Guest blogger: Closing Night

This was sent to me by Larry Weinstein, who has done a lot of fine work and is a partner of Rhombus Media, who have specialized on the production of films about the Performing Arts.

What is the purpose of a Public Broadcaster if not to serve the Public? By “Public” I don’t mean those who use television merely as mindless diversion, the addicts of the Reality Show Wasteland, but the Public who has diverse needs and certain standards and expectations. A Public that craves thought-provoking programs that may actually inform and entertain and enlighten.

With the possible exception of Bravo! (with its uncertain future), the last refuge for anything cultural in Canada is the CBC – both radio and Television… and yet CBC Television, English Network, is effectively cutting its ties to cultural programming despite the protests of the producers, directors, writers, choreographers, dancers, designers, conductors, musicians, composers and actors who make these programs, and the hundreds of thousands who view them.

While publicly boasting its commitment to Arts programming, the CBC has consistently and cold-bloodedly cut the slots and funding for these programs. The CBC’s flagship cultural program, Opening Night, is the latest victim ­ – two seasons ago it comprised 42 hours of primetime programming; last year that number was reduced to 26 hours and the final current season a mere 11 hours. And now, as of last week, it is killed off. Word is that a handful of “cultural specials” will supplant this regular commitment, but the content of that programming is highly dubious…

OK, so Canada has received more Performing Arts International Emmys than any other country as well as countless Geminis, Rockies, Golden Roses of Montreux, Prague Crystals, and many other international awards -­ in fact Opening Night has won far more prizes and more prestigious awards than any other CBC series, ever.

More important is CBC’s vital role in giving exposure to artists that define our cultural identity. The CBC helped create our stars – celebrated Canadians such as Maureen Forrester, Karen Kain, Ben Heppner, Martha Henry, Brent Carver, Colm Fiore, Isabel Bayrakdarian, Measha Brueggergosman, Michael Schade and Russell Braun. Prima Ballerina Evelyn Hart discovered ballet by watching CBC’s production of Romeo and Juliet featuring 18 year-old Veronica Tennant -­ who, in turn, was able to transition into filmmaking because of the CBC. Scores of directors began and have forged their careers through CBC Arts; Norman Jewison, Harry Rasky, Eric Till, Barbara Willis Sweete, Edouard Lock, Jeremy Podeswa, Moze Mosanen, Chris Abraham ­ – the list is endless.

Change is healthy, as long as it doesn’t become an end unto itself, but one fears the very real possibility that the CBC may inadvertently, through neglect, decimate our cultural expression. This vast country is geographically dependent on CBC for access to the variety of artistic expression and if this responsibility is abandoned by our public network, crucial access to a part of our heritage and future will die. This is very serious indeed. There could not be a more compelling reason for the existence of a Public Broadcaster than to provide a nation with a cultural voice.


  1. Jamie
    Posted April 18, 2007 at 1:40 pm | # | Reply to this masterpiece

    “Cultural specials”…that means more reruns of pop star infomercials, doesn’t it? (there was a period where I swear the same Shania Twain special was on every time I flipped over to CBC…)

  2. Justin Beach
    Posted April 11, 2007 at 11:15 am | # | Reply to this masterpiece

    Sorry Anonymous, I can’t respond to requests to ‘be serious’ from people who won’t even take the time to make up a pseudonym. Beyond that, as deep, insightful, and thoughtful as your well articulated and argued comment may have been – I am serious.

    I am not saying that DNTO or Radio 3 are the answer – they have their audiences and are doing fairly well. Zed had somewhat less of an audience, but it was also sabotaged – the television program was stuck in the middle of the night, not made available online (or by any other ‘on demand’ means) and those who examined it’s ‘ratings’ ignored it’s web traffic as being a part of that.

    What I was saying is that while art is ‘cool’ , the vast majority of arts programming is not. It is presented largely the same way it was a generation ago (and keeps coming back to many of the same artists).

    It should also be pointed out that, while I fully support arts subsidies, the situation is changing to an extent. A young woman named Kate Walsh has just topped the iTunes album download chart – with an album she recorded entirely at home and promoted via MySpace. There are also now 3 (homemade non-porn) video podcasts that top 100,000 viewers an episode.

    I think that going forward media is going to have to be extremely creative – in terms of production, presentation and marketing/promotion and keeping costs down is going to be key. The more ‘channels’ that become available the more audiences are going to fragment.

  3. Anonymous
    Posted April 11, 2007 at 8:37 am | # | Reply to this masterpiece

    “DNTO”? Please, be serious.

