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The CBC Aquarium and "Street Cents"
...selling out the present to buy the future


Some years ago I was watching the CBC's mid-day news show, Midday (gone but not forgotten, not by a long shot), and the anchors began discussing the CBC aquarium. Reflecting back on it, I can't recall whether they were saying the CBC broadcast centre had an aquarium, or whether there were plans to install one, or whether they were saying it should install one. But since I'm using this to make a symbolic point, it probably doesn't matter. Anyway, one of the hosts flippantly suggested they could charge admission to this aquarium as a way of raising funds for programming.

Yes, it was a flippant, semi-facetious remark made about an aquarium that may or may not exist...but my brother (who saw the piece, too) and I used to joke about that for years after. It was such a ludicrous idea, but so aptly reflected too much of the thinking in the Canadian film biz.

How apt became clear some years later when Canada's then-premier production house, Alliance-Atlantis, which had been distributing American films as a way of raising money for Canadian productions, announced they were shutting down their production wing to...concentrate on the much more lucrative distribution business.

And that's why diversity, in some cases, can be a bad idea. If a company is, say, selling limes, and called, I dunno, The Lime King, then decides to diversify by selling, say, tulips -- that's fine. But suppose it discovers tulips are selling better than the limes, maybe partly because they weren't growing very good limes to begin with? Sure, they could redouble their lime efforts, seeding a better quality of lime tree -- but, really, why bother, when the tulips are selling so well? Then some cunning little fiscal wizard notes that the limes (at The Lime King) are actually a kind of liability, and so more and more ground is turned over to growing tulips, and the limes are relegated to less and less fertile ground, and are cared for with less enthusiasm, and the lime crop is less and less tasty as a result, so it sells less and less well, creating an inevitable, inexorable slide as there isn't even a will at the Lime King to try and save the limes. Indeed, it actually becomes unspoken policy that they want the limes to fail, so they can justify their tulip crops, till eventually the Lime King stops selling limes...

..and everyone dies of scurvy as a result.

I was thinking about this recently when I heard the CBC had decided to cancel Street Cents. Street Cents was a youth-aimed consumer affairs program that tried to inform younger viewers, in a hip and unpretentious way, about how to spend their money wisely. Seems like a good idea to me, in our consumeristic society. After all, there are adult such programs, advising adults which car is the best and the like. So why not a younger version informing kids and teens about the sort of products they might be buying?

But Street Cents' ratings had been dwindling over the years and so the CBC decided to pull the plug (the fact that Street Cents being relegated to Sunday afternoons -- y'know, that well know peak viewing time for kids and teens -- might have had something to do with declining ratings was not addressed). To some, Street Cents' cancelation was seen as a good thing -- I came upon a blog which gleefully saw it as a sign of the coming end of the CBC's "left wing" programming. Uh...a consumer affairs show is "left" wing? Yikes! Does that mean health and safety standards are drawn up by Fidel Castro?

Anyway, what's significant to my essay is that, in announcing the cancelation of Street Cents, the CBC announced vaguely that they were going to look into pursuing something like it via the internet, that kids just don't watch TV the way they used to, and the internet was the future.

Uh, fine, maybe, I guess. But what does that have to do with CBC TV? CBC TV is about making and broadcasting TV programs. Period. That's all it should be focusing on. Not selling tickets to an aquarium in the lobby, and not programs for the internet. If the CBC wants to establish a sister organization, say the CIC -- Canadian Internet Corporation -- fine and good, rather like CBC Radio. But it should be a separate organization, one that can have a certain degree of cross-programming with CBC TV, sure, but one that shouldn't really be what CBC TV programmers are thinking about. Because CBC TV programmers should be thinking about...TV!

Because once they start viewing the internet as a viable secondary business, then we start moving into the limes and tulips situation, or Alliance-Atlantis shutting down its production arm to focus on the easier, cheaper distribution business.

The internet is a big, wonderful, and largely abstract entity. It's something that everyone thinks is the future...but they aren't entirely sure how. But it has the appeal that the overhead for internet businesses are usually much, much less than for mainstream enterprises...hence why a lot of people are dropping their traditional venues and jumping to the web (magazines becoming webzines, stores becoming on-line stores). But, to be honest, there's an aspect of defeatism to it. They don't do it because they hope to be a success, they do it because, with smaller overheads and start up costs, they hope to fail less badly.

It becomes a crutch, frankly.

CBS isn't cancelling 60 Minutes in order to turn it into a web-show. Why? 'Cause CBS is a TV network, and to it the internet is merely a tool for it to use to aid its TV shows.

For that matter, having visited the CBC website and found it often uninformative and extremely hard to locate the information I'm looking for: are these really the guys to go out and conquer the internet?

The internet becomes a crutch that enables a TV network like the CBC to start salting its lime groves in order to focus on its tulip crop. To fail at something (TV) and then, instead of seeking to fix the problem, they convince themselves there's no problem at all because their true sights are on the internet. If CBC TV starts shifting its focus to the internet, which is cheaper and easier than TV, and stars cancelling programs because TV is just too hard and tricky in a competitive market, they may tell themselves they're focusing on the future...but really, they're just giving up on the present. And without a present, there is no future.

And can scurvy be far behind?

That's all for now,
The Masked Movie Critic

September 9, 2006

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