Articles

EVERYBODY BOOS THE CBC

No matter what the CBC does somebody doesn't like it and says so. But the job of trying to please all of the $2.50 customers some of the time with our native mixture of culture, corn and Canadianism goes right on while the bugbears of television growl on the doorstep

PIERRE BERTON December 1 1950
Articles

EVERYBODY BOOS THE CBC

No matter what the CBC does somebody doesn't like it and says so. But the job of trying to please all of the $2.50 customers some of the time with our native mixture of culture, corn and Canadianism goes right on while the bugbears of television growl on the doorstep

PIERRE BERTON December 1 1950

EVERYBODY BOOS THE CBC

No matter what the CBC does somebody doesn't like it and says so. But the job of trying to please all of the $2.50 customers some of the time with our native mixture of culture, corn and Canadianism goes right on while the bugbears of television growl on the doorstep

PIERRE BERTON

OF ALL contentious Canadian institutions, past or present, public or private, powerful or puny, not even the city of Toronto has received the Niagara of vilification, imprecation, tirade and abuse which has drenched the corporate head of the CBC.

The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation has no exact counterpart anywhere, but it is a single aspect of its unique makeup which qualifies it for the title of Public Whipping Boy No. 1: Listeners to most radio

networks occasionally feel like putting in their two cents worth; listeners to the CBC see no reason why they shouldn’t put in their $2.50 worth. If the recent talk about a $25 license fee for television is upheld by the forthcoming Massey Report the name calling may well increase tenfold.

It is the license fee -plus the fact that we own the corporation lock, stock and studios—that gives us all the right to boo the CBC. The chorus grows loud each spring when the courts are choked with people who have neglected to pay the license fee. One man, a John T. Schmidt, of Ayr, Ont., got so hopping mad he mailed summons, license fee. radio and all into the Kitchener police.

But A. D. (“Davey”) Dunton, the slight young ex-newspaperman who is chairman of the CBC’s Board of Governors, and who describes his job as “getting grief,” says he likes the idea of the fee. This way, he points out, you know exactly what you’re getting for exactly what it costs. Besides, he says, the fee encourages everybody to criticize the CBCand that’s good.

Certainly the criticism is vociferous. In recent years the CBC has been publicly called bullheaded, autocratic, dictatorial, spineless, weak, pathetic, extravagant, cheap, high-handed, humbling, nonsensical, dishonest, power crazy, idiotic and absurd.

It has been called a milch cow, a centaur and a dog in the manger. Sir Thomas Beecham, an Englishman who doesn’t pay the license fee, has described it as “the worst broadcasting system in the world.” Members of all political parties have attacked it. In a single debate M. J. Coldwell complained the Continued on next page

EN NORRIS GOES ON THE AIR WITH THE CBC

corporation discriminated against the CCF, E. G. Hansell (Social Credit) complained it was too favorable to the CCF, and Liberal Walter Tucker kicked about a news broadcast. George Drew has gone on the CBC itself to attack the CBC.

The Canadian Association of Broadcasters, which represents the private stations, has mountains of statistics to show that in Canada hardly anybody listens to the CBC. Yet the most obscure CBC item can sometimes draw howls of protest.

Let a West Coast speaker make a sly reference to newsboys, say, and a dozen papers led by the Vancouver Sun roar with anger about “drivel” from “the limp-wristed characters on CBC.” Let a Winnipeg announcer »ay “crick” for “creek” and the Guelph Board of Education is up in arms. Let the CBC Times put Alexander Graham Bell’s birthplace at Brampton instead of Brantford and the Toronto Telegram i» out with an instant editorial of reproof.

As if all this weren’t enough the CBC subjects itself to a 10-minute period of self immolation each Sunday night when speakers are asked to criticize the network’s own programs on “Critically Speaking.” Curiously, the big task is often to get people to be critical enough. In an effort to achieve this the CBC once engaged Dick Diespecker, a former

private station man turned radio columnist, to appear on the show. To everyone’s chagrin Diespecker was inordinately kind. Then he twisted the knife neatly at year’s end in his Vancouver Province column by picking “Critically Speaking” as the year’s most uncritical show.

