MEDIA WATCH

The price of playing in the Big Time

As long as the CBC goes on as a copy of the reach-’em-all American networks, it cannot be what its management wants

GEORGE BAIN September 26 1988
MEDIA WATCH

The price of playing in the Big Time

As long as the CBC goes on as a copy of the reach-’em-all American networks, it cannot be what its management wants

GEORGE BAIN September 26 1988

The price of playing in the Big Time

MEDIA WATCH

As long as the CBC goes on as a copy of the reach-’em-all American networks, it cannot be what its management wants

GEORGE BAIN

Without argument, the top show on CBC Television—the top Canadian show—is The National. In season and out, the news show turns up in the top five, not every week, but most weeks. Its audience floats— sometimes above, but more often a bit below, two million nightly. When television viewing in general drops, as it does particularly in summer, The National’s audience stays relatively close to what it has been. It then tends to move higher in the top five and to be joined there by The Journal, which on average attracts 200,000 to 300,000 fewer viewers, and sometimes by the Sunday news show, Sunday Report.

The National’s chief rival among Canadian programs is Hockey Night in Canada. In fact, when hockey moves into its long, long Stanley Cup season, which drags on even into June, the news frequently is overtaken. For instance, in the May 2 to 8 week this year, four of the top five CBC shows were National Hockey League games. The fifth was the Disney Sunday Movie. The probable explanation of that result is not a sudden disaffection of viewers of The National, but that the movie is unaffected by hockey, which frequently delays the start of the news until a time when part of its audience, especially in the Atlantic provinces, has gone to bed. But apart from The National, the related Journal and, in season, hockey, the top five programs on the publicly owned television network are almost always American.

The most popular of those in the past few years have been the Disney Sunday Movie, followed by Newhart and Dallas, more distantly by Kate and Allie, The Golden Girls and Designing Women and, still further behind, by the recently revived Smothers Brothers. Still, the single most-watched program on CBC TV in the period, although surpassed more than once by The Cosby Show on CTV, which has drawn better than six million, was Anne of Green Gables. In the second of two

weekly episodes in December, 1985, that Canadian-made special drew 5,837,000 viewers.

All that is derived from a survey of 150 weekly reports by Nielsen Media Research of the five top-ranked television programs on CBC, CTV, Global and Radio-Canada over a 31/2-year period between early 1985 and the present—not all that were issued in that time, but a large sample. They were picked at random, except that care was taken to ensure that every week of the year was included because of seasonal differences in what viewers are given to see and how many sets are turned on for them to see anything. And, with that, we leave A. C. Nielsen, which counts only numbers and has nothing to do with the conclusions, which are mine.

The first of those is that as long as CBC TV goes on as a copy of the unfocused, reach’em-all American-style network, it cannot be what its management and lobbyists pretend (sometimes) that it is and (more often) that it wants to be and would be but for a niggardly public treasury, which is something distinctively Canadian.

As matters stand, the department of consumer and corporate affairs—as a matter of truth in labelling—would demand that any

other product that came in a box carry a line saying “color added.” The National, the prime element in that distinguishing Canadian color, commands a large and faithful audience not because it is better journalistically or technically than American network news, but because it serves, as they don’t, a natural Canadian interest in Canadian affairs. Hockey Night in Canada tops the charts in the playoff season because hockey is the national sport. And, as indicated by Anne of Green Gables, quality Canadian drama is capable of drawing millions of viewers—but here there’s a rub. Two, really.

The first is that such programs, including Chautauqua Girl, Charlie Grant’s War and My American Cousin—almost the full list of dramas the corporation and its lobbyists cite as tokens of what could be done if only government were more culturally aware—are all one-shots. Partly because they are rare— more because they are Canadian—they benefit from reams of publicity in the making and in advance of being shown, and of favorable (or chauvinistically charitable) reviews after, which help with the reruns. Nevertheless, they remain merely occasional bits of the Canadian flavor in a service that is defined for the largest numbers of viewers by the sorts of imported series that dominate the top five ratings—not as one-shots but week after week and year after year.

The second is that, although the corporation and its lobbyists endlessly assert their dedication to seeing more and better Canadian drama produced, they have always, in good times, found other things they wanted to do more and, in less good times, loudly wept into their hankies about government’s wicked neglect of the arts and culture. The current illustration is the desire to set up an all-hours, all-news cable service—which the country questionably needs—which will allow it to secure that new (to Canada) field for itself and to become even more Big-Time.

What seems never to have been considered as a means of providing a more distinctively Canadian television service is a fundamental reordering of priorities and going more Small-Time, with a view to freeing up a larger part of a $1-billion-plus total revenue for programs that would make it different.

A model is close at hand. CBC Radio has chosen to be different by not adding to a world glut of the sort of radio that advertises itself as “more rock, less talk.” Such programs as Morningside, with Peter Gzowski (the best and most Canadian thing in Canadian broadcasting, radio or television); As It Happens, with Michael Enright; CBC’s Sunday Morning; Ideas, with Lister Sinclair; Mostly Music, now in the hands of Joan Gordon, she having taken over from the excellent Harry Elton; Gilmour’s Albums, with Clyde Gilmour; and the afternoon show, now presided over by Vicki Gabereau, have a rare, common attribute—intelligence. It may not turn on the sort of people who go around with headphones on, listening to rock music—but it makes a great way to be nationally distinctive.