Sunday, August 29, 2010

Lazy Sunday # 134: The Garbage Nazis


There's a little circular filing cabinet under every writer's desk. It's where all the detritus of a day at the office ends up.

The one under mine currently holds some discarded notes, a section of the newspaper, two dead Tim Horton's cups, one plastic vacuum pack from a new thumb drive, one dead ballpoint pen, two plastic water bottles, one half chewed rawhide bone (not mine) with something growing on it, one Styrofoam wrapped juice bottle and an apple core.

Used to be you just dumped all of this in a bigger garbage can at the end of the day and then dumped that at the curb.

Not anymore.

Now we sort. Paper and plastic and organic and glass and cardboard all go into different piles that then go out to the curb in different colored boxes and/or different colored bags on different pick up days.

Hey, does this rawhide bone go in one box but what's on it have to get scraped into the organic bin?

It's all very confusing. And depending on where you live, what you are allowed to recycle is different or has even more rules around it.

I've been known to refer the people who make environmental rules as the Garbage Nazis, both for the way they want to control every aspect of our lives by what we use and/or discard, but because they deal in lies and fear and all other sorts of "garbage".

Last year, the City of Toronto's Garbage Nazis almost got into a war with the Tim Horton's coffee chain over the lids to their cups, which apparently COULD NOT under any circumstances be recycled because they were made of a kind of plastic deemed no longer allowed to exist on the planet.

Tim pointed out that every suburban city surrounding Toronto didn't have a problem with their lids. Didn't matter. The Nazis drew a line in the sand. Tim volunteered to take its coffee, jobs and massive tax contribution elsewhere. The Nazis decided the bad plastic could maybe just go into a new bin.

There are now so many different and regulated containers in Toronto people began complaining that there was no room in their yards and on their porches for all of them and the clutter was unsightly. The city's solution was to order they be kept indoors.

A few months ago, I helped a friend clear out his garage. And like the conscientious lovers of the planet that we are, we loaded up a ton of old paint cans and drove them to the "special place" that takes toxic materials.

A local Garbage Nazi who looked like he was also auditioning for the re-make of "Deliverance" eyeballed every paint can as it came off the truck, muttering something about making somebody squeal like a pig if latex got mixed with enamel or any of the drip marks clashed.

At one point he literally leapt at me as I lifted an old mayonnaise bottle of discarded paint thinner, blocking access to his precious piles of garbage.

"Hold it! We can't take that!"

I explained that it was just paint thinner as he trembled with fear, his hands outstretched to keep the jar from getting any closer.

"We can't take nothin' that ain't in the original container!", he insisted, his voice quavering. "There could be anything in there. Without an original container, we can't know what it might be. That's the rules."

I asked what I was supposed to do with it.

"Put it in your regular garbage. They'll take it to the landfill."

Really? I thought the whole point was to keep toxic stuff out of landfills.

Note to good self: Next time just dump it in a can with some paint it dissolves, neutralizing both of them a little.

Note to bad self: If you're ever a terrorist stuck with some spare atomic waste, just bag it and leave it at the curb.

More and more, however, the Garbage Nazis can't ever seem to decide what's really bad for us or how it ought to be handled.  Their zeal to save the planet from the likes of the rest of us is even starting to confuse them.

Where my dad lives, for example, they have very specific rules listing different ways different kinds of cardboard need to be sorted. Cereal boxes can't go with egg cartons and neither can go with orange juice cartons. Therefore, one breakfast = three different piles of recycled material. What's more, it all has to be tied with "non-rubber" fastening in packets "X" cm by "Y" mm by so many inches thick.

The people in his neighborhood have to buy perfectly good string that's only used to tie up their garbage.

They also tell a funny story about a garbage collector so incensed by constantly having to re-sort their wrongly placed recycling before it contaminated the wrong bin on his truck that he finally broke down in tears and had to be taken away.


In my neck of the woods, we have to pay for plastic shopping bags to keep them from forming a deadly vortex in the middle of the Pacific Ocean that's now apparently bigger than the decaying Antarctic Ice Pack and a navigational danger to all the diesel burning freighters bringing toxic lead toys and tainted food into the country from China.

One of our food chains got all smug about a month ago, declaring that the new no bag policy had kept 3 billion plastic bags out of the ocean last year alone. And that meant they could donate a few thousand dollars to the World Wildlife Fund.

Nobody seemed to want to discuss how many billion more Glad bags had been sold instead so people could keep bagging dog poo, kitchen waste and old mayonnaise bottles of paint thinner.

And not that anybody would doubt the bookkeeping at any major grocery chain -- but given the number of bags people still pay for, if I was with the WWF, I'd be calling the folks who used to own that trademark to borrow some guys way bigger than endangered sea otters to have a chat with an accountant or two.

Yet, in the world of the Garbage Nazis, it seems there is never any solution to an environmental problem that does not create another problem they then need to devise a method to control as well.

During the recent heat wave, I watched one news report detailing how many Pandas are asphyxiated if I run the AC in my car for even a few minutes. Okay, I thought, liking Pandas as much as the next guy (maybe more), I'll just roll down the windows.

Uh-uh. Apparently that's almost as bad since it causes drag on the vehicle which increases its CO emissions which causes people with breathing problems to overburden the health care system which…

This nonsense just goes on and on, constantly implying there is no solution beyond only exhaling your own CO2 on alternate days.

But there are logical solutions.

Lots of them.

There are cities running their public buildings off garbage burning incinerators that don't leave any residue at all. One town down the road from me has paved its streets with what comes out the back end of their own garbage removal system, saving their citizens millions in taxes while creating no other problems with the environment.

And then there is this from Japan, a little box that turns one kilogram of plastic into one liter of oil. Just like that. Imagine a barge loaded with these bobbing in the Pacific, providing its own power and electricity while saving Floaty the Polar Bear from losing his igloo.

Pretty soon, there could be one of these in every home, driving down the cost of gas or electricity as well as the carbon going into the atmosphere while not increasing your blood pressure or the power of the Garbage Nazis.

Enjoy your Sunday.

