With CBC president Al Johnson
Since he took over the post in August, 1975, CBC president Al Johnson has presided over a quiet revolution in English-language television programming. In a drive to wean viewers away from U.S. shows, CBC-TV in recent months has launched, with varying degrees of success, a series of glossy variety super-specials, expanded and improved (most notably with the fifth estate) its public affairs programming, and even ventured into the highly competitive realm of the late-night talk show with Peter Gzowski’s 90 Minutes Live. A product of Insinger, Saskatchewan, Johnson, 53, studied at the University of Toronto and Harvard, concentrating on economics, then served as a deputy treasurer in Saskatchewan before going to work in Ottawa where he was secretary of the treasury board and deputy minister of health and welfare. He has also served as a constitutional adviser to Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau. Johnson tries to apply reason to every contingency, but when necessary will resort to the severe ways of a senior bureaucrat; he once shortened the hours of a staff cafeteria when he learned that his employees were dawdling over coffee. He is also outgoing, cheerful and quick-witted and is regarded by his Ottawa colleagues as being tough but fair. He talked to Maclean’s writer Michael Enright.
Maclean’s: Let me start by tossing out a quotation from the 1965 report of the Fowler committee on the CBC, which said thaï( the network’s programming is essential, the rest is housekeeping. How do you deal with that when that essential thing is surrounded by bureaucracy?
Johnson: The first thing that I have to say is that I have not found the bureaucracy in the CBC to be nearly as formidable as people say.
Maclean’s: But you’re used to dealing with bureaucracy.
Johnson: I'm accustomed to bureaucracy, yes, but I’m comparing it with the bureaucracies I have known and experienced. The bureaucracy in the CBC is greatly overrated. In some respects it has become a bit of a symbol. Having said that, those of us who are executives in the CBC have got to concentrate on programming or else we’re doing the wrong thing. I can’t really imagine trying to participate in the running of any enterprise without concerning myself with the substance. Therefore the relationship between the president of the CBC and the people who are doing the programming has got to exist. One obviously
hasn’t got time to talk to every producer, to every on-air performer. But it’s possible to move from the office of the president to talk to individual programming people in the CBC without any resentment or without any interference from the so-called bureaucracy. There’s a great openness.
YOU CANT RUN THE CBC BY DIRECTION.
YOU CAN INFLUENCE, BUT THROUGH SUASION
Maclean’s: Have you made a point of doing that?
Johnson: Yes I have. I have tried to. Getting in touch with individual CBC people whom I know, through them getting to know others, going to introduce myself to the people who are concerned with programming areas. I’ve spent a great deal of my time simply talking to people, and as a matter of fact I think the nature of the CBC is such that that’s about the only way you can preside over the organization. Because you can’t run the CBC by direction. You can have an influence, but that influence is only finally going to be brought to bear by way of suasion as opposed to the more traditional administrative approach. Maclean’s: Because the CBC is so big and because it deals with such a nebulous yet real thing?
Johnson: Obviously if you are going to
bring any influence to bear in the CBC you have got to have a very long time horizon. You can’t make a decision at a point in time that you’re going to do this or that: it has to fit in with some longer-term programming strategy. The other reason is, it seems to me, that our constant job is to interpret the Canadian community, the underlying social and economic changes, and interpret those in a broad enough way that the outer limits of creativity are possible. If you’re thinking in those terms you then necessarily have got to think in very long, long terms.
Maclean’s: But in CBC television, the socalled five-year plans of the Fifties and midSixties were disasters, were they not? Johnson: I’m not really talking about planning in that precise sense. All of us who are involved in broadcasting are concerned that we bring to current affairs programming the kind of depth that will help Canadians understand as well as simply be informed about events. I think we should be concerned with explaining to Canadians the underlying forces at work in the economy and the political process and social developments. If one is seeking to do that, if that’s your goal in the field of current affairs, then manifestly you don’t lay down a rule book. You don’t lay down a five-year plan, even. You simply say here’s a direction in which all of us feel we should be going and the question is first of all whether we understand one another, and then to find the way of accomplishing it. It seems to me we must maintain the distinctiveness of CBC programming, like The National Dream, or, in the field of current affairs, The Tenth Decade. I’m just choosing examples. Those things we have done well, we know we can do well—that must be maintained. Obviously, that means a sense of direction that has got to be perceived, accepted and followed. Now then, let’s take the tougher thing: I think we should extend the distinctiveness of the CBC into the areas where the Americans occupy the field almost exclusively. Maclean’s: Entertainment?
