MEDIA WATCH

Doing less can be the better way

George Bain April 22 1985
MEDIA WATCH

Doing less can be the better way

George Bain April 22 1985

Doing less can be the better way

MEDIA WATCH

George Bain

If, within months, Communications Minister Marcel Masse’s task force on broadcasting is to get its collective mind around what should be the objective of public policy in broadcasting, the proper roles for the CBC and private broadcasters, the needs of the provinces, the public as a whole and special groups within it, including native peoples—all the while keeping in mind the government’s cultural and economic priorities—the only decent thing to do is to step aside, bow low and wish it tne best of Canadian luck. However, one small question has been nagging me that I hope the task force might ask: is money all that is needed for the CBC to save Canadian culture?

In the past few months the air has been loud with cries that Canadian culture is doomed if the CBC must suffer a $75-million cut in its support from the public treasury. Our children will grow up with their little minds warped by watching American programs. Our very sovereignty will be imperilled. All of which may be true, but if it is—looking backward here—how much money would have been needed to keep us from getting to the point at which $75 million would plunge us into the abyss? The parliamentary appropriation for the CBC had been going up steadily, by tidy increments, to $871.4 million in 1984-85. True enough, the appropriation has not kept up with inflation, but even taking inflation into account, the spendable value was down by less than one per cent over seven years. In a time of restraint, that does not seem a lot.

One of a whole package of documents on “the prices on Canadian airwaves” put out in January by the Toronto-based Alliance for Canadian Broadcasting said, “What has to be done?” It answered its own question: “If losing three-quarters of our airwaves to another society and culture is acceptable, then nothing has to be done.” But, the alliance added, “If we are determined to retain our national culture,” several things must be done, beginning with increasing the role and funding of the CBC.

But what if money is not the sole determining factor of what Canadians watch? What becomes of the argument of more money equals preservation of the culture? Public broadcasting in North America was pioneered in Canada; it came late to the United States. Is there not, then, something ironic in the

fact that Canadians are major supporters of Public Broadcasting System (PBS) stations in Bangor, Maine, and Spokane, Wash.? In a speech last fall in Calgary, Mark Starowicz , producer of The Journal, rejected PBS as a model for Canada. But he also dismissively characterized its dramatic programs as “more British than CTV is American.”

Given, then, that there is an evident demand for foreign programming, and given further that the great cry of the CBC lobby is that we are being engulfed by American programs, and given still further that no amount of money can ever overtake the disparity in resources between the United States and Canada, is not some diversification of our imported viewing in itself worthwhile? If we cannot afford to produce all our own programs, should we not consider going some distance along the PBS route and seeing what else worthwhile is findable in the rest of the Englishand Frenchspeaking world?

Is it not also fair to ask whether the

'The air has been loud with cries against CBC cuts, but is money all that is needed to save Canadian culture?’

CBC, if its true concern is with good, Canadian-made material, has been quite willing enough to make use of the resources of the National Film Board (NFB), which manages to win quite a few Academy Awards? The NFB series War, aired by the CBC in 1983, was a magnificent example of what is possible; it was also an exception. Its seven one-hour segments constituted seven-ninths of the NFB programs that the CBC bought in the early production stage in 1983-84. That year the CBC also bought seven coproductions. But NFB films have a curious tendency to turn up in the afternoon ghetto or in midsummer, which somehow suggests a greater concern to protect the exclusivity of CBC turf than the promotion of Canadian culture.

It is also a fair question whether it reflects worse on the parsimoniousness of the public treasury or on the quality of judgment of CBC management when it is said, in scandalized tones, that “the entire budget of the English network TV drama department is about $25 million.” In 1984 CBC management, as that

of any corporation, had funding choices to make—as, for example, between the drama department and virtual dawn-todawn coverage of the Los Angeles Olympics and the papal visit, which, even by CBC figures, cost as much as all of English-language drama. If the corporation’s response to two admittedly legitimate news events was excessive, it becomes grossly unfair to complain that the public was deprived because another department went short.

Another question that may be asked is whether the CBC’S coverage of public affairs is as good as the corporation fancies it to be. Last February CBC President Pierre Juneau said in Winnipeg, “I take great pride in the fact that CBC Winnipeg’s local news program, 2k HOURS, leads the local news services at 6 p.m. every night.” He may well have done. But it is naughty to say, as he also did, that “perhaps the easiest yardstick for the measurement of the broadcaster’s involvement with the surrounding community is the size of the audience for local news programs” without adding that his Winnipeg example was the exception. In Ottawa, a city in which the audience might be presumed to be exactly the CBC’S meat, CJOH, the CTV affiliate, outpulls the opposing CBC 6-7 p.m. news show—by 3.5 to 1—as the CTV national news at 11 p.m. does the CBC’s 10 o’clock National, although by a smaller margin.

Nor is this a local Ottawa aberration. Similar results occur in Toronto, Vancouver, Calgary and other big cities across the country, although less so in smalland medium-sized cities. No one, least of all in the CBC lobby, which makes a practice of decrying how little private broadcasting spends on programming, would argue that money is the determining factor in those results.

The question—here, at least—is not whether public broadcasting is needed in Canada or deserves to be handsomely funded; it is and does. But whether it follows from that, as the CBC lobbyists suggest, that the CBC way of doing things is unquestionably and invariably right, and that nothing is needed but to get up the money and let the Corp get on with it, is highly debatable. Perhaps the CBC can do more with what it has; the French-language network somehow manages to produce 3,500 hours of programs for $138.2 million, compared with 2,000 hours at $196.9 million for the English. Perhaps the CBC should do less —and do it better. But the idea that any possible fault can only lie with the taxpayer is curiously unappealing.