The federal government recently announced it is reviewing the CBC's mandate. This review is the latest chapter in a long story of questioning the value of the CBC since its inception 70 years ago. Clearly there are politics involved here; the CBC is an easy target for attack by parties of all stripes. What's different this time around is that the CBC's pain has been self-inflicted. Through an obsession with youth demographics and a propensity for derivative programming, the CBC has rewritten the rules for public broadcasting. It has provided ammunition to its critics, and it is in the process of writing its own death warrant.
To witness the decline in action, let's go back to February 2006. The head of English television, Richard Stursberg, addressed members of the Canadian Film and Television Production Association to outline the CBC's new programming priorities. These were based on market research that concluded that CBC's programs attracted people "largely to be informed." Those looking for entertainment were "less likely" to tune in. To attract the "less likely" demographic, consisting primarily of younger viewers, Stursberg argued that the CBC needed to change the rules of the game. Dramatic programs need to be "positive, redemptive stories" that deal with themes "audiences will respond to on an emotional level." Documentaries need to provide "more adventure and romance" and the news must aim to provide material that is "more accessible" and "personally relevant." And let's not leave out those reality and lifestyle shows -- they're also part of the plan. After decades of offering Canadians an alternative to programming on other networks, the CBC will now aim for popularity.
The result of this new strategy has been as embarrassing and awkward as an old person in a Fubu sweatsuit. Reality shows such as Dragon's Den and the recently unveiled Fashion File Host Hunt are pale imitations of programs airing on other networks, like The Apprentice or MuchMusic VJ Search. Speaking of MuchMusic, former VJ George Stroumboulopoulos delivers news with a punk aesthetic on The Hour, which consciously incorporates nose rings, stuff from YouTube and contests sponsored by Doritos. Another example of product integration, Kraft Hockeyville, united Canada's hockey-crazy communities and the purveyor of "KD," a prized Canadian foodstuff.
Reality and cheese are served up in other programming areas as well. On The Gill Deacon Show, the Corporation's lifestyle entry, viewers are challenged to think about their lives "out of the box" with a program that sheepishly mimics shows like CityLine. On radio, programs like Out Front and Sounds Like Canada and the drama Afghanada are intended to make you cheer at the power of the human spirit.
Pandering for the young
One thing is for sure: the new programming isn't about bringing more people under the CBC umbrella. By pitting younger viewers against its traditionally older demographic, the CBC's popularity contest has created a clash of generations. Judging by the audience outrage over the cancellation of On the Road Again and last summer's preemption of The National for the short-lived American talent series The One, it's clear the "up with people" approach isn't working.
It is also clear that this offensive approach has been undertaken for defensive reasons: the CBC's need to demonstrate to Parliament that it is not an elitist institution. The way to prove this is through audience ratings. Although it is a public institution run by career bureaucrats, the CBC must now act like Canada's other pitiful private broadcasters. The result is predictable: it grasps at straws, chasing down whatever programming it thinks will bring in the ratings. The kids like reality shows and blogs? We'll give them reality shows and blogs!
Here you might ask: isn't this what every other broadcaster does? The answer is yes. And you might also ask: don't most programs on U.S. networks fail every season? The answer is yes again. But the CBC's forays into popular programming are particularly lame because it lacks the competency to make them. So when Stursberg recently told employees that the CBC needs to "move to a 2.0 environment," with more opportunities for Canadians to rate things, blog or offer "user-generated content," it sounded artificial. Saying the right things and making shows that look like popular shows are one thing, but the proof is in the pudding. If the ratings for efforts like The Gill Deacon Show and Making the Cut say anything, it's that no one likes a poseur.
It didn't have to turn out this way. The CBC is acting like it's 1956, when media were scarce and it needed to be all things to everyone. This is 2007, and media are abundant. The challenge for public broadcasting is not to ensure access to Canadian stories but to recognize that more of those stories are available than ever before. Abundance can liberate the CBC to focus on what it does best: news, information, children's programming and dramas produced well and presented with confidence. "Traditional" shows like As It Happens are not the only ones that fit this description: efforts like O'Reilly on Advertising, Hot Type and Venture are excellent examples of programming other Canadian networks would not support.
This is why audience ratings are a trap. To boil down complex issues into simplistic concepts -- like "wait times" for health care -- is to co-operate in the privatization of public resources, and the same is true for audience ratings and broadcasting. If the CBC attracts more people because its content is similar to that of other broadcasters, why should it receive special treatment? When a public institution behaves like a business, it foreshadows its own demise.
With its puny budget and niche programming, the CBC should not compare itself to CTV; it should understand itself as a specialty network, like Showcase. The fact that people perceive the CBC as a source of information is evidence of the strength of the CBC brand that is recognized nationally and internationally. By concentrating on its core competencies -- earnest programming for people who find information entertaining -- the CBC can make itself relevant to Canadians again by offering us something truly distinctive on the air. It also makes sound business sense to claim one's niche in a crowded media marketplace. If the CBC stays the course, it will become increasingly irrelevant. And then, when it becomes a pale shadow of its former self, the CBC's mandarins won't be able to pin the blame on politicians or a public that can't get enough of CSI.
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