INSIDE CBC THE FRIENDLY GIANT

HIGGLEDY, PIGGLEDY, CBC, CBC

DOUGLAS MARSHALL December 1 1968
INSIDE CBC THE FRIENDLY GIANT

HIGGLEDY, PIGGLEDY, CBC, CBC

DOUGLAS MARSHALL December 1 1968

HIGGLEDY, PIGGLEDY, CBC, CBC

INSIDE CBC THE FRIENDLY GIANT

DOUGLAS MARSHALL

Multi-dimensional Creature of quirks;

Gives itself airs with Ultra-high frequency, Here are 10 items that Tell how it works;

Our switch from audio to video

ONE DAY WITHIN the next couple of months some holdout householder in Digby or maybe Flin Flon will finally break down and buy himselt a boob tube. Give that man the Logie Baird medal with two McLuhan bars. He'll be the person who completes Canada’s switch from a predominately radio country to a predominately TV country. Back in 1964 there were 4.7 million Canadian households with radios but only 4.4 million with TV sets. Since then television has been pulling up fast. As of last January 5.2 million, or 96.9 percent, of the households had radio while 5.1 million, or 95 percent, of the homes were tuned into TV. By March 1969 there will almost certainly be more homes receiving television than radio.

How Canada calls the world

Whenever the budgetary axe hovers over the CBC, it’s usually the International Service that heads the queue for the block. Despite constant threats of extinction, the Montreal-based service is still able to broadcast our way of life to five continents in 1 1 languages via its Sackville, New Brunswick, shortwave transmitters. And who listens? Well, last year the service received some 75,000 letters, cards and reception reports from abroad. Not the Voice of America, perhaps, but still a bargain PR job for Canada at a cost of only $3.7 million.

Angry at the CBC? Just phone

One of the commonest charges leveled against the CBC is that it operates in splendid isolation, treating audiences as something to be seen to but not heard from. Simply not true, says a Corporation PR man. The CBC is bombarded by close to two million letters and telephone calls a year. The bulk of the letters are of the back-patting variety: “I would like to list the programs that my husband and I especially enjoy. They are Don Messer, . . . ” And the majority of the phone calls are routine inquiries: Who was that talking to Gerussi? What time is the football game scheduled? But buried in this avalanche of trivia arc a fair number of letters and even more phone calls which the CBC euphemistically describes as "reaction response.” In other words, complaints.

Nothing lights up the CBC switchboards faster than a change in scheduled programs or the screening of a different movie than the one announced. When this year’s Academy Awards were postponed for several days (in tribute to the memory of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who had just been murdered), the CBC received nearly 8,000 carping phone calls — 900 in Toronto alone. The second most frequent spur-ofthe-moment complaint is that some program the CBC has presented is either too proAmerican or too anti-American. Also high on the target list for hostile phone calls are the comments of that aging provocateur, Gordon Sinclair, and anything remotely resembling avant garde drama.

Written complaints usually deal with more general subjects. A surprisingly large number of Canadians are annoyed by background music. It’s either too loud or too dreary. Another frequent beef is the loudness of commercials, especially when a husky 1935 movie soundtrack is suddenly interrupted by a blaring 1968 beer commercial. Letters also contain bitter complaints that the CBC has scheduled a favorite series in the same time slot as another favorite program on another network. (About 10 percent of the mail, incidentally, comes from the U.S. and it’s invariably favorable.)

All mail is answered. CBC headquarters in Toronto employs four girls full time replying to letters and providing explanations when possible. Another four girls man the switchboard to deal with telephone complaints. They also try to provide rational explanations lor angry listeners or viewers. But one regular complainer has them stymied. Every so often this little old lady phones in to protest that somebody is peeping at her out of the box.

The secret of who watches what

If the CBC is notoriously touchy about discussing costs (even after two and a half years the actual budget for Seven Days remains a state secret), it is positively paranoiac about TV ratings. The philosophy is that no public network should match quality of programs against quantity of viewers. And quite proper, too. However, even the CBC can’t operate in total ignorance. Nielsen ratings reveal that in the 74 hours broadcast by the English network each week (see diagram for breakdown) there were 19 shows last year drawing an average audience of more than two million. (Only seven of the shows were produced in Canada.) Tops was Ed Sullivan (3.51 million viewers) with Red Skelton (3.31 million) second. Then came

Front Page Challenge (3.1 2 million) and Hockey Night (3.08 million). Green Acres (2.84 million) and Hogan's Heroes (2.55 million) both outdrew Wojeck (2.46 million), which is rather sad. In addition, the CBC has its own private (and secret) ratings system based on the dayto-day responses of a select group of 2,000 viewers. This group is also used for special audience-research studies. One such study, conducted on TV advertising recently, made the profound discoveries that viewers (a) dislike "the frequency with which commercials interrupt the continuity of programs,” and (b) consider many commercials "so stupid and infantile as to constitute an insult to the viewer’s intelligence.” That's insight.

