Friday, August 27, 2010

"Paying The Price" To Be The Nation's Broadcaster


First, I want to thank Barry Kiefl for his insightful three part post on the CBC. How we feel about our National broadcaster. How the corporation conducts its affairs. What changes might be necessary for the future. It was all there, presented with the cold clinical eye of a Media consultant. No bias. No axe to grind. Just the facts. Use them as you will.

So now it's my turn. And perhaps it is the love of hockey Barry and I share that gave me the first insight I gleaned from reading his assessment. For he made me realize that the real issue I have with the CBC is usually addressed on that very network every Saturday night 8 months of the year at 7:40 pm.

Somewhere on "Coach's Corner", hockey icon Don Cherry, in either praising or damning the play of someone he's highlighting will talk about one of the character traits every great hockey player requires, a willingness to "Pay The Price".

What that phrase means in layman's terms is courage. For no hockey player is considered a man, much less a hero unless he is willing to put his body on the line and risk all of his skills to do what must be done to succeed.

And while many of Cherry's vast following, who regularly outnumber those attracted to any other CBC show or personality, don't identify with his overblown style and dinosaur mentality, they do admire the way he gets to the heart of what constitutes greatness.

It's courage. Nothing more or less. And over its long decline, it is courage that our National Broadcaster has most lacked.

Someone associated with the CBC was prescient enough to coin the phrase "Cherry Nation" describing an audience component that's been dubbed "The Great Unwashed", "The Silent Majority" and terms less flattering. The implication is that they're the people the CBC does not want to be; that they are some "other" that lives here but doesn't really represent what the country is supposed to be.

And that for me, is the second insight I gained from Barry's posts. An insight that had been rippling in my peripheral vision for a couple of weeks.

A week or so ago, I was flipping channels, looking for the score on a football game I'd missed and landed on CBC Newsworld as they intro'd a story about all the new Canadian feature films chosen for the Toronto International Film Festival.

I figured that was good news for the industry and watched a few fresh faces blush and gush their way through their first national exposure, excited and/or humbled by the honor their selection had thrust upon them.

And then, the CBC did what it could to undermine their achievement, replaying memes of elitism and cultural colonialism I've come to know and detest.

The CBC posited that these newcomers were only here because accredited talents liked Egoyan and Cronenberg weren't, then congratulated the filmmakers for finally manufacturing product "stacked with American stars".

One neophyte Director was even trotted out to describe how she never imagined being able to get an actor "of that caliber" until her US star came along.  Video here:

Okay, maybe I'm a little sensitive to this stuff. Four decades of being a Canadian who mostly worked in Hollywood because Canadians had been taught Canadians could never be as good as those LA guys can do that to a person.

But like a lot of Canadian artists I have clung to the belief that the CBC was somehow on my side, while secretly aware that it never has been and would probably be happier if most of us (along with our audience) were something other than what we are.

I know a lot of people will characterize what follows as a rant. But it's not. It's simple heartsick frustration that the institution mandated to most help us understand one another doesn't work -- and maybe doesn't even think we're worth working for under any circumstances.

Anytime anyone questions how the CBC operates, they're either attacked as a "hater" or dismissed as somebody who just doesn't understand the complexity of being a country's National Broadcaster.

The Corporation is one of those institutional sacred cows that spends a lot of money and keeps a lot of people employed providing a lot of services no other radio, TV or Internet presence here could.

And somehow that's supposed to be enough to justify however they choose to manage their affairs. Like it's a big job that nobody can expect to ever be done perfectly and we should all be happy with an end product that, however chipped or dented, is still at least there.

And maybe that's completely true. Maybe we do expect too much.

Or maybe that pro-CBC defense mechanism is a convenient way of making sure not much has to change or nobody has to do the kind of job that should be expected in the first place.

That was my second realization -- that the CBC doesn't feel it should reflect the country so much as offer a country it would rather we were.

"Cherry Nation", is often depicted as some Tim Horton's swilling, SUV driving, red-neck culture that would rather be watching US Shows on CTV or Global and has little in common with those better educated and more worldly who watch and listen to the CBC.

But they're not.

They're us. Little different from anyone else in what they aspire to, want for their kids or look for in entertainment. But CBC herds them into a demographic they know they need to survive but imply they don't really want to be associated with, throwing them the occasional "popular show" bone while insisting they are guardians of "culture", without realizing that there needs to be no demarcation between the two.

Because in the real world, there isn't.

three tenors

There is probably no more culturally elite an activity than opera. But one of the most watched programs in history, one of the most repeated over the last 20 years and among the most purchased DVDs ever released is the "Three Tenors" concert presented on the Eve of the 1990 FIFA World Cup.

Culture? Or popular entertainment enjoyed and treasured by millions who never have and never will set foot in an opera house…

Is there anyone at CBC who would have been diminished by being associated with that concert? I'd venture not a one. But it's not the sort of thing you're likely to find on the network these days as the corporation instead follows a path to make themselves somehow "above" and yet indistinguishable from almost every other channel on the dial.