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.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

CBC At The Crossroads: Part Three


In this final installment, Barry Kiefl of Canadian Media Inc. uses Audience Attitudes and Past History to determine where the CBC goes from here.

"To Infinity And Beyond!"

This brings me to how CBC TV can evolve and perhaps find an important role before the public chooses to turn it off completely.

A warning here: there is nothing new that can be said about CBC TV, no magic formula that I or anyone else can devise to reposition CBC TV.

Every possible strategy has been expressed by someone, sometime. I have done so once or twice in the past. The best that one can do is to go back to the basic principles of public broadcasting and use those principles to see if there is a role for CBC TV.

First, CBC TV should phase out advertising from all but sports programming and some foreign programming.

Some of the time freed up on the main channel by dropping commercials could be filled with a short local newscast at the top of each hour, as done so successfully by CBC radio.

Ads should all but be eliminated on Newsworld, which makes on average only about $100 for every ad it runs, less than most community newspapers make from an advertisement. The other CBC specialty channels should abandon efforts to sell advertising altogether as they don’t make enough to pay a clerk’s annual salary.

To make up for diminished ad revenue, CBC should significantly streamline its organization, beginning with the sales department. Reduce the number of managers throughout the Corporation, keeping the good ones to develop a work scheduling system that does away with duplication in CBC news coverage.


Several levels of bureaucracy should be done away with, starting at the network centres and head office. What remains of head office should be moved to either Toronto or Montreal; significant savings in travel costs would result. There are many areas of CBC that serve little or no purpose but exist only because they have always existed.

Second, the CBC President and Board should ensure creative people, producers, journalists, writers, researchers, are provided an environment that will stimulate innovation. The future of CBC TV lies in their hands, not in those of senior managers playing (games) with one another.

The CBC started losing its way 20 years ago because senior management cut off the flow of ideas within the Corporation. All good ideas within creative organizations come from below, not from outside consultants or senior managers.

In 1990 the President should have seriously researched the repositioning concept, relied on advice from within the organization, and avoided a debacle.

Industry leaders like Google or Microsoft prosper and continue to innovate because senior management encourages ideas from below; all companies cease to innovate when the flow of communication is stifled by bureaucrats protecting their turf.

Management must trust and be trusted by its employees and be unguarded about how it manages the Corporation. To do this, CBC TV should be far more transparent about its costs and revenues, and report detailed financial information in its annual report to Parliament and the CRTC.

The CBC’s official Corporate Plan, a barrage of corporate slogans, says it “would like to be more transparent by increasing the volume of relevant financial information and frequency by which we report results publicly” but makes no effort to do so.

CBC's annual plans and reports should follow the model of the BBC: set meaningful and measurable objectives and report on how well it meets the objectives.

What are CBC TV’s objectives for 2010? You won’t find them anywhere on CBC’s web site or in government filings.

The Corporate Plan contains some numerical audience share targets, which carefully avoid mentioning daytime programming, but this sort of numbers game can be achieved by adding U.S. game shows to the schedule (oh, oh, that’s what happened!). The plan contains some really bizarre objectives like this one: “Develop Newsworld into a ‘hot’ news service with live programming.”

In funding terms, however, CBC should stop comparing itself to the BBC or other public broadcasters. The BBC and many other foreign public broadcasters account for a large share of all TV viewing and radio listening in their countries, which is why they can justify public funding many times greater than the CBC's on a per capita basis.

As a rule, public broadcasting in Europe and the rest of the world cannot be easily compared with the Canadian situation, because the U.K, Italian, Australian and other television systems are not nearly as fragmented as ours.


Third, CBC TV needs to rethink prime-time.

Is the role of CBC to bring us U.S. game shows and cheap reality programs every night? In the environment CBC TV finds itself, it must be distinctive, not just say it wants to be distinctive; it must be a refuge from the cacophony of commercial broadcasting.

Is there a single entertainment program on CBC TV today that one couldn’t imagine on another network? Is there a program about which people say—that’s on CBC! There must be to keep the public interested.

Prime time is primarily for drama and the CBC, as it likes to point out, is the only network with the space for Canadian drama. So, innovative new Canadian drama is necessary. CBC TV still thinks of itself as a 1960’s mainstream U.S. network, ten years after Ken Auletta wrote Three Blind Mice, depicting the end of that model. If it is to survive, CBC TV must create a new model, one that isn’t found on other networks.

CBC relies on sports (read, NHL) and news in prime time, which it apparently must do, but it has never allowed Canadian drama a proper place in the schedule.

Our public opinion survey data show CBC TV does not perform well in the key program areas of prime-time, which includes drama and movies. In the past few TV seasons in prime time (8-11 p.m.), CBC TV aired an average of only one to two hours per week of Canadian drama series and even less Canadian drama specials or movies. Quantity must come before quality.

CBC schedules roughly three times as much foreign drama. Typically, this season CBC will air two hours of scripted drama in prime time, including Little Mosque on the Prairie, which had a brief moment in the sun and all but disappeared from the public’s radar a couple of years ago.


Some weeks there is no Canadian drama in the schedule at all. CBC TV's prime-time schedule should devote as much time each week to Canadian drama as it does to news and public affairs or sports programming, which in each case is about eight hours.

CBC French TV does it and with less money than CBC English TV. There are reasons for this but chief among them is that French TV has experimented over the years and found drama forms that capture audiences without costing as much as Hollywood productions.

To fund this innovative new drama the Corporation should reduce overhead by an average of 20 per cent, creating a $100 million annual fund to produce English domestic fiction. Only fully scripted drama would be produced with this special fund.

The CBC would undertake productions in-house and/or with independent producers, focusing on innovative, new program concepts. To make room for Canadian drama, CBC TV's main channel would have less foreign drama and game shows and less news and public affairs in prime time.

The daytime schedule of CBC TV is so bereft of meaningful programming, including most of the children’s programming, it could be cancelled entirely and not missed by Canadians.


Martha Stewart was supposed to reinvigorate the daytime schedule just two years ago but this icon of the old TV model was quietly pulled off the air this year.