The CBC bends backward to be fair to everyone, including its critics. The calm reasoned voice of the 10 o’clock news has been heard reporting the harsh things that Joel Aldred, an ex staff announcer, had to say about the corporation. Reports of House of Commons debates almost always mention speakers from all parties. The CBC recently canceled a “Court of Opinion” broadcast because all four speakers on the panel favored Canada sending a representative to the Vatican. If there had been a dissenting vote the show would have stayed on.

“The CBC tries to be impeccably impartial and you can’t be that impartial without being dull,” wrote Tommy Tweed last spring. The remark was part of a radio satire broadcast, of course, on the CBC.

Unlike the big U. S. networks, which try to please most of the people most of the time, the CBC’s job is to please all of the people part of the time. Its lowest mass listening level comes between the

hours of fi and 8 p.m. when it broadcasts such minority-interest programs as the full weather report, the market summary and “International Commentary.” a series of political talks. Yet each of these programs is of prime importance to certain groups of people. “If we dropped the weather broadcast Niagara fruit growers would go crazy,” says Ernest Bushnell, director-general of programs. The same is true of the fishermen’s broadcasts in the Maritimes. "There’s not a damn thing you can do to make the weather report palatable to the guy who’s not interested in fish,” Bushnell says. “But if we don’t give it to them, who’s going to?”

These are some of the reasons why the CBC gets attacked for [tutting on too much Greek tragedy on Wednesday nights and too many chicken reels on Saturday nights; for carrying too much symphony and too much soap opera; for carrying too many British accents and too many Yankee twangs. The CBC cannot think only in terms of the “mass listening audience” which dictates commercial network fare. It must think also of those people who do not belong to the mass but who also pay t heir $2.50.

Partly because of this the corporation has had n strong influence on the Canadian mosaic. Close to

7,000 Canadians get cheques from it each year, ranging all the way from a $5 royalty on a Canadian poem to the record $20,000 that actor Bernie Braden earned in 1947. The CBC acts as a sort of superpatron of the arts, commissioning original poems, short stories, music and drama. In 18 weeks its French network broadcast 65 popular songs written by Canadien authors. Without the CBC, Winnipeg would have no symphony orchestra. Indeed, the corporation is the largest single contributor to symphonies in the country.

In Aklavik every morning Eskimo children do physical jerks to CBC transcriptions. In Toronto an interdenominational church was organized by a group of people who met originally to listen to the CBC’s “Citizen’s Forum.” In the Maritimes fishermen and farmers in remote spots no longer get scalpers’ prices for their lobsters and strawberries—thanks to CBC market broadcasts. In the Arctic a man held on to his girl friend and eventually married her thanks to the CBC’s “Northern Messenger,” the only regular winter mail service the people of the Far North receive. In Quebec the CBC is changing the speech habits of the Canadien, who once called precise announcers “fifis” (sissies) and now complains if they slur their Continued on page 30

Continued on page 30

Continued from page 9

phrases in the Quebec manner.

Fifteen hundred farm groups gather faithfully each Monday to hear the CBC’s “Farm Forum” and half a million school children hear the morning school broadcasts on weekdays. These school broadcasts have standardized the Shakespearean plays studied in most provinces and have caused the addition of two new courses —conservation and guidance to the Ontario curriculum.

Canadians almost anywhere in the world can hear CBC programs. Three Oblate missionaries listen regularly: one to the French network in Montreal, one to CBC short wave beamed to B. C.’s Queen Charlotte Islands and a third to the International Service in Chile. An Italian street urchin recently wrote in for a CBC schedule explaining he was too poor to own a radio but had found a house in Rome where CBC programs came through an open window. A Brazilian wrote that after hearing the CBC he’d broken a sacred vow to visit the Holy Land and would come to Canada instead. In a recent poll taken of 6,000 listeners around the world by the International Shortwave Listening Club the CBC ranked fourth in a field of 26, three places ahead of the Voice of America, whose budget is seven times larger.

