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..Can't Love it...Can't Live Without It


The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation is a massive, government funded (ie: tax dollar supported) broadcasting TV network (and radio network), and it remains one of the biggest lightning rods for debate in Canadian media and entertainment circles. Namely -- should it even exist?

Defenders say unequivocally: yes! They say it provides quality, distinctly Canadian programming, and frequently programming the private networks (namely CTV and CanWest-Global) can't, or won't. That it remains the living embodiment of that elusive thing called Canadian culture.

Detractors say: "Hogswaddle!" They say the CBC is a bloated money pit gobbling up millions of dollars to do what the private networks do as well, or better. If it ever served a purpose, they argue, that day is long gone and it's a living anachronism. It should be put out of its -- and the viewers' -- misery.

Of course there is an added, ideological aspect to at least some of the debate. Namely that conservative detractors often claim the CBC has a left wing bias, and so they are doubly outraged that their tax dollars are supporting it and insist it should be shut down (curiously enough, left wingers have also criticized the CBC for a perceived right wing bias...but they don't argue it should be shut down as a result).

One suspects another factor -- as is often the case in Canada -- is the United States. Canadians often use the U.S. as the metre stick against which they measure themselves, and the U.S. doesn't have a government supported, yet wholly autonomous, major network. As such, some Canadians say the CBC is a bizarre concept and should be scrapped...but as far as I know, most countries do have networks that are analogous to the CBC (such as Britain's BBC, for instance). So to have such a network is not inherently a bizarre or illegitimate thing for a nation to have.

But the thing is, even CBC supporters are having an increasingly hard time saying nice things about the CBC these days. Like a boorish uncle who's thrown up at one too many family gatherings, Unca CBC is losing his quirky charm.

A lot of it has to do with behind-the-scenes arrogance that seems to be alienating staff and observers both, from a lock out last year, to some recent firings on one hand, while on the other hand respected journalists are jumping ship and heading to -- gasp! -- rival networks. The so-called Mother Corp seems to be foundering a bit. Recent reports of (alleged) ridiculous ratios of management to staff suggests the CBC is turning into a self-satisfied boy's club of patronage positions, while a recent decision to downsize the publicity department and farm PR out to a private firm has some media people complaining they can no longer get information on CBC shows.

The CBC is often stuck in an unwinnable "damned if they do, damned if they don't" position. When they passed on making Canadian Idol, and CTV landed a ratings hit with it, they were criticized for missing a gold mine...yet now that they are airing the similar The One, they are equally pilloried! (Especially now that the ratings are turning out to be rather disastrous!)

The recent Tommy Douglas mini-series, Prairie Giant, is a good example of how the CBC is getting it from all sides -- and if the controversy isn't of their making, their handling of the situation is. Douglas was a socialist and commissioning the mini-series outraged right wingers. Since Douglas was a popular and elected premier and was recently voted The Greatest Canadian in a national poll, of course it's legitimate to do a movie about him. If right wingers want to complain the CBC doesn't do bio-pics about popular right wingers, fair enough, but that has nothing to do with whether they should do a mini-series about Douglas. Anyway, commissioning the mini-series alienated right wingers. Delaying the show's airing so as not to "influence" the last election (in which the Conservative party eked out a minority victory) alienated left wingers. Actually airing the movie alienated right wingers again. Then the subsequent controversy over accuracy, in which the CBC pulled the mini-series from any future airings, seemed to alienate everybody, because it just seemed too hasty and draconian and politick and not well thought out.

Anyway, equally humiliating for the CBC, beyond any of its self-made controversies, rival network CTV actually seems to be trumping it in the ratings, with shows like Corner Gas and Canadian Idol. And CTV even is striking a few PR blows. When the CBC passed on airing a Stompin' Tom Connors concert special (the quirky, ultra patriotic English-Canadian folk singing icon), and Connors went public with his outrage, CTV immediately scooped it up and aired it on Canada Day.

The CBC is losing friends, fast, and rapidly in danger of being perceived as being as irrelevant as its detractors insist it is.

But is it really?

Discussing culture is a bit like the proverbial blind men describing an elephant -- what is culture? Everyone describes some different part, and that's their focus. News junkies are only interested in the news wing of the CBC -- and couldn't care less about the fiction programs. Entertainment watchers focus on the dramas and sitcoms. High brow elites focus on the high brow culture with a capital "C".

As mentioned, the CBC often receives the hardest knocks from right wingers who want it scrapped, saying the private networks can do the job. But I'm not sure they're comparing Corner Gas to the Tournament, or Falcon Beach to This is Wonderland. I don't really get the impression they think about Canadian-made fiction programs at all -- whether on CBC, CTV, or CanWest-Global. They aren't even considering CBC's flagship science program, The Nature of Things, or its consumer affairs program, Marketplace -- neither of which is mirrored by any of the private networks. They're more focused on headline news and sports. Needless to say, with a site like this, I tend to focus more on the fiction programming.

Fiction-wise, the CBC has just axed a bunch of its shows due to poor ratings -- though many received good critical reviews. While CTV is boasting some modest successes.

But the CBC continues to boast some worthy experiments, such as the two recent try-out (and ethnically diverse) daytime serials, North-South and 49th & Main. Heck, thinking of "diversity", in the entire history of Canadian television, I think the only time you've ever heard an Atlantic Canada accent is on the CBC -- never on the private networks!