A nerve centre that isn’t

The only important thing about the CBC, the Fowler Commission neatly concluded, is what goes out on the air. All the rest is shopkeeping. The core of the shopkeeping end of things is stacked seven floors high in a graceful three-million-dollar building on the outskirts of Ottawa. The core of what goes out on the air isn't really a core at all; it's a ganglia of 16 dilapidated buildings scattered all over downtown Toronto. Similarly scattered are 2.350 of the CBC’s 9.000 employees. Proposals to consolidate the nerve centre in a $50-million complex will be 10 years old next month.

“And now. battle fans, the British have seized the initiative . .

We live in an age of instant-replay history.

This year Czechoslovakia had the dubious privilege of becoming the first nation in history to watch itself being invaded on television.

The picture above shows how the resources of CBC-TV News would be marshaled to handle Canada's most famous invasion — Wolfe’s landing at Quebec. Presiding over the operation would be Bill Harcourt, executive producer fur special events. Assuming some advance warning (Wolfe would likely have called a pre-attack press conference), Harcourt would first of all fly in Norman DePoe from Toronto and Knowlton Nash from Washington as anchormen. Then David Halton would be called in from Paris for the French viewpoint. Next on the scene would be independent teams

from The Public Eye and The Way It Is, both digging for the analytical news behind the news. (“General, can you assess the longterm effects this defeat is likely to have on the future of French Canada?”) Main coverage would be provided by at least two mobile units — each carrying two generators, a camera and a video-tape recorder and manned by a driver, two technicians, a cameraman and a reporter. A helicopter would be used to beam down bird’s-eye angles of the battle and a film crew would provide back-up coverage.

A microwave dish would be erected to feed signals to the nearest station or, if that proved infeasible, motorcycle couriers would relay cans of tape and film. And, oh yes, the CBC would probably decide to skip the commercials.

What the CBC costs the taxpayers

In terms of expenditure, the CBC is big business in any tycoon’s language. Total operating bill for the year 1967-68 was $185,885,439 — call it $186 million with tip. That’s a lot more than the $154.5 million Britain’s publicly owned BBC spends each year servicing twice as many viewers but spanning an area only a fraction the size of Canada. A more realistic comparison is the Australian Broadcasting Commission: its expenditure was $51.8 million. After juggling around with depreciation, amortization and loan repayments, the CBC received $136.6 million directly from us via the federal government. Advertising brought in another $38.7 million. The TV service cost $113 million (compared with $91 million the previous year) and the radio service $28.3 million (compared with $24.9 million). Main reason for the increase was the rising costs of programs. The CBC’s overall capital assets stand at $139.7 million. The people of Canada’s equity in that, should the Corporation ever take its harsher critics seriously and decide to liquidate itself, is $103 million.

Hockey night on the microwave web

The spine of CBC-TV is a 4,000-mile microwave network linking 45 main stations and 121 unmanned satellite stations. The master control is in Toronto. Because of the time-zone problem there’s a tape-delay centre in Calgary, and Maritime programs are fed to Halifax the night before. The network broadcasts causing the most technical headaches involve the Saturday night hockey games (see diagram). Those headaches turn into migraines for the Toronto controller when one hockey game ends before the other and the following program (The Barris Beat in English) has to be juggled around.

Color TV grey for 96 percent of us

Imagine the government of Canada deciding to pump unlimited jéroboams of free champagne into every household in the land. The catch is that irt all but a select four percent of the homes, those with expensive conversion mechanisms, the champagne turns into flat ginger ale. Allowing for a slight effervescence in the analogy, this is roughly what has been happening since the CBC’s big switch to color TV in 1966. The English-language network colors the airwaves with clouds of brilliant butterflies for 22 of its 24 prime-time hours a week; but 96 percent of the viewers see only tattered moths in various shades of grey.

Although color remains low on the CBC’s list of priorities (it would far rather spend the money expanding the network and providing better programs), the pressures of prestige and private industry have forced it to invest an admiral’s ransom in color equipment. So far the Corporation has poured an estimated $20 million into 17 telecine chains for showing color film, 40 color videotape recorders, 51 studio and mobile color cameras, 12 mobile or transportable color units and three colorfilm plants. And the color conversion still has

a long way to go. The major CBC centres have minimal equipment for broadcasting color film and tape, but only Toronto, Montreal and Ottawa boast full studio facilities for producing color programs. However, of the seven studios in the Toronto complex, only two have so far been converted to handle color.

