The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) was effectively born a mixed-blood child back in 1929, taking over a series of radio stations first set up by the Canadian National Railway. Early CBC radio broadcasts included American programming, and, even in my day, as a kid growing up the late 50s, early 60s, CBC was ‘affiliated’ with many privately owned radio stations across Canada, replete with ads.
The breakthrough came in 1974, when the radio network stopped running commercial advertising. What followed was an unprecedented flowering of creativity and quality that saw CBC Radio become as good as any broadcast service that’s ever been offered, anywhere. In the wake of that 1974 decision, CBC went on to undoubtedly become the most important cultural institution in the country.
I have to stress that these accolades belong rightly to CBC Radio, as opposed to CBC television, which began in 1958 with an impossible blend of commercial and public mandates, and has never been allowed to try flying without the debilitating weight of advertisers (and therefore the abiding incentive to seek higher ratings).
Last week the Canadian Radio and Television Commission (the CRTC) granted the CBC up to four minutes of advertising per hour on Radio 2, the music arm of the network, beginning what will surely be the death throes of CBC radio as we have known it. This coup de grâce comes after decades of brutal cutbacks to the Corporation, all while overall federal spending climbed steadily. The most recent will see a further 10% cut from CBC’s annual budget by 2014.
Thus you might lay the blame for its demise at the feet of CBC’s hostile patron in Ottawa, which has, over the years and despite it all, born the critical brunt of mostly exceptional CBC news services. But this latest blow has of course come at the behest of CBC management, desperate to maintain its own viability. It’s CBC staffers who have initiated their own suicide watch, in a mad attempt to stay alive by imitating the very private stations which threaten them.
CBC has one and only one viable future—as a distinct alternative to the private broadcasters. What possible justification for its taxpayer outlay can the CBC find in providing what the private stations are already providing? It should be but somehow isn’t dreadfully apparent to CBC executives that every inch closer to their commercial counterparts they step is an inch closer to their own oblivion.
It’s likely too late for CBC TV. For a nation as small as Canada, in today’s media marketplace, it’s likely just too expensive to produce quality television with taxpayer dollars. What’s more, CBC television was simply too cruelly compromised from the outset, never able to assume the robust communal role that might have won it unambiguous public approval. CBC TV’s only hope for survival now is as a PBS-style broadcaster focusing upon news, public affairs and other serious, not schlocky (i.e. Battle of the Blades) factual programming. That means no sports, and, like PBS, no original production of dramatic shows. (In anticipation of all those who would cry ‘elitist’ in the face of the reduced audience that such a content shift would entail, let me say that I and many others like me would gladly, immediately contribute their own personal monies to such a service, were it to be commercial free.)
As to CBC radio, it certainly isn’t as good as it used to be when bigger budgets meant a more international focus. But from AM’s The Sunday Edition, hosted by Michael Enright—who himself should be considered something of a national treasure—to Rich Terfry’s Radio 2 Drive, which, for my money, provides the best music programming anywhere on the dial, CBC Radio has, amazingly, been able to pretty much get it right. This formerly brilliant and still great national lead character must not be allowed to hang itself. Canadians everywhere should stand up and shout, as loudly as they possibly can, at both their MPs and at the frightened, misguided CBC managers, calling for the preservation of a genuinely public radio broadcaster, 100% government and listener-supported.
Otherwise we should just pull the plug right now, before it gets too painful to behold.