REVIEWS

TELEVISION

If the CBC doesn’t show us The Forsyte Saga it’s time for a viewer revolution

DOUGLAS MARSHALL December 1 1969
REVIEWS

TELEVISION

If the CBC doesn’t show us The Forsyte Saga it’s time for a viewer revolution

DOUGLAS MARSHALL December 1 1969

TELEVISION

REVIEWS

If the CBC doesn’t show us The Forsyte Saga it’s time for a viewer revolution

DOUGLAS MARSHALL

Broadcasting which operates as an auxiliary to advertising must treat man as essentially a consumer, a buyer of goods; and the programs are subservient to that end. A full broadcasting service operates on quite another principle, appealing to man as an active and creative person, Aristotle’s “political being,” with a potential for growth ... The framework for such broadcasting was established in Canada 40 years ago. The struggle to improve, even to maintain it, is greater today than ever before, and more crucial still to our survival as a nation.

— Frank W. Peers, The Politics of Canadian Broadcasting

PROFESSOR PEERS has issued what amounts to a manifesto for a viewer revolution. No Canadian who cares about the quality of life in this country can afford to ignore it. In his lucidly documented book, the University of Toronto political scientist describes the difficult birth and uncertain development of the CBC between 1920 and 1952. During that period there was continuous, often devious pressure by vested private interests to gain control of the airwaves. The concept of a publicly owned broadcasting corporation survived largely because of the efforts of the concerned individuals who formed the Canadian Radio League and allied groups in the 1930s.

Radio League! thou should’st be living at this hour: Canada hath need of thee. After 17 years of television, it is clear the struggle for true public broadcasting is being lost by default. The CBC’s TV service is now commercial in all but name, virtually indistinguishable from CTV or the American networks. The bulk of its programs are indeed subservient to the man-as-consumer philosophy. Active and creative persons must look somewhere else.

Where many of them are looking, ironically, is to the United States via cable. Community-antenna operators are busy hooking homes into their electronic maypoles faster than the accounting departments can keep track.

There are two obvious reasons why so many people are prepared to shell out an average of five dollars a month for cable: better reception and access to more commercial channels. But in southern Ontario, at any rate, there’s a third sales pitch that is just as strong. Some CATV companies even take out half-page ads in local newspapers to plug it. Cable can pull in the UHF broadcasts by the National Educational Television network in the U.S.

The CBC’s destitution of purpose is graphically illustrated by the range and depth of NET programs. In one week recently the American network treated us to a brilliant analysis of the Cinema of the Absurd, a 90-minute special on Peggy Lee, three works by Martha Graham, a Boston Symphony concert, a Pete Seeger concert, the prize-winning documentary Matador, two BBC dramas and a dozen topical information programs truly directed at “political beings.” All without commercials.

Anyone who argues there is no audience in Canada for such a permanent Festival is talking nonsense. Ontario viewers have shown themselves pathetically eager to support quality TV. When the Buffalo NET station launched a $10,000 appeal for operating funds a few weeks ago, 38 percent of the money came from Canadians. One Toronto man alone gave $300. The interest is so great that several NET-entranced viewers have asked me plaintively, “When are we going to get public television in Canada?”

They forget, of course, that we’re already supposed to have public television in Canada. They forget the taxpayer forks out some $80 million a year to run CBC-TV. They forget the CBC was originally conceived as a modified BBC rather than a slavish imitation of CBS.

Perhaps the saddest commentary on the CBC’s surrender to commercialism is The Forsyte Saga saga. As I mentioned last month, an extraordinary 26-episode adaptation of John Galsworthy’s nine-novel sequence was created by the BBC three years ago. It stars Kenneth More and Eric Porter, cost $700,000 and is probably the best TV drama series ever produced.

Certainly the rest of the world

thinks so. The serial has since been shown in nearly every civilized country and is currently being carried in the U.S. by NET. Galsworthy’s extended chronicle of upper-middleclass manners in Victorian and Edwardian England might have been written especially for TV. As BBC producer Donald Wilson puts it, the saga “provides everyone with a huge dramatic feast.”

Most Canadians, however, will just have to go hungry. The CBC, at time of writing, has decided not to buy The Forsyte Saga. (CTV was never interested.) Money isn’t the problem. The property cost NET only $140,000 and the CBC has paid $250,000 and up for a trashy made-in-Hollywood series. What held the CBC back, apparently, was the difficulty of fitting a true serial — a series from which episodes can’t be dropped — into its sponsor-dominated scheduling format.

In other words, Canadians are being denied a rare masterpiece because of purely commercial considerations. Even if the corporation changed its mind, The Forsyte Saga

— like The Lost Peace series — would probably end up in an obscure daytime slot in order to keep the primetime sponsors happy. The situation is ludicrous.

I’m not saying the CBC has sold out entirely. Not yet. Michael Maclear’s haunting reportage on North Vietnam, the tough anti-pollution shows and the Louis Riel opera prove that. But such programs are too few and far between. Worse, there are more commercials than ever this fall. (Advertising increased to eight minutes from six out of every prime-time hour — more than the American networks carry.) Even the prestige Weekend show is interrupted by blurbs and the lovely film on Mariposa was ruined by advertising breaks.

Prof. Peers has given us a manifesto. I think The Forsyte Saga is a cause worthy of direct political action. Unless the CBC promises to show it

— in prime time and without sponsorship if necessary — viewers should calculate what the corporation costs them individually, deduct it from their tax returns and send the money to their nearest NET station. The CBC can’t go on having it both ways. □