I'm Mad as Hell

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and I can't do a thing about it

The Corpse

Two events in the past few weeks have made me wonder about the future of the CBC.

The first is the U.S. House of Representatives vote to stop funding NPR (National Public Radio). NPR is my primary source of information whenever I am in the United States. Outside of New York, Washington, Los Angeles, and maybe Boston and Chicago, it is very difficult to find a decent newspaper that covers major national stories, never mind international news. NPR does all of that and does it well.

The stated thinking by the Republican dominated House is that public, non-profit radio should not be funded. There are better uses for taxpayers’ money. We all know the real reason has more to do with the Republican’s perception that NPR leans far to the left, especially when it comes to national U.S. issues and politics.

As an irregular listener and a Canadian it seems to me that NPR is hardly left wing. By my great white northern standards NPR seems pretty centrist, leaning somewhat to the right on international stories, especially those that involve the United States.

According to Jeffrey Dvorkin, who should know, he headed the news at NPR and went on to become the NPR ombudsman, the big stations in places like New York and L.A. will be able to carry on with listener, corporate and charitable donations. In smaller centers the stations could disappear. In other words, where there is an alternative to NPR it will still function, where there is no alternative it may disappear leaving hundreds of millions of people with only extreme right wing shock jocks, religious programming and centrally programmed music stations.

As first world countries go, America looks to me to already have the most ignorant population when it comes to politics, both internal and international. This decision, if it stands will surely make the problem worse, leaving no radio alternative to the Rush Limbaughs of the broadcast world who peddle lies and half-truths on the important issues facing Americans.

CBC Radio is basically NPR in Canada. Sure there are differences, but it gets the same sort of listeners, albeit a heck of a lot more than NPR by percentage of the listening audience. Is it possible, could a Stephen Harper majority government look south and say to themselves, what a great idea? We could save a bundle of dough by cutting CBC. A few years ago I would have laughed at the prospect. Even when CBC TV was going through major problems, strikes, Stursburgian leadership issues, the radio service was being hailed as an example of how the CBC gets it right. That was before the dismantling of Radio 2 as a classical music station that resulted in the loss of up to 50% of the audience and a move by CBC Radio One to broaden its musical and content horizons to get more youthful listeners. Radio One has managed to hold most of its audience because of shows like As It Happens which have been around for decades. But there is much unhappiness with CBC radio among the people I talk to. They still listen, maybe not as much as before, but there is little else to listen to if you are a news and information junkie.

The numbers say that the changes have not drawn in new young listeners. So with less enthusiastic listeners and dropping numbers could Stephen Harper get away with major cuts that spell doom for CBC? I’m not sure, but it does worry me.

The second event that got to me was an appearance on a panel discussion about media and topical events that I took part in on CTS. The show is called Behind the Story and is deftly hosted by Richard Landau. You should have a look at the program if you get an opportunity, you may be pleasantly surprised. In any case, one of my fellow panelists was National Post Columnist Lorne Gunter. His columns are thoughtful, provocative and generally make excellent arguments, even when I disagree with them. Lorne is based in Alberta. At one point in the show he said that the CBC was irrelevant to anyone outside southern Ontario and Quebec. He said he looked forward to the end of the CBC under a Harper government .

He surprised me for two reasons. First, I always thought the success of CBC was stronger in rural Canada and I do know that historically the CBC gets its best numbers in Manitoba and Newfoundland. I spent four years in Nova Scotia and CBC radio dominated. My wife is from New Brunswick and she grew up listening to only CBC radio and watching CBC TV.

The second reason is that CBC, even at just over a billion dollars per year is highly underfunded and frankly costs each Canadian a pittance for a service that has the ability and mandate to bring Canadians together and showcase Canadian talent. I’m sure Lorne believes like many in the Tory party that CBC is a left wing cabal. That doesn’t make it true, and more to the point, I like reading columnists I disagree with and hearing what politicians and opinion makers on the right and the left have to say. As a journalist and a broadcaster I have always believed the more outlets available and the more money being spent on getting the best stories and angles the better off we all are.

During the last CBC lockout I was having a lunch discussion with a CBC staffer who lamented the lack of public interest into the loss of CBC programming on both radio and television. He said that if the strike had happened 10 years earlier many in the public would be demanding an end to the strike or at least would be upset by the loss of programming.

