The broadcasting world greeted his appointment in 1989 with unabashed enthusiasm. Patrick Watson, a respected broadcaster in his own right, became the CBC’s first-ever chairman of the board. His reputation as an outspoken crusader for journalistic standards raised expectations that he would effectively defend the CBC against its critics in the Conservative government of the time. But Watson soon found himself under fire from his former supporters as one controversy after another erupted around the corporation. Watson, 64, resigned last June, four months before the end of his five-year term. He prepared this account for Maclean’s of what went wrong—and what went right:
"I don’t know whether the bowstring is taut enough to do what has to be done now at that place. But I do know that the conditions are ripe. If they don’t lose their nerve, they can pull it off because the ground-work is done.”
That’s what I said to some friends, on the eve of leaving the CBC. And they said, liWhat groundwork? What the hell are you talking about?” They had no idea of what had consumed the attention of the board and the management for five years, and why should they? It’s only programming that counts. But programs don’t get made if there’s not a structure to make them in, and that’s what those five years were about.
The reason I wonder about taut bowstrings and loss of nerve is this: For almost a quarter of a century the CBC was not only the public broadcaster, but also the regulator, to which its competitors had to come, cap in hand, for a licence. The CBC’s original corporate culture was built on an assumption of power, invulnerability and moral superiority to the private sector. And yet, side by side with that arrogance, the CBC also developed a great spirit of national purpose, a deep commitment to the service of its shareholders, the citizens, not as a market to be exploited but as a loved family to be nourished, a job that can be done only by disciplined study and deep understanding of the country.
Iliat old arrogance has been severely trimmed of late years, but the assumption of invulnerability has not totally disappeared. Some there recognize that there is little time and little support left in Parliament. Others are still just pressing on, sure that in the end Parliament will come to its senses. So I worry about resolve and about toughness and, well, creative fear. Nonetheless, that groundwork I was talking about did get done.
The toughest problems, by the way, are always in the English television service, which burns about 40 per cent of the total budget. French television is not nearly so troubled. Radio and the northern services are almost universally admired. It’s English TV that will have to face the next invasion from outer space.
For three years, three major events dominated the agenda. Coming one on top of the other like earthquakes, they erupted in a mass of dust and fragments that is still coming down from the stratosphere. The three events were: first, a series of drastic cuts and station closings; second, the fuss over The Valour and the Horror, third, the precipitous remake and unremake of the English TV prime-time schedule, which, however brave and appropriate, left the Mother looking weak and indecisive.
The fallout from these events obscured the groundwork that was going on to prepare the corporation for the millennium. The Valour and the Horror was in some ways the worst. 1 and the board and the president were in agreement about the other issues, but the anger that divided families and enraged old soldiers across the land also had board members deeply split, and it became a serious point of difference between me and the president, Gérard Veilleux. He was sometimes almost impaired with anger, shouting obscenities and shaking with rage. I had to stop him from going public with a release that would have deeply hurt him, the producers, the ombudsman and the CBC.
He has said, preposterously, that I was silent during those discussions, despite the dramatic intensity of the many closed-door board meetings where I warned of the danger of coming so close to the mechanics of programming.
The aftershocks of the cuts were still rumbling as the next phase began. We had to transform the old lofty attitude towards the private sector. The CBC declared itself increasingly open for business with the private sector, and with offshore partners. Behold the CBC and Baton (a competitor!) applying hand-in-hand for a headline news channel; the CBC joining a big group of partners seeking a performing arts channel; production-sharing agreements with the Australians; finally getting into orbit with a U.S. satellite-to-home channel for Canadian programming—in a partnership with Power Broadcasting of Montreal.
Relationships with the unions were reworked. After decades of warfare, two of the major unions told the CRTC last spring, “The Age of Confrontation is over. We have to work together with the CBC now to deal with the new environment.” They were in part referring to an experiment in using the new technology to make TV and radio with fewer people. This initiative, once anathema to any right-minded union, is actually being co-managed by the unions and the CBC. That could be the single most radical change of the era.