Sometimes Canadian producers feel they are without honor in their own country. When Swedish-born Esse Ljungh (pronounced “Young”) produced a series of folk legends he got 16 letters from CBC listeners, most of them derogatory. The series was also carried on a New York City station and produced 2,000 letters from Americans. Only one beefed.

CBC programs regularly win radio oscars from the Institute for Education hy Radio, at Columhus, Ohio. Last year the CBC took more of these awards than any of the U. S. nets.

Recently a group of U. S. radio people, including Norman Corwin, the gifted writer, listened to a recording of the CBC’s two-hour production of “Hamlet.” Canadian Mavor Moore, who was present, noted with dismay that Corwin grew gloomier and gloomier as the play progressed. It turned out, however, that Corwin wasn’t upset by the production but by the fact that in the U. S. it wouldn’t be commercially possible to produce a two-hour Shakespearean drama free of commercials.

U. S. radio is as different from its Canadian cousin as the Manhattan lowers of Radio City are from the one-time young ladies' seminary that now houses the CBC’s Toronto studios. There is little of the frantic atmosphere of sales and soap on this side of the line. Ernie Bushnell recalls walking into the office of his opposite number on a big American net. 11 was a perfect Bedlam. A playback machine was roaring out a recently transcribed program: a loudspeaker hooked (o a rehearsal sludio was blaring from another corner: and there seemed lo he three radios as well

all tuned to different programs Bushnell has one old-fashioned radio in his office to which he seldom listens. “Quite frankly I can’t work with that damn thing on.” he says.

“The American nets are interested primarily in making money,” one CBC man said recently. “The CBC is interested in losing it.’

The reason for this difference in concept a difference which will almost certainly be carried over into television can lie traced directly to Canadian geography and history A Canadian network must operate in six

time zones and two languages and it must also service the sparsely populated districts which make up most of the country. Only a network prepared to lose money could do this.

Before the first Royal Commission into radio Canadian stations were largely northern extensions of U. S. networks, primarily serving city areas. The occasional Canadian network show was handled by the Canadian National Railway and on one occasion listeners to a musical program were treated to a fine display of profanity by a CNR dispatcher who hooked into the network by mistake. As late as 1932 only two fifths of the country outside of Toronto and Montreal could get regular programs and there were no French programs at all. The CBC. like the railways, defies geography to link the nation.

The present radio setup is the result of the recommendations of a Royal Commission under banker Sir John Aird, created by a Liberal government in 1929 and implemented with some modifications by a Conservative government in 1932. The Aird report urged total nationalization of radio, but a parliamentary committee decided that private stations should be allowed to continue to serve local needs while a government owned network should serve national needs. A board of governors, serving without salary, was appointed to sit in judgment on both, giving preference to national interests.

The initial result was Hector Charlesworth’s Canadian Radio Broadcasting Commission. “If the politicians leave us alone we shall be all right,” said Charlesworth. They didn’t. Jean

François Pouliot rose in the Commons at one point to suggest that Charlesworth’s tongue should be torn from his mouth and wound seven times around his whiskers.

The CRBC was fettered with a civilservice atmosphere. Salaries were held up for weeks pending Treasury approval. When Charleswort h sent a 310 wreath to the funeral of the president of the Canadian Radio Manufacturers’ Association an order-in council was needed to approve the spending. The CRBC. as one M.P. put it, was “alone, yet not alone.” Four years later it was replaced hy the CBC which is divorced from direct government interference and has control over its own expenditures.

It is a curious legal animal Mackenzie King once agreed with Cordon Croydon that it was “half and half partly a department of the government, partly i public corporation.” Nonetheless it has withstood the scrutiny of seven parliamentary committees and two Callup (sills.

There have been a few attempts at (silitical control. For example, Ceneral L B La Fleche, when he was Minister

Continued on page 32

Continued from page 30

of National War Services once successfully ordered a controlman in Montreal to pull the plug on a program he didn’t like on the state of Maritime Insane Asylums. But these have been stoutly resisted by the CBC itself.