Johnson: Entertainment. I’m speaking about light entertainment, about situation comedies, about light dramas of various kinds. If we’re going to extend our distinctiveness into those fields so that Canadians will be watching at least some Canadian programming, rather than just purely American programming, then it’s a matter of setting our direction and gradually assigning our resources and developing the people so that we can realize that objective.
Maclean’s: Let me ask you about growing up in a small Saskatchewan town. Did CBC radio play a part in your youth?
Johnson: Oh, yes. For me the CBC was Canada. Without the CBC, Insinger or Wilcox or Liberty—all the little towns that I grew up in as a boy in Saskatchewan— wouldn’t have been Canada to me. The CBC related me to something bigger and, I suppose, gave me some additional perspective. Jake And The Kid, Hockey Night In Canada, the Metropolitan Opera on Saturday afternoons, the news and public affairs—these were our newsmagazines. Maclean’s: One of the most frequent complaints from Canada’s regions is that the CBC is too centralized. Is it? And if so, is there anything you can do about it? Johnson: I attach a high priority to the whole question of regionalization. Obviously I’m not alone in that, and obviously I’m not the first one who has done so. But I think the CBC has become very much more regionalized than people believe. For example, fewer than 50% of all radio programs emanate from Toronto. The percentage of network programming from Vancouver, for example, is around 22%. As far as television is concerned, regional programs produced outside Toronto amount to 20%. So I think that it’s fair to say that the regional contributions to the national network are increasing, but they’re increasing more slowly than we would like. And our problem there, really, is the funds available for the twin objectives of competing with American programming on the one hand and on the other hand increasing the amount of regional programming. To be able to compete with the Americans we have got only one instrument available to us, and that is better Canadian programs. To do that we have to increase the expenditures on network programming. At the same time, we say we want to increase expenditures on regional programming. The two are not necessarily compatible.
Maclean’s: Do you ever find it ironic and perhaps a bit enviable that the discussion of regionalization has never come up in the United States?
Johnson: I don’t find it the least bit enviable. We keep talking about what is the Canadian identity. I think it’s really a very foolish question. Canadians know what they are. They don’t need to go on any search. The fact is that Canada is a whole lot of identities. And it seems to me, as a westerner, that the richness of the country is to be found in the different identities of the country. I’m not saying there’s no national identity. I think there is. I think that the regional identities are utterly fundamental. So that while it may be a whole lot more difficult to attempt to interpret this country to itself than to produce programs in a New York and a Los Angeles, it remains a very much more exciting and very much more interesting job.
Maclean’s: Surely you must enjoy the odd U. S. program.
Johnson: Yes, I do. I like Mary Tyler Moore and I like M*A*S*H.
Maclean’s: I would think that you have to bring an aesthetic sense to a job like this. You’d have to know what you like in terms of art. What do you read?
Johnson: Biographies, particularly political biographies, and history. Mostly nonfiction. I go through spells where I will take a particular author or a particular period and read a series of books. Canadian authors, Margaret Laurence, for example.
CANADIANS DON’T NEED TO GO SEARCHING FOR THEIR IDENTITY. THEY KNOW WHAT THEY ARE
Maclean’s: You were at the centre of power here in Ottawa and know a lot of powerful people. Have they ever talked to you as old friends and made suggestions about the CBC?
Johnson: Oh, no. I think my perception of politicians in Ottawa is that they are very, very careful about not using their position to seek to influence you unduly. The other side of it is that I believe personally that every Canadian should have the right to try to influence the CBC, criticize it, influence it, and just because you’ve been elected as a Member of Parliament shouldn’t disqualify you from that. The distinction that has to be drawn is between somebody expressing a point of view concerning a program or concerning programming generally and somebody seeking to exert a kind of pressure that is insidious. I have not encountered any insidious pressure.