Most of the CBC daytime schedule should be a commercial-free simulcast of Newsworld, supplemented by local news programming. The money saved would be put into prime time.

Public opinion data gathered from a representative sample of some ten thousand Canadians over the past decade reveal that CBC TV is slowly losing the support of Canadians.

Our polling data reveals that CBC TV is still considered important and the best network for national news and international news (also the best at reflecting Canada's regions) by a good margin. But it fails in the most important area: prime time.

During the most important viewing hours of the day, CBC TV is found woefully lacking. Only a small minority of Canadians consider CBC's drama to be of high quality.

CBC management and creative staff, under direction from Parliament, need to take a serious, long-overdue look at both the way the organization is structured and the way it spends its resources and create a working environment that will lead to innovative new programming.

Canadians are telling the CBC they are not satisfied: the CBC must be open to the public’s criticism or the public will eventually turn it off.


Wednesday, August 25, 2010

CBC-TV At The Crossroads: Part Two

How Did We Get In This Position?


In Part One, Barry Kiefl of Canadian Media Inc. dealt with Canadians' perceptions of CBC Television. Today, how we got there. And Tomorrow, where we go from here.

Back to Barry…

Historical Background

The position the CBC finds itself in today started with the so-called repositioning of CBC in the early 1990’s.

Repositioning is a marketing term used to describe the process that marketers engage in to turn around a failing product or brand. A whole company can be repositioned but this would usually be accomplished not by drastically altering key products but by improving the corporation's image.

Gerard Veilleux, then the president of CBC, led the repositioning of CBC by first announcing at a March 1991 CRTC hearing that English TV would offset the loss of local news programs by regionalizing the news programs on the one station that would be left to serve each province and by creating a network regional news program, Newsmagazine.

The CBC was called to the hearing to explain why CBC TV stations were being closed (they were all eventually reopened). The regional news concept was put together on the eve of the hearing, without thought or planning.

The earlier decision to completely close TV stations was done with such haste that only a last minute intervention by Denis Harvey, VP of English TV at the time, saved the stations in Ottawa and Edmonton.

Of course, this didn’t stop Bob Rabinovitch, who became the president ten years later, from replicating the same mistake, cancelling local TV new programs entirely, including some that were the most watched in their communities and some that were the only local news option. That decision too was reversed before too long.

Harvey heard that a meeting about local stations he was responsible for was taking place in Ottawa without him and he insisted that he be invited.

Newsmagazine was cancelled less than a year later, with dismal ratings. Many of the regional news programs were the third or even fourth rated news program in their markets. This ill-fated concept, which contradicted all scheduling and programming maxims, seemed only to whet the appetite to re-position and re-program English TV.


In January 1992, on the tenth anniversary of The Journal, Mark Starowicz, executive producer, called it "an un-cancellable idea." Less than six months later it was.

The Journal represented the very best of CBC TV. Veilleux and his minions defended the move, pointing to the fact that The Journal was a tired concept. Subject to ever shrinking budgets and resources, yes, but not tired and like a fine Bordeaux, not a product that one just stops producing because it's been around a long time.

That summer of 1991 Veilleux and his staff were laying the groundwork for what was to come; dabbling in research data and organization charts and drafting the paper that Veilleux presented to the CBC Board of Directors in January 1992.

In the six months leading up to this Board meeting he was looking at options such as scheduling The National at 9pm. Veilleux's paper to the Board was a disjointed analysis which listed, among other objectives, that CBC must "demonstrate to Canadians CBC/SRC is an efficiently run corporation with a competent management team."

He called for the creation of a series of six or seven new CBC specialty channels, an idea that he abandoned just a few months later and then just as quickly adopted again in the summer of 1993.

He felt that whatever option was chosen that CBC must "re-think the programming schedule of the main channel." He went on to say that "our news (has) excessive concern for politics" and that there is "real or perceived negativism in our journalism." And, he questioned whether the National/Journal package should be moved to 9pm to take advantage of the "earlier-to-bed tendencies of our audience."

None of these concepts was seriously researched, especially whether people were indeed going to bed earlier. But, if the president said it was true, the staff was prepared to believe him.

Tony Manera, then a vice-president who succeeded Veilleux as president of CBC, admitted to me years afterward that everyone thought there had been proper research. Perhaps members of the Board of Directors felt that they were going to bed earlier than they used to and this was all the research that was necessary.

Veilleux read his Board correctly: the members of the Board were quite prepared to see an earlier news program, especially if it meant that such a program was less "negative" and perhaps more to their liking. At their Board meeting in the spring of 1992 the new TV schedule was approved and the news was moved to 9 o'clock.

Along with this key programming change late night local news was cancelled, the early local news program was lengthened to 90 minutes, to begin at 5:30pm, U.S. programs were all scheduled 7-9pm and 10pm-midnight was turned over to "alternative" programming.

The majority of these decisions didn't make any scheduling sense and weren't backed up by any reasoning. The strategy sounds eerily like the programming concepts recently introduced by CBC TV, with only slight modifications.


This season CBC introduced a 90-minute local news that uses regional stories, followed by a block of foreign programs between 6:30-8pm. Rather than national news at 9 o’clock, it remains at 10 o’clock but The National’s revamped format tends to lighter fare and less in-depth analysis.

Reports say the news-light format was based on advice CBC received from the U.S. news consultant, Frank N. Magid Associates, a company whose style-over-substance journalistic advice was the subject of criticism in journalism schools as long ago as the early 1970’s.

A public relations campaign to influence opinion leaders, especially in Ottawa circles, was launched first by announcing, on May 13, 1992, that The National and The Journal would "move to the heart of prime time...a move designed to enable more Canadians to see the program at what is recognized as the peak viewing hour in Canada."

No mention that the two programs would be replaced by Prime Time News just a few months later. The story hit the front page of most Canadian newspapers and gave the CBC publicity that underscored the dynamic, new leadership of the CBC.

The CBC's new prime time schedule, it was hypothesized, would position the CBC to compete in the "100 channel" TV market of the future. The problem is, of course, that a business doesn't close stores that are doing well because a competitor plans to open up beside some of them.