The corporation started with 135 employees and six hours of network broadcasting a day. It now has 1,430 employees, operates its trans-Canada network 21}^ hours a day, its French network 16 hours a day and its Dominion network six hours a day. The value of its equipment has increased from $310,000 to $9 millions.

Its new studios in Montreal’s former Ford Hotel are the most modern on the continent. It operates 19 key stations, 17 relay stations and feeds its programs regularly to 86 private stations and, on special occasions, to 56 others. Private stations get CBC sustaining shows free and are paid a fee (which some of them think is too low) for carrying network commercial shows. The CBC gets $2,300,000 from advertising but 809c of its shows are free of commercials. And it broadcasts more than 14,000 hours of home-grown talent each year.

Last year the CBC’s over-all expenses

totaled $8 millions, of which close to $5}4 millions came from license fees. Advertising revenue almost but not quite made up the difference, for the corporation showed an operating deficit of $243,000 for 1949. An estimated 2,900,000 Canadian homes have radios, but only 2,192,400 set-owners bought licenses. Thus the corporation missed out on some $1,770,000 in unpaid fees—or seven times its deficit.

Since the days of the Aird Commission the principle of public radio has been under continual fire from private station owners. Two of the most blistering briefs submitted to that com-

mission in 1929 were written by Ernie Bushnell himself, then a private station spokesman. Bushnell, a big blunt sandy-haired man who used to be tenor in a radio quartet, is now on the opposite side of the microphone, but others still fight the good fight.

The chief lobbyist for the private interests is James Allard, a smallish sandy-haired man who used to be a radio announcer and still speaks with the rich mellow tones of a cigarette commercial. Allard is president of the Canadian Association of Broadcasters to which most private stations belong. He owns six radios but never tunes any of them into a publicly owned station.

Briefly, the CAB would like to see a separate regulatory body supplant the present CBC Board of Governors to control all broadcasting in Canada. This, the CAB hopes, would pave the way for the setting up of commercial radio networks and the withdrawal of the CBC from commercial broadcasting.

Mild Davey Dunton, who also owns six radios, feels that this arrangement • would badlyl cripple Canadian-style broadcasting. He suggests that many stations would simply revert to the old position of being northern spouts for U. S. networks, that many private stations which now carry CBC programs would junk them for commercial U. S. shows, leaving gaps in the national network, and that the loss of present commercial revenue would injure CBC programs or else force an inc ea-ie in the license fee.

rl hese two points of view have been dinned into the ears of Vincent Massey, the solemn-faced chairman of the Royal Commission on National Development in the Arts, Letters and Sciences, and it is up to him and his colleagues to decide on their relative merits. Their report will be handed to Parliament probably next month, but it’s a good guess that, as far as radio is concerned, the main recommendations will revolve around financing. (The CBC has suggested a $5 license fee, the CAB a government grant.)

A Simpler, Cheaper Video

The question of television is a far more important consideration and as touchy as a live microphone. It will also be dealt with in the Massey Report. Parliament can either adopt the report, amend it or shelve it, but it will probably accept its recommendations on TV And in this case the report will be to Canadian video what the Aird report was to Canadian radio. Until the report is made public the CBC can do no more than make sketchy plans for TV programming while the private interests, who Ht il I aren’t sure where they (it into the picture, can only hold their breath.

It is entirely probable, however, that Canada will end up, in television as in radio, with i saw-off betwe' i private and public ownership. Certainly there are enough television channels to go around or will be eventually.

A channel is to television what 11 frequency is to radio, except that there aren't so many of them. The present system ol very-high-frequency TV broadcasts would make only 12 channels available in Canada, hut two or more stations can use the Hume channel if they’re more than 250 miles apart. The Department of Transport, after conferring with liaU. H. Federal Communications Commission to avoid over I lie border interference, has tentatively allotted Halifax the us«of channels, Montreal 5, Ottawa 3, Toronto 3, Hamilton and Winds«*

I each, Winnipeg 1. Regina 3, Kdtnou ton and ( ! ilgai v I each, Vancouver 3.

And up television’s sleeve is ultrahigh frequency, a second band which offers perhaps 50 channels, and which hasn’t yet been exploited even in the U. S.

