I'm Mad as Hell

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and I can't do a thing about it

CBC: Fade to Black

Every time someone writes a blog condemning the new CBC, like the one last week by Tim Knight that caused a small stir, there seems to be less and less interest in it. There was a time when a piece like Tim’s would have caused a tremendous reaction. CBC backers would have taken to their computers and their writing implements to shout him down or to join him in the chorus of complainers. The fact that this is not happening speaks volumes about where the CBC is today in the conscious minds of Canadians. It is in fact not a pretty picture.

The CBC move to become ultra-light in an effort to woo younger viewers and boost its ratings has been a dismal failure. The age of the average CBC audience has not declined appreciably. The audience numbers have not risen, especially in comparison to the gains made by CTV and Global since the rating system was changed. Shows like Little Mosque on the Prairie and Insecurity have served to turn loyal CBC viewers away from the network. The National’s weak efforts since it was revamped have served to cut anywhere from 20 to 40 percent of the CBC News audience. The dismal treatment of current affairs mainstays like The 5th Estate and Marketplace have eroded both their numbers and their positive affect on how we view the work and importance of CBC TV. All of this is regrettable, and most important each small failure has led to the Corp’s biggest problem: too few people care enough anymore to fight for the CBC’s future.

I just returned from a trip to the east coast. When I lived there many years ago the CBC was a mainstay. It was top of mind if not top of ratings. The National’s news anchor was a star. There were programs that everyone watched and talked about. Yes, it was mainly in news and current affairs, but under brilliant people like John Kennedy the CBC was producing excellent movies and series that made a difference.
Today, I couldn’t find anyone who called himself or herself a CBC viewer. Most of the people I met don’t watch The National at all and seldom see anything on CBC. I know this is not a scientific survey, but I did see a lot of people in social group situations. The Maritimes, like Manitoba and Newfoundland were where the CBC picked up its biggest per capita audiences. That’s not true anymore for the Maritimes.

As if all this is not bad enough, at least three people questioned why the CBC should continue to exist and be funded by the taxpayers. One man from New Glasgow, a bookshop owner, went so far as to say he would not vote for any political party that would not sell off CBC TV. The general argument they make is that CBC TV programming is the same sort of stuff we see on CTV and Global. When I talked of Canadian content and jobs in the TV industry they laughed, saying if you can’t produce quality shows that I want to watch, you don’t deserve to have a job in the industry.

While many of these people’s feelings are extreme, what I see is a general malaise. People just don’t care anymore about the CBC and its future. When Parliament asked CBC to look for five percent in cuts to a budget that is already far to small to do the job, I didn’t hear a peep from anyone complaining about our cultural heritage or the need to have a national broadcaster. The silence was deafening.
CBC TV, it seems, has finally lost its standing as an important Canadian institution. Twenty-five years of budget cuts and six years of management dumbing down the content have worked their magic to make CBC TV just another station, and an unpopular one at that. The fact that the CBC costs Canadians a billion dollars per year only serves to make citizens care more about the money and less about what the network has to offer.

In the best of all worlds there would be a groundswell of opposition to what the current managers have done to a venerable institution. There would be a demand for watchable local news and a more serious National. There would be an outcry demanding a few high quality shows to counterbalance the froth. Alas, none of that is happening. What we are witness to is a slow fade to black at CBC TV. The very people who are responsible for a 75 year old legacy are either asleep at the wheel or have no idea what they are doing to the reputation and standing of the CBC.

Stephen Harper will not have to sell off the CBC, he won’t even have to do anything drastic. All he has to do is stand aside and let the CBC drift further and further into irrelevancy.

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9 Responses

  1. Live through the G20, and Try to Watch the News Now says:

    I agree with you, and yet I do not want to watch the CBC descend into oblivion. By becoming apolitical, shallow, and irrelevant, the CBC has failed to defend democracy.

    And by failing to defend democracy through true documentary journalism and reportage, it has, ironically, put its own head on the block.

    I witnessed the G20 in Toronto, and the dissolution of our city into a state of martial law, and the CBC did little but stand by and idly watch at the time, leaving Toronto vulnerable, and without a defender.

    I will never watch CTV again- where the coverage was the worst – and l lost a great deal of faith in the CBC, even though I believe passionately in its mandate.

