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Hill Dispatches

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Karl Nerenberg has been reporting on federal politics from Parliament Hill for rabble.ca since September, 2011. In his long career, he has won numerous awards as a broadcaster and documentary filmmaker.

Simply giving more money to CBC might not do the trick

| March 15, 2016
Photo: flickr/ Steve Tannock

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The new Trudeau government has pledged to significantly boost funding for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC), the bedrock of Canadian cultural life since 1932.

It was in 1932 that R.B. Bennett's Conservative government created the CBC's predecessor: the Canadian Radio Broadcasting Commission.

Boosting CBC funding sound like a goods plan.


Three cheers.

Or, maybe, just two cheers.

The widespread view that the CBC has been starved of funds for more than two decades is, yes, probably quite justified.

The British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) operates on more than three and a half times the per capita funding of CBC. And it broadcasts in one language rather than two, and in one time zone, not six.

Believe it or not, despite that generous funding, the British do a fair bit of handwringing over the BBC.

They tend to view their venerable public broadcaster as a significant national asset, not only domestically, but also internationally. To Britons, the BBC is part of their worldwide brand; and many worry that, given its crucial, even iconic, role, the British public broadcaster is underfunded.

Well, if the BBC might be underfunded, the CBC must be on starvation rations.

But does that mean the government should simply shuffle more cash the CBC's way?

Not necessarily.

In the current, complex media environment, the government -- and Canadians -- must decide what our public policy goals for broadcasting are.

Management decisions and government cuts

The CBC was originally designed more as a distributor than as a creator of content.

The government that created it, and the managers that ran it, wanted first and foremost to assure that as many Canadians as possible had access to over-the-air radio and (later) television signals.

The CBC focused intensely, in its first few decades, on making its signals available as widely as possible in Canada.

The corporation considered it a big accomplishment when it completed the construction of its trans-Canada transmission system for television in 1958.

From the outset, producing original Canadian content had its place, but it was a secondary place.

For most of its history, CBC devoted much of its prime time on-air real estate, first in radio and then in television, to American programming.

And even when CBC television dropped U.S. programs and went all Canadian in the 1990s that did not entail a major investment in CBC-produced programs

Quite to the contrary.  

At that point, the CBC cast itself quite assertively as, essentially, a commissioner and acquirer of programming -- especially so-called entertainment programming -- rather than a creator.

CBC management, and government policymakers, seemed to subscribe to the assumption, never proven, that the private sector is more nimble and creative, and better suited to create appealing programs than the bureaucratic and plodding public sector.

And so, it was not only budget cuts that impelled the CBC to progressively shed much of its creative staff, especially in television.

It was management's conception of the corporation's role.

CBC brass long ago decided the corporation should not focus on creating programs. Its main role should be to acquire programs produced by the private sector and distribute them through its extensive network of over-the-air (and, more recently, cable) stations.

Over the years, CBC television has gotten rid of its in-house drama, music, arts and variety production capacity. More recently, it even killed its small, but highly respected, in-house documentary unit.

The creative life of the organization -- especially, though not exclusively, in television -- has, to a large extent been, literally, bled away. 

What is left?

For the most part, there are managers, some technology specialists and a news service.

The question policymakers and all Canadians must now ask themselves is: what if the distribution rather than content-creation model is wrong?

What if the world of digital distribution creates entirely new and previously unimagined imperatives?

What if the CBC's conception of itself as an old-fashioned acquisition company and distributor of other people's content is out of step with the possibilities of a digital age?

There are people at the CBC who must be thinking about this, but we do not hear much from them.

Must not merely reinvest in CBC, must reinvent it

Re-building Canada's public broadcaster as a creative force, in and of itself, especially on its television side, would not be easy.

And yet, that is probably what should happen.

In the present-day, online and multi-channel universe, what Canadians cannot always easily find are their own stories -- especially their own stories told with flair and insight.

What this country needs is not a 10-cent cigar.

Nor does it need another broadcaster that does nothing more than buy stuff from private sector producers who have one eye on the Canadian market and the other on international sales.

Canada desperately needs an enhanced capacity to communicate, in a rich, variegated and effective way, with itself.

It needs the capacity to authentically tell its own stories, in its own languages, in its own distinctive voices.

In radio, the CBC's choices and government cutbacks have not entirely destroyed that creative capacity, although they have weakened it.

The corporation killed radio drama, eliminated most original music production, and severely curtailed the state-of-the-art radio documentaries that were once the hallmark of such programs as the old Sunday Morning.

CBC radio has even, for the most part, stopped playing the music of contemporary Canadian composers. On its so-called serious music radio network, CBC has adopted an all-greatest hits policy, which leaves no room for anything that is not as famous as the 1812 Overture. Few Canadian compositions can crack classical music's top 40 lineup.

And even the last remaining jewel in the CBC's crown, news (which used to be both news and current affairs), has become more and more slave to a dumbed-down, click-bait philosophy.

Turning journalists into widget makers

Last December, in his blog Now the Details, former CBC manager and current journalism lecturer Jeffrey Dvorkin explained how that dumbing down has happened.

Dvorkin quoted one Richard Kanee, currently Senior Director of Digital Media at the CBC:

"We're deprioritizing innovation and we're actually privileging things that can function more like a widget factory, which is what media companies need in order to have real scale."

What Kanee is referring to is the new requirement for CBC's much reduced stable of journalists to churn out bite-sized and celebrity-laden material that will have an instant gratification appeal for casual clickers.

Kanee was quite candid, and brutally honest, when he said he wanted to turn journalists into widget makers.

The result of this click-bait approach, for those who still care about quality journalism, has been devastating.

Dvorkin, who once headed the CBC radio news service, quoted the following from a still-at-CBC colleague who prefers to remain anonymous:

"Frankly this bullshit about digital and young audiences is little more than a way for the new digital masters to create their own self-fulfilling fiefdom: crank out 'stories' that feature animals, crime and pictures of any sort because that's what people click on. Next, count the clicks. Then write self-congratulatory emails describing the 'wins'… Should a journalist buck the prevailing dogma and … actually pull off something original, make sure it's not promoted on the social media feeds because it might soften the numbers …"

And then, from a working journalist inside the CBC, comes the sad and doleful conclusion.

It is a conclusion those considering increased funding for the CBC should consider very carefully:

"Sadly, pumping more money back into the CBC would encourage what I see to be a degradation of the news service we used to aspire to … Digital is an excellent platform ... The problem is what we're doing with it. Journalism is not the priority."

Photo: flickr/ Steve Tannock




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