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Now the Details

Media, ethics, and journalism. What works. What doesn't.

Jeffrey Dvorkin

Monday, December 2, 2013

Fixing CBC TV: Some Concrete Proposals (Part 1)

It's often impossible, due to the emotional swirl around this, but let's think calmly about fixing public television in Canada. There seems to be wide agreement that it is broken.

And for now, we'll leave CBC Radio and Radio-Canada aside.

Here's why:

  • 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.
CBC TV is where there are serious concerns. Despite a wealth of talent and smarts, and with a solid if declining budget, CBC TV seems unable to either attract or keep an audience (aside from hockey during playoffs). If the cuts were to be miraculously restored, would that make a difference? It seems unlikely.

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 Chr├ętien 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.


  1. Great work as always Jeffrey but I have a few quibbles with the history and the direction. First, I won't go into a rant about CBC documentaries, which tend to be long reports, not docs, and are nowhere near the quality they were in the past decades. In fact they tend to be timid to the extreme as if a point of view or controversy is a no-no at the CBC.
    You are right that the backbone of CBC is News and Information programming. Remove Heartland or Dragon's Den and the CBC is still the CBC. Take away The National and to a lesser extent The Fifth Estate and Marketplace and what you have left is not worth talking about.
    CBC's ratings, news included, started to drop in the early 70's. CTV was easily beating CBC's news numbers by the mid-seventies. I have alwayd believed the move to 10 and the creation of The Journal were in fact a reaction to losing the 11 o'clock spot. Spending as much as 5 times what CTV spent on news, the CBC was still being beaten badly. It was an embarrassment.
    Then once CBC decided to go all Canadian in prime time all of CBC's numbers collapsed. It was also a major blow to costs and budgets.
    In the heyday of CBC TV it was the cheap US programming like Golden Girls and Disney that helped pay for the dramas, docs, sitcoms, performance specials and made for TV movies.
    Remove the money made by running CBC's hits and add to that the added costs of filling all those hour, all I might add, without the help of significant dollars from government, and you have a perfect scenario for inevitable failure.
    Sure we would all love to blame the Rabinovitchs and Stursbergs...and don't get me wrong, they made some truly bonehead moves, hiring Magid to "fix" the news being among the more heinous crimes against the CBC, but to be fair the CBC was already failing badly and heading to where it is today. I may not agree with the programming decisions or the direction but at least there was an attempt to solve the CBC's perceived problems.
    The real question here, and I hope you and your readers have an answer, is which vision of the CBC is the right one: should the network deal with the current fiscal reality and become PBS North while it still has the resources to do so? Or, should the CBC harken back to the "good old days" and begin to run excellent foreign dramas and movies (including the best from the US) in order to make enough money to fund fewer but better Canadian productions...and to use the popular programs as lead ins to create audience for Canadian drama.
    I know it sounds heretical in today's Canadian broadcast world, but that's how CBC TV worked for decades, in fact the decades where it was most successful.
    I have no problem with either direction. I do have a problem with dithering while Rome burns. The CBC is the most expensive and most important cultural institution in this country. We will lose it if we do not act.

  2. Howard many thanks for your always thoughtful comments. Yes, the problems have been building for a long time. I think there is the talent to re-invent public broadcasting in Canada. The question is whether there is the political will? Some ideas in the next blog posting.