photo credit: wolfsheep.com
-Originally published by wolfsheep.com May 2013
WHY CANADA’S PUBLIC BROADCASTER HASN’T SEEN INTERNATIONAL SUCCESS
Name an internationally successful Canadian TV program. You can name dozens of great shows, but like Canadian rock band The Tragically Hip, they’re only big here. Now name an internationally successful British show. Stop, that’s enough. The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) would have us believe that it all comes down to funding. But there is something bigger at work. Is there something rotten in the Canadian dream, in our own apathetic disposition towards ourselves in the global community?
According to the April 2011 Nordicity Report Analysis of Government Support for Public Broadcasting and Other Culture in Canada, in 2009 citizens of the United Kingdom paid $111 per capita towards their public broadcaster, the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC). In Canada, we paid a paltry $36 for ours. That’s over 60% less than the average $87 paid between the 18 western countries that were analyzed.
Why has the CBC failed to make programming that has transcended Canada and become ubiquitous in homes around the world? The BBC has created programming for decades that live in the global consciousness. Dr. Who, Monty Python, Fawlty Towers, Sherlock, and Little Britain are all original BBC programs that became international phenomena with massive cult followings. Dr. Who alone has spawned numerous spinoffs in its 50 year history.
In Canada, we have had many, many in-house successes produced by the CBC that are a part of our national identity. The Kids in the Hall, 22 Minutes (formerly This Hour has 22 Minutes), George Stroumboulopoulos Tonight (formerly The Hour), The Rick Mercer Report, Royal Canadian Air Farce, and Hockey Night in Canada are just a few to name from my generation.
Are there fan conventions around the world with children dressing in Don Cherry suits, with friends who drew the short straw dressed as Ron MacLean? Are there children across the globe dressed in Dr. Who suits and friends as his various companions? Will there be Who fans for decades to come? Absolute`ly. Are we Canadians, and specifically our public broadcaster, unable to find a way to make our culture palatable and present it in a way to show the world how truly great it is?
John Threlfall is the former Editor-In-Chief of the Victoria, B.C., arts and culture paper Monday Magazine. He has been a listener of the CBC for over 30 years and from 2002 to 2007 he was a recurring guest on CBC Radio One’s Definitely Not the Opera with Sook-Yin Lee where he was referred to as their “walking encyclopedia of pop culture.” He currently serves as the Special Projects and Communications Officer for The Faculty of Fine Arts at the University of Victoria in B.C.
“This is where the CBC often missteps, is that they’re trying to give us a unifying Canadian image of, ‘this is what the Canadian experience is.’ Whereas Canada is really founded on regionalism,” says Threlfall.
The CBC adheres to its mandate from the Canadian Broadcasting Act of 1991, which states that, “the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, as the national public broadcaster, should provide radio and television services incorporating a wide range of programming that informs, enlightens, and entertains.”
By all means their product does just that. The CBC strives to create a unified image of the Canadian experience on television. Canada is a vast country with many different and varied regions. The experiences of myself on the west coast to someone on the Prairies, to Ontario, to the Quebecois, to the Maritimes will all be radically varied. If we can’t agree on one Canadian image to represent us, how can our programming here be successful enough to go beyond our borders?
“That’s why I think you have regional successes. Like The Beachcombers, not that it’s a brilliant show, but [it] was really successful on the west coast. CODCO was very successful in Newfoundland. King of Kensington was huge in Ontario. I watched King of Kensington when I was growing up and it didn’t really work for me because it wasn’t my world. I think that’s probably part of the problem. You’re trying to go for this unified Canadian image that doesn’t really exist,” says Threlfall.
Look at the images that are put before us as being The Canadian image. Arguably our biggest export to the United States via the CBC has been Bob and Doug McKenzie. We all know ‘hosers’ like Bob and Doug who want to sit around, drink beer, and talk about hockey. Is there anything wrong with that? No. Is that the image that we as Canadians as a whole want to portray on the international stage?