Prepare for the onslaught of competition, but don't close down profitable ventures until they start losing market share.

Veilleux, his management team and the CBC Board of Directors convinced themselves that they had to abandon their flagship news and current affairs programs to make the English TV service more distinctive. The press were manipulated into believing that it would work, because they assumed that CBC management knew what they were doing.

Unfortunately, this was something more than just a publicity stunt; it goes to the heart of TV: audience habits and tastes. In his forward to the 1992-93 CBC annual report Veilleux referred to the new schedule as "intruding on people's habits," and despite the initial fallout he said the CBC wouldn’t change course.

The press initially bought into the new schedule because Veilleux and the Board were probably right about the need to make CBC more relevant and important to Canadians, but the impetuous means chosen would not have the desired effect.

Audiences to Prime Time News would end up being no larger than The National/Journal hour, even though there were more people available to watch TV at 9pm. The decline of the longer, earlier, regionalized 5:30 news programs was quick.

CTV and other competitor’s news programs benefited from these various changes and touted how they were better positioned for a more competitive marketplace. John Cassady, then president of CTV, upon first hearing of the 9pm decision, compared the move to Coke's disastrous decision to change its taste formula. Veilleux's ill-advised repositioning cost the CBC dearly. By 1994 The National had returned to its customary 10 o’clock time slot.


CBC in 2010

So where is the CBC 20 years later; doomed to repeat the ten year cycle of past presidents? Well, for one, the 100 channel universe has come and gone and has been replaced by an infinite number of channels. CBC managed to open one important specialty channel, CBC News Network in 1989.

It used to be called Newsworld but, according to Hubert Lacroix, the current president of CBC, “tons of data” supported changing the name, as well as the format of The National. CBC also operates a couple of smaller specialty channels that few Canadians know about, let alone watch.

And, CBC also has a presence on the internet,, but the audience share of most web sites, other the Google’s or Microsoft’s, is infinitesimal, including CBC’s.’s national average audience would be less than the smallest CBC TV or radio station in the country and its audience share needs 3 decimal points to calculate.

Tellingly, all these years later it is the main CBC TV channel and CBC radio that are vital in audience terms but the data from our TV/ Radio Trends survey reveal the main TV channel has been drifting downward in the past decade. Viewer satisfaction and support for the main channel has been waning.

Yet, despite this erosion, CBC TV is still considered by Canadians as having the best national TV news. All that tinkering in the 1990’s didn’t affect the important role that CBC national news plays. Hopefully, the CBC news department takes another look at the tons of data that led to recent changes and doesn’t lose its historic place.


The chart above shows that for eight years running CBC TV/Newsworld have had a clear lead over CTV/Newsnet and Global TV, both of whom invest heavily in national news programs.

When it comes to international news, CBC TV/Newsworld is the only Canadian option that can compete with CNN/Headline News. CTV and Global are not viable options as far as Canadians are concerned (Global is so insignificant the results cannot be displayed in the chart).

CNN is the leader in international news but CBC and its sister network share the international news stage with the American news network and maintain a Canadian perspective on the rest of the world.


However, the two Canadian private networks over the past decade have collectively maintained a stranglehold in local news. CTV and Global combined have for most of the past decade had roughly four times the number of viewers who chose them as the best for local news coverage.

In the chart below CBC TV began the decade slightly ahead of Global but by mid-decade had become a distant third choice and has remained there in the ensuing years.


Unfortunately, another constant and unchanging perception about CBC TV is that it does not have the best prime time offerings.

Fewer than 5% of respondents in our annual survey for eight consecutive years have chosen CBC TV as having the best prime time programs, which even the CBC says is the most important part of the schedule.

The latest effort at a 90-minute local news program, another version of a block of U.S. and other foreign programs 6:30-8pm and a mélange of mostly unremarkable Canadian comedy and drama 8-10pm, have had no effect on public perception. Most networks with this kind of prime time record would have been shut down long ago.


Tomorrow: "To Infinity and Beyond!"

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

CBC-TV At The Crossroads


The recent abrupt departure of Richard Stursberg, former Head of English Services at the CBC, has led to buckets of online virtual ink being spilled to praise or pillory his time at the top. He changed things for the better. He made them worse. Nothing is any different than it always has been.

The perspective depends on what part of the "rats’ nest of ego, bickering, backstabbing, rumour and sour dislike", as Globe and Mail critic John Doyle describes the corporate culture of the place (and perhaps the vested interests of others) is offering an opinion.

Wherever you stand, perhaps its time we all took a hard, objective look at what the CBC means to Canadians these days, where it's come from, what it has become and what possible futures might lie ahead.

For the next three days, "The Legion" is proud to put itself in the capable hands of Barry Kiefl of Canadian Media Inc. in order to provide you with an in-depth assessment of both our perceptions of the CBC and its realities.

I hope you find it useful.

Barry, over to you…


For decades CBC has played an important role in the lives of the majority of Canadians. Despite today’s media-saturated world, most Canadians are exposed to CBC in one form or another every day.

Personally, I couldn’t function without the CBC weekday morning local radio program in Ottawa. I’d be so grumpy and disoriented my wife and two cats would probably leave me, if I had to live without CBC Ottawa Morning.

The cats get fed as I listen to host Kathleen Petty and the excellent team of journalists around her, who keep me informed about our community.

It’s a demanding job, especially given the early morning hours, something I learned when I did the early morning shift at the CBC radio station in Churchill, Manitoba 40 years ago. I replaced Peter Mansbridge, who also started his career in Churchill.

On weekends, it’s a different story as far as local radio content in Ottawa is concerned but I will leave that for another article. Suffice it to say that CBC radio misses an important opportunity on weekends.

Importance of CBC

I am not the only Canadian who feels that the CBC is important. For the better part of the past decade my survey research company, Canadian Media Research Inc., has been monitoring how people feel about CBC TV and radio and other stations.

The annual surveys we conduct use a national, representative sample of roughly 1,500 Canadians each year, well in excess of 10,000 respondents since we began tracking. The CBC is not a sponsor of the survey, although a number of other networks purchase the results to monitor how the public reacts to their services.

