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Is CBC’s New Populism Perverted?

Why youth fans like me are tuning out.

By Elaine Corden 21 Jun 2007 |

Elaine Corden writes about pop culture for the Tyee. Her work has appeared on CBC Radio, and in The Georgia Straight, The Vancouver Sun, The Globe and Mail, Vancouver Magazine, Time Out, Victoria Times-Colonist, Monday Magazine, FFWD, The Hour, North Shore News, Shared Vision and some papers in Florida, Texas and Oregon she forgets the names of. Until recently, she authored the music column "Band Geek" for WestEnder, where she also acted as Arts Editor. She maintains the pop-culture obsessed blog Trifective, and is currently working on her first novel.

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‘Great Canadian Wish List’: homophobic?

It's no secret that the CBC has undergone some major changes in the past few years. They've launched experiments ranging from the highly successful Canada Reads and Greatest Canadian contests to the somewhat-less-winning The One and the somewhat infuriating National Playlist. CBC has, for better or worse, decided to go populist. And it’s all part of a transparent attempt to grab a younger audience. Despite what some traditionalists think, CBC needs to find some way to attract new listeners and viewers -- as aging Ceebsters shuffle off to listen eternally to Gzowski reruns and the choir angelic, some other demographic will need to fill their place, or the CBC dies. It’s not pretty, but it’s the truth.

But what isn’t black and white is how they should attract those younger viewers. And as we’ve seen, while the CBC might be on the forefront of creating interactive content, they’ve yet to work out all the kinks. Kinks like, oh, providing a forum for state-sponsored homophobia, to name one. And populist perversions like that, whether or not they draw on up-to-the-minute "youth" technologies, will only drive audiences away.

Technology really has changed the game, and demanded that every media outlet be more populist or democratic in their orientation. To be reliable and square is no longer enough for any broadcaster, CBC included. Audiences want to interact with the media-makers, be the media-makers and even set the agendas. There are a few ways for a broadcaster to get in touch with their audiences and even include them: one is to worship at the altar of market research. And the next is to have contests, user participation (think American Idol) and user generated content (like CNN’s iReport) -– and the way to do that most effectively is to use technology. Ideally, user participation makes an outlet like the CBC more democratic. But as we all know, the ideals of a democracy can be easily subverted, and an organized and vocal minority can quickly become the most powerful voice in a debate.

Great = Don Cherry

Yes, CBC's populist attempts have each flaws that allow for ludicrousness. Audiences saw the first hints of this when professional hockey loudmouth Don Cherry scored higher than Alexander Graham Bell in the "Greatest Canadian" standings. And we're seeing it again in the CBC's latest voting gambit, The Great Canadian Wish List.

Let me back up. A collaboration between CBC and the human pog collection known as Facebook, The Great Canadian Wish List is rather pure and ingenious in its conception. It asks: what would you wish for the future of our country? What is your vision for Canada? Users log onto Facebook, join the Great Canadian Wish List group then browse wishes submitted by other Canadians. They’re then invited to submit their own wishes or at least declare them, by starting or joining a “wish group.” And the grand finale? The most popular wishes will be revealed by CBC on July 1st, Canada Day.

How wonderfully utopian. What a great way to get Canadians talking about their values, hopes and dreams for this great nation. And initially, this did indeed seem like a great use of Facebook -- far more useful than tracking down folk you last saw in junior high, for example.

Except the top five wishes, according to Facebook group members, are:

  1. Abolish Abortion in Canada (5,036 members)
  2. I wish that Canada would remain pro-choice (4,697 members)
  3. For a spiritual revival in our nation (2,335 members)
  4. I wish tuition fees would be either lowered or eliminated (1,932 members)
  5. Restore the Traditional Definition of Marriage (1,892 members)

Ummm. Wait a minute. Great that everyone’s getting involved and everything, participating in a debate, keeping the wheels of democracy turning. But survey after survey, and opinion poll after opinion poll have shown that a clear majority of Canadians are opposed to restrictive abortion laws. And opinion polls also show that the majority of Canadians are not interested in repealing Bill C-38, which legalized same-sex marriage.

Clearly, the debate has been seized by a very vocal minority.

It’s like when Sanjaya fans perverted the American Idol vote. Except, you know, instead of having to endure off-key Kinks covers, I now have to endure the idea of religious totality over my womb. And instead of watching talented singers being kicked off a crappy reality show, I’m watching state-sanctioned homophobia.

That right-wing traditionalists have weighed into the debate so heavily is not an indictment of their side; rather, just another example of how effective special interest groups can be at mobilizing. I don’t blame them for that.

What price for 'debate'?

What rankles is that CBC’s blatant populism is so easily perverted. Sure, this contest sparks debate around obviously contentious issues, but at what price? Do we jettison the CBC’s long history of progressive values because a few very loud voters demand it? I hope not.

For the CBC’s part, they defend the contest with just this on the contest’s ongoing blog. “Just so you know -- here at the CBC, we've received some complaints about the fact that we've continued to let this project continue, because "the wish list has been highjacked by anti-abortion lobby groups." Our response? There's no such thing as ‘highjacking’ with this project. Who ever can best organize their wish, and get the most people to support it... will come out on top. I guess the whole point is to BE good at lobbying for your wish.”

So “The Great Canadian Wish List” is in fact “Canada’s Next Top Lobbyist”? Okay, fine. So if I put “I wish for a return to slavery” up, and I get 3,000 bigots to join Facebook (or 1,000 bigots with three accounts each, for that matter), then that should be Canada’s greatest wish?

Give me a break. Popular doesn’t always mean right -- which is why we elect politicians to debate issues and don’t just hold popular votes every week. And for that matter, popular on Facebook doesn’t even really mean popular.

That there is no system of checks and balances makes the whole contest laughable at best, contemptible at worst. It seems this contest serves populism, and not the population, and fails to make a distinction between the two. It is my greatest wish that instead of quick-fix contests, CBC finds another way to appeal to a larger audience.

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