantled. As a one-time investment, this would make far more sense than annual capital costs.
These are just some initial thoughts. To reiterate, I believe Canada needs the CBC. But we need a CBC that measures up to the best of the world, and yet shows us the great depths of this vast country. Today we have neither. Getting to that vision would make the CBC stand out in a crowded media space. Enough said.