Maclean’s: Does it scare you when you think of the size of the impact that television makes on people—about the number of
hours that people spend watching TV every day?
Johnson: I think it’s three hours and 20 minutes per person. Yes, of course, and that’s why I’m so concerned that our programming be of a kind that is diverting as well as . ..
Maclean’s: I’m not thinking in terms of quality now. I’m just thinking in terms of people sitting in front of a tube for that length of time no matter what is on. Johnson: You’re asking me to make a judgment about what Canadians want to do with their leisure time, and I guess I’m just not disposed to make that judgment. It seems to me the relevant question is what are they watching when they’re doing it. Maclean’s: Don’t you think that we have to have somebody say that crap is crap? Johnson: By all means. Yes, I think that judgment has got to be made. In the CBC it’s made by a very large number of people. It’s made by the producer. It’s made by the performers.
Maclean’s: What happens when those evaluations reach your desk?
Johnson: I find it difficult to answer the question that way because the evaluations don’t reach my desk in any kind of formal way. The approach I’m trying to follow, really, is a kind of constant conversation with those who are responsible for programming—but also with those who are doing the programming so that I have some mix as to insights, perceptions. On the other hand, I have a responsibility, it seems to me, for trying to perceive the public reaction to the kind of programming that we’re doing and the quality of programming we’re doing. If you ask me how that is achieved, I can’t tell you that, either, except to say that it’s the blending of a multiplicity of judgments.
Maclean’s: Let me suggest something that is totally wild and I hope never happens. But supposing the CBC decided at some point, because of financial considerations, that the CBC should simply stop production and become a clearing house whereby independent producers would be hired to do shows as, to some extent, it’s done in the United States and at the CBC as well?
Johnson: I don’t think a country of our size, with all of the regional differences that we have, is likely to build up the kind of private industry that is possible in a nation like the United States where you have 220 million people and two major production centres. I’m speaking of television. It just doesn’t seem likely. When I say that, I’m not arguing that the CBC should attempt to do everything in-house. Far from it, I think we should look to the engagement of free lances, the use of the private sector as it has developed. But it just seems to me unrealistic to expect that somehow or other one could say, well, this is all going to be done in the private sector and the public sector will confine itself to the distribution function.
Maclean’s: How can the CBC be a public broadcasting agency and still run commer-
ciáis? Don’t you become a captive of the advertising industry by running commercials? Johnson: I don’t see advertising as being black or white. I am a great fan of Canadian football, and I don’t really think that commercials in my Canadian football games really bother me that much. At the other extreme, it’s perfectly obvious that we have no business having them in news, we have no business having them in public affairs, and we don’t. In my opinion we should be trying to get out of commercials in drama. [But] it would cost us about $50 million to drop commercials completely. I’m using very round numbers. And we would have to spend about $50 million to fill that time [occupied by ads]—a total of $100 million. If somebody were to give me $ 100 million and say. What do you want to do with it? I would say I want to use it to improve programming.
Maclean’s: When you look at any television, particularly a national system, you get an impression of people. The impression I get when I watch commercial television is that man is important because of what he consumes rather than what he is. Surely a public system has a responsibility to defeat that image.
Johnson: The public system is responsible for enriching Canadianism, and I agree that obviously means a concern with making man feel magnificent, to quote an architect. There are many programs where we will not make man feel magnificent if we insert a commercial for this or that product. But the point at which the inserting of commercials would destroy the totality of the effect is obviously difficult to judge. And there’s no use making any secret of it: one’s judgment is affected by one’s need for money.
Maclean’s: Is it simply a question of money?
Johnson: As far as I’m concerned there’s nothing more to it than that.
Maclean’s: Is there ever any danger at all of advertising influencing programming? Johnson: The general answer is no. I haven’t felt in the time I’ve been here the pressure of commercial revenue in any discussions I’ve had concerning programming. We obviously do recognize and are constantly conscious of the fact that when we carry a particular set of American programs in prime time we get a lot of revenue. We are conscious of the fact that, for example, to replace an American sit-com with a Canadian sit-com would be to lose some commercial revenue.
