work, was packing them in at the cinemas, the Canadian Association for Adult Education had an idea. Why not stage, in the form of network television specials, a grassroots debate on Canada’s future and other issues of the day? “Right from the start we wanted CBC to do it,” says CAAE’s executive director, Ian Morrison. And so it will. The first of the six-part series, People Talking Back, will be shown on Feb. 4.
Morrison got an appointment to see CBC President AÍ Johnson and was expecting only 20 or 30 minutes “in which to make a quick pitch” for free airtime. But Johnson liked the idea so much he kept him theré 2l/¿ hours. And indeed, in retrospect, it’s easy to see why the corporation would be hot for such a scheme, which has “mandate” written all over it and can’t fail but score Brownie points with the CRTC. The shows, all of them originating from Edmonton and with at least the first one hosted by Gordon Pinsent, will include satellite links to major cities and filmed people-in-the-street interviews on preselected topics. Viewers will be encouraged to phone in their two cents’ worth toll-free and the thrust and volume of their response, taped for future broadcast, will help determine the shape of other shows in the series. The general themes are language rights, distrust of politicians and the media, the economy, labor, and the future, generally.
One of the reasons Edmonton was chosen as the site is the fact that, according to Donald MacDonald, secondin-command at CBC public affairs, “it has done this sort of programming locally and regionally.” So, of course, has the CBC generally, on radio. Such programs as Citizen's Forum and Farm Forum were once the last word in openline broadcasting but collapsed in the 1960s under the weight, not just of television, but of a more sophisticated approach to public opinion. (One survivor is Cross Country Check-up.) Now the fashion is for a return to town-meeting sort of journalism. People Talking Back can be seen as comparable to Your Turn: Letters to CBS News, which is being launched in the U.S. on a regular basis after several successful trials.
People Talking Back is designed, says Morrison, “to give not just the kooks, the crazies and the oddballs but the average citizen a chance to speak.” For the CBC at least, there’s also a twinge of guilt involved. “TV sooner or later has to
cope with the times,” says MacDonald. “It has to get some feedback, has to change its own role in the country. This is an attempt to see if this (the old democratic spirit of radio days) can be transferred to television. It’s kind of an experiment for CBC.”
Dolores MacFarlane, the series’ executive producer, traveled to every province and both territories doing informal research in the field. “I really began to sense that there’s something happening,” she says. “People are fed up not just with the Liberals but with the whole political system. They’re fed up with everything big: big government, big business, big labor, big company towns.” Presumably big budgets, as well. The CBC is putting on the first three-hour special for a mere $160,000 in direct production costs; the other five instalments are expected to absorb only $5,000 to $6,000 per show in production costs.
Rather than phone in to the show in progress, callers are to phone provincial representatives positioned in advance by the CAAE, drawing on some of the 50 libraries, YMCAs and other public ser-
vice groups formed in a loose coalition for this project under the CAAE banner.
Morrison is sincere in believing in the importance of the series in terms of citizen involvement. But he stresses that “it has to be entertainment, it has to be good TV,” as well. The shows are going out live from the 500-seat Victoria High School Performing Arts Theatre. Satellite links to each province will include a scripted talk with the various groups set up by the CAAE. These will alternate with man-on-the-street film clips. All this will be bridged by music from a group called the Fat Chants and “mood soliloquies” by Pinsent, who was chosen over other possible emcees for his appeal outside the big cities and his professionalism without glibness.
“It has potential,” says Dolores MacFarlane frankly, “for being the biggest dog’s breakfast in the world.” But then, too, it could also be an accurate reflection of the mood of the times. It’s somehow sadly appropriate, for instance, that this crying out for input on (among other topics) national unity will not be seen at all on the French-language network. Doug Fetherling
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