CBC television and the 'public' in public broadcasting

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The "debate" about CBC resonates less and less. It's probably time for the super-verbalizing to end and for CBC to either produce or get off the pot. Consider the despoliation of language in just this recent round. (This doesn't apply, by the way, to CBC Radio, which has an audience that actually cares.)

Richard Stursberg, who was tossed as head of CBC TV four years ago after brilliantly alienating whatever supporters might have rallied to it, wrote in the Globe: "CBC should not duplicate the work of the private sector. There is no point spending public money on things that are already being well done without it." I rest my case. This would mean, if it was meaningful, that CBC shouldn't do news, but he's all for news. He created a department of reality TV at CBC to ape those in private and public broadcasters, and drove the national news to replicate crime and fire stories already available. And why wouldn't you say the same about schools: let the private sector run them, they do it so well?

Producer Robert Lantos echoes this, if you can echo a void: "There has to be a future for the CBC," he says, provided it "makes no attempt to compete with the private sector and proudly sticks to its mission which, summarized in one word, is Canada." This at least is mystifying and Zen-like. What is Canada? Is it a kid lacing up his skates on an icy pond? A financier hiding his money in the Cayman Islands? When the BBC created Doctor Who, was it fulfilling its one-word mission: Britain? Sure there was that police box but the idea wasn't to be Britain, it was to do something good with an opportunity provided by legislation and funding. There's really no such thing as "not doing what the private sector does." We all inhabit the same complex reality that includes public and private, and the issue usually amounts to just doing something, either well or badly.

Let me pause for breath and historical perspective. I believe we're in the midst of a historic change in the notion of "public" as in public broadcasting. It used to be clear: it meant owned/operated by a government or its agencies. But its meaning has begun to leak elsewhere, largely courtesy of the Internet, which widened the range of participation in "public" matters that were previously dominated by elected or appointed officials: to co-ops, NGOs and Internet phenomena like crowdfunding, Wikipedia, social media generally. Part of the frustration with public institutions is they often don't seem very public in spirit. The CBC has always reeked of an elitist sense of distance from the public, despite its descriptor. If you're in the food court below CBC headquarters, you'll see people who've been on TV as performers or pundits beside others who have interchangeable jobs and will never be seen on CBC-TV, yet on the Internet everyone can have a voice and be heard. Something is shifting. Digression over.

The only thing CBC-TV should unqualifiedly be doing is better, thereby making itself indispensable. What's indispensable, broadcast-wise? The Trailer Park Boys. Sometimes they're even sublime. Now they're back with a movie. Julian with his rum and Coke is immortal. I know they're not CBC, that's my point. Never mind private or public, just do something delightful. It's no accident the Boys are from Atlantic Canada; they have a sense of themselves that transmits to anyone anywhere but starts in a specific reality.

I yield on this final point to my friend, Eric Peterson, who has created indelible Canadian characters from Billy Bishop to Oscar of Corner Gas (also not CBC). He spends way too much time haranguing TV producers about the need for a confident sense of self and place. When you have it, like the Danes, then you can do great TV drama, no matter how small your market. We have it in novels and music, he tells them, but utterly lack it in TV drama. "Eric," they condescendingly reply, "This is a business, you need a business plan." "That is the business plan," he shoots back -- not adding, as I would, "you idiot."

This article was first published in the Toronto Star.

Photo: Dave Shea/flickr

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