As shown in the chart below, about 9 in 10 Canadians have said consistently that CBC TV is important or very important to our culture. The percentage saying very important is slightly less today than in the early part of the decade but the results are still impressive.

But how much of this is a ‘halo’ effect, the tendency for people to think positively about something because they have thought that way all their lives or it’s thought to be the right thing to say, like supporting libraries without ever using one?


The percentage of Canadians saying that CBC radio is important to our culture is quite similar, which is somewhat surprising given that not as many people are regular users of CBC radio (first chart below).

However, when we isolate just CBC radio listeners, the results are overwhelmingly positive, actually well above those of CBC TV (second chart below). Not a single CBC Radio listener in our 2009 survey said CBC radio was not at all important, something quite rare in survey research involving large samples.



And, it’s important to recognize that when we compare CBC radio or TV to the National Gallery, the NAC, Telefilm or the NFB, none is considered to be as important to our culture as the CBC.

None of these other arts organizations physically reach as many Canadians as CBC TV and radio and it is reflected in public perception.

Satisfaction with CBC

When it comes to TV generally, Canadians are pretty satisfied with the experience. What about CBC TV?

Our annual TV/Radio Trends Survey has shown that only a tiny percent (2-4%) said they were very dissatisfied with CBC TV over the past 8 years. Another 10% or so said they were just dissatisfied.

However, just as there has been a long term decline in the perceived importance of CBC TV, the percentage of Canadians who said they were very satisfied with CBC TV has steadily declined and hit a new low of approximately 24% in fall 2009.


Another way of testing the value of CBC TV is whether people are willing to pay for it. The chart below tells us that fewer people today say that CBC is worth paying a $1 a month to receive.


At the beginning of the decade almost 40% said CBC TV was worth $1 a month but this declined every year to less than 30% in 2008 and remained under 30% in 2009, when we changed the question to $.50 per month.

To be fair when we ask the same question about another hundred or so TV networks, no station gets even 50% agreeing to $.50 or $1 a month. But the trend in the CBC results is a notable finding and should be of concern to CBC managers and its board of directors.

Tomorrow: Part Two -- How we got where we are…

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Lazy Sunday # 133: Oh, Just Spit It Out!

shit my dad says

Watching the conniptions CBS has gone through trying to re-title the Twitter blog "Shit My Dad Says" for an 8:30 Thursday timeslot has been painfully ludicrous. First it was "Stuff my Dad Says", then "Bleep My Dad Says" and now it's "$#*! My Dad Says".

Have you noticed how similar $#*! and SHIT appear in print?

Maybe that's by design. Maybe it's some CBS executive's way of saying, "How much longer can we be expected to continue this facade?"

I mean, seriously, these are the same supposed paragons of virtue and family values who bring you "Big Brother" every week. We all know what they're really selling.

Ever since I sat in the back seat of my parents' car listening to some guy croon about "Makin' Whoopee!" I've failed to understand why we try so hard to find substitutes for words and phrases everybody hearing them automatically re-translates back to their original expletive.


The first movie I ever did was "The Last Detail". Robert Towne's adaptation of Darryl Ponicsan's brilliant novel had become notorious in Hollywood for its frank language and use of cuss words.

Despite wanting an honest portrayal of Navy life, there was still great concern at the studio that couples on dates wouldn't go to see it and the coarse language might dissuade critics at conservative newspapers from even reviewing it.

So every day after shooting, we'd sit around with the sound guys and redo "cleaned up" versions of our lines. It was a complete joke since sometimes our lines were nothing but a string of expletives.

After a couple of days, nobody even tried to find alternatives that would synchronize with the onscreen lip movements. Part of that was a desire for both realism and to buck the system that permeated the "New Hollywood" of the 1970's.

But mostly it was because we knew everybody would know what we were really saying anyway.

The concept caught on, however, and pretty soon you were watching R-Rated movies on TV with tough cops screaming "Horseshoes!" at their superiors as distraught wives wept about finding their husbands "feeling" their secretaries.

Yet, decades later, when the simple click of a remote button can fill your TV screen with any number of cable series in which adults talk like adults talk, the channels further down the dial still pretend people wouldn't say $#*! if they had a mouthful.

It always makes me wonder why those "cleaned up" versions of the dialogue we used to do couldn't just be broadcast on a separate track that concerned Moms or evangelical preachers could access through their parental controls while leaving the rest of us to enjoy more realistic drama and comedy.

This same pretense at civility has been going on in music for a long time as well. From The Rolling Stones performing "Let's Spend The Night Together" on the Ed Sullivan Show to every Hip-Hop artist appearing at the Grammys, the show doesn't go on unless lyrics are "cleaned up" for a mass audience.

God knows what might happen if fans heard the same words that convinced them to make the song a hit in the first place.

This week, Mad Pulp Bastard Bill Cunningham filled my mailbox with some of the funniest songs I've heard in a while. Songs that wouldn't have anywhere near their impact and appeal if they were scrubbed up for commercial TV. Which, it's fair to say, they can't be.

So you'll have to watch them here -- or any of the million other places on the Internet where they might appear, offering all the more reason to just use your TV for watching DVDs or cable while mainstream television continues to pretend Beaver Cleaver's Mom is their audience.

Enjoy your Sunday.

First up: Rachel "Houston, we have a throb-lem" Bloom

And the incomparable CeeLoGreen "tellin' it like it is".

Thursday, August 19, 2010

The Darkness and the Light

A couple of things are rolling around the inner-tubes today which get regularly discussed here and I've been peppered with requests for my take on the Globe and Mail column predicting a Stephen Harper sneak attack on the CRTC as well as predictions that some former CTV sports exec being hired by Rogers implies an impending takeover of the network.

dog pool2

Okay, for starters, it's August. Is everybody familiar with the "dog days of summer" and "slow news day" concepts?

When people are wilting from the heat, only a big news story or wild speculation gets most of them to pay attention. And I think both of these items fall into the latter category.

