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Policy Matters: Colour Me Blue

What’s sadder than budget cuts? The realisation that the CBC hasn’t been fulfilling its cultural mandate for years.

Where would we be in politics without strong arms and soft targets? With Harper’s new federal austerity budget we are, as a people, subjected to attacks on things like seniors, the environment, public health and—what a cliché—arts and culture. Telefilm, the NFB/ONF and the CBC/SRC: those sacred yet beleaguered trinity members all took their 10 percent hits. (Fortunately, the Canada Council for the Arts was spared, and the Canadian Media Fund actually has more cash this fiscal year for their programmes, given greater private participation.)

Nestled in the mind-numbingly predictable move here by the Tories is the fact that no one really cares about the effects on Telefilm or the National Film Board. Instead, all anyone wants to bitch and moan about is the CBC. It’s a sport that never dies.

And it’s a sport that requires spectators to be subjected to braying from the usual suspects. In one corner, self-serving current and former Ceeb helmers (like Richard Stursberg or Tony Burman) offer up both good news about content relevance and audience numbers, while sounding dire warnings about the CBC’s future. In the other corner, critics like The Globe's John Doyle spitball-blistering aperçus like “suck it up, CBC, you should have seen this coming…move on.”

Doyle actually goes further. The ‘you deserve it’ slap-down is warranted because their programming, he feels, has crept south from the loftier heights of Thursday-night arts programming of yore to the depths of ‘desperate’ (his words) Dragon’s Den spin-offs.

What Doyle doesn’t fully account for is how impossible the CBC’s task has been since the 1980s, particularly in a nation whose English members are witheringly addicted to eating its young. Located so close to the U.S., the CBC has trained itself to believe that it has to compete with mainstream broadcasters and an enriched media clutch of distributor/specialty channels. And it has had a mandate since the 1991 Broadcasting Act that is ridiculously too broad for the dollars it has ever had, let alone the one billion it’s going to be left with henceforth. This latter point, I might add, has been argued before parliamentary committees in Ottawa over and over, for years.

And yet. And yet…there are some big ticket items in the act that, if interpreted in a more robust way, might actually deliver more distinction.

The act says the CBC must “inform, enlighten and entertain.” Unpacking this a bit, one would have to ask what “enlighten” really means and whether Battle of the Blades or Kevin O’Leary fits the bill. Documentaries are potentially well disposed to enlighten, but we really have to ask whether the docs on the network about the Royals or the Titanic or the journalistic take on current events like the Murdoch empire debacle are really enlightening Canadians as well they could. Let’s face it, they’re safe fare.

Gone are the edgier, more interesting docs of Rough Cuts or The Lens. Gone too are the kinds of partnerships with, for instance, the NFB that would see a primetime broadcast of programmes like Payback that features the ideas of a stellar thinker like Atwood, whose lecture was good enough for CBC radio (it was a Massey Lecture), but not TV. Imagine if the BBC ignored its own great cultural wealth in such a fashion and you have an idea of what enrages folks like Doyle so much.

Given the mandated task of “actively contributing to the flow and exchange of [national] cultural expression,” the CBC’s interpretation is decidedly anti-intellectual. Canada Sings is pop culture, and so is the very male-heavy programming on the George Strombo show. Unlike similarly mandated foreign broadcasters, the CBC rarely programmes cutting-edge work by our artists, writers and dancers. And as for contributing to a “shared national consciousness and identity,” one is left to ponder what this means and how to deliver it.

In the end, we know the CBC is going to survive. Slightly less than a billion dollars a year is still a lot of money. We know in poll after poll that the majority of Canadians still view the CBC/SRC as an essential service, so our national broadcaster will continue to keep calm, carry on and muddle through.

Barri Cohen is an award-winning independent producer, documentary filmmaker and writer. She is in development with the Documentary Channel on her next film with White Pine Pictures in Toronto.

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