Maclean’s: We ’re the fastest growing cable country in the world. Seventy percent of Canadian households have access to cable now. I think it’s about 8% in the States. Surely the survival of the CBC grows more precarious as cable increases.
Johnson: The generalized answer is yes. The only qualification I enter is that at some point the saturation of a city with American cable leads to sheer redundancy and you really are choosing between American programs, and indeed the same
ones. So you reach a point of diminishing returns with cable. My prime concern is that Canadians are spending most of their viewing time viewing American programs. So I take the position that we must produce Canadian programs that are so good that Canadians will watch them instead of the American programs. There are other tools with which to meet the situation, but to me the most important tool is the business of producing better programs.
Maclean’s: You’re not asking to be protected by legislation?
THE BEST WAY TO WIN CANADIANS AWAY FROM U.S. SHOWS IS TO PROVIDE BETTER SHOWS
Johnson: No, not asking to be protected. Maclean’s: Has the election of a separatist government in Quebec had any effect on the CBC’S mandate?
Johnson: No. We remain charged with the responsibility of contributing to the development of national unity and I accept this responsibility wholeheartedly. This means celebrating Canada’s greatness and its achievements, as well as reflecting upon its shortcomings. It is our job to assist Canadians to make the decisions that have to be made. What the Quebec election did really was to heighten our sense of concern, our sense of responsibility.
Maclean’s: It never made any sense to me that the headquartersfor the CBC were in Ottawa, a non-production centre.
Johnson: Why is the CBC here? Because it couldn’t be in Montreal and it couldn’t be in Toronto. It seems to me that’s the only answer. And it seems to me there’s a certain advantage. Ottawa is the community in Canada that comes closest to being a bilingual community and that contains people from the English-language cultures and the French-language culture. It contains representatives from all the regions
of Canada, obviously, in parliament and in the public service. So I think there are some pluses in that sense.
Maclean’s: But to me, because it does contain those elements, it takes on that character of unreality.
Johnson: I think it’s true really of any national enterprise that, if you don’t get across the country and keep in touch, then you are going to be out of touch. In all the time I’ve been traveling across Canada, it seems to me on every trip I have a sense of renewal not only in understanding what is, but also understanding what enormous changes are taking place.
Maclean’s: How intimidated are CBC employees when they meet the president of the corporation?
Johnson: I don’t know. If they’re intimidated by me, I’m intimidated by them, because I don’t know the technology of broadcasting. I am not a performer. I’m not a producer. Therefore I’m filled with admiration for the talents that are required and I’m intimidated in the sense that here is a knowledge and a perception that I don’t have.
Maclean’s: Suppose a producer was terribly upset. Could he walk in and confront you?
Johnson: The generalization is yes, but it is qualified by the very practical problem that I can’t possibly see everybody who has a grievance.
Maclean’s: But generally there is access to your office?
Johnson: Yes. [Not long ago] I had a meeting with the television producers in Vancouver. They wanted to see me and there was not the slightest hesitation on the part of those in charge of English-language programming that I should go and see them.
Maclean’s: Why did you think you could do the job of being CBC president? I’m asking you to be as vain as necessary to answer that.
Johnson: It’s an embarrassing question to answer, because you have to talk about yourself, and I’m not really terribly good at talking about myself. I believed that I understood my country well enough that I could bring the kind of perspectives to the CBC that I brought, I hope successfully, to the other policy fields in which I worked. I believe the CBC to be the single most important institution for Canadianism outside of the parliament of Canada, and I thought I could bring a certain conviction and energy to the job. I believed I could bring a kind of optimism and, if you want, idealism that is necessary—particularly today, when the CBC finds itself faced with such enormous odds, especially in the field of English-language television, competing with all the American programs, but with budgets that are a fraction of what they have. I hoped that I had been able, in my previous manifestations, to create an environment within which creative people could flourish; I thought I might be able to do that here.Ó