At least I sure hope they do. Traffic from creative types on Facebook and Twitter all day was very supportive of Konrad von Finckenstein and his commissioners, indicating they've finally seen the light as far as our cause is concerned and we don't need to go back to square one with somebody new.

I hope that's true, although I've yet to see any tangible evidence. And revealing that a regulator shares the artists' point of view in this country might bring about an early demise quicker than any politician with an itchy hatchet hand.

However, three years of turmoil in the industry (all under KvF's watch) might be all any of us should be required to tolerate. And an explusion would at least give one member of the gang a chance to catch up on his reading.

As far as Rogers buying CTV. That doesn't make much sense given the convergence between television, internet and mobile that is ramping up.

Does Bell really want to lose their television presence? What will Rogers have to divest in order to be allowed to take possession? Figuring all that out could take another couple of years of CRTC hearings plus whatever spending restrictions become self imposed to pay for the financing.

We could be looking at another lost decade of production.

Oh God, maybe that's why they're doing it….

Okay, take a deep breath and step into the light. There really is a future coming that's better than what we have now.

Every time I write about some out of the box idea somebody is pursuing to counter some world problem the cheerleaders of doom are championing, I get slammed by people saying, "It'll never work".

Well, here's one that is. Ripped from the pages of today's NY Times and just in time to cushion the blow of those increased electrical bills sliding through the mail slot. Affordable solar power so simple and cheap it's literally plug and play.

While the shadows eternally lengthen around our industry, this might be proof that we need to detach from accepted or promoted methods and bask in the sunshine of a whole new way of doing things.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Meeting Somewhere in the Middle


I had lunch with a couple of WW2 fighter pilots today at a BBQ marking the 70th anniversary of the Battle of Britain. One was a redneck from the prairies. The other had come out of the backwoods of Quebec.

Both sought to serve their country and wanted to learn how to fly. And they both had struggled. The redneck because he'd only stayed in school to Grade Four and the lumberjack because he couldn't speak English.

But they both worked hard and also tried to get past the "Two Solitudes" that divided the country back then, where men in the mess hall still arranged themselves with English Canadians on one side and the French on the other.

This afternoon they still chuckled over how they finally met. As the Quebec pilot described the encounter…

"My friend Jacques and I were from the same little town. We'd never been around so many people. And because our English was not good, we didn't want to embarrass ourselves or say something the English would make fun of. But our Sergeant said we had to talk to them, so we practiced in the barracks every night and one day decided to try speaking to somebody at breakfast.

We flipped a coin and I lost, so I had to go first. I picked out this guy at the next table who looked kind of friendly. But I didn't know what to say. Jacques said, 'Ask him where he's from'. So I leaned over and said, 'Hey, where are you from?'

And he says, "Saskatoon, Saskatchewan" and I turn back to Jacques, who says, 'What did he say?'.

And I said, 'I don't know. I don't think he speaks English either.'…"

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Lazy Sunday # 132: The Infinite House

Much as I don't want to damage the Sponsor/Creative co-dependent relationship, I'm one of those people who DVR's a show and skips past all the commercials.

If I'm watching live sports, I use those ad breaks to go the bathroom, make some popcorn or get another beer -- whether or not its the same brand that's bringing me the game, I haven't a clue.

The advent of the VHS tape was, for me, right up there with Salk Vaccine and putting a man on the moon. It meant I never again had to endure a long commercial break just when we were getting to the good part.

I know that TV commercials are economically important to my industry, often extremely creative and can tell me a lot of things I should know. If they pop up after the final credits or before the story kicks in, I'll watch 'em.  But the minute they intrude on what I really want to spend my leisure time doing, I tune out.

I have a theory that if the experience of watching a TV series on its initial broadcast was identical to a commercial free DVR viewing, the number of people getting episodes from bit torrent streams would plummet.

This is actually a theory I've had since I was 18 years old. During my 18th summer, I visited England for the first time, discovering there were no commercials on television but they had them at the movies.

What I noticed most was that if you were watching a TV series over there, you engaged a little more because nothing was distracting you from the experience. "Kicking you out of the story" as I came to call it.

You simply weren't being reminded every 8-10 minutes that you were sitting at home staring at a box. Nor were you making mental notes to put "this" on your grocery list or stop doing "that" in polite company.

And while the novelty of watching commercials before a movie quickly wore off, what didn't was how hard the advertisers worked to compete with what they were all aware would follow. Their message had to stick with you past the James Bond car chases or interludes with Catherine Deneuve. So they pulled out all the stops and really went for it.

They also weren't locked into a standard 15 or 30 or 60 second slot. Some of them ran 3 or 4 minutes. Some flashed past in 6-8 seconds. There wasn't a clearly defined and unalterable period of time they had to fill.

I seem to recall the same dynamics being at play when commercials first arrived in movie theatres here. Now they're the same ones you've already seen a dozen times on TV, five dozen if you've been watching a CFL football game on TSN.

Do Canadian sports networks have a rule that you have to run the same three commercials in every break?

As a result, commercials in movie theatres have become as intrusive and annoying as they always were on television. Maybe the repetition does register with consumers on some level, but I can't be convinced its in a good way.

Wouldn't it be interesting to see if an advertiser could hold your attention and really sell his product in a 10 or 12 minute slot off the top of a show? Do you think they could keep you interested enough that you wouldn't spin the dial to see who was on Larry King or what Snooki was wearing?

Wait. Somebody has already done it.

What follows is a nine minute commercial from Germany. Unless you can read German, I defy you to tell me what its selling. I had to watch it twice before I made the connection. But I know that the next time I'm in Dusseldorf and need stuff like this, they're the guys I'm going to see first.

And isn't that the kind of viewer reaction every descendent of Don Draper wants for their clients?

Stop interrupting my story to tell me yours. You're putting up the money, you go first. Or last. Whatever suits you. And take as long as or be as brief as you want. I'm convinced that if we weren't stepping all over each other we'd both have happier and more receptive customers.

Think about it. And following this important message -- Enjoy your Sunday.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Reading The Tells


So it seems the desperate for cash Ontario government has come up with a new way of making money. They're getting into online gambling.