In the same spirit there was and is important work to be done with the creative unions. Jim Byrd, the new head of English TV, says he is moving ahead with musicians and actors and writers to make it possible to mine the inventory. There are thousands of hours of good drama and entertainment that millions of young Canadians weren’t bom in time for. Under the old agreements it cost more to replay them than to buy cheap U.S. soaps and sitcoms. If the new agreements are achieved, the schedule can be full of Canadian reruns from prime time, The Beachcombers, say. Instead of sending dollars south for U.S. goop, the modest money entailed would go to Canadian artists and producers.
Radio and TV were told to work more closely together. So were the English and French services. That was partly for cultural enrichment of programs but also, importantly, to make the dollars go further.
And another thing. With citizens everywhere concerned about irresponsibility in the media, CBC management and journalists alike realized there was an opportunity to make the walls more transparent, to give shareholders—the citizens—a greater voice, to advance craft, standards and values. A long task, indeed a constant and unending one. But it is begun and it is irreversible.
And what of the satellite age, the technological opportunity? CBC planners and engineers are seriously looking at all those hundreds of towers and transmitters and asking: could satellites do the job more efficiently?
Finally, of course, it is only programs that count. And it has become clear that, in the multi-channel universe, the only appropriate posture is to be utterly distinct. So essentially what we tried to set in motion as the earthquakes began to subside was a transformation of
‘Side by side with its arrogance, the CBC developed a great spirit of national purpose’
all our TV, but especially the English service, into what radio has long been: so recognizable that whenever you tuned in you would know you were home.
Knowlton Nash writes in his book about a detailed set of proposals for the future that I doggedly delivered in 1991, in the midst of the earthquakes, hoping to attract attention to where it belonged. I called the paper Distinction or Extinction. (The nine o’clock news idea was in there! I still like it. But it was too soon.) Here is the essence of what I was after:
• The CBC has to be more present in its communities, more regional, bringing more young people in to work with it, perhaps as interns and visitors. Like Moses Znaimer’s CITY TV in Toronto, it has to escape the building, get into the streets, constantly show the face of this vast, sprawling, indiscreet country instead of some clever set in a hygienic studio, to constantly exhibit a sense of place, to reflect our native and black and Asian and Mediterranean people more fully. It must go further towards democratizing the production of television, using Uw-cost, citizen-made contributions from home videos.
• It t ust escape its obsession with electoral politics. Politics is only a sma.l expression of a civilized democracy, and is mostly occupied
with responding to changes that originate in science, technology, culture, the environment, social attitudes, learning, the arts. Let’s turn our attention to these latter, because the thousands of hours we devote to political argument, while cheap and sometimes entertaining, are fearfully redundant and often void of significance.
• Most of all, the public broadcaster has no business broadcasting several hundred hours a year of cheap American soaps and sitcoms only to make money. Advertising—this is an imperative—has to be reduced to the point where it is no longer a dependency, no longer skews program judgments, no longer interrupts and violates dramas or documentaries, wrenching us away from passion or insight in order to sell us beer and fried potatoes, for god’s sake.
• Far better to make fewer programs, maintain very high quality in drama and entertainment, and (this is crucial) to repeat those fine programs, the dramas, the great specials, the current affairs mainstays, frequently and soon, since the competing channels are going to draw away audiences anyway (often to very good programs, by the way), and nobody watches the same channel
every night. It is irresponsible to produce a great drama (like The Boys of St. Vincent) and not let its word-of-mouth reputation bring in a later audience, the next day and the next week, and at different times of the day and night.
And pretty soon there you are: distinctively Canadian, spiced with a few foreign programs of unique value—and nobody tuning in can be of any doubt that they have come home.
So why didn’t that happen while I was in the chair? Partly because the key operating people, when I came in, were still locked into head-to-head competition with the privates for audience and revenue, and into the mindset that went with it. Dealing with the above-mentioned earthquakes preoccupied them (and almost everyone else) terribly. The mindset stayed set, and maybe the sense of invulnerability did, too. Those remakes of corporate structure absorbed almost the entire energies of an overcharged workforce. Some of us argued that radical program changes should get going at the same time. Maybe it was impossible. In any case the earthquakes argued louder.
But that’s the mittful they’re wrestling with now. Few disagree that it would be, well, nice. But do they understand it is a question of survival? Is the bowstring taut enough? □
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.