The CBC also seems to have an admirably more "hands off" approach to its programs. In an episode of the experimental soap opera, 11 Channels, characters refer to the TV series Law & Order, in North-South, a character references TV mobster Tony Soprano -- neither are series the CBC carries. The writers were free to put words into the characters' mouths they thought the characters would say. Whereas CTV and CanWest-Global too obviously use their shows as commercials for their other shows. In an episode of CanWest-Global's The Jane Show, the heroine becomes a TV junkie addicted to, yup, you guessed it, shows airing exclusively on CanWest-Global! In fact, in an interview, one of the stars of CanWest-Global's Train 48 claimed she quit, in part, because she was uncomfortable with how the network executives were using the show as a self-serving infommercial.

I've also developed a certain appreciation for the CBC's willingness to show British shows, from TV movies to series like the revived Doctor Who (which apparently did respectably in the ratings -- which is quite remarkable, given how science fiction shows usually die quick deaths when on American networks; proof that Canadians maybe really do have broader tastes than Americans?) It might seem odd for me to applaud the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. for airing British shows, but I begin to realize that there's something to be said for the old cliche that Canadians are often defined as "not-American". Since CTV and CanWest-Global cram their schedules exclusively with simulcasts of American soaps and sitcoms, if having a guy with a British accent save the earth in prime time makes viewers realize there's a world outside of what Mary Hart deigns to tell them about, maybe that goes a ways toward indirectly strengthening a Canadian identity.

The CBC (and, to be fair, all Canadian networks) face an up hill propaganda battle. It is chic to dismiss Canadian programs as safe and bland. Ironically, many Canadian network shows could not be shown on American networks -- not without bleeping out some profanity and even editing a few scenes -- yet Canadian shows are still routinely dismissed by those who don't watch them as the more safe and homogenized. And while the Canadian private networks are offering perfectly respectable sitcoms and teen dramas, right now the CBC is going through an "edgy" phase, with Mary Walsh's Hatching, Matching and Dispatching which seems designed to make The Trailer Park Boys look like an escapee from the Family Channel, and the little heralded What it's Like Being Alone, a claymation series that wants to be the Addams Family meets South Park (I don't think it succeeds, but not for lack of blood and flatulence). And though not as extreme, the recently cancelled This is Wonderland and DaVinci's City Hall were also pushing envelopes in their way. The CBC is desperately trying to shock us into seeing it as progressive and risk-taking...but can't break through the pre-conceived bias that it's the home of the Tommy Hunter Show -- a series cancelled fourteen years ago!

Ironically, if the CBC actually still had a few "family" shows like Tommy Hunter and Road to Avonlea, it might stop some of the hemorrhaging of viewers.

But despite all its failures and misfires, despite all its arrogance and corporate bungling, for all its left wing and right wing biases, we do need the CBC. I'm sorry, but we do.

For one thing, the very fact that detractors accuse it of ideological "bias" paradoxically counters their own argument that the CBC should be shut down because it offers nothing the private networks don't. You can't claim it presents a point of view that's different from the private networks and, in the same breath, claim it is indistinguishable from the private networks.

But mainly, I think it all gets down to the name -- the CANADIAN Broadcasting Corporation. That's what it is, and that's what it will always be. The problem with relying on private networks like CTV and CanWest-Global is that, frankly, they have an aura of being fair weather friends. They like having successful Canadian shows, sure, but what happens when successes seem harder to muster? When one or two series fail? You'll probably see the private networks quietly back away from the whole concept of Canadian programs, at least, as much as their license allows (and these days, it allows a lot) -- as they have in the past. That's because neither CTV nor CanWest-Global see themselves as cultural institutions, per se. They are businesses in the business of making money. If they can do that and be Canadian, great, but if they can make money without being very Canadian, I think they're happy to do that, too.

Consider how CanWest-Global cancelled Train 48, its set-in-Canada soap/dramedy, and replaced it with...Entertainment Tonight (Canada), essentially Entertainment Tonight, except with a few more minutes put aside to cover Avril Lavigne's American wedding! That's their idea of commitment to Canadian culture.

But the CBC isn't a fair weather friend. The CBC is there to be, well, the CBC. Period. And even if they're going through a phase now where they're showing a lot more foreign (ie: American and British) programs....it's still the minority of their programming schedule -- unlike the private networks. And if a Canadian show fails, well, they'll try something else, and something after that. And they'll probably make a lot of bad shows, but at least they'll keep making 'em, and some good ones will emerge, too. 'Cause they've got nothing else to do. And they'll get derided for it, and mocked for it. And if they make something too soft and sweet, they'll be criticized for not being edgy, and if they do something too raw and coarse, they'll be criticized for not being broad based enough.

But at least it'll be Canadian, and at least it'll get broadcast, 'cause that's their name. Does the CBC need a shake up? A broom to sweep away the executive deadwood? Some salt to sprinkle on the leeches that have affixed themselves to it? Does it need a programming visionary? Probably. But even if the house needs a cleaning, that's no reason to bulldoze the building.

Unca CBC may be in danger of turning into a drunken boor, throwing up at family gatherings, and in need of an intervention...but at least you know he'll show up at those gatherings, smelling slightly of his own pee, maybe, rude and unpleasant, possibly, but he'll always show up. And based on their past behaviour, I'm just not convinced you can say the same about the private network cousins.

That's all for now,
The Masked Movie Critic

July 21, 2006

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