Guest blogger: Shrewd Calls, Clunkers, and Common Ground

Maybe you never read the comments on this site.
I understand. You’re busy.

But they are of particular interest to me as they are the only shot I have at any kind of dialogue. My non-CBC friends are sick of hearing about this stupid blog and are only interested in how close I am to being fired.
I have some very intelligent readers and a poster named sadforcbc posted something in the comments of the last post that I thought was worth bringing to the fore.
Also, the new blogger has an rss feed for comments, so you never have to miss another bon mot.
Enjoy.
~O

I’ve been reflecting lately on the future of the CBC.

I agree with you Ouimet: despite some outstanding clunkers, the new TV programmers have made some shrewd calls as of late, and next year threatens to be a minor resurgence of sorts for the CBC Television.

Radio is humming along fine, with several successes to point to. On the TVNews side, while the mycbc project remains a work in progress, early indications are they’re on the right track. Ratings for the new supper hours are up, and while a cynic can easily scoff at how miniscule they are compared to the CTV and Global behemoths, it’s something.

The shame is that it comes at the end of the tenure of Rabinovitch and Co. It is a shame because so much has been frittered away under them in an almost consecutive streak of dumb calls, and it’s only now that a tiny bit is being clawed back.

Yes, it’s true that the CBC is underfunded. We all know the arguments. But it’s interesting to note that of all the cuts ushered in under Paul Martin’s second budget (in which the CBC lost some $400 M) every other sector has made those gains back. And then some. Transfer payments to provinces. Health care. Defence. The CBC, in relation to inflation, is pretty much static, with the exception of the “one-time” annual $60 million brought in under the last years of Chretien (which, curiously enough, was just extended for the unprecedented period of TWO years under the Tories.)

So at first blush, one is left to conclude one of four things about chronic underfunding:

a) the population doesn’t care (which, arguably, one could pin to lousy programming decisions leading to the declining relevence of the CBC);
b) management hasn’t campaigned or lobbied hard enough (which, arguably, isn’t their job);
c) some combination of the above;
d) none of the above.

Let’s walk through each of those scenarios.

If the population doesn’t care now, what would make them care in the future? Programming isn’t going to do it alone. Let’s say ALL the shows reach the coveted one million level in terms of viewership. Let’s go crazy, and say two million. Should we then await the stampede of taxpayers rushing to the Broadcasting Centre to fling dollars at the CBC?

If there’s no campaign, who should lead it? The usual suspects have been repeating themselves for years with no discernible dent in public opinion. Does anyone truly believe that the next group of senior managers, no matter who they are, are cabable of leading us to the promised land in ANY political or economic climate?

If it’s some combination, I defy you to come up any scenario that will tip the odds in our funding favour.

If it’s d), none of the above, then consider this:

Several months back, Richard Stursburg gave a coupla speechs, one to the Empire Club In Toronto. They were smart. He pointed out that the CBC is more private than public based on where it gets it’s money. He also pointed out that the private networks are a lot more public than they let on, in terms of hidden subsidies and tax breaks. In other words, there is no “true” public broadcaster in this country, and in the last ten years, none of the three prime ministers has seen fit to change that. Likewise, there is no true “private” broadcaster, and in fact, all three prime ministers have seen fit to let that trend continue.

That trend is the Canadian Television Fund, and despite recent grandstanding by some contributors, it is clear that for the immediate future, this is how Canadian Television is going to be funded. Money goes to the program producers, not the networks. The networks will vie for the programs. Yes, it is true, as the grandstanders have said, that about a third of these shows end up on the CBC. That’s because we still cling to some notion of public broadcasting and will give these shows a shot on prime time, rather than enter into delirious bidding wars for the likes of Let’s Make a Deal, CSI, or the Idol franchise.

You see where this is going, right? The so-called privates rake in the ratings on the U-S simulcasts, look for the Yankee inspired Canadian versions, producers scramble to fill that appetite, the CBC is forced furthur into the muck in the hunt for ad revenue, and the distinction between public and private becomes ever blurrier.

What next?

My suggestion: given that’s it’s gonna take a while to turn this ship around, let’s try being relevant.

And no, I don’t mean a remake of programming. (As I said at the outset, that’s actually on a good path right now). I mean a recognition that our resources are more than our real estate, and that our staff people are more than temps-in-waiting.

I mean being relevent off the airways, so that even if people don’t watch us, listen to us, or log onto us, we still have a role in their lives.

1. We should be actively and aggressively promoting our expertise in schools. At TV and radio and drama departments, at both the high school and post-secondary levels, we ought to be providing videos and, location permitting, tours and how-to sessions. Offer the next generation the chance to draw on our professional and historical expertise. Make us an essential part of the cultural curriculuum. There’s not a huge cost in this, and in fact, it fits into the CBC real estate philosophy of “giving something back” (we actually LOSE MONEY every time we rent out the atrium). Can you imagine the intrinsic value in having the CBC logo on high school posters and playbills? It cements a relationship with the next generation, with their families and teachers. Can you imagine the pride instilled in staff who are cast into the roles of teachers and lecturers? It says they are valued for their repository of knowledge and skill, and allows them to promote the CBC as a vital part of Canada’s future, as well as it’s past.

2. Gather some of our best and brightest in new technology, and ask them to figure out ways of reaching out to young Canadians. Develop sites like, I dunno, CBCTube. Provide a place to not only post material, but access how-to information on making videos, podcasts and the like. Offer critiques, contests, prizes. (Heck, there’s even a program here, isn’t there?)

