Celebrating 70 years of crisis

The CBC was created 70 years ago today, on Nov 2, 1936. Actually, its genesis goes back a little further than that.

Graham Spry and Alan Plaunt were public broadcasting activists and lobbyists before the terms were even invented. Spry was clever, well-connected, well-spoken and charismatic. Plaunt was just as clever and connected and he was rich and Machiavellian to the core.

Together they used every backroom tactic they knew to bamboozle the Bennett government into establishing a Canadian public broadcaster. Spry:

Here is a majestic instrument of national unity and culture. It is the greatest Canadianizing instrument in our hands. Its potentialities are too great, its influence and significance are too vast, to be left to the petty purpose of selling cakes of soap.

The Canadian Radio Broadcasting Commission was created in 1932 out of fear that if left unchecked, the private broadcasters would fill the airwaves with Amos ‘n Andy, which they were happily doing to great financial success. The first grant for the fiscal year of 1933-1934 was $1 million, $1.5 million short of what they needed.

The role of the CRBC was to produce programs that would be of value to the Canadian public, and also to regulate the airwaves. Basically a CBC and CRTC rolled into one.

Not only that, but the CRBC, in theory, could expropriate any existing station it needed to flesh out its national network.

The private radio stations howled with protest, of course. And Spry and Plaunt weren’t so happy with it either. It was no BBC. Clumsy, underfunded, overmandated, powerless, beholden to the current government and surrounded by enemies, it was doomed.

When the Liberals got into power in 1935, Plaunt was in their back corridors and the CRBC was dead in the water. Plaunt pitched the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation as a more powerful, better organized, better funded version of the CRBC. It would also be responsible to Parliament, rather than the whims of the party in power.

And so, in 1936, the House of Commons passed the bill that established the CBC.

And also, on that very day, the first CBC employee was heard to mutter under his breath: “this place is fucked.


  1. Tessa
    Posted November 3, 2006 at 9:14 pm | # | Reply to this masterpiece

    Anonymous #3 (if that’s your REAL name) ’¦ You’ve nailed the real issue ’“ that as a public broadcaster, the CBC is “no longer part of the national discussion.”

    While some may argue that’s not always the case (the fifth estate’s story on lotteries being the most recent example), it’s true that much of CBC’s programming isn’t top of mind for the majority of Canadians.

    But what do we do when our “national discussion” is not just dominated ’“ but let’s admit *consumed* by ideas, images and news from the U.S.?

    Public broadcasting in this country was created to provide a space where Canadians would find news, ideas, culture’¦ stories of their own, amid the din of American voices (which comprised of only a couple of channels way-back-when, imagine that!).

    Sadly, when it comes to supply-and-demand, the numbers show that Canadian-produced television suffers miserably ’¦

    Spoken like a real 1980s television exec.

    “Supply-and-demand” is soooooooo two and a half decades ago.

    While we all engross ourselves in the latest ratings, we fail to recognize how the distrubution system upon which our entire industry is built is crumbling beneath. We can bemoan the number of eyeballs drawn to the lastest shiny icon on the stage, but fail to see the world of opportunity opening up outside our arrogant theatre.

    Looking for the “national discussion?” It’s not happening inside your television, or on your radio, or on the web. It’s happening in 15 million homes, in 30+ million individual heads.

    It used to be that you could broadcast one idea to many. Today, we live in a state of the hyper-individual, where the ‘many’ have shattered into a gazillion fragments, able to find what they want, where they want, and when they want.

    If there is to be a “national discussion” in such a labyrinth, the CBC is the logical place to host it.

    Unfortunately we’ve been preoccupied with the shiny stuff on the stage of late.

    But I still think it’s too early to say this place is fucked.

  2. Anonymous
    Posted November 3, 2006 at 11:03 am | # | Reply to this masterpiece

    Okay, I stand corrected The Hour breaks 100 K some nights. Wow. I hear Gill Deacon breaks 10k. The numbers for Intelligence are not increasing but declining. Of Dragon’s Den, I know nothing. I prefer to pretend that a show of that sort isn’t being carried by the national broadcaster.

    The “soppy Air Ferry thing” that pulled in 460,000 cost $8 million to make. Those economics are not sustainable.

    I watched some of “October” last evening and thought it was pretty good, the young actors very fine. Did it find its audience?

    And I’m not arguing that ratings, in isolation, are significant. It’s just one of many indications that the institution, one I used to treasure, is no longer part of the national discussion. If the problem is the medium then get out of television and move the message to the places where the eyes and ears are.

