Backstage

In praise of public broadcasting

Anthony Wilson-Smith March 22 1999
Backstage

In praise of public broadcasting

Anthony Wilson-Smith March 22 1999

In praise of public broadcasting

Backstage

Anthony Wilson-Smith

In Churchill: The Last Lion, William Manchester’s brilliant biography of Sir Winston Churchill, the author recounts a visit that his protagonist received from Jan Christiaan Smuts, the president of South Africa. Smuts brought a bottle of what he described as South African brandy, and offered to share it. Churchill had a taste, swirled it around, swallowed, and beamed. “Ah, my dear Smuts, it is excellent,” he said, before adding: “But it is not brandy.”

The same can be said about much of what passes as news. Many items on television newscasts and in print are put there for their interest—but not, in the end, their relevance to most readers or viewers. The obvious example is Monica Lewinsky’s recent interview with ABC’s Barbara Walters. With impeachment hearings for Bill Clinton over, how much more does anyone need to know?

But CTV’s Canada AM devoted almost its entire show for several days running recently to promoting the interview—for which, by no coincidence, the network held Canadian broadcast rights.

That doesn’t mean CTV did anything unethical or unusual: the line between news and in-house program plugs has always been blurry in the media. News can be educational and entertaining, but is usually either one or the other, not both. That’s why newspaper front pages and covers of magazines such as this one feature careful mixes of the most important news of the week—as well as less weighty but more compelling fare. Also, the selection of news depends heavily upon who will read or watch it. If you read the National Post or The Globe and Mail, you might think that the most put-upon people in Canada are the wealthy—hounded and heartbroken by high taxes. One reason is that both papers aim to appeal specifically to rich readers. Similarly, all major American television networks, with the exception of CBS, acknowledge that they ignore viewers over 50 when planning programming. That’s because sponsors only care about the youth market. Then, there’s the trend of conglomerates buying television networks, and using them as vehicles for their interests. At ABC, it’s widely believed that a story investigating reports of pedophilia at Disneyland last year was ordered killed by Disney management— which owns the network.

All of which brings to mind the troubled CBC, and the manner in which it differs from private sector counterparts. The CBC’s biggest strength and weakness are one: to a large extent, it doesn’t have to worry about ratings. That takes it out of lockstep with other networks—and sometimes, unfortunately, the interests of most viewers. If you base your view of Canada only on CBC current-affairs shows, you might think the country consists solely of joyless, oppressed special interest groups. Its Newsworld business reports,

The CBC serves as a conscience to other media operations that must worry about ratings, advertising and profits

except for those by Pat Boland, are proof that the world of commerce can be rendered stupefyingly boring 10 times out of 10. Some current-affairs hosts so love their own voices that it’s somewhat startling when they let guests actually respond. And CBC’s attempts at being cool are so predictable. It hires whatever aging (late-20s) hipsters it can filch from Toronto’s City-TV: then, it tries to instil in them a sense of gravitas to make them as earnest as everyone else at the network. The end result has the awkward, embarrassed look of a dog wearing shoes.

But when CBC does something well, few do it better—starting with the news. Consider the quality of its reporters: its superb London correspondent Don Murray, for one, is a published author, fluent in English, French, Russian, Czech and Mandarin Chinese. Don Newman’s afternoon program on Newsworld is what politicians watch to learn more about their profession. No program gores sacred media cows as effectively as Wendy Mesley’s Undercurrents. The calm, quietly authoritative Alison Smith is among the best host/interviewers in TVland—as she proved with her bravura on-air performance following the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, in 1997.

These days, amidst labour unrest and other woes, the CBC is right to worry about its future. It has few friends in Ottawa, or the rest of the media. Management seems unable to accept that it can no longer afford to do all it now does—from original drama to regional newscasts to comprehensive news services—and do it well. The recent decision to reduce services and probably personnel at three foreign bureaus is the most ruinous example of the cost of that paralysis.

Too bad. Free from worry about advertisers and demographics, the CBC is the only network that tries to speak to all Canadians. Of course, private networks also care about viewer concerns, but their primary obligation is to shareholders, and the need to maximize profits. Conversely, the $30 a year it costs each Canadian to subsidize the CBC makes everyone an equal shareholder. The argument that ratings alone decide what news is important is absurd: debates about health and social policy are far less titillating than Lewinsky’s fling with Clinton, but they decide what kind of treatment you’ll receive if ill, and how you’ll survive if you lose your job.

A public broadcaster provides a sense of conscience in journalism, unadulterated by bottom-line concerns. Foreign coverage is a good example. It’s always possible to save money by hiring freelancers, or buying coverage from American networks, but those efforts lack Canadian context and relevance. As Churchill might have said, such coverage may be excellent—but it isn’t ours. If a 400channel universe is an inevitable part of globalization, a healthy, clearly Canadian CBC becomes more, not less, important than ever.