Click Here! to download the CBC

I’ve always been a fan of the CBC Archives web site. Well-written, well-designed, impeccably researched, thoughtfully curated, technologically nearperfect, and truly bilingual (not just translated) it’s easy to spend hours there.

But as much as there is to see, I wish I could see the rest of it.

You wouldn’t believe the stuff we have down there in the basement – thousands and thousands of hours of radio and TV, some of it on thick, vinyl platters, from the days when recording a radio show meant pressing a record in-house. Even the most passionate CBC-hater will have to admit, after an hour of looking, that what we have amounts to 75 years of Canada’s social, political, and cultural history.

The irony, of course, is that the people it was provided for (and who paid for it) can’t see or listen to it.

I said before that I think these archives – every second of them – should be available for free, online and I’m sure the CBC librarians had a good laugh over their Earl Grey when they read that, the CBC lawyers chucked over their highballs, and the CBC IT nerds nodded sagely over their Diet Cokes.

Because contrary to what most people might think, the technology is the easiest and cheapest part of it. We could store a years’ worth of TV on a $3,000 disc, a price that is going down as you read this: nothing. We could renegotiate our deal with our internet service provider, or we could use the much-maligned, misunderstood Bittorrent, which would put bandwidth costs at, well, nothing.

Now, digitizing and organizing all those old records and tapes will admittedly be a massive project. We’ll need a platoon of anal-retentive librarians and will have to budget at least $120,000 for each year’s worth of archived content. It would be best to get the greatest hits online and work our waydown. But it could be done.

The real challenge is legal. We have the tapes. The Canadian public paid for them. But the rights are governed by old-skool copyright laws written before the internet existed. Some musicians own the music. Some artists own their performances. Some writers own their words. And so on. Negotiating and clearing all of it would take an eternity.

Besides all this, we make real dollars by selling this stuff for home and broadcast markets. Should we really be giving it away for free?

The mighty BBC thinks so. In 2003 the Director-General announced that they were going to do exactly as I’m proposing. They’re calling it the Creative Archive. As he said:

I believe that we are about to move into a second phase of the digital revolution, a phase which will be more about public than private value; about free, not pay services; and about inclusivity, not exclusion…

The overall aim should be to use public money and the new technologies to enrich our society in ways the commercial market place alone won’t.

In 2003 they were high on cheap technology, but soon realized that their difficulties were legal. So they started to rewrite their charter and the law, turning to the new-skool Creative Commons copyright license for inspiration, and coming up with the Creative Archive License. Essentially, this framework allows the British public to download, keep, share, and reuse BBC content for noncommercial use.

Yes, the British public. Foreigners will be blocked. Also, they will start with what the BBC owns outright (nature programs of “shagging marmots”), rather than the cool stuff (Dr. Who).

Still, it’s a start, and they are at the forefront of something no one’s ever donebefore. That’s a great place for a public broadcaster to be. And they are asking other broadcasters to join them. So where are we?

Strapped for cash and resources, for one. But you already knew that.

The CBC Archives site came to be when the the Department of Canadian Heritage recognized its potential and gave us the money to make it, through their Canadian Culture Online branch, whose mandate goes like this:

The Department of Canadian Heritage’s Canadian Culture Online funding programs exist to foster a deepened understanding of Canada and its rich diversity by stimulating the development of, and ensuring access to, quality Canadian digital cultural content.

Sounds like these are the guys we need to talk to for a bit more money, and then we can call the BBC to see how we can work together.

Imagine if this stuff was finally set loose. Imagine the resource it would be for educators, students, nosy bastards, immigrants, history buffs, politicians, citizens and artists. And not just for Canadians, but for people around the world looking to understand us.

Might this be the kind of project that would capture the public’s imagination and get them excited about the CBC again?

Because some people think that real creativity and innovation is built upon what was done in the past. If that’s true, we’re sitting on the motherlode.

Selections from the CBC Archives

From Punk Rock Comes to Canada

Peter Gzowski interviews Iggy Pop – March 1977, TV
Iggy was not allowed to play on Gzowski’s ill-fated “90 Minutes Live” because of union rules, but his interview is petulant, rambling, forthright and confrontational. Peter is not rattled.

Interview with the Sex Pistols – May 1977, TV
A truly astonishing clip from 90 Minutes Live. The reporter holds obvious disdain for the band, (“it takes all of them to make one sex pistol”), but the Pistols and their fans are unfazed, and the performance footage raw and powerful.