3. Expand the mandate of the CBC Training Department to include outside non-profit, and community and educational groups. Recruit CBC staffers who can act as guest lecturers. Get into the colleges and universities, offering our collective insights into everything from radio documentaries to lighting and set design. Let community theatres in here to access props and costumes at cost (and get a plug in their promotional material.)

4. Re-visit the idea of getting out of props and costumes. If design is gone, at least figure out a way to keep the stock. It’s a valuable part of our heritage, and as a crown corporation, the CBC has a responsibility to act as a custodian. But rather than leaving it tucked in a corner, we ought to be out showcasing it. Start moving some of it across the country on tours at CBC locations, at museums and art galleries and such. And, as above, let Canadians use the stuff they’ve paid to collect over the years.

5. Recognize that nothing is forever. Things change. It wasn’t that long ago that CBC was trying to get out of the local TV news racket. But it’s only able to go back now because it did maintain a presence, and an infrastructure. Yes, the CTF is encouraging outside producers to have all the creative programming ideas, rather than broadcasters. But that may change, just like our audiences change, our governments change, and the needs of Canadians change. Who’s to say that in five years or two, there won’t be a decision that the CBC, as part of it’s mandate, ought to be making and producing arts and cultural programs that no one else is inclined to make or put on the air because it simply isn’t commercially viable? (This is why the decision to close design is so tragic.)

6. Move some eggs out of the Real Estate basket, which ironically is one of the only growth areas of the CBC in recent years. It has now swollen to a department of 60, complete with it’s own communications officer. Yes, it makes sense to make money off space that isn’t being used. But if we’re closing departments and laying off staff to make rental space available, are we not crossing some sort of line? There’s gotta be more of a balance here, so that the default position is a critical appraisal of how we can use our space and people more effectively, for both programming AND public relations with Canadians, rather than how we get rid of it for rental purposes.

7. Re-establish relations with the union. A crown corporation ought to be a model for labour relations, not a poster child for bickering and mistrust. Sure, there’s reasons for both sides to despise one another, but the fact of the matter is, the CBC’s funding reality ain’t likely to change anytime soon. And in that climate, layoffs and cuts are inevitable. Does anyone in the union have any creative ideas as to how the CBC can save money? Or make more? Maybe. Maybe not. At the very least, management ought to ask. A new model for relations is urgently required, one based on common interests rather than differences. Imagine of some of that “can-do” spirit evidenced during the lockout could be unleashed inside? It will only come once a level of trust is achieved, and common goals are recognized.

Bottom line is, nothing is going to happen unless some people start coming forward to say they care. And start tossing around some ideas. This blog is as good a venue as any.

It’s timely, because there’s a mandate review going on at the Heritage Committee. It’s having another crack at the age old question : “What is the role of the CBC?”

Anyone want to weigh in on this?

4 comments:

  1. Justin Beach
    Posted April 11, 2007 at 2:07 pm | # | Reply to this masterpiece

    Um…Tessa is right, pretty much always. Nothing more to add to it than that at the moment really.

  2. Tessa
    Posted April 10, 2007 at 12:47 pm | # | Reply to this masterpiece

    Raise the CBC’s relevance?

    I think the surest way of rebuilding the relationship between the CBC and Canadians is to give Canadians what they already pay for: our content.

    I’m not just talking about opening up the archives (though that’s a good move), but unclenching our grip over the programming we’re working on today and tomorrow.

    I’m talking about letting the audience have access to all of our shows when, how and where they want it.

    Letting them share our content with their friends and family and facilitating discussions about the issues we’ve raised.

    Letting them in on the production process whenever possible, whether it be by sifting through the research we’ve compiled for an investigative program or by becoming part of the show by influencing the storyline of a drama.

    Letting them rip our material and mash it into their own productions that they can then share with their family and friends.

    And so on and so on. You get the idea.

    It’s the Canadian audience’s content. They paid for it. Whether they have to wrest it from the CBC’s wasting grip or we let them at it now, it’s their content.

    Yes, there are rights issues here that would make a copyright clearance worker puke. (They’ve been worked for the hockey deal; the rest of CBC’s programming deserves the same). I know some journalists that would recoil at the idea of their stories even being discussed on some “outsider’s” blog. (Grow up.) And I know the leap from doing things the way we are now to how it’ll be done in the post-broadcast model is one hell of a jump. (Can’t you see we’re already tripping ourselves, running towards the edge?)

    But it can be done. Scratch that. It *will* be done, if the audience has anything to do with it.

    Here’s to hoping the decision makers don’t get distracted by shiny gadgetry – the Apple TVs, BlogTVs, video iPods, YouTubes’¦ gadgets and wires are important, but tangential to the crux of our craft.

    It’s the content, stupid.

  3. Anonymous
    Posted April 10, 2007 at 10:25 am | # | Reply to this masterpiece

    sadforcbc demonstrates something rare for cbc leadership, namely vision.

    Nervously watching Neilson ratings is a sorry substitute for direct involvement with your audience.

  4. Anonymous
    Posted April 10, 2007 at 7:11 am | # | Reply to this masterpiece

    Take it easy on the Koolaid. I was given to understand (and maybe I’m reading it wrong) that the numbers, overall, are virtually unchanged from the strike year. Ad revenue tanked and with this year’s hockey playoffs looking bad for audience it will go down again. Have you watched the new shows?


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