Columns

It’s an endangered species

Barbara Amiel January 24 2000
Columns

It’s an endangered species

Barbara Amiel January 24 2000

It’s an endangered species

Columns

Barbara Amiel

No matter how stylishly turned out Madame Françoise Bertrand, chairwoman of the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission, may be, what I see when she comes on television is the little flat triangular head of a dinosaur waving above the mud as quicksand closes around it.

The CRTC is an anachronism. Born back when the available frequencies on public airwaves were limited, it could justify its existence by plucking leaves from the low hanging branches of pre-satellite foliage. Now in the world of cable and 500-plus channels, no one needs the CRTC. The dinosaur roams the Canadian landscape taking licence applications, in the case of the CBC without the power to enforce them. It faces extinction. All it can do is create a little work for itself: we the taxpayers are now financing Madame Bertrand’s commissioners tour across Canada to “explain” the recent CRTC decision on the CBC’s licence renewal. I suppose we should look at the cost of their trip the way one does in donating funds to preserve an endangered species of fish—or foul.

The hearings Bertrand conducted across Canada to tell her what Canadians want were a total fraud. The CRTC should be prosecuted for invoking them as any kind of “mandate” from “the people.” Those of us who have had contact over the years with government agencies know how they work. A public hearing is scheduled. The word goes out to make sure that Mr. X is at it and such-and-such an organization is contacted and well-briefed. Plenty of time is allotted for their submissions. Public notices of the hearings have to be put up, but it is all a charade. These hearings are not held anywhere that might ruin the agenda of the day—thus the CRTC carefully stayed away from Toronto and Montreal, cities that may not have bought into its agenda of “diversity” and “regional” broadcasting. The hearings are about the closest thing we have to those exercises that Communist countries called “elections.” Bertrand calls the hearings “representative.” Of whom? The CRTC’s own ideas and policies?

Had Madame Bertrand actually wanted to know what Canadians think of the CBC, she could have analyzed what millions of us do when we press the button on our channel selectors instead of listening to “87 oral presentations,” “625 individuals” recruited to attend the hearings and “4,000 written submissions.” But perhaps she is too busy egging on the RCMP to stage raids on the dishes Canadians like to buy so they can choose their own programs.

If the CRTC is archaic, the CBC is not far behind. I happen to be a fierce supporter of public broadcasting, but that position has become difficult to defend. My own view is that the CBC should be a centre of excellence. We have com-

mercial specialty channels doing history and arts broadcasting, but they are going relentlessly down-market. When I watch as fine a program as Robert Sherrin’s profile of Canadian tenor Michael Schade broadcast on Jan. 6 on CBC Thursday, I am elated. But up-market programs on arts, politics, sports and so on only happen to be my personal view of what public broadcasting should do. I doubt it coincides with the tastes of most TV watchers in Canada who would have to finance them.

Madame Bertrand and her lot justify their attempt to micro-manage CBC programming with some truly banal thoughts. The CRTC licensing decision begins: “We Canadians need to remind ourselves that we are a unique people and a unique country.” Why? Is Bertrand suffering from a cognitive disorder? I’ve never met a Canadian who needed reminding. Actually, it’s mainly the people who hang around CanLit gatherings or CRTC hearings who ever doubt their identity.

The CBC might be saved by some redesign. It’s always had a top-heavy bureaucracy. When I worked there, you could never find a free librarian or a stagehand, but there were lots of human-resources people and at least five supervisors telling the producer how to do the show. And whatever arguments remain for the CBC as a program maker, there are no arguments left for it as a network or distribution system. I suspect that close to half the CBC budget goes on maintaining an anachronistic infrastructure of transmission towers, low power relays and the huge engineering network essentially superseded by technology. In an age of satellite and cable, the CBC could redirect that money to producing programs.

The CBC could get its own network on satellite or cable that would reach every home everywhere in Canada—if only the CRTC would stop its King Canute dawn raids on the technology that allows viewers to do so. The many accomplished program makers, editors, writers, performers, researchers and other talent at the CBC might find new life if they were not burdened by the insane notions of the CRTC.

I don’t know if the CBC’s new president, Robert Rabinovitch, has the gumption to ignore Bertrand and her politically correct notions. But he should remember that the CBC mandate is not the 10 Commandments—it’s not writ in stone. The dinosaur became extinct precisely because it could not adapt to a shifting environment. Madame Bertrand’s CRTC will not survive simply because she lacks those instincts of flexibility that are necessary in both the economic and natural world to thrive and survive. Here’s hoping that Rabinovitch is a not a leaf-eater but a carnivore ready for a good meal.