Cover Story

The CRTC Gong Show presents... the CBC!

Michael Posner October 23 1978
Cover Story

The CRTC Gong Show presents... the CBC!

Michael Posner October 23 1978

The CRTC Gong Show presents... the CBC!

Cover Story

Michael Posner

Of the 23 million things that might be said about the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, the one certainty is that it is not beloved. It is respected

on occasion. It is even grudgingly admired from time to time. But week in, week out, on Parliament Hill and in executive boardrooms, in highrise apartments and suburban living rooms, few things stir the bile quite like the

public broadcasting network. It is Canada’s national whipping boy, condemned as much for its sins of omission as for those of commission.

That unfortunate fact was confirmed again last week as the 42-year-old institution, in an otherwise routine licencerenewal proceeding, confronted both the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) and its flotilla of critics-at-large. For eight days, businessmen, scientists, churchmen, feminists, homosexuals, di-

rectors, producers, writers, performers—166 individuals in all—paraded (by brief and in person) before the once-august CRTC to itemize the corporation’s faults. It was the longest hearing yet into the often-byzantine workings of the CBC, and it raised troubling questions about the network’s internal health and clinical prognosis.

No one could reasonably argue that the Corp came unprepared. Its mammoth 499-page submission (The CBC — A Perspective) was the product of nine months’ research and writing. CBC brass spent a full week rehearsing their presentations, complete with grilling sessions by role-playing commissioners and interveners. President AÍ Johnson (see box) faced a four-hour cross-exami-

nation that covered the gamut of CBC operations, present and future.

The preparation showed. CBC executives fielded the commission’s tepid inquiries with ease, and Johnson, amid the decaying splendor of Ottawa’s Château Laurier hotel, was aggressively upbeat. Despite the Trudeau government’s $71-million CBC budget cut (roughly 12 per cent of its proposed $574-million expenditures), the former treasury board mandarin committed the people’s network to Canadianizing English television, enriching French services, increasing regional programming, and adding a second TV channel—all by the early 1980s.

To do that, the corporation is going to need, Johnson estimates, $125 million in the next five years—an infusion federal politicians, in the new iron age of frills, seem scarcely inclined to allow. Even now, there are unspoken fears that the $71-million cutback is but the first incursion of a more wide-scale operation, Parliament’s test of the CBC’s mettle.

The budget reductions have already postponed, for at least two years, plans for a new Victoria TV station. The National will probably abandon its hopes for hiring a second Western-Canada correspondent and an economics reporter. The new director of television in Winnipeg, Bill Terry, will not soon fill the program-director’s chair which he vacated, and a projected follow-up to Radio-Canada’s phenomenally successful Duplessis series appears threatened. In fact, admits Peter Herrndorf, vice-president of planning and touted as presidential potential, most of the grandiose aims of Touchstone, the CBC’s master design for the next decade, are now in jeopardy.

As for the present squeeze, Herrndorf

says about $21 million will be saved by jettisoning new services, including an additional 30 minutes of Canadian programming each week in prime time. The network will trim another $25 million by cancelling orders for new premises, cameras and videotape recorders. The CBC’s 11,000-member staff will be reduced, probably by attrition. And in the last, most painful scenario now being scripted, programming will also feel the knife. The first victims may be known as early as next week, when CBC vicepresidents begin to block in the 1979 program year.

“The only thing that really matters in broadcasting is program content,” wrote Robert Fowler in 1965. “All the rest is housekeeping.” Fowler, then chairman of the committee on broadcasting, was right of course, and it is still programming that lies at the heart of the current debate.

As it stands, the CBC English network captures a meagre 22.5 per cent of Canadian TV viewers at any given moment. The privately owned CTV network, whose commitment to Canadian content is about as steady as the San Andreas Fault, claims 32 per cent. The rest are tuned into American shows. The central issue is this: Should the corpora-

tion continue to compete with the U.S. networks by producing American-type sitcoms and light entertainment? Or should it repudiate those elements— and sports—and concentrate exclusively on quality (and essentially elitist) dance, music, drama, documentary and public affairs? “It would be absolutely foolhardy to stop competing,” insists Jack Craine, the network’s English-language program chief. “The Broadcasting Act says we must provide a balance. We have good track records with King of Kensington and René Simard, for example. I’m puzzled when people compare us to the Public Broadcasting System in the U.S. PBS now carries sitcoms from England and even a country-andwestern show out of Austin, Texas.”

That is the official CBC line—we can do it and do it well—echoed down its myriad executive corridors. But outsiders, even some CBC staffers, say the quest for mass audiences is fruitless and self-defeating. At their popularity peaks, even the CBC’s success stories don’t approach the numbers drawn to Happy Days or Three's Company. What’s more, it costs the CBC $60,000 to make one episode of King of Kensington, but only $10,000 to buy 30 minutes of All in the Family. Concludes one sen-

ior Toronto drama producer: “The CBC should do its own programming, heavily weighted in the cultural area, and accept the fact that ratings will be lower. You can’t expect a concert to match ratings with pro football, just as you can’t expect a book on pure mathematics to sell as many copies as an Arthur Hailey novel. But the CBC has this incredible schizophrenia. It wants to continue its mandate and do high culture, and it also wants the numbers. All the battles revolve around those two points.”

Last summer, in his report of the committee of inquiry into the CBC, former CRTC chairman Harry Boyle wrote: “The CBC must recognize that it will never win the ratings games. Its standard has to be qualitative. It’s not the number of people watching that matters, but the importance of the program and the cultural situation of the people watching it.” Last week, in an interview with Maclean’s, Boyle added: “The corporation is neither fish nor fowl—and that makes it vulnerable.”

