And for now, we'll leave CBC Radio and Radio-Canada aside.
- CBC Radio has much right about it, and true to the sense of public mission, although aspects (e.g. newscasts) have some problems that are tied to CBC TV. If we can fix CBC TV, the problems may right themselves, as we'll see in a moment.
- And Radio-Canada is a separate issue. The criticisms of Radio-Canada are similar to those around CBC TV - too commercial, too down-market and too Montreal.
Here's the reality:
Despite efforts at making CBC TV "popular", not one CBC TV program is listed in the weekly BBM list of top 30 most watched shows in Canada. From other media, CBC TV gets almost no critical appreciation. If it gets noticed at all, the documentary unit remains a programming oasis. But it is largely confined to the all-news channel with its minimal audience. Even so, it still provides a welcome relief from the increasingly mediocre content elsewhere on the main network.
When CBC TV did well in the past, and served the public with high quality news and information, (and had the ratings to show for it), the CBC became a target for criticism from other media. As one newspaper executive complained to me, "the CBC is eating everybody's lunch. That's got to stop..."
By the 1990s, the CBC was on the defensive over the regular media criticism regarding its Parliamentary appropriation. Other news outlets called it an unfair market advantage. At the same time, hostile elements in both the Liberal and Conservative Parties came after the CBC. It was accused of political bias, even promoting Quebec separation. But instead of defending itself, and standing up to the critics, the CBC deliberately went down-market, a move that now appears to be a failed strategy.
Under former CBC Presidents Perrin Beatty (1995-1999) and Robert Rabinovitch (1999-2007), the model of an independent public broadcaster began to change. Beatty and Rabinovitch were both governmentally-minded (Beatty as Minister of Defence in the Mulroney cabinet and Rabinovitch as a high federal civil servant in the Chrétien years). Wary of the criticism, from their Ottawa sources, they agreed with the criticisms and put the CBC in a defensive crouch.
The result was a subtle shift toward making the CBC appear more like a government department. As a branch of government, and like all ministries, the CBC attempted to please as many constituents as possible, and offend as few as possible. The theory being if the CBC had "popular" shows, that might just guarantee continued funding. Wishful (and magical) thinking indeed. It didn't work.
Under Rabinovitch and his Executive VP for English Services, Richard Stursburg (2004-2010), CBC began to downgrade news and current affairs in order to massively support entertainment and sports. Budgets from information programs were cut and transferred to other parts of the corporation. Attempts to create excellent programming was denounced by management as "elitist." US consultants were engaged to shift the news toward a constant and cheaper diet of weather, traffic and crime (all three dependent on government as sources). That hasn't worked either.
Ratings plummeted along with staff morale. There still remain solid pockets of public support for the CBC, but overall, the public has other concerns. CBC seems unable or unwilling to try to win back that broad support it once enjoyed. With the loss of Hockey Night in Canada, CBC TV now seems unmoored and abandoned.
That's the abbreviated version of how we got to where we are.
The questions now are: Is there still a value for sustaining public broadcasting? If not, let's just walk away. But if we think it is still worth doing, we need to ask, can public television in Canada be renewed? And who can make this happen, assuming there enough political will in Ottawa?
Some ways to proceed will be offered in the next blog posting.