Friday, March 30, 2012
Bashing CBC: its part of our culture
Once I wrote an obit that began, "BROADCASTING CORPORATION, CANADIAN; died in its sleep last night..."
The fellow in charge of CBC programming back then, Slawko Klymkiw, was a very patient man who also had something few in his position in this business seem to possess--a sense of humour. He'd call me after I'd rip him in the newspaper, invite me to come the dozen or so blocks west to CBC's downtown Toronto broadcast bunker and he'd tell me why I was an idiot.
One thing I grew to understand over the years was just how impossible his job was. Knuckleheads like me would take shots every time a new series would bomb or Don Cherry would say "Pinko." Culture vultures would wail there was never enough ballet or theat-ah. Guilds would demand more scripted drama. Loyalists would freak over any blackouts with Coronation Street. Politicians would sneer at a perceived news bias. Oldtimers would demand the return of Don Messer's Jubilee. Taxpayers would ask for their money back.
As if running a TV network wasn't already enough of a crap shoot. The CBC had to also be the "eyes and ears of Canada," crank out 100% homegrown content, be a hot house for culture and creativity, kick ass in the ratings and satisfy its distrustful political masters. The place comes with 34 million shareholders, some who are also cabinet ministers.
It also comes with plenty of built in enemies, some of them posing as "friends." Being the captain of this ship is a hot seat on an ice flow, the ultimate programming high wire act.
So while she knew it was coming, yesterday had to be tough day for Kirstine Stewart. As expected, the Harper government's new budget took away 10% of the broadcasters annual appropriation. The $115 million hit will be phased in over the next three years. It was Black Thursday at CBC, Christmas at Quebecor.
The sharp stick in Stewart's eye, however, had to be the headline in Thursday's Globe and Mail: "Suck it up, CBC. You should have seen this coming."
Now, John Doyle is a pal and a very perceptive fellow. People read him for his opinions and they matter. He never has any problem backing them up.
He's as entitled to say CBC has "failed to transcend mediocrity and forcefully explain what it does" as any sportswriter in Toronto writing about Brian Burke or the Leafs.
I'm tickled when Doyle uses words like "flibbertigibbet" and "hodgepodge," as he does in debunking The National, because they are funny words well played. They go straight to my "steal these words later" file.
But saying CBC failed "to offer distinction and originality" because it "went for the jibber-jabber of chatty news and a ceaseless stream of Dragons' Den knock offs" is a bit, as the kids say, harsh.
Like it or not, CBC is in the same broadcast racket (another word I stole from Doyle) as the other guys. They have to provide content that Canadian viewers want to watch. Right now, and for the last few years, Canadians want to watch Dragons' Den.
Would Global find room for it on their schedule? That would be yes. So would CTV or City. It ranked 13th out of all shows in Canada March 19-25, drawing more viewers than Desperate Housewives, Dancing with the Stars or The Voice.
It didn't air this week, and the show that follows it, Republic of Doyle, fell under a million viewers in the overnight rating estimates for the only time this season. The Den is the best lead-in on the CBC schedule, and helps scripted shows like Doyle become and stay popular.
CBC tried two Den-like spin-offs this winter and spring, Redemption, Inc and The Big Decision. Neither has been a ratings blockbuster, but you can't blame them for trying. Fox would have done it. So would CBS or CTV. As Fred Allen said, imitation is the sincerest form of television.
CBC did find success with Arctic Air this winter. Another scripted show, Mr. D, also found an audience. This was a crowded, killer winter, and while some shows opened, not much stuck with viewers on either side of the border. For two new shows to emerge through the noise is pretty impressive.
Neither may meet Doyle's "distinction and originality"standard but even HBO runs out of Luck now and then. Calling the CBC schedule "a blinding sheen of lightweight nonsense" is overkill. I've told Doyle a million times don't exaggerate.
I think Marketplace is a great example of how CBC serves its audience by aiming right at it. The consumer magazine has been pulling million-a-week-plus numbers since January, all on Friday nights. It costs peanuts and punches well above its weight. If you are a programmer, it is a home run.
Now, CBC isn't perfect. All this jibber-jabber about Little Mosque being iconic and ground breaking? Oy vey. Does Stroumboulopoulos look as tired of us as we are of him? Pass the remote.
Where I wholeheartedly agree with Doyle is that the budget cuts do provide an opportunity for CBC to refine its mission and values. But as a network, not as a cultural beachhead. Bitching about CBC, one might argue, is part of our culture.
What I hope happens: can a few dozen managers and vice presidents, and make more TV Canadians want to watch. Aim too high and you get Michael Tuesdays & Thursdays--a distinct, original show very few Canadians watched. CBC has to live by the same TV maxim as the other guys--the audience is always right. The rest is all flibbertigibbet and hodgepodge.