By next September, when the first Canadian produced programs are scheduled to go on the air, the CBC will have spent its $4 x/i million government loan to provide a bare minimum of TV facilities. TV costs are fantastically high compared with radio. A microphone costs $150 but a TV camera costs $20,000. Comparable studios cost six times as much and recordings 25 times as much. The new TV buildings in Montreal and Toronto will have only two studios each. (The new Montreal radio building, by comparison, has 28.)

Those Canadians who do see homegrown TV will only see it, for a start, for about two hours a night. And it will cost between $35 and $50 millions to bring network TV to all of Canada.

It’s anybody's guess yet how these programs will be paid for. A singlehour show along extravagant U. S. lines would cost the combined radio license fees of 1,000 Canadians. Undoubtedly Canadian TV will be simpler and cheaper.

The CBC is also determined that, like radio, TV shall be primarily Canadian. Viewers will certainly see many U. S. telecasts. The CBC makes no secret of the fact that it would like to get the world series and the heavyweight boxing championships, but the bulk of the offerings will have a Canadian flavor. For instance, Fergus Mutrie, the ex-farmer who directs the Toronto end of the TV setup, is trying to line up some puppet characters who will be original and distinctively Canadian.

But the program pattern will be quite different from radio. Few if any of the familiar radio shows will be transferred directly to TV (One possible exception would be Wayne and Shuster, who have already appeared on TV programs in New York.) Many of radio’s best-known actors and writers may not prove adaptable to the new medium which in other countries has drawn large slices of talent from vaudeville, night club and stage.

At first, viewers will probably see special events (such as the Canadian National Exhibition, perhaps), simple plays using a few sets and not more than six actors, variety programs and short operettas by the CBC Opera Company. It’s doubtful if there’ll be spot news broadcasts at first. One 15-minute news'broadcast on TV costs as much as an hour-long drama show. On the other hand there will be many inexpensive how-to-do-it demonstrations using one or two people and simple props. These are the TV counterpart of radio talks, which have always been a big item in Canadian radio (7,600 a year) though never in the U. S.

Later programs will grow more ambitious. As in radio, the CBC is drawing on European as well as American experience. It’s possible, for example, that full-scale dramas may be allowed as much time as necessary to play them properly—two hours and 10 minutes, say—as is done in England. Big drama shows may be on a once-amonth rather than a once-a-week basis, but it’s a good bet that they will be repeated.

But all this is in its infancy. The entire TV program staff in Toronto numbers seven. By September it will be close to 90. The same goes for Montreal.

The problem of bringing Canadian TV to all the people is nowhere near solution. Until it is the CBC’s “goslow” policy will continue to anger many people. It has not been without

its benefits, however. Ten million TV sets in the U. S. will soon be obsolete in the face of color television. But new sets are adaptable to either color or black and white—and Canadians have just begun to buy.

It is impossible, of course, to lag behind for ever. No one knows this better than Alphonse Ouimet, the CBC’s TV co-ordinator.

“Television,” he says, “is like a fastmoving streetcar. You’ve got to be moving at a pretty good speed yourself if you want to catch it.”

Ouimet once went a little too fast: he joined a TV company in Montreal

back in 1931. “The pictures were such that if you stood close enough you could just barely recognize your own mother on the screen,” he recalls. Now he figures the speed is about right.

A TV network will come slowly to Canada. The first step will probably be to link Montreal and Toronto, later adding Ottawa, Windsor and Quebec City. Western and Maritime stations will develop independently, using locally produced shows supplemented by films of network programs.

In the meantime the CBC’s three radio networks will continue to operate and probably to expand, doling out the

curious brew of corn, culture and Canadianism which like so many other facets of life above the 49th parallel lies somewhere between the British and the American way of doing things. There is no reason to suspect that the ceaseless investigation of radio in Canada will stop after two royal commissions and eight parliamentary committees have said their piece about it.

As long as public radio exists in Canada, people will make complaints, suggestions, attacks and demands upon it.

And why shouldn’t they? They’re paying for it. ★