Backstage

A fight to control the CBC

Anthony Wilson-Smith January 17 2000
Backstage

A fight to control the CBC

Anthony Wilson-Smith January 17 2000

A fight to control the CBC

Backstage

Anthony Wilson-Smith

One thing to remember about Françoise Bertrand, the chairwoman of the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission, is that her name was mentioned last year as a candidate for president of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. One thing to know about Bob Rabinovitch, the person who did get the job, is that he was offered the CRTC job in the early 1990s—and turned it down.

In the wake of the conditions the CRTC imposed on the CBC in renewing its licence last week, you could argue Bertrand and Rabinovitch made strategic mistakes. Bertrand, in seeking to micromanage the CBC right down to the tenor and timing of its programming, behaves as though she got the network job. And Rabinovitch need not have waited so long to run the CBC: given Bertrands example, he could have taken the CRTC job, and used that to boss around the public broadcaster. Now, the two run organizations that often appear to vie for the dubious honour of being the most sober, self-obsessed and sanctimonious in the country.

But that description scarcely fits Rabinovitch—a tough but amiable, whip-smart guy with a lively sense of humour, equally at home discussing baseball or ballet. It’s hard to think of anyone better placed to shake the CBC out of its current torpor, brought on by slashed budgets, declining audience share, a hostile prime minister, plummeting morale—and some really bad, boring TV shows. But it’s equally hard to think of anyone better equipped to stall reform than Bertrand and her 12 fellow CRTC commissioners.

The CBC, if it follows the CRTC’s conditions, would lose $50 million in annual revenue, and be compelled to dump some of its most popular, profitable shows, such as pro sports events and American movies. Less-discussed, but of no less significance, is the way the commission seeks to make the CBC—which is already, in the view of many people, overbureaucratized and overly left-of-centre—even more so. The CRTC, among other things, says the CBC should:

• “More adequately reflect the multicultural and multiracial nature of Canada and the special place of Canada’s Aboriginal Peoples, and to balance their representation on the air and in the workforce in a manner that realistically reflects their participation in Canadian society, and that will help to counteract negative stereotypes.”

• “Promote the values that Canadians share. The Commission is maintaining its policies on television violence, sexrole portrayal and employment equity. The public broadcaster has a duty to play an exemplary role in these areas.”

• “Play a leadership role in ensuring that women are fairly

represented in all aspects of CBC television operations. The programming seen on CBC English-language television [should] reflect the rightful place of women in Canadian society, and in such a manner as to eliminate negative stereotypes.” In short, no bad words or actions involving anyone female or non-white or of non-Judeo-Christian background—and to ensure that’s the case, the CRTC wants the CBC to file an annual accountability report. And despite acres—sorry, hectares—of evidence to the contrary, the CRTC takes for granted that all Canadians believe in the need for employment-equity legislation. Beyond the inhibiting, patronizing nature of such talk, those instructions are unnecessary. Do women really need regulatory protection from portrayals of themselves? And if you want an example of how to treat multiculturalism as something other than a fragile flower, tune in to Moses Znaimer-run stations such as MuchMusic, Bravo!, or Toronto’s CityTV and CP24. There, hosts and guests of all colours, genders, backgrounds and sexual persuasions meet and greet without making it a big deal. That’s the way Canada increasingly is, especially among kids, and Znaimer reflects that in a realistic, entertaining way.

For its part, the CRTC emphasizes that it relied heavily on the 11 public consultations it held across Canada in which about 625 people took part, along with 4,000 written submissions and 87 presentations during hearings in Ottawa. Put another way, fewer than 5,000 of 31 million Canadians cared to offer views on their public broadcaster—and those are presumed to represent everyone. And the CRTC chose not to visit Toronto or Montreal, the largest English-andFrench language population centres, because . . . too many people live in them. It’s like the old Yogi Berra line about the restaurant where “nobody goes ’cuz it’s crowded all the time.” It’s enough to make nationalists weep—or would be, if their attention weren’t elsewhere. Want riveting stories of our past? Try Flistory Television, which last weekend ran Spy Week: CampX-— the story of our role in Allied espionage operations in the Second World War. For homegrown drama, try Traders on Global, or for comedy, Mike Bullard, who’s basically always on-air on either The Comedy Network or CTV. It’s all good stuff—but none might make it onto the CBC, given CRTC constraints. Left to its own devices, there’s a strong case for a government-funded public broadcaster, and Rabinovitch, so far, has made it well. But now, this. “The enemy of my enemy is my friend,” they say in the Middle East. Private broadcasters have always borne the most animus towards the CBC. Today, they must love the CRTC.