  2. MaryP says:

    The attacks on CBC – whether from the Harper government or in comment threads on websites (not this one) – make me furious. I don’t tend to yell about it a lot because, whether this is right or not, I feel that as long as Harper has a majority, it’s a bit like yelling at a brick wall. I’ve made my living at times through the CBC, as have some friends and family. I also grew up listening to and watching it. So I have financial, professional, and cultural interests in its survival.

    But the commenter above is talking about the most important reason to preserve the CBC and encourage it to thrive – and do its job better: we need a public broadcaster to deliver journalism that isn’t available in commercial news. The importance of this to Canada and the world can hardly be overstated.

    It’s a leap in logic and a huge mistake to say that a dip in quality or ratings at CBC justifies a threat to its existence. It justifies questioning its quality and ratings, absolutely. Full stop. When the government sucks and the politicians do dumb things, we don’t say get rid of the government, get rid of democracy. We say fix government, return to democracy.

    The public broadcaster – a source of journalism for all the people rather than just the advertisers, owners, CEOs, and shareholders, is crucial to the democracy, culture, health, and well-being of Canada – even when all Canadians don’t recognise that fact. We need to separate the question of CBC’s quality from the question of its existence – and champion both, including by being critical of its quality when we want to, as one is free to do in a democracy.

    Canadian taxpayers spend a billion dollars a year on CBC and sometimes it’s an imperfect return on their money. I’m still proud that we can afford it. We also spend a billion dollars a year on the mission in Afghanistan, and another billion subsidising the corporate development of oil sands in Alberta – I’m much less proud of those expenses. CBC is only the easiest target – and it’s by following the dumbed-down logic and values of corporate media that we get to a place where we believe the the easiest target is the best one.

    • hlbtoo says:

      Mary…I couldn’t agree with you more. Now if we could only convince the people running the CBC to fight for a niche that includes excellent Canadian programs in news, drama, current affairs and the arts, perhaps then we can all look ahead to a strong future for the corporation.

  3. Barry Kiefl says:

    Quote from Wayne Skene’s 1993 book on the demise of CBC TV, Fade to Black:

    “Despite the happy talk about attracting a younger audience, by the spring of 1993 an embarrassing drop in audience was beginning to be seriously felt on the revenue side. Panic was beginning to set in….Prime time ratings, not public service authenticity, were the hormones driving the urges of the(network)…Instead of continuing to compete in the seedy and indistinguishable world of commercial television, the CBC…should recognize the inevitability of audience fragmentation and offer Canadians one, clear option–a public television service…with programs no other broadcaster provided.”

    Plus ca change.

    • hlbtoo says:

      Plus ca change indeed. Wayne Skene was right then, and he would still be correct today. Thanks Barry for the input.

  4. Joe Clark says:

    The CBC already has “a few high-quality shows”; you and your entire social circle just don’t like them, and none of them are Opening Night.

    • hlbtoo says:

      Wow Joe you caught us. We are all a bunch of esoteric, eclectic, elitists…everyone’s out of step except our Joe.

  5. Ibrahim says:

    The CBC won’t offer a distinctive product now or in the future for one reason – money.

    If a broadcaster can offer a mainstream product that appeals to the largest possible audience, then it can charge higher advertising rates and generate more cash. No business that competes in the open market can or will avoid this.

    The only solution is for the government to order the CBC to stop running ads. Their $1 billion subsidy, plus any money they can get from donors, foundations and endowments, would have to suffice.

    This move would be crucial to the surival of Canada’s cultural industry. We all know that the private networks are nothing more than rebroadcasters of American programming, and that will never change.

    Only a public broadcaster is properly placed to tell Canadian stories, and the CBC is doing a terrible job of that right now.

    Its competitive business model will kill it far sooner than any right-leaning administration in Ottawa.

    • hlbtoo says:

      Ibrahim, what you say is all true. Unfortunately though, the CBC could not survive withots the ads, or failing that, a huge influx in government dollars. People forget that the billion dollars covers radio in French and English and TV in French and English, a whopping amount spent on over the air transmission and all the other television stations that CBC owns. In fact CBC TV is vastly underfunded already.

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