“Now would be an excellent time to take the CBC out of advertising and out of the kind of programming (such as sports) that generates most of its advertising revenue. In return for a monopoly on TV advertising, the subsidies presently paid to private broadcasters should go to the public system.”
That is what Richard Nielsen, the president of Norflicks Productions, wrote in Monday’s Toronto Star. The subsidies of public money to which he refers are about the same as the public money now paid to the CBC.
On Tuesday, it was announced that Kirstine Stewart would succeed Richard Stursberg as Vice President of CBC English Services. She was quoted as saying that we now “have an opportunity to define what modern public broadcasting really is.”
Clearly, the CBC’s president and board have decided that Richard Stursberg’s definition – he had appointed Kirstine Stewart – is the right one: that success is to be measured by ratings, and that this criterion is entirely compatible with the Mandate of the CBC.
This is not true, and cannot be true. (CBC Radio is not under discussion.) While CBC-TV continues to carry many good shows of all kinds, the programs that matter most, the Canadian dramas, are chosen according to the same Hollywood standards as those of the private sector and – equally important – the News is increasingly filled with human interest stories, crimes and disasters, to attract larger audiences. Some of the best analysis and serious discussion appears on TVO.
Ratings as the primary criterion is the direct result of the disastrous cuts Canadian governments – starting with Trudeau, for reasons connected with Quebec politics – have inflicted on the Corporation. These cuts have forced it to depend for its survival on ever-increasing commercial revenues. As a result, it would be hard for a neutral outsider to see any substantial difference between CBC-TV and the private networks. It is true, however, that there is more Canadian content on the CBC.
While the dependence on commercial revenue continues, it is hard to challenge Richards Stursberg’s and Kirstine Stewart’s position. She can only define “what modern public broadcasting really is” by making the meaning of the word public meaningless. Stursberg used to say, “There is no public broadcasting without a public.” This week, Kirstine Stewart said, “We are not PBS,” adding that “such a comparison would be a myopic view of what Canadians are interested in.”
This observation goes to the heart of the matter. Public broadcasting, she implies, must not be elitist. In many people’s perception, PBS is. (PBS, of course, has a very different, and far more limited, function than the CBC.) No doubt she would say that the CBC’s Mandate as interpreted by a minority of high-minded, usually elderly consumers who are, she would say, out of touch with “what Canadians are really interested in,” is elitist. This minority demands higher intellectual standards and greater efforts to reflect Canada according to Canadian, rather than Hollywood, standards. She would be quite right to add that she is not aware of any vociferous public demand, or preponderance of editorial opinion, supporting such an approach. If there was a referendum today, she would no doubt add, asking “whether Canadians are satisfied with the system as it is,” the answer would be “On the whole, yes.” This includes the Internet, on which, everybody agrees, the CBC does excellent work. Everybody has some criticism, but few challenge the system as such.
But this minority maintains that, as far as public broadcasting is concerned, it is an immoral system and must be revised. It is based on a fundamentally wrong interpretation of the word “public.” The public money that is invested in the CBC is being used primarily to deliver audiences to advertisers. Public money should be spent on public purposes. Advertising serves different, non-public, purposes. Naturally, the criterion for success in a system based on advertising is ratings. The advertiser wants to get his money’s worth.
Developments in the private sector are at this time moving towards a new look at the system.
One hopes that the question will be asked – what are public purposes? The answer, this Manifesto suggests, is education and – please forgive the clumsy word – Canadian-ness. In Canada, education is a provincial matter, and one has to be careful how to used the word in connection with a federal institution like the CBC. Until a better word is coined it is fearlessly suggested that the word “enlightenment” is used.
In line with Nielsen’s financial formula, this Manifesto proposes a national network called CBC Enlightenment. It should be run in conjunction with the provincial educational networks, and asked to provide high-quality Canadian dramas and documentaries, produced in many parts of the country, substantial public affairs programs as well as a return to seriousness in the presentation of news. There should also be new efforts to build bridges with Quebec’s Radio Canada. First-class American and European – and other – programs should be added.
The effectiveness of CBC Enlightenment should be assessed not in terms of ratings but by other means that are not difficult to devise.
Further Reading: Richard Nielsen, CRTC Reality Show is a Disaster, Toronto Star, January 10, 2011.