REVIEWS

Why should taxpayers subsidize the CBC’s commercial overkill?

DOUGLAS MARSHALL February 1 1971
REVIEWS

Why should taxpayers subsidize the CBC’s commercial overkill?

DOUGLAS MARSHALL February 1 1971

Why should taxpayers subsidize the CBC’s commercial overkill?

REVIEWS

TELEVISION

DOUGLAS MARSHALL

WE HEAR THE phrase “wishy-washy liberalism” bandied about a lot these days. Until I read the section dealing with public broadcasting in the recent Report of the Special Senate Committee on Mass Media, I lacked a clear understanding of what that phrase meant. Now I know. It means recognizing that an institution is badly in need of reform and then recommending, after a flurry of glib platitudes, that no basic reform take place. The conclusions reached by Senator Keith Davey and his committee colleagues concerning the future of the CBC are a major contribution to the central Canadian tragedy, the cop-out compromise.

One of the essentials of wishy-washy liberalism is ambidexterity. On the one hand, the Davey committee reports itself profoundly shocked by a warning from CBC president George Davidson that the corporation’s dependence on commercial advertising is affecting the quality and nature of prime-time programming. The CBC, says the Davey report, “must be financed in such a way that the head of the CBC need never say something like that again.” On the other hand,

the report not only insists that the CBC remain in the commercial field but also urges the corporation to increase its advertising revenue. The justification for this stand, as far as can be determined from the sort of muddy writing the report takes pains to condemn elsewhere, is contained in one flat statement: “Its [the

CBC’s] commercial revenue is a needed buffer between it and Parliament.” Those of us who reject this premise, who suggest the slight risk of possible parliamentary interference is infinitely preferable to the present reality of massive commercial domination, are dismissed as “public idealists.”

Okay, Senator Davey, call me an idealist. But at least I’m a logical idealist. I also watch a fair amount of television and I get the feeling that most members of the Davey Committee don’t. Despite Dr. Davidson’s warning, the report rambles on about improving the efficiency of the CBC’s sales department as if there were some semblance of a public network left to exploit. Every regular living-room viewer knows this is nonsense. Leaving aside a hand-

ful of unmarketable highbrow programs, the CBC already mounts one of the most commercial - infested primetime television services in the world. It is the only TV network in the world that can somehow extract four fifths of the operating costs from its viewers in order that they can be captured by advertising for as much as one fifth of their viewing time. It is, very probably, the only public broadcasting agency in the world with a commercial policy so callous that it can break a four-year-old’s heart.

Last November the CBC screened a charming 25-minute cartoon special, Horton Hears A Who. It was heralded for days in advance by one of the heaviest promotion campaigns I’ve seen — all of which was indirect drumming for Horton’s sole sponsor, the Mattel toy company. By air time I’ll bet 50% of all Canadian kids under 10 were waiting bright eyed for the delicate Dr. Seuss fable to begin. They were rewarded by a savage concession to mammon. The half-hour slot was fractured four times for a total of seven blaring 30-second messages plus two 10-second sponsorship announcements. The fact that these commercials involve photography that may mislead children, generate bitterness in lowincome homes and plant consumer motivations in a way that could raise fundamental questions about advertising ethics is almost beside the point. In this case it was the accumulative effect that did the damage. By the third break my younger son was in tears and his 5Vi-year-old brother was threatening to drive his reliable, Canadianmade tractor through the TV screen.

The branch-plant bigwigs at Mattel should have listened to the moral of the show they were maiming with commercial overkill (“Be kind to your small-people friends/For a Who may be somebody’s mother”). There are now at least two small Canadian people who have

instructed their parents never to buy toys made by “the guys who wrecked Horton.”

Perhaps more heartbreaking still is the way commercialism destroys the CBC’s own best productions. The Theatre Canada series, based on 13 Canadian short stories was, beyond doubt, the finest English-speaking drama seen anywhere this season. The effect depended largely on mood. Creative writers, actors and directors labored lovingly to create an atmosphere as fragile as a falling maple leaf. Yet every Thursday at roughly 9:15 p.m. the mood was shattered by two minutes of hard sell for such artistic necessities as cars and cooked ham. If the series had to have commercials, why couldn’t they be at the beginning and end?

In other less visible ways commercialism affects all the shows imported from the United States. The U.S. networks voluntarily limit themselves to six minutes of advertising in every prime-time hour. The CBC sells eight minutes. Thus anything from 50 seconds to two minutes is cut out of every hour-long American import. Recently the CBC even went so far as to lop off the final production number of an Ed Sullivan special on Richard Rodgers.

I don’t see why Canadian taxpayers should be paying $80 million a year or more for a TV service with a commercial policy so crass that it mutilates almost everything it broadcasts. I don’t see why we should be paying $80 million for a TV service that has any commercial policy at all.

The Davey report says the CBC is like a housewife who can’t depend on her husband (the government) to supply all the money she needs to run the house so she is forced to take in washing (advertising). That strikes me as a typical wishy-washy liberal simile. It would be more candid to say the CBC is a housewife who is also a parttime whore. We should either provide enough money to make an honest woman of her or kick her on to the streets for good. □