The CBC itself is all too aware of the dilemma. Its prime-time schedule is liberally laced with American imports, not only to entertain Canadians but in the hope that most of the loyal 2.9-million audience for M*A*S*H, for example, will stick around for the the fifth estate, the Corp’s flagship—and first-ratepublic affairs show. Regrettably, it doesn’t happen. Although a respectable 1.2 million a week viewed the fifth estate last season, that still represents a net loss of 1.7 million; presumably, a great many of even the 1.2 million had tuned in after M*A*S*H.

Commercial considerations also keep the English network’s National locked into its 11 p.m. (11:30 in Newfoundland) slot, an hour when 85 per cent of all viewers have turned off their sets. Belatedly, programming wizards in Ottawa have realized that it ought to be

earlier—as former anchorman Peter Kent argued last week—but they cannot agree just when. The 9 or 10 p.m. slot would affect commercial revenues in prime time; the 6:30-7:30 period would interfere with local programming. Nevertheless, according to Knowlton Nash, director of news and current affairs, a switch is almost certain, although probably not before spring. Meanwhile, Kent’s successor is expected to be announced next week, with Nash himself, former CBC newsman Lloyd Robertson (now with CTV) and Global TV’s Peter Truman among the candidates.

But even an earlier National will not add appreciable millions and if current figures are uninspiring, the future is positively bleak. Already, one of every

two Canadian homes is a cable subscriber. That figure will rise steadily through the ’80s, as Saskatchewan and the Atlantic provinces extend cable services. Indeed, within two years, most Canadians will have access to 20 channels, some of them involving viewer participation. New technology—specifically fibre optics, which could yield up to 80 channels—and the inevitable arrival of pay-TV will further erode the CBC’s audience. Says Michael HindSmith, president of the Canadian Cable Television Association: “It’s not more Canadian content that AÍ Johnson needs, but better Canadian content. He needs to spend more money on fewer shows to ensure their success. Too many of them now are simply not good enough.” Not for nothing has Johnson called for a five-year moratorium on pay-TV and higher Canadian content regulations for the private networks. If the race cannot be won on speed alone, handicapping the competition may provide an edge.

All of that remains for the CRTC and its chairman Pierre Camu to sort out. In the meantime, the CBC will have to appease independent producers, who want more than the three per cent of available program funds they now receive; the directors, who told the commission that the “CBC is the largest and most inefficient production house in Canada. And that is not gossip”; the corporate elite, who claim the public affairs departments are anti-business; the pious, who were able to document only three examples of religious news stories on the English network (one involving a Mormon and his 12th wife); the deaf, who want the CBC to caption shows for them; and the feminists, who complain that women hold less than 11 per cent of all CBC management posts. That is the short list.

More pressing still is the continuing

disaffection in the CBC’s regional centres. Says Vancouver writer George Woodcock: “The time has come to ask whether there should be a CBC anymore. Should it be dismantled and reconstructed? It suffers from bureaucratic ossification. There are mediocrities in power and creative people have been forced out.” That is not the moderate position, but there is no doubt that Woodcock’s basic sentiment commands a wide constituency. Ironically, while the regions deplore the drift toward centralization in CBC decision-making, regional facilities are often superior to those in Toronto, where production is dispersed among 18 sites, some of them antiquated. Not long ago, two authors interviewed by radio’s national As It Happens program were asked to share a single microphone. Later, arriving to do a local radio show in Calgary, they discovered an ultramodern console with no fewer than seven microphones.

CBC’s regional managers generally deny any lack of authority. “I have all the autonomy I need,” says Len Lauk, director of the B. C. region. “If I need more, I’ll get more.” That, too, is a corporate stance, but the regions are doing more programming—both in radio and television—even if the final budgets are dictated from Ontario. In fact, recalls Mike Daigneault, head of radio and TV in Quebec, one Edmonton producer had so much latitude that he decided to parade contestants for a Miss Nude contest right into the studio.

Regional grievances, paltry audiences and dismal forecasts notwithstanding, the CBC has undeniable strengths. Few may listen (anthology executive producer Robert Weaver once said he knew all his listeners—and by their first names) but CBC Radio in both languages continues to excel. Although Hockey Night in Canada is still the top-rated Canadian TV show, more cheaply produced but nonetheless effective programs such as Ombudsman and Marketplace have loyal and significant followings.

It seems clear, however, that the CBC’s immediate future is less auspicious than Johnson’s bravura performance last week might indicate. The most serious threat may be political; increasingly, official and appointed Ottawa regards the corporation as unmanageable, unintelligible and essentially irreparable. It is no small measure of their antipathy that the government’s most drastic spending cutbacks were directed at bureaucrat Johnson, who once wielded so much clout at treasury board.

There are some who insist that even unlimited budgets would not solve the crisis of the CBC. Says former staffer Ross McLean, now producing independently: “To think that only more dollars or more transmitters is the answer is to overlook the fundamental need, which is to bring together the creative resources and allow them to perform. There are people of immense talent and real genius who cannot really express their best work.”

That is not new. Indeed, what ails the CBC now has always ailed it: internal wars for power and control, the galvanic allure of American pop culture— and not enough money to compete. “It is possible to make a quite good argument that Canadian entertainment—the whole industry—should be dispensed with because the large proportion of the public is quite happy with what it gets from across the border.” Just the sort of remark one might have heard last week in Ottawa. Except that theatre director Mavor Moore made it in 1954.