Canadian Punk Rock – Sept 1977, TV
Hana Gardner covers the punk rock “gimmick with a vengeance,” trying to get her head around the violence, self-mutilation, volume, and defiance of the Poles, Teenage Head, the Viletones, and their audience. She decides it’s all a “put-on” driven by “money, fame, kicks and chicks.”

Interview with the Clash – Feb 1979, Radio
On the eve of their North American invasion The Clash muse on the state of punk. Terry David Mulligan is suspicious, but reporter Steve Macklam says North America is ready for them. “We’ve been ready for ages.”


  1. Anonymous
    Posted June 19, 2007 at 2:56 pm | # | Reply to this masterpiece

    I’m from Australia. There are literally thousands of people like me that love the Beachcombers. It was aired here every week on the Australian Broadcasting Corporation network (ABC). We’d love to watch Nick Gerussi, Pat John and the gang again in some re-runs. Where can we find them????

  2. Dwight Williams
    Posted November 14, 2005 at 10:16 am | # | Reply to this masterpiece

    I don’t imagine you could move millions of original Beachcombers downloads and DVD sets, but hundreds of thousands wouldn’t be out of the question. It would certainly set the ball rolling for further exploitation of the new series.

  3. Ouimet
    Posted November 10, 2005 at 1:12 pm | # | Reply to this masterpiece

    Coincidentally, the day I posted this the creation of the “Video Syndication Unit” was announced internally. It’s going to be a revenue generation exercise, rather than a free-for-all like I’m suggesting. The aim is to get new stuff out on “new platforms” like cable video-on-demand, the internet, and mobile devices.

    This seems to mean selling it to other companies so they can repurpose it, or supporting it with advertising on

    From the looks of their team so far, they’re taking it pretty seriously.

  4. Anonymous
    Posted November 10, 2005 at 10:23 am | # | Reply to this masterpiece

    Forgive the wet blanket, but are you suggesting innovative, imaginitive, insightful, visionary thinking from our management?

    I would have thought we already had that demonstrated to us…

  5. oakwriter
    Posted November 9, 2005 at 1:10 pm | # | Reply to this masterpiece

    I like what I’m hearing.

  6. Swiv
    Posted November 9, 2005 at 12:07 pm | # | Reply to this masterpiece

    Great post Ouimet! Would love to see this start to happen. And wow, what a great time to spark up a discussion on it, with the US networks just waking up to the revenue potential of downloadable video (it took the video iPod to do it, but it seems to be done).

    The CBC archive – television and radio both — is a brilliant long tail case. We’re never going to sell millions of downloads of the Beachcombers or Anne of Green Gables (we may not have rights to the latter, anyway), but we could absolutely sell tens of millions of downloads of information program pieces like those Ouimet has higlighted. And then think what we might do if we could draw the NFB into the process.

    But that’s where the question of CBC management “getting it” comes in. And even though the Beeb — despite its age, size, and layers of bureaucracy — has figured out that this makes sense, the Corp’s somnambulent leadership aren’t very likely to see this opportunity until well after Canadian private broadcasters have gone out and proved its safe.

    And, since the original content of private broadcasters in Canada typically sucks by comparison, CTV, Global and co. may fail at it (or never try). I wish I could see CBC getting out ahead of the pack and making it happen, but I’m not optimistic. I recently heard stories from educators I know about their attempts in recent years to get CBC archival material for schools. Even that purpose is apparently so mired in red tape it often gets dropped. Shame, really.

  7. Anonymous
    Posted November 9, 2005 at 10:05 am | # | Reply to this masterpiece

    Perhaps Google Video would be interested in a “major producer” partnership.

  8. Justin Beach
    Posted November 9, 2005 at 9:23 am | # | Reply to this masterpiece

    You’ve got my vote as well.

    The answer to this “Besides all this, we make real dollars by selling this stuff for home and broadcast markets. Should we really be giving it away for free?” by the way is – absolutely, there isn’t even a conflict of interest here. The stuff on the web isn’t broadcast quality, so broadcasters will still buy it. I haven’t seen the numbers so I can’t be sure how much archival stuff sells in the home market, but while that market may go down a bit, people will still buy it on DVD, or through on demand – and you’d be trading a small slice of the home sales market for a larger, more loyal audience.

  9. Anonymous
    Posted November 9, 2005 at 12:00 am | # | Reply to this masterpiece

    Ouimet for President.

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