  4. e-mom
    Posted April 11, 2007 at 7:23 am | # | Reply to this masterpiece

    I don`t know about what`s changing or isn`t, why it happened or who`s to blame — I just know we waited years for a really good arts program on CBC and now they`ve cancelled it. Even when I didnt want to watch it, I turned it on, just in case somebody somewhere was doing ratings! There is a solid core out here who like classical music and opera and dance and we just got screwed.

    ps In your list of artists, you forgot to mention Toronto jazz singer, Molly Johnson — I was first introduced to her thru Opening Night. sob!

  5. Enik Sleastak
    Posted April 10, 2007 at 8:44 pm | # | Reply to this masterpiece

    I agree with Justin that what we think of as ‘arts and culture’ are changing, and the needs and expectations of the arts and culture audience (as well as the pop culture audience and other overlapping audiences) are changing as well.

    However, I disagree that the way to reflect or pursue this is with a “Zed/DNTO/Radio 3” approach. While DNTO has had some success in reaching a broad-ish audience with interesting and eclectic material, Zed and Radio 3 mostly speak to an audience even smaller and more select than what attend most dance performances across the country.

    This doesn’t mean that “arts programming,” whatever that is, should be boring, or that it has to somehow sugar the medicine to make it more palatable for the mainstream. It does mean that CBC, Bravo and other cultural purveyors should push against their own self-imposed boundaries and consider new ways of creating art for television, bringing art to television and having television viewers interact with art.

    I understand, for example, that the opera has been riding a wave of popularity over the last five years, to the point where it’s a challenge to get single tickets for certain shows regardless of the performance time or ticket price. I remember not too long ago you used to be able to shoot a cannon through the opera house (and sometimes longed to) without any difficulty. What changed? Well, the opera companies changed somewhat–experimenting with modern productions of classics, newly commissioned operas, performances presented for free, performances presented outside of conventional venues, tickets made available to younger people at vastly reduced prices. (And now, as Kevin mentioned, presentations of The Met at the movies.) The larger culture changed–including references to opera and opera music in everything from Broadway musicals to movies to TV shows to children’s cartoons. And audiences changed as well–expressing an interest in an entertaining, high-quality, theatrical and musical evening out, looking for a combination of accessibility and sophistication at just the time that the opera was pushing beyond its conventional boundaries to offer it.

    When I was growing up in Winnipeg a few decades ago, we went from having a middling audience for our local ballet company to having entire seasons sold out. How? Well, a few superlative dancers rose through the ranks and developed a following; the board pushed for more full-length story ballets (ironically, facing opposition from funders and other critics who felt that audiences preferred ‘populist’ evenings of mixed short pieces and would stay away from longer works in droves); the company toured relentlessly as they always did and won significant major awards for their work; and audiences, who were being told from all directions that they had an accessible and enjoyable world-class internationally acclaimed award-winning troupe in the middle of their own town, came out with the kind of huge support we normally associate with sports teams.

    None of this is effortless and none of it happens overnight. None of it–not opera, dance, theatre or music (popular or classical), not fine arts, film, literature, magazines and not television (public or private)–can support themselves in this country without a combination of subsidy and regulation, for all the reasons that we in the arts community can now recite in our sleep. We do not have a large enough arts/culture/entertainment consumer base to pay for ‘the product’ in real dollars–particularly when so much product floods our nation from south of the border. I would guess that an unsubsidized unregulated Canadian music CD would cost the consumer somewhere around $150; an unsubsidized unregulated Canadian opera performance would cost about $3000. No one would be able to afford entrance to an art gallery or museum, no one would be able to go to the symphony–or to a Jann Arden concert–and no one would be able to watch CBC (or bitch about it) because it wouldn’t exist. Maybe this is Joe’s fantasy but it certainly isn’t mine.

    It wasn’t that long ago that Canada: a People’s History reached audiences of more than a million viewers for pretty much each episode, and it wasn’t because there was nothing else on. It was the right idea at the right time, and it struck a chord with Canadians across the country. Its title was a promise to the viewer, and the promise was largely kept. As well, and this has to be said: it was well and widely promoted with sincerity and passion even though many in the Corporation (myself included) thought it was going to lie in front of the Canadian public right where we put it. Now, Mark Starowicz had to fight for all of that, and he may have been as surprised as anyone when he was vindicated. But it wasn’t just him and it wasn’t just Harold and it wasn’t just the sponsors and it wasn’t just the critics. Those people all together extended an invitation to Canadians, and Canadians felt that invitation and they accepted it. They came just as far as the threshold thinking “Well, I don’t know about anyone else, but let’s see if this is for me.” And they opened the door and found that it was. Little Mosque is doing that now, and hopefully other shows will be doing it again too.