There is a lesson in all this. The CBC is losing its place in the Canadian broadcast scene. It may be the programming, it may be the underfunding, it may even be the pointless chasing of younger ears and eyeballs. I suspect it is all of the above. But with a Harper majority government a strong possibility it behooves the CBC to take a hard look at itself. I suggest that the corporation go back to basics: a news service that is respected and viewed; journalism that sets the standard in Canada; a leadership role in documentary production; excellent drama that enlightens and informs; coverage of things that no one else will cover because of cost or interest like the arts and amateur sports. First the CBC has to become indispensable again…then it can grow and prosper.

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Filed under: Media Commentary, Political Commentary, , , , , , ,

15 Responses

  1. Lorne says:

    Interestingly, I have it on good authority that Steven Harper’s favourite television show is … wait for it … Dragons’ Den. On CBC Television, Wednesdays at 8pm.

    • hlbtoo says:

      That has to be after Hockey Night in Canada. I bet he loves Kevin O’Leary second best, just behind Don Cherry.

  2. Howard – this is precisely the problem. CBC has opted to be a Canadian “publicly funded commercial broadcaster” (Jeff Keay 2009) which means that its unique qualities are being lost in the quest for ratings. This wishful thinking is that somehow, this will guarantee continued funding from the government. I doubt it. The rising tide of CBC-haters keeps growing and unlike NPR, CBC has less and less in its programming arsenal to justify its continuance, especially on the TV side. I am hearing from public broadcasting supporters that ironically only a Tory majority government will force the CBC to make the hard choices it’s avoided for years, by ordering severe cuts.

    • hlbtoo says:

      Interesting point Jeffrey, in some ways that is what happened to TV Ontario when the Tories took over after Bob Rae.

  3. Joe Clark says:

    Let’s imagine CBC does everything you ask of them, which, essentially, turns it into an intellectual escape channel for owners of fully-detached houses in Riverdale. Let’s also assume the absence of a Conservative majority government.

    What exactly do you propose to solve the problem of audience fragmentation? The reliance on NHL hockey? Advertising? How do you solve every other issue bedevilling the CBC? What if those problems are the same ones faced by commercial broadcasters?

    We all know that left-leaning middle-aged intellectuals in Toronto want CBC to return to some imagined state in its history. So give it up already! It’s not going to happen. (You’re still upset over the cancellation of This Hour Has Seven Days. Are you not?) Even if they tried that, what about the external conditions that have permanently changed while you were complaining about how CBC has?

    • hlbtoo says:

      Joe…try not get so excited. My point is that with all the fragmentation going on the CBC should find a niche that works for it. Trying to be all things to all people is obviously failing. CBC Radio 2 is a perfect example. The CBC owned the classical music audience from coast-to-coast. It also had a large international following online. It’s true classical music listeners tend to be older and better educated but they make up a significant minority of radio listeners. While everyone is looking for their niche, CBC Radio 2 had already found theirs. Then they gave it up.
      Back to basics is the only answer. CBC has never done that. It has always tried to please everyone. Even in my oh so long history. You see Joe, I agree with you. CBC has to deal with fragmentation by finally deciding what it is going to be and celebrating what it is. Forget trying to be just like everyone else.
      BTW, I’m too young to remember This Hour Has Seven Days.

  4. jenny says:

    cbc radio 2 also used to make room for niche programming outside of core classical – like two new hours and brave new waves. the avant garde has been completely obliterated on cbc – and who else will cover that but a public broadcaster? shame on them.

  5. Josh says:

    The difference is Quebec. NPR doesn’t have Quebec.

    Quebec would go absolutely ballistic on any government that tried to cut Radio-Canada, radio or television, and you can’t justify having Radio-Canada without having the corresponding English services in the form of the CBC.

    It doesn’t matter if Quebec doesn’t elect any Conservatives, and it doesn’t matter if the Conservatives still somehow end up with a majority: they will not touch Radio-Canada in any significant way and therefore they will not touch the CBC in any significant way.

    More likely, in the case of some sort of prolonged Conservative majority government scenario, is a kind of death by a thousand cuts situation. Not wiping it out in one fell swoop.

  6. Dave says:

    I concur on the dismantling of CBC Radio 2. I have been a faithful listener for almost 40 years. When the format changed, I tried it but it was not for me – I have not listened since. The best substitute has been the BBC which can be streamed live on the internet or some play it again shows. I like “Through the Night” a 6 hour classical feast/

    As to the CBC, the Tory strategy has always been (like other government programmes) to cut the funding and when the product lessens use those problems to justify further cuts or outright disbanding. If CBC collapses, we will never be able to resuscitate it – NAFTA alone will pose huge issues.

