The CBC: A medium dragged down by the masses

George Jonas writes about the CBC, coincidentally the same day and paper as his friend Conrad Black.

The first television transmission I saw was a test pattern displayed on a black-and-white monitor. My then-employer, Hungary’s public broadcaster, was beaming the experimental signal to the Press Club in Budapest. It was the only TV set in my native city 53 years ago. People actually stood around, watching it.

The year was 1956, remembered for the Hungarian uprising. I fled to Canada. Arriving just before Christmas, I was astounded to see every second or third household with a TV set in the living room. In Canada, the television age had begun four years earlier. By the time I landed, the public broadcaster, bilingual CBC-Radio Canada, was on the air for many hours every day. Far from sticking to test patterns, it offered viewers drama, variety, news, sports and music.

I wasted no time pitching my woo to the CBC brass that inhabited a small building on Jarvis Street, endearingly nicknamed “The Kremlin.” My suit was eventually accepted, but it didn’t turn out to be a marriage made in heaven.

My eagerness to be a public broadcaster was based on the erroneous assumption that the new electronic medium would disseminate and popularize culture as we public television-types understood it. We expected the magic box to become every home’s electronic chairlift to the peaks of human experience. Never mind if others saw our missionary zeal as elitist, highbrow, insupportably up-market or — frankly — boring.

Naive as it may seem today, we viewed mass information and entertainment as the cultural equivalent of mass technology, with its guarantee of “a chicken in every pot” and “a car in every garage.” We thought mass media would lead to Hamlet in every living room.

What it did lead to, in fact, was a lout on a couch watching more louts on a tube. It led to the idiot box: A venue for yellow journalism, sales tools, freak shows, blood sports. Not always, obviously, but three-quarters of the time.

Early automobiles spoke the design language of the coaches and carriages from which they evolved. Similarly, entertainment television in its “golden age” spoke the language of the theatre, the concert hall, the opera, the cabaret, the ballet — perhaps with a foreign accent, but still. Those were the days when the CBC did such dramatic series as Folio or Festival — people over 60 might remember them. Later, TV made a special attempt to speak the language of its closest relative, the cinema. Perhaps the electronic medium didn’t speak its ancestral languages well, but we expected it would learn to speak them better before developing a superior language of its own.

We were wrong. Television never became fluent in its source languages. When it developed its own language, it turned out to be anything but superior. It bore little resemblance to the language of the theatre or even the music hall. It was the language of American Idol. Much to the chagrin of elitists, the medium didn’t elevate the masses. If anything, it was the masses that dragged the medium down.

For commercial television, this was just a fact of life. For public television, it was a blow to its reason for being. Why oh why subsidize mud wrestling?

Born of a liaison between show business and the Post Office, the CBC didn’t inherit the best features of either parent. Imagine a bureaucratic bohemian, sipping a mug of Ovaltine flavoured with absinthe, while reading the King James version of Marx’s Das Capital, and you’re close. Trying to be everything to everyone, CBC-TV ended up being nothing to anyone.

During my tenure, Canada’s public broadcaster specialized in shows that managed to be earnest without being serious, and trendy without being innovative or original. The Corp tried to counterbalance being mass market by burping up big dollops of high-minded cant. Indigestible blobs of stodgy sententiousness were offered as “social relevance” and covered with thick sauces of leftist sentimentality.

If America’s low-end television was mindless, coarse or “violent” during the same period, it was generally fast-paced and fun to watch (or at least mildly diverting). The CBC, taking what it thought was the high road, combined vulgarity with stuffiness. Being mindless and pompous at the same time was a challenge, but the CBC responded admirably to it.

Obviously, this wasn’t all there was to CBC-TV. It’s impossible to employ 10,000 staffers, as the CBC did at its most bloated, without many gifted ones slipping through. In spite of the Corp’s best efforts, CBC drones sneaked a number of outstanding programs by their unsuspecting bosses over the years.

Far from having become biased against public broadcasting, I feel nostalgic for it. Paying freelance readers a buck fifty per script report in 1960, the Corp was a plentiful source of sardines on toast when I started out. In its heyday during the ’60s and ’70s, CBC’s studios and boardrooms beat any string of singles’ bar for action. The public broadcaster treated indefatigable activists of culture to their hottest dates. It would be difficult for me to have anything but fond memories of the CBC.


  1. Allan
    Posted March 14, 2009 at 4:23 pm | # | Reply to this masterpiece

    To say that the CBC of his time was a great place to score chicks, how does that help anyone today?
    For a highly revered journalist, this little essay is embarrassing.
    Lots of nostalgia and reminiscences of ye olde CBC, but a ridiculous argument against the state of CBC television.

    the medium didnt elevate the masses. If anything, it was the masses that dragged the medium down.

    Since when does a medium have the inherent power to elevate?
    Is it not the content that elevates?
    Jonas adds nothing to our understanding about the confusing identity of our public broadcaster.

    Nor does a silly statement like

    The CBC has deliberately and methodically made itself irrelevant to Canadians.

    Come on, let’s at least try to be sensible some of the time.

  2. Bytowner
    Posted March 14, 2009 at 12:30 pm | # | Reply to this masterpiece

    And there’s a good reason or five why Doctor Who was regularly hitting a million or so when it was first revived as a co-pro between BBC and CBC. High social commentary, low comedy, educational yet entertaining, franchise history…and solid promotional support during those first two years.

    It also pleased me greatly that one of the biggest SF franchises ever built, the one serving as a signature show of a public broadcaster was being revived with the help of OUR public broadcaster.

    Anonymous # 2 may have nailed the true reason for the lack of support these last two seasons, especially if the “deliberate self-sabotage” theory is on the money.

  3. Anonymous
    Posted March 14, 2009 at 12:02 pm | # | Reply to this masterpiece

    but there’s a reason Dragon’s Den was hitting 1 million viewers this season past.

    Not a chance. There is no possible way 1 million Canadians sat down for an hour and watched Dragons Den. The number one reason why the CBC is faced with extinction is because of their programming and the declining ratings. The CBC has deliberately and methodically made itself irrelevant to Canadians. Either senior management are totally inept or they are geniuses, it depends what their intended outcome was.

  4. Anonymous
    Posted March 14, 2009 at 11:22 am | # | Reply to this masterpiece

    In my day, we watched Hamlet! And we liked it! We loved it!

    I am so tired of the insistence that all mass culture is automatically trash, and that the CBC would be better served showing the ballet to a few thousand viewers. Nothing against ballet, but there’s a reason Dragon’s Den was hitting 1 million viewers this season past.

    Inform AND entertain.

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