    In the same way that Justin is right, I’d have to say that Stursberg is right: audiences have a great interest in seeing entertaining high-quality programming that connects with them and that means something to them, that creates an experience (exciting, elating, frustrating, upsetting, what have you) that they can’t wait to share with their families, friends and co-workers. Unfortunately, Stursberg’s taste is in his mouth. Little Mosque predates him, as have most of our recent successes, and any of the recent choices that he’s been behind have frankly stunk. The slow strangulation of Opening Night is just one more of them.

    It is too bad that we don’t have a Richard Bradshaw or an Arnold Spohr or a John Neville or an Erik Bruhn at the helm; we instead have a cultural bureaucrat whose greatest distinction is that he used to work for the other cultural bureaucrat that he once again works for now. It is also too bad that he is not the kind of senior administrator that creates a space for other people to achieve creative excellence and then stands the hell out of the way. He thinks creative excellence is something you shop for–preferably at Costco or Walmart.

  6. Justin Beach
    Posted April 10, 2007 at 2:47 pm | # | Reply to this masterpiece

    I think part of the problem may be that arts and culture, and peoples expectations of arts and culture programming are changing.

    It would be good to see a new Canadian arts and culture show but I think it would need to be way more Zed/DNTO/Radio 3 in it’s approach than the ‘Masterpiece Theatre’ route. The arts are still cool and that’s true across every generation. But, you have to have a ‘cool’ package to present it in, if you present it with stuffy formality, or elitism, people assume you are talking about the wrong kind of art.

    People know all they need to know (or think they know all they need to know – which is the same thing) about Vivaldi and Motzart, the Group of 7, Kurt Weill, Shakespear etc,

    Some of that could be in there – but in the right context.

  7. Bill Lee
    Posted April 10, 2007 at 2:41 pm | # | Reply to this masterpiece

    And if the Hummingbird, Opera and other Toronto-centric companies would pay their way and share of major televised productions.

    BBM ratings just came out and add up all the classical (including SRC Espace Musique) and the former incarnation of Radio Bugaloo and see what the Toronto market is and how it affects overseas views of Canada as having some sliver of high culture.

    The world broadcasters are not universally vulgar in every urban area

  8. Anonymous
    Posted April 10, 2007 at 2:35 pm | # | Reply to this masterpiece

    When you think of escapeist TV, do you think of the CBC?

    Not a chance. VIrtually everything we do is based in reality that affects me NOW. And that sounds terrific, except when I want to be distracted, as when I watch Harry Potter or CSI. Both of these deal in a reality, but it’s safely removed from me. I suppose I could take drugs to get that same effect.

    Why can’t the CBC produce escapeist TV? We did inadvertently when we produced ‘Deal or No Deal Canada’ with the help of Global. Hollywood does nothing but this. Why don’t we have an in-house incubator for such content? Are we too smug to stoop to such populism? Horse apples! We simply can’t get our heads around how popular can also be intelligent.

    If ever there was a boom industry, it is in this kind of escapeist entertainment. As noted in the previous blog entry, the corp could engage the whole nation in this kind of fun… as long as we’re prepared to let our death grip loosen on our broadcasting savvy.

  9. Kevin
    Posted April 10, 2007 at 1:22 pm | # | Reply to this masterpiece

    There is a market for it if it’s well-done. Those Live At The Met things they’ve been doing in the cinema lately are always packed to the rafters.

    The real reason that reality television dominates the airwaves is not that it satisfies a hitherto hidden need but that it’s really cheap to put on with a decent return in terms of audiences. It’s not a sign of a cultural apocalypse , just a sign that TV is a business. Maybe if people just came down from their ivory towers, and realised that arts programming has to be presented as worthwhile in and of itself, and not as televisual All Bran, they might be capable of coming up with stuff people wanted to watch.

  10. roadrunnercabby
    Posted April 10, 2007 at 1:17 pm | # | Reply to this masterpiece

    Chill out a little Joe. Calm down. Breath. Nothing wrong with a bit of kulture. CBC ahts programming gits me dat :):)!

  11. Joe
    Posted April 10, 2007 at 12:15 pm | # | Reply to this masterpiece

    The problem with this whole argument is that aahts programming is boring as shit and you fucking know it.

    We put it on the air to reassure ourselves that entire programs and networks can be set up to oppose the true nature of television, which is populist (_pace_ Camille Paglia). We put it on the air to make us feel better about watching _Cheaters_: There’s always an opera on Bravo{bang} that we could say we were watching.

  12. Classic
    Posted April 10, 2007 at 7:49 am | # | Reply to this masterpiece

    _It felt more like 420, etc.
    _Outside of the odd kitchy smirky Xmas show or Comedy Network over repeated ‘entire CBC standup/ political comedy lineup’, I can’t think of a single MAINSTREAM Cdn arts hour – anywhere.

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