It’s taken me a while to try to figure out the CBC’s new five year plan. It’s called 2015: Everyone, Every Way and it is rife with platitudes about where CBC is going, but extremely short on details. And as we all know, the devil is in the details.
It’s not that I think CBC President and CEO Hubert Lacroix is pulling a fast one. From all reports he seems like a good guy who cares not only about public broadcasting but about the people who will have to make the changes he foresees. My problem is that I don’t get what he and Kirstine Stewart are actually trying to accomplish.
In broad strokes, they are talking about the CBC English service becoming more Canadian, more local and more digital. Sounds okay so far, but except for the digital part it is nothing we haven’t heard for the past few years. The CBC is already almost totally Canadian in prime time. Yes, in summer, late at night and during holiday periods U.S. films and series pop up to fill out the schedule. Does this mean that next summer we will get Canadian films and re-runs of Canadian series? I suspect the audience would have liked it better the old way but hey, they’re going back to their mandate, a word that was lost during the Stursberg era. It also looks like Jeopardy and Wheel of Fortune are toast on the CBC. While the nationalists in the crowd will cheer, I am left to wonder where the big money these two shows generated will come from and what effect that will have on Canadian production in prime time. While I am totally in favor of the CBC being 100% Canadian, I’m afraid I have to live in the real world. Money, not platitudes is all that counts in broadcasting today. It takes millions of dollars to produce a new drama or sitcom. Since we all know that Stephen Harper is not inclined to give the CBC more than it gets today, and since based on all previous experiences we can guess that the loss of American movies and series will result in fewer viewers and that fewer viewers mean less advertising revenue, I have to ask the question: where Mr. Lacroix do you intend to get the money to produce your all Canadian programs?
Looking at what details we have it actually gets worse. Mr. Lacroix and Ms. Stewart are also talking about beefing up local television, especially in areas that are under-served or not served at all by CTV and Global. He says the lack of local news and stories is actually an opportunity for the CBC to reconnect with Canadians. I sure hope this works because it is both necessary and overdue. But again, let’s not kid ourselves, the CBC went back into local news in, what is for them, a big way in past couple of years. They reopened newsrooms and added 30 to 60 minutes to local newscasts. What goes unsaid is that CBC local newscasts are embarrassingly bad. A handful of hard working folks try to cover big cities or vast provinces without the resources to succeed. The result has been dismal ratings. So few people are watching CBC local news it would be cheaper to send out CD’s rather than bother to air the program. Even in B.C. where the CBC hired the biggest name in west coast news history the ratings have been terrible. Without the money and the staff, as the CBC has proved, there is no point in making the effort. I would be all in favor of a well financed return to local TV. It was a huge error to allow local TV to flounder since the mid-80’s, but if you can’t fund it, don’t do it. The money can be better used elsewhere.
The five year plan also talks about the return of culture. Does anyone who watches the CBC remember culture? There was a time when ballet, modern dance and opera actually appeared on the CBC. It cost a truckload of money to produce and provided tiny but loyal audiences. I miss this programming and wish it were still a part of the mandate. If the CBC doesn’t produce it, it will not get done. CTV and Global are not in the habit of making expensive shows that produce audiences of less than 200,000. So while I love the idea, I ask once again, Mr. Lacroix, where will the money come from?
It’s a whole new digital world out there. I am glad the CBC brass recognizes this, people now download and watch TV shows when they want to, not when the network schedule says they have to watch it. The CBC is talking about doubling its spending on digital services. More big bucks spent on non-TV and radio product.
The new plan even talks about new CBC channels for sports, kids and arts and entertainment. It mentions new local weekend and morning news programs. It promises new “micro” news websites for large local communities, naming Hamilton and the Montreal suburb of Longueuil. All of the ideas cost real dollars. Dollars the CBC doesn’t have.
Everyone, Every Way leaves me with more questions than answers. There is no mention of increasing local news staff and budgets. In fact the plan calls for streamlining staff, I read that as cuts. Will the new morning and weekend news programs have dedicated staffs or will the already overburdened local news teams be expected to stretch even more? Will the digital web sites be staffed and funded? Will new channels have original programming or just be places to rerun network shows? If there is to be new programs how will they be paid for, subscription? Will we be forced to buy more channels we have no intention of ever viewing?
The truth is, and we all know it. The money is not there to do everything, some might say anything in 2015: Everyone, Every Way. So what is this really about? Is this a PR stunt? Is this meant to show that the Stursberg era is past? If so, I have a few better ideas. Fix up The National and CBC NN. Make them relevant again by producing quality stories we actually care about and lose the pap and thin gruel that fill your airwaves and erode your audiences. Begin to produce dramas and comedies with some heft that tackle serious issues in an adult way. Little Mosque on the Prairie and Being Erica are okay, but they are what we expect from any broadcaster, they do not speak to the needs of a national broadcaster. Not all programs have to be heavy or serious, but the odd one or two each week would be a pleasant change.
In other words, it’s time to fix what you do now before you spread your dollars even more thinly. Mr. Lacroix, I have no beef with your ideas, I just don’t believe they are real.