    As for the revenue stream – hockey is lost, and advertisers are running from the CBC’s current numbers.

    Freestyle is easily as vapid as the worst private radio in the country. If you want to defend it, I dare you to listen to it.

  3. P
    Posted November 3, 2006 at 9:21 am | # | Reply to this masterpiece

    Anonymous 1, your comments are mere unsupportable cynicism.

    1) The corp has been chugging along for 70 years now, so what’s the “one outcome” you refer to?

    2) Audiences for all television are lower, and it’s not just because of the quality of programming. The problem exists in the US too: Did nobody watch Smith, or The Nine, or Vanished, or Kidnapped, or Six Degrees, or Runaway because they were no good? Some, maybe, but it’s a medium-wide problem. Same goes for newspaper circulation, down 3% this year alone.) Don’t blame it on CBC.

    3) If you know something definitive about the CBC revenue stream, lay it out. Do you have an inside track on government funding, or the hockey contract, or traditional ad sales? Or are you speculating?

    4) The Hour averages over 100k most nights on its own. In fact, many of the shows critics slam for numbers (again, not quality) such as Intelligence and Dragons Den are actually picking up steam. Even that soppy Air Ferry thing pulled in almost half a million. Your figures are out of date.

    5) There’s no show more vapid than Freestyle? Try private radio. Pick a channel.

    Not to whitewash it – CBC has serious, serious problems. But pointing out the shows you don’t like or the ratings numbers the papers harp on doesn’t help.

  4. Justin Beach
    Posted November 2, 2006 at 9:02 am | # | Reply to this masterpiece

    Crisis can be a good thing, keeps people on their toes. If there wasn’t always at least an outside chance of funding getting cut off complacency might set in (I mean even more complacency). Because of the constant state of crisis the CBC is continually forced to examine itself, it’s audience, it’s offerings and it’s methods. Here’s to another 70 years of crisis.

  5. Anonymous
    Posted November 2, 2006 at 8:31 am | # | Reply to this masterpiece

    Happy Birthday Babe ! You`re 70 yrs young and amid the layers of internal and external political buraucracy you`ve gone thru & many years of govt cuts that has affected your parlamentary mandate while your internal upper management never once lobbied to stop the cuts – You were and will always be supported by your smaller creative staff for a greatly needed Canadian cause. As almost everything else in this country is becoming American or globalised,I wish you and your new upcoming mandate many happy years to come.
    Bonne Fete !
    p.s. Thanks to Ouimet`s CBC Birthday posting – So far I have not seen any such posting on today`s CBC internal mail from management.

  6. Anonymous
    Posted November 2, 2006 at 7:50 am | # | Reply to this masterpiece

    It is hardly reassuring when folks respond to a problem with a shrug and a claim that things have always been bad. There is only one outcome when people expect and accept failure. The audience for television is lower than it has ever been because, let’s face it, the new programming is very poor and the old, very tired. A major portion of the revenue stream that barely keeps that operation going is shortly to disappear. Pointing to The Hour and The Gill Deacon Show, with combined daily audiences of under 100,000,as successes only demonstrates how badly standards have declined. I challange anyone to name an earlier radio program that is as vapid and indefensible as “Freestyle”, a show which occupies two hours of the schedule every weekday. There are parts of the country where the audience for Radio 2 is below error on audience surveys, meaning it is entirely possible that no one is listening. Aware of this fact those in charge of Classics and Beyond undertook a national consultation and then changed … nothing.

    Those were bugs and hitches before, the crisis is a brand new thing.

  7. Anonymous
    Posted November 2, 2006 at 6:11 am | # | Reply to this masterpiece

    What’s that Churchill quote?

    “Some chicken! Some neck!”

    Seventy years and still going!

  8. Allan
    Posted November 2, 2006 at 4:45 am | # | Reply to this masterpiece

    There’s always one if the group is large enough.
    The “place is fucked” attitude must surely be that of very few people, and they’re likely to be the ones who’ll say that at their next job too.
    Most people employed at the CBC are proud to be there, in fact, would like to be there forever.
    That may be hard to admit for some.
    As it stands today, the CBC is broadcasting the very best of Canadian programs. Nothing compares to The Hour or The Gill Deacon Show. Nothing.
    Even Newsworld is coming along.
    And all employees enjoy working conditions that most people in the private sector can only dream of.
    The fall of 2006 has seen a near re-birth of the spirit of public broadcasting at the CBC.
    And it’s the people who came to work today who are responsible for it.

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