Sunday, January 18, 2009

How to Fix the CBC and How Not Too

The National Post has an interesting piece up this weekend on how to fix the CBC. Articles on 'how to fix the CBC' are almost an annual requirement for every news organization in this country (except the CBC) but this particular one isn't written by a TV critic or political pundit. Instead they asked people with a stake in the future of the CBC how they thought it should be fixed: Among the respondents: Director Bruce McDonald, actor Nicholas Campnell, ex-BBC journalist and current UBC journalism professor Alfred Hermida, fashion designer John Fluevog and talent agent Amanda Rosenthal.

Bruce McDonald's reaction was, to an extent predictable - urging that creative talent have more input.
"We need to be smarter, faster, quicker and braver than other programmers. Give artists permission. Then set them free."
- Bruce McDonald
That it was predictable though doesn't mean it's wrong. I find alot of the CBC's new programming feels like it was created by a calculator rather than a person. Given it's federal subsidies combined with it's ad revenue the CBC can afford to take risks that no other media company in Canada can, but they don't. They seem for the most part to be the best funded but least brave or creative of Canada's 'big media.'

Also predictable was the response from Amanda Rosenthal, president of Amanda Rosenthal Talent Agency Inc. who talked about how Canada needs a 'Star System'. I've heard this argument frequently and don't think much of it. Even the U.S. seems to be tiring of it's star system. The reality is that Canada has a star system and that we will always lose talent to the United States.

I heard it said once that the British have their own star system: That there are alot of 'stars' in Britain who the rest of the world wouldn't have heard of. The same is true in Canada. The biggest TV Star in Canada is Don Cherry - not because he does alot of photo ops and late night interviews, but because he is himself - brash, politically incorect, opinionated and unapologetic.

Beyond Cherry we have Peter Mansbridge, Rick Mercer, Bruce McDonald, Feist, Nicholas Campbell, the various members of the Kids in the Hall, Sarah Polley, David Suzuki, and a great many others. All of them are well known, and respected and have survived Canada's 'tall poppy syndrome' by not getting too tall. They are humble, talented, experienced and hard working and Canadians respect that. In my experience at least Canadians recognize talent and hard work but have little appetite for pretense, garish wealth or celebrity culture.

The U.S. has ten times Canada's population. As a result they have larger budgets, more production and can pay higher salaries. That will always lure many of Canada's best and brightest south. This is not only true in the arts but in science and medicine, sports, business and technology etc. This is not only a Canadian problem - Great Britain, Australia, India, and essentially the entire english speaking world lose talent to the United States.

We do need to make it easier for Canadian talent to stay in Canada, but in most cases that just means making the arts financially viable, we have to enable our artists to stay and make a living, not stay and become ridiculously wealthy - that we can't do. I have with have tried in many ways to work on this problem. I know though that no matter what I or anyone else do some will stay in Canada and accept less than they could make in the States, some will leave and some will go back and forth.

Fashion designer John Fluevog helps my case:
"Sometimes, I get a sense CBC is justifying its existence. That, because of government harassment, it has to prove it's ‘Canadian.' CBC has no need to apologize. It's not our culture, that's too much pressure. It's the glue that holds Canadian culture together. Hip is being yourself, it's a naturalness of owning who you are. Be quirky and offbeat, but don't try to be cool - young people smell that a mile away."
The CBC does not need to be like the US, it does not need to be hip. Cool is over. Society, as an early affect of modern technology, is fragmented - everything is cut into niches now and each niche has it's own sense of what is and isn't cool. On the whole I find that those who try the hardest to be cool are the least popular. People respect individuality and creativity and talent and that combination is the closest there is to a definition of cool in 2009.

Take for example the the Bucky Awards. Radio 3 is the CBC's coolest brand. The Bucky Awards are Radio 3's annual music awards. In this years awards, as voted by the audience, Laura Barrett - a talented young musician (who plays the kalimba, an african thumb piano) wears large glasses and doesn't wear makeup was voted Canada's Sexiest Musician - welcome to Canada and the new definition of cool.

The CBC's two biggest challenges are still left: Technology and the Government.
"CBC must stop thinking of itself as a broadcaster. It's a content provider. Of course, in every organization there's inertia. CBC is a cruise liner and there's an iceberg approaching; it takes time to get that ship turned. There will be resistance. At BBC, new media was met with suspicion: Why are we going online? So we found the journalists, editors and producers interested in exploring - we got the early adapters and worked the edges of the organization. Then it spread.

"Newsrooms are notoriously reluctant to change. When change comes, the initial reaction is defensiveness. But BBC changed and so can CBC. It starts with strategy. Don't blog because everyone else does. Innovate! In 2007, the BBC iPlayer streamed programs to hand-held devices which proved tremendously popular - think about getting content out there so it suits the audience. CBC is in the process of re-invention. They have to change how, not what, they do."