I seldom gamble recreationally because I have to do too much of the real life version when it comes to my career. But a lot of people do, with off-shore sites now reaping Billions in profits.

I'll leave the morality of governments getting into all that to others. At least the problem gambler suicides will likely happen at home now instead of causing a nasty scene in a casino washroom.

As an economic decision, owning a virtual casino probably looks pretty good in theory. But Canadian governments are also the only casino operators in the world who have consistently not done well at the trade.

Some of that's due to their insistence on supporting their social programs by eliminating smoking, free drinks and other frowned upon vices in their establishments. The mindset which once decreed you had to buy a meal in Ontario before you could order a drink on the Sabbath is alive and well.

Most of the losses, however, come from running while also regulating the industry.  I had a Las Vegas casino manager once tell me that he'd turned down a job in Canada because it was career suicide -- "Everybody knows you're part of a rigged game up there".

His point was that when you both own the casino and make its rules, the house has an even bigger advantage, one it can't help but exercise when times get tough. Players eventually realize their chances of winning are always being reduced and they take their money elsewhere.

And it would appear the same approach will eventually turn online gambling into a money losing government initiative. In order to sell the idea, Ontario insists it will limit the amount of time anyone can play as well as how much they can wager over a set period of time. Yeah, that'll make the hard core players close out their accounts in Antigua.

They also claim they'll operate more secure and trustworthy sites than those off-shore fly-by-nighters. Tell that to folks in British Columbia, whose government opened their own online casino last month. The site went down in the first hour after it was discovered that dozens of accounts had been hacked so gamblers could bet with somebody else's money.  Four weeks later, they still aren't open for business.

But here's where this impacts those of us who make movies and TV for a living.

To be successful at the poker table, you need to know how to play the cards you're dealt. But more important, you need to know what the other guys at the table probably have in their hands. That means reading the "tells", those little ticks and idiosyncrasies that telegraph whether or not somebody is bluffing.

Well, our governments aren't bluffing. They're financially stretched to the limit.

Tell #1: This morning, amid reports that an entire hospital ward in Victoria is being readied for hundreds of arriving Tamil refugees thought to be suffering from Tuberculosis, I heard one Toronto talk show caller assert that her husband can't get speech therapy because the Ontario Health Insurance Plan claims they can no longer afford to fund his treatment.

Tell #2: Despite mounting evidence that the newly introduced HST is wreaking havoc with construction trades and the real estate market, that restaurant business is off 25 - 40% and even golf courses have seen a precipitous drop in greens fees, the Legislature is not rethinking its implementation.

Tell #3: Although thousands of artists mounted a spirited campaign against the British government's decision to axe its version of Telefilm, the UK Film Council, that decision is final.

Our governments will need to go "All-in" sometime soon. And let's not forget who brought the deck we're all playing with and shuffled the cards.

The Minister in charge of the UKFC went so far as penning a column for the Left leaning Guardian to lay out his reasoning for closing down the UKFC, noting how many millions had been saved in everything from car allowances to officials' salaries. In effect, claiming that more money could flow to filmmakers now than had under government supervision.

You gotta know somebody over here is reading that column, noting how little a public anxious over its own health care and crumbling roads seemed to care and is putting a checkmark next to Arts funding on their "Where can we cut" list.

Those are the cards we're about to be dealt. Maybe in the next federal budget. Maybe in the first one that follows our next election. So we need to start getting ready to play this hand as intelligently as we can.

I've heard all the arguments about every dollar spent on the Arts multiplying "X" fold. For years American governments claimed every dollar in Food Stamps created $1.71 in the broader economy. Now they are cutting the Food Stamp Program back. You can use statistics a lot of ways, but they've never seemed to work in our favor.

We can threaten that governments don't want to piss off the Arts community. But that's the same argument that says they have to bring Omar Khadr home to placate the Muslim community or allow boatloads of Tamil refugees to land so as not to upset their Diaspora.

Artists don't vote in blocs anymore than Muslims do and for every artist you satisfy you piss off some guy hanging drywall. We need to get out of Groupthink and start thinking about what helps us as a Group that's part of a broader culture.

I've long advocated weaning ourselves off the government teat. But we're still going to need to find sustenance somewhere.

Maybe the financing can be found online. But with a massive government sponsored campaign pending to tell Canadians how easy and fun it is to spend their web time gambling, that uphill battle will get much steeper in the short term.

In my opinion, our best strategy is to lobby for clearing the shelf space for the goods we already sell and then making their availability known.

In past postings, I've talked about setting aside a specific percentage of movie screens for Canadian content and mounting initiatives to encourage networks into putting more Canadian programming in Prime Time. Maybe that won't solve all we're facing, but it will help us survive until the economy gets better or smarter ideas come along.

Because when you're sitting at a table with somebody who needs money right now and doesn't care who he has to hurt to get it, your best option is to find another game.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Unsafe At Any Speed


I'm going to lay off my personal battle with government bureaucrats for a while.

Just as soon as I finish telling you this little story...

My dad lives in Victoria, BC, known as Canada's home to "the newly wed and nearly dead". A good proportion of the city's inhabitants are retirees and a significant number of those get around on "scooters".

These aren't the trendy Vespas made famous in "Quadraphenia" and "Roman Holiday" which are now enjoying a resurgence among the urban hip. Instead, they're mostly four wheeled tanks with sturdy names like "Gladiator", "Trooper" and "Shoprider" purchased from places that also specialize in adult diapers.

For those who have lost their drivers licenses or the physical ability to drive a car, they're a very reliable means of retaining some semblance of self-reliance, independence and a small ration of freedom in a world that can become proscribed, isolated and socially limited.

But for those who work in government and can create multiple man-years of employment by finding new ways to regulate the lives of others, the mobility scooter is an impending scourge, the next H1N1 Killer Bee menace bearing down on us as the Boomer generation approaches its final demographic.

You see these little one person coaches everywhere in Victoria, rolling along the sidewalks, chugging down the aisles at Walmart, parked at the outfield fences of ballparks where the geriatric bleacher bums are less likely to be hit up for spare change to cover the cost of umpires.

