David Fanning has been the executive producer of PBS Frontline for more than 25 years. It is the program that more than anything else, has encapsulated what public television in America is all about: smart, timely and not afraid to ask the toughest journalistic questions.
Frontline documentaries have examined the American condition in war and peace. It has looked at the abuse of women in Saudi Arabia ("Death of a Princess") which almost caused a rupture between the Saudis, the British government and the US administration. It has tracked how the US went to war in Iraq through lies and manipulation ("Cheney's War") and it has looked at the failure of American healthcare over the years.
Fanning is originally from South Africa. He learned his television craft at the BBC and PBS stations. But it was through the American system that his unique vision and passion for public broadcasting has found its truest expression.
Recently Fanning delivered a significant lecture about the state of public television journalism in the United States. It is a powerful warning that the strength of the system is being watered down and washed away by the relentless quest for ratings and for a desire by television management not to offend, but only to please.
Some years ago, a Dutch-born scholar of US public broadcasting, Erik Barnouw referred to PBS as "safely splendid" in that it sought out so-called high quality British programs such as "Masterpiece Theatre." The initials PBS were known (perhaps it still is inside its confines) as standing for the "Predominantly British Service." But at least PBS was committed to providing something that was not available anywhere else.
So Fanning's jeremiad is timely for Americans: it warns that unless PBS is committed to excellence, the money given to PBS is money wasted:
"That’s the most profound challenge to public broadcasting, I believe: that while we argue for increased funding, for more accessibility, for new programs and innovative applications in the multi-platform world, we have to consider the decision makers, the programmers and the gatekeepers -- the leadership of this enterprise.
"They have to demand excellence. Frankly, they don’t deserve more money, until they do."
This idea has enormous implications for other public broadcasters, including the CBC. The battle inside the CBC is still on between the information programmers and the entertainment divisions.
While CBC TV is producing some popular programs, it is being done by stripping resources out of news and information for programs that are relentlessly middle brow, unmemorable and indistinguishable from what passes for programming on commercial tv. The result is a deepening pessimism among CBC program producers and reporters and a growing sense that young tv journalists must looks elsewhere besides the CBC to practice their craft. This is a cultural and informational disaster that is looming over Canadians for 2010 and beyond.
Supporters of public broadcasting in Canada have been lobbying for years, but they have been doing it wrong: they want the CBC to be restored to "full funding" levels of a few years ago. But to what purpose? To produce more shallow programs that entertain but rarely inform?
More helpful would be if the lobbyists demanded that CBC be restored to what the public broadcaster's mandate calls for: to inform, enlighten and entertain. And in that order.
Increasingly, I am hearing from Canadians that the CBC doesn't deserve more money until it does just that.