What is it about the British image that is so much more palatable? Is the image of the tea sipping, distinguished accents, foppish attire, watching football and grabbing a pint any better than the maple syrup swilling, slack-jawed and awed (yeah, eh?), plaid sweater clad, watching hockey and drinking a Molson image of a Canadian?
We can’t keep presenting stereotypical Canadians and expect different results. Look at more contemporary non-CBC Canadian shows like Corner Gas or The Trailer Park Boys. Canadians are shown as bumbling and entrenched in their stereotypes. We’re expected to enjoy it simply because they are this idea of what a Canadian should be.
The CBC produces quality television that we enjoy at home. In Britain, there was no mandate for the BBC to create programming that would garner success outside of the UK. Nonetheless they have, so why can’t we? Unfortunately, you must look at the money.
The 2012 Federal Budget saw $115 million in cuts coming to the CBC over the course of the next three years. These come on the heels of a history of massive cuts that stem back to the 1990’s. The 10% cut will push the CBC’s budget below $1 billion. Compare that to the BBC’s 2011/2012 Annual report where they are to receive £3.6 billion ($5.5 billion Canadian) from household licensing fees and £279.4 million ($430.5 million) in government grants.
The CBC simply has no room to take risks on programming. If they are to continue to inform, enlighten, and entertain, they must put what little money they have into programming that is guaranteed to see a return. We live in an era where many television shows are taking on cinematic qualities and becoming post-modern television. The runaway success of shows such as Game of Thrones, Downton Abbey, The Walking Dead, and the BBC’s Dr. Who are unparalleled. Imagine if we could create a Canadian program on that level. Not with this government, and not with a history of budget cuts to the CBC.
On April 29, 2013, Prime Minister Stephen Harper and his cabinet put forward a new budget bill. Bill C-60 would give the Government an unprecedented say in collective bargaining with Crown Corporations. Harper would have a say in who works for CBC and how much they make.
“We shouldn’t be beholding to the Federal Government who hold the purse strings of the CBC, it should be the other way around. CBC should create the best content possible with the best Canadian talent possible and hope that the Federal Government just supports that,” says Threlfall.
To be clear, the CBC is Canada’s public broadcaster, not the state broadcaster as Sun News and Ezra Levant would have you believe. It is the Harper Government’s new budget bill that will see the CBC staffed by government approved personnel and further unable to take risks on programming.
Canada was founded in the spirit of colonialism. Everything is imported, from all citizens that came after the First Nations, to many of our products, to our television. We hardly ever look in to our own national identity. We the voters have the power to change that. Would we not want to put more money into the broadcaster if it meant that we would see returns such as quality programming?
We live in the YouTube era. If YouTube has taught us anything it’s that captivating programming can be made on a shoe string. If CBC continues to not take risks, won’t it just cautiously burrow itself into the ground? Do we want our public broadcaster, the broadcaster of our people, to be overtaken by corporations that will decide which American shows we will watch?
In 2008 the CBC lost the rights to the Hockey Night in Canada theme song, The Hockey Theme (not to be confused with the late Stompin’ Tom Connors’ classic The Hockey Song) which served as the theme since 1968. It was the audio cue for generations of Canadians that hockey was on. That theme is now in the hands of a private corporation. It no longer belongs to Canada’s public broadcaster, and therefore the public.
In 2014, the contract for Hockey Night in Canada between the CBC and the NHL will come up. It is a forgone conclusion that NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman will want to shop the multimillion dollar franchise around to other networks with war chests of cash much, much deeper than the budget of the CBC.
None of this is to say that the CBC does not produce ground breaking and powerful programming for us. Listen to Q with Jian Ghomeshi on CBC, it’s a masterful blend of pop culture, world issues, and philosophy. Watch Rick Mercer, the fact that he’s Canada’s Jon Stewart is a compliment.
Hockey will go on. The CBC may even go on. But unless we Canadians find a way to be less apathetic towards our national identity, unless we put more money back into the arts, we’ll continue to lose ourselves in the swathing sea of international programming and content.