Shouldn't a National Broadcaster with the comfort of a guaranteed budget have the courage to lead rather than follow?

What's cutting edge in television drama these days? "Mad Men", "Breaking Bad", "Rubicon"?

Are they high-quality art or solidly embraced by the popular culture -- or -- kinda both? Yet can you imagine any of them being initiated at the CBC where they are loathe to do period, to deal with the underbelly of society or encourage lame ass conspiracy theories.

And shows like "True Blood", "The Wire" or "Sons of Anarchy" would be complete non-starters based on subject matter alone.

I have no reticence in predicting that the following will be a huge hit this fall while offering a clearly elevated approach to the genre. Yet can you conceive of anyone even pitching anything close to this to our national broadcaster?

At the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, the only Zombies you'll ever find will be in the corner offices. And what they think we want to watch is "Republic of Doyle".

Perhaps what's worse than the fact that Canadian content at the corporation is at its lowest level in 30 years is the argument made by the executives who have created the scarcity that they "can't afford" to do better.

Never mind that a tiny niche broadcaster like AMC apparently can.

CBC executives insist they simply don't have the money to be like other national broadcasters when what they really lack is the willingness to "pay the price" to find an audience, the simple courage to take a few chances.

The new incarnation of "Dr. Who", for example, is a massive hit all over the world. In the almost half century since the series began, it has also spawned an entire industry of books, games, comic books and merchandising that have further benefitted the BBC.

Yet, when it debuted in 1963, it was about as cheaply produced as you could imagine.

In the beginning, "Dr. Who" was little more than inspired writing, great actors and some tarted up metal traffic cones for bad guys. But somebody had the courage to say "Let's go with it!", "Let's be different!", "Let's be a National Broadcaster for everybody, not just the kind of people who work here!".

"Dr. Who" -- popular entertainment or cultural icon? Whatever it was when it started, now it's both.

And the same is true for the BBC's new take on Sherlock Holmes. I don't know how many versions of the father of deductive reasoning have turned up at Britain's national broadcaster over the years, but this latest one is as reconceived and yet true to the original as you can get.

BBC's "Sherlock" became a certified hit the minute its first episode was broadcast. Its innovative style, cheeky connections to its heritage and refusal to apologize for what it is, found a huge audience (both locally and worldwide). And the three 90 minute episodes of the first season cost less than the equivalent number of episodes of "Being Erica" or "18 to Life".

There's no lack of money at the CBC, there's a lack of the courage to commit to something unexpected. And this lack of courage has been around so long there isn't even anything in the vault they could re-boot to entertain a new generation in the first place.

They do offer lush historical dramas like "The Tudors" or the impending "Camelot" but only by taking a minority partner 20% of budget position in International co-productions which allows them to qualify the programming as technically Canadian.

And somehow those International co-producers (who are making all the creative decisions) have no problem making those deals because they're well aware that there is more than enough talent here to fulfill whatever 20% of the product ends up being manufactured by Canadians.

If that CBC money were spent on a completely Canadian series as lush and historical, it might mean that we would only get one every 5 years. But isn't that better than never getting one at all?

The hard truth about Canadian television in 2010 is that CTV, Rogers and Global can fill their schedules with American network simulcasts and require only the smallest commitment to Cancon to retain their licenses. So if CBC won't do large budget Canadian drama, it will simply never be done.

Already, there are projects awaiting approval at the CBC which have been entirely developed by foreign producers or accepted at American networks who influenced all of the initial creative.

Isn't telling our own stories for our own people one of the main reasons a National broadcaster exists in the first place? Surely, it's not to just present a Canadian version of the "Dragon's Den" franchise or put "So You Think You Can Dance" on skates.

And if the CBC's priority isn't "us" and learning or exploring who "we" really are, what motivation is there for us to keep paying to have it around?

In the end, making a case for the continued survival of the CBC all comes down to knowing what your country is and then having the courage to be that instead of what somebody has decided it would be more acceptable if we were.

If that doesn't happen, it's going to be harder and harder for cash strapped governments to justify the need for an institution offering exactly what viewers can  find elsewhere on the dial.

And for all those (like me) who will mourn the passing, there will be far more Canadians who won't notice the hole that's been left in their lives -- because the CBC wasn't willing to pay the price to make them notice it in the first place.


deborah Nathan said...

Was doing a bit of research on UK and discovered that both "Being Human" and "Skins" are on budgets below $1 million Cdn an hour. I think one of the higher priced dramas is "Primeval" at $1.5 million/hr. And MI5 is made for around $1.2 million Cdn an hour. So, as you rightly point out, it can all be done.

Dwight Williams said...

Thing is, we had drama shows of that calibre once.

Da Vinci, This is Wonderland, Intelligence, even The Border to some extent.

There's room in the CBC roster for Being Erica and Republic of Doyle. But there should still be room for those other, earlier greats as well.

And there's more that I don't even suspect the existence of yet to find as well.

I think we are in agreement here. CBC can and should be doing more.

Among the questions to be answered in the months and years to come is whether or not the attempt will be tolerated in the first place.