Alfred Hermida, assistant professor of journalism at the University of British Columbia

"If Ottawa wants to find a way to get rid of it, CBC only has a 50/50 chance to survive. I got told by a member of Parliament that Paul Martin began planning on how he'd spread the savings once he got rid of CBC. And Jean Chr├ętien was the worst. I love him, he didn't even call me by name, he'd just yell, ‘CBC!' He'd get so mad talking about it, I'd have to calm him down. He thought they ambushed him at a press conference and made things hard on everyone and brought morale way down.

"There's a prejudice out there against them, like it's CBC so it's not very good or it's a copy of American things. Talking with Don Cherry, he'd say Da Vinci is so good I thought it was American. I'm like, ‘Don, man, that's the worst thing you can say.'

I love CBC and I'm willing to fight for it. Loyal, patriotic Canadians should have something that blows their minds."
- Nicholas Campbell
The CBC has no real political allies - at least the Liberals and Conservatives are not exactly fond of it. It is only public support that keeps the CBC up and running. In order to keep that support the CBC does not need to become cooler, or more American - it needs to remain deeply relevant to Canadians in terms of what content it delivers and how it delivers that content. The way people consume media is changing rapidly and the CBC must accommodate those changes. I've heard a few people say recently that "TV is for boomers" and that is a perception that the CBC cannot allow to stand. I'm sure the temptation is great. The baby boomers had the least exposure to the internet in their youth and are the slowest to adopt new technologies - as a result they make up the bulk of the traditional television audience so the easiest thing to do is to program for them but this is terribly short sighted and would kill CBC television in the longer run.

So going back to where we started - with Bruce McDonald who said the CBC must "give artists permission. Then set them free." The CBC must take the same approach to new media. Even if they start small they must give their new media people permission to try and fail, permission to experiment and be bold. This cannot be an afterthought, these people will create the CBC of the future and there will be trials and pitfalls and colossal failures along the way but that is the only road from here to there and the CBC needs to give some brave explorers permission to go down that road.

On a final note the CBC certainly needs more money from Ottawa. The mere fact that both the Liberals and Conservatives dislike and distrust the CBC means that they are worth keeping around and making stronger. Beyond that if the CBC needs more money in order to experiment and give license to it's creative talent, lower production values are absolutely acceptable. Internationally people are willing to accept lower production values if the ideas are good. In television shows like South Park and the Simpsons started with low production values that grew over time. The original BBC version of 'the Office' and the original Saturday Night Live both had very low production values and films like the Blair Witch Project and Roger & Me have shown that films made on a shoestring budget can be internationally successful. In technology and new media this is especially true. Facebook, for example, was started by a few students in a dorm room. What is holding the CBC back is not purely financial, there is far more 'won't' than 'can't' causing the problems.

1 comment:

Lyn X said...

Good article, thanks. I hate to admit, I've pretty much given up on CBC for anything beyond 'news' (and even then they leave much to be desired). I think for CBC to be viable in the future they need a total overhaul of programming directors and producers - I'm so tired of seeing 'quirky communities' (often set decades in the past) and not-very-funny sketch comedies dominating CBC's TV programming. I've had several (extremely funny) comedian-friends who've landed CBC specials, only to be embarrassed for my friends' for CBC's unrelenting 'over-production' of their sketchs, rendering them decidedly 'unfunny'. And sorry, CBC-produced dramas, comedies and docu-dramas need better *television* actors too - the greatest theat-ah performers still manage to suck on the boob tube.

Same goes for radio (music) programming - how much jazz, classical and the-next-big-thing* in heavy rotation can one take?? (*CBC seems to jump on that particular bandwagon only AFTER the music has already gained a wide following in the U.S.) Case in point: I was actually excited about last week's "Obama's playlist" and nominated several excellent well-known (and a few lesser-known but indisputably talented) musicians; (by my understanding) nominations were supposed to be listed in full to allow the public's input on the shortlisting process, but none of my nominations were ever posted (red flag 1); after nominations closed, the public was supposed to be able to vote on the shortlist of 100 (I assume 'most nominated' from the posted-nominations?). But come voting time, the public was only offered an opportunity to vote in 4 extremely rigid categories of what I'd call non-choices (I'd never even heard of easily 95% of the options - red flag 2). So either CBC's voting-audience was obscenely disproportionately dominated by jazz-classical-and-next-big-thing-lovers, or CBC is full of shit and knew from the get-go that they and they alone would select what they thought 'Obama should hear'. Either way, the 'contest' was a joke and was woefully, most certainly NOT representative of 'greater Canadian culture' (just as I think CBC radio in general is most certainly NOT representative of 'greater Canadian culture').

So until CBC changes their nepotistic ways, we are likely to see and hear more of the same, boring pap, and potential audiences will go elsewhere for their CanCon entertainment.