Powered by environmentally friendly electric motors, silent but for the flap of their little orange warning flags, allowed in stores and malls so there is no need to build special parking spaces for them; they are sturdy workhorses that meet and surpass every idealistic benchmark our governments insist we ought to achieve with our cars.

Never mind that they also help the local economy by ferrying grannies to bingo and shut-ins to movie matinees. Ignore how much they reduce the prescription costs of anti-depressants. Don't even think of all the lottery ticket and postage stamp revenue that would stop flowing to governments if fewer of the group who most purchase those items were riding them.

All of that apparently isn't good enough for the bureaucrats.

For it seems there was a tragic incident in one of Victoria's suburbs last winter in which a Senior tipped off a raised curb into the path of a dump truck. Apparently, said Senior (deceased as a result) had been travelling at a high rate of speed just prior to his unfortunate sudden departure from this life.

How fast was he going?

An almost unbelievable 16 Km/hour (9 mph for those unfamiliar with metric).

And as a result, moves are afoot to restrict scooters to a maximum of 12 kph (7 mph) in a campaign designed to eventually license those who sell, service and ride the machines as well as regularly test scooter owners while imposing fines and scooting suspensions on any who choose to flout the new laws.

One can only begin to comprehend the number of government agencies which will ultimately have to become involved in the crusade.

What's of the utmost import here is (of course) that we protect Seniors from themselves and the rest of us from the -- ahem -- "road rage" perpetrated by scooter riders arrogantly insensitive in their recklessness.

Those exact concerns were voiced last week by Victoria Deputy Police Chief John Ducker after describing an incident in which an elderly man on a scooter "rammed" the shins of a motorist getting out of his car with such force that he "drew blood".

Although no charges were laid and nobody required any medical attention, Ducker didn't mince words in his condemnation of the growing carnage on his streets…

"This is a new era we're coming into. I'm no psychologist, but it seems when these people use their electric scooters they develop a sense of entitlement, as if they have a right of way on the sidewalk. I see it in a lot of them, in their body language and their comments and their demeanor."

Now, speaking only from personal experience, I've been skewered by umbrellas wielded by harried businessmen on the sidewalks of Victoria. I've been bowled over by cyclists kitted out for the Tour de France who were obviously trying to catch the peloton. I once even watched a skateboarder who'd been barked at by a tiny dog threaten to butcher and bbq the animal in front of its terrified owner.

But so far, I haven't had my shins skinned by any rickety Clint Eastwood biting down hard on a Werther's and asking whether or not I feel lucky.

However, we are led to believe that the streets of Victoria will soon be aflame. And to understand where that kind of rhetoric comes from, you need to read the Deputy Chief's comments in the context of his position.

For the Victoria police have one of the country's highest per capita incidences of police brutality charges. Some of that could be the result of too many nights when the fleet's in. But a guy like me who's spent a lot of time with a lot of cops in far more dangerous neighborhoods has noticed more than once that members of the Victoria PD tend to get all G20 on many who just aren't in a position to fight back. The homeless. Teenagers. Guys like this.

Meanwhile, if Victoria's police department is anything like the ones in Toronto and a lot of other cash strapped Canadian cities, you know that more and more of their time is spent raising revenue than fighting crime.

So, if your police department is made up of guys who aren't allowed to do the real job and also seem the type who get a woody watching episodes of CTV's "The Bridge", what better way to have them appear really effective and respectable than by turning them loose on another group who can't put up much resistance?

And bureaucrats are always eager to get behind that kind of enterprise.

In Ontario, the deaths of three seriously drunk teenagers who came from extremely wealthy and influential families has led to one incarnation after another of laws designed to make sure such a tragedy never happens again. The current zero tolerance approach just passed could see anybody under 21 jailed if even their mouthwash causes a breathalyzer needle to quiver.

So far, the Victoria chapter of the "We need a new law" brigade have supplied recommendations to change mobility scooter regulations to:

Health Canada

Federal Transportation Minister John Baird

BC's Superintendant of Motor Vehicles

The Executive Director of BC Municipalities

All BC Mayors and Administrators

The impending avalanche of studies, reports and regulatory amendments coming from all this will make anything Nature does in the Rockies this Winter pale by comparison.

Imagine how many millions will be spent -- because one guy zoomed off a sidewalk.


There's a little more to that story.

For it seems the Senior who ignited this frantic need to fix the death scooter problem hadn't just gone with throttle up. According to the Coroner's report, the gentleman suffered from physical paralysis, poor balance and often acted impulsively because of several previous strokes.

He was also traveling along a snow and slush covered sidewalk, appearing (according to the driver who struck him) to be moving "haphazardly" -- y'know, like you do when somebody hasn't shoveled the sidewalk or plowed the road…

What's more -- according to the mobility scooter industry, there is only one current model even capable of 16 kph, the Shoprider SE (Sports Edition?). And the vast majority of scooters only reach speeds of 8 or 9 kph. In other words, they couldn't achieve the proposed speed limit no matter how anti-social the driver might be -- let alone exceed it.

So what's this really all about?

Frank Furedi, a Sociology professor at the University of Kent and author of "The Politics of Fear" has long studied the impulse of bureaucrats to impose new rules to solve perceived problems, likening it to the Medieval belief that every natural phenomenon was rooted in either witchcraft or divine retribution. Professor Furedi calls the process "Intrusification".

It's a way to bring meaning to ordinary tragedies and assign blame -- even if the whole process is based on bias or superstition. As long as the only ones being pilloried or tied to a dunking stool don't have the power to fight back, the bureaucratic intrusion on the lives of others succeeds.

"They think their job is to save people from themselves" he says, describing an institutionalized contempt for "people who cannot be relied on to manage their everyday existence" -- or just are unfortunate enough to have shit happen to them.

Like the new teen drinking law in Ontario, the proposed scooter regulations in BC are opportunistic attempts to modify behavior in the false belief  that it will make life better for those affected instead of worse.

Mostly it keeps the bureaucrats employed at managing other people's lives instead of being out doing something worthwhile like, oh I don't know, shoveling the snow and ice off a city sidewalk?