Most of the CBC’s color production equipment now scattered around central Canada was originally purchased for the International Broadcasting Centre at Expo 67. Purchase of equipment that will enable other outlying CBC centres to produce color will proceed when government policy makes funds available.

Obviously there has to be a color service to encourage people to buy color TV sets in the first place. But on the other hand the sets, which still cost at least $600 for a good livingroom model, remain a prohibitive luxury for the average man. The horns of this capitalist dilemma wouldn’t hurt so much were it not for the fact that the CBC is a publicly owned corporation. So the black-and-white taxpayer is indirectly subsidizing the electronics industry (already protected by import tariffs) by financing a color service watched only by itinerant barflies and the very rich. The only color 96 percent of Canadian viewers see is red.

Man with the golden spoonerism

It's been a long time since a CBC radio announcer signed off with the immortal line: “This is the Canadian Broadcorping Castration.” And perhaps most people have forgotten that when CBC-TV first went on the air in 1952 the call letters were upside down on the screen. Bloopers still occur, of course. Recently, Stanley Burke gravely told a National News audience that certain valiant rescue workers were “risking death — or more serious injury.” But it isn’t anything like the old days, says chief CBC announcer John Rae. Now that almost everything on CBC radio and TV is prerecorded, fewer and fewer goofs actually get on the air. Sure, there can be technical hitches — especially on TV. Movie reels have been so badly scrambled that heroes have ridden off into the sunset before winning the gunfight. sound and vision sometimes slip so far out of synchronization that dogs miaow and cats bark, and the CBC has even run commercials backward. But as for those essentially human slips that delight audiences so much . . . well, good old Burke is just about the only announcer you can rely on any more. He was born with a golden spoonerism in his mouth and can seldom reach the end of a newscast without tripping out with something like “the Queen of the Bletherlands.”

Spoonerisms have long been the bête noire of any broadcaster talking into a live mike.

At one time or another CBC announcers have committed phrases like “the Duck and Doochess of Windsor,” “St. Pathew’s Massion” and “these wheels speed at the spin of.” A farm broadcaster once began: “Now let’s turn to sogs and hows, excuse me, I mean hows and sogs . . . Let’s turn to pigs.” Correspondent Knowlton Nash treasures the time he was introduced with: “Stand by for Wolton Hash from Noshington.” Other slips are often the result of pure ignorance. A Newfoundland commentator was well into a dissertation on “avi/ca-doos” before the producer realized the subject was avocados. More recently there was a voice-over announcement on CBC-TV that went like this: “Be sure to listen to the production of Don Giovanni on radio next Wednesday. The part of Don will be played by ... ” John Rae likes to tell one glorious blooper story about himself. Apparently he was introducing a record program involving a Chopin piano concerto on radio one afternoon. The first and second movements of the concerto were on one side of the record with the third movement on the flip side. The needle stuck in the groove between the first and second movements and after a long hiatus of dead air. Rae realized what had happened and screamed into the control booth. The dozing technician sprang into action, flipped the record over and began the third movement. When it ended, Rae embarked on a confusing explanation of what had happened to the second movement. This

in itself grew so complicated that he began to explain the explanation. Finally, he found himself saying rather foolishly: “So, let’s go back and listen to the second movement now.”

One of the greatest unflappable announcers of all time is Earl Cameron. Old Stone Face can keep his cool when everybody else is losing theirs and blaming it on him. Once, when Cameron was about to go on the air with the 10 p.m. radio news, a disaffected colleague dropped a lighted match in a wastepaper basket and stage-whispered, “Fire!”, just out of mike range. As the studio filled with smoke, Cameron carried gallantly on with his report — his even-tenured voice never once betraying a quaver of panic.

In a way, the 34 radio and TV announcers at CBC headquarters in Toronto pine for the days when mistakes abounded. It meant they could throw bigger parties. Each announcer kicks a dollar into a kitty every time he makes a mistake. They use the money for a year-end bash at which the man with the most mistakes to his credit is presented with an award — a grotesque, foot-high table lighter in the shape of a dragon with snarling mouth and eyes staring upward in catatonic horror. Last year the kitty held $84. The award winner (his name’s a secret) had goofed eight times. His biggest mistake was signing off the TV network with: “This is the CBC radio network.” Bloopers simply aren’t what they used to be in the days of the old broadcorping castration.