  7. Pierrey says:

    The CBC and TVO (in Ontario) are the only stations that (mostly) do not have commercials during children’s programming. For that alone they’re important and valuable assets to our society.

    But, as hinted at by Dave’s comment above, the new audience isn’t on traditional media, it’s on the internet. The ‘coveted’ younger audience is most certainly getting most of their passive entertainment from the interwebs. The future of any broadcaster is the internet combined with traditional media. TVO does a pretty good job of it.

  8. Merrill Smith says:

    If Harper wins a majority, it’s probably too late for the CBC to change. A few years ago I might have been moved to protest any attempt to privatise CBC Radio, but now I’m not sure I care. I used to listen to Radio 2 all day but the program changes, the annoying hosts, like Julie Nesrallah, and especially the obnoxious promos have practically driven me away. Some days I don’t even bother turning the radio on anymore. It’s too bad, I really miss good, classical music programming. And don’t tell me to listen on the computer, I’m not going to spend my days sitting at a desk just to listen to the radio.

  9. Alex says:

    The CBC is an old relic’ of the 20th century. It tries to cater to liberal baby boomers, while forgetting every other demographic. Well lets be realistic, the baby boomers will only be around for so long. CBC Television is a disgrace. If CTV and Global can find hit Canadian programming with 1+ million viewers (without the leadin from some big American show AND even in dead slots like Friday), why can’t the CBC?

    As for the news division, the last twenty years has put Global’s news operation leaps and bounds ahead of CBC’s which is just sad, considering it has 1/4 of the manpower. CBC NN is unbearable to watch. CBC Newsworld used to bring Canadians the top stories in a quick way at the top of every hour, then dug into the days news. Now its repetition and snazzy graphics. I feel like I’m watching CTV News 1 when it was first launched.

    As for radio, to Merill I agree that the CBC Radio 2 move was stupid. The CBC should have just added another radio station and kept Radio 2 for classical music. Aside from the CBC R2 fiasco, radio is the one thing they haven’t screwed up yet (but they are getting there with the boneheaded decisions to axe staff at smaller CBC R1 stations). But why doesn’t the CBC have a mainstream radio station catering to youth? The BBC has two (one on FM and one on satellite), which are regarded as some of the best radio stations in the world. So why isn’t CBC Radio 3 on FM? Canada is a hotbed for musical talent. If the CBC wants to become a beacon for culture, I don’t know what’s more cultural than music. Maybe they can layoff some of the 12120584012408124 on-air personalities they have. They have enough on-air talent to run a dozen networks.

    Here’s my solution to fix the CBC:
    – Fire everyone who supported the CBC NN rebrand.
    – Give Peter Mansbridge a chair and demolish and rebuild a news studio, not some neon lighted room that looks like some tourist attraction above 30 Rock in New York.
    – Fire all non-essential on-air anchor talent and re-invest that money in quality Canadian programming (at the rate CBC pays them, that should get you at LEAST 1 new show)
    – Structure your lineup to give The National a bigger draw.
    – Reinvest in CBC Radio 1
    – Make CBC Radio 2 classical again
    – Keep CBC Radio 3 for indie Canadian music
    – Create new radio stations for Canadian music to compete with the crap pushed out on Top-40 radio stations in Canada. There is more to Canadian music than Fefe Dobson. BBC Radio 1 is a great example with their “BBC Introducing” and “In New Music We Trust” programs that introduce upcoming UK musicians to mainstream airwaves.

    I can go on and on, but one thing is for sure. The CBC should be ran by some 25 year old who actually knows something about “tomorrows media” as opposed to a bunch of old white men who are clueless about what NON liberal-Toronto viewers want.

    • hlbtoo says:

      Alex I agree with some of your thoughts and disagree with others… more important, I applaud the fact that you have ideas…that is something that seems to be lacking in CBC management.

  10. Hi Howard. NPR will be a big loss outside of the major metro’s. As someone who drives a lot in the US, it’s the only voice of sanity on the dial.

    One point about declining audiences is that listening habits, at home and at work have changed dramatically in the last 10-15 years. With a finite number of hours in a day,any time grabbed by new platforms (social media, audio/video streaming) and new channels (TV & Radio) comes at the expense of traditional media.

    I know my viewing/listening habits have changed dramatically. I use Netflix for movies, Veetle for European soccer games, I can bring my music collection with me on my iPhone.

    Maybe the CBC should look at your content ideas but also have a comprehensive online database that allows me to listen to the content I want, when I want to hear it. Simple live streams does not cut it anymore.

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