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Now the Details

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

Jeffrey Dvorkin

Saturday, December 13, 2014

CBC: Needed More Than Ever - Just Not in its Present Form
The assumptions published by the Financial Post in Philip Cross’s rant against the CBC are a recitation of well-known anti-public service outrage. It’s quite an indictment: the public broadcaster is accused of "intellectual bigotry, Toronto elite disdain, assumed superiority and biased programming."

It is a litany of bad media behavior, or so it would seem. But after the charges are read out, where is the evidence?

Mr. Cross fails to provide anything beyond than his own fevered impressions and antipathy. He certainly does not like Michael Enright or Peter Mansbridge. But he never tells us why. Mr. Cross is entitled to his opinion, but he is not entitled to his own facts.

The CBC has been accused of many things including repeated attempts to placate conservative critics with well-known and outspoken pro-business journalists and personalities such as Kevin O’Leary and Rex Murphy.   

They are hardly a bunch of aging hippies seeking to join the next available Marxist cell.

Mr. Cross conveniently overlooks the efforts made by the CBC to present a reasonable reflection of Canadian points of view. That is in fact, the role of the CBC: a public broadcaster is not the captive of any one point of view. Mr. Cross would prefer that the CBC looks and sounds like his personal ideological gathering that reflects his own brand of politics. Sorry Mr. Cross, but that’s not what a public broadcaster does.

What, in fact, is the role of a public broadcaster in this intense digital environment? The CBC is not alone in wrestling with that idea.

Other broadcasters including the BBC, American Public Media and Radio France, to name a few, are also trying to re-invent themselves. The pressures on public broadcasters everywhere are intense in light of the demands of the marketplace and the fragmenting of audiences caused by the Internet.

No one has come up with a perfect solution. All media are trying to figure out how to retain their audiences, how to use new media to best effect and how to stabilize a precarious financial situations. Newspapers, above all, are struggling with this.

Some public broadcasters (Israel and Greece) have even gone so far as to go off the air in order to re-tool their programming with a promise to return sometime next year.

It’s not an easy time to be a public broadcaster. Many are asking whether they should simply pursue ratings, above all else, and to hell with any mission-driven concepts of public service?

Should they provide the high-minded, and expensive programming that commercial broadcasters avoid? Or can they provide a combination of the two and satisfy enough of the public to assure the trust and support of the politicians who fund them?

Tough choices. And not an easy place to be. Combined with that dilemma, the CBC has not done itself or its audiences any favours with its recent screw-ups involving Jian Ghomeshi.

Yet the role of a public service broadcaster in Canada is still needed, just as we need public policy decisions to keep our country and its culture alive. The question is, in what form and for whom should a public broadcaster be part of the Canadian media landscape? 

Mr. Cross claims that Canada would be better off without a public broadcaster entirely. He implies that all other media (one assumes they are without any ideological baggage) could easily fill in behind in a CBC-less Canada.

But is the private sector able, willing and appropriately resourced to provide programs that inform, enlighten and entertain Canadians as required by the Broadcasting Act of 1991? That seems unlikely.

Or should the private sector simply do what it does best – entertain the public in order to make a profitable return on investment for its shareholders?

That is precisely what a public broadcaster must not do.

The public broadcaster in Canada needs to find a role for itself that understands the media consumption needs of the audiences. At the same time, it has to provide services that commercial media simply are unable or unwilling to do.

The public broadcaster in Canada is in need of serious re-invention. It must create high quality and contextual news and information. It must generate entertainment that is both popular and original. In short, to provide content that will both surprise and delight.

A public service broadcaster must be both aspirational and realistic on behalf of the public it must serve. That doesn’t mean being boring (low ratings) or so popular (aka sleazy) that it demeans the purpose of the public broadcaster. It needs to be a service that enough Canadians want to justify the annual Parliamentary appropriation of around $1 billion.

It also should be strictly non-commercial so that its values remain one of service to the country, not to create just another media commodity that is indistinguishable from the rest.

A revitalized CBC must have the originality of Danish TV in its wonderful series “Borgen” and the capacity of a great news service such as NPR.

Mr. Cross would prefer that Canadians (and implicitly, the federal government) should abandon the concept of public service broadcasting altogether.

That would be a terrible mistake. It was a Conservative government that created the CBC in 1936. It could be a Conservative government that should now restore the concept, if it has the courage and the imagination to take on the task.

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