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Today’s CBC: Many pros, a few cons
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Today’s CBC: Many pros, a few cons

Written by
Michael Peterman
Published by
Peterborough Examiner
February 7th, 2019

Professor emeritus of English literature at Trent University says we need to find new ways to assure the CBC's active presence in showcasing Canadian perspectives and culture, and in speaking directly and effectively to the diverse regional parts of our large country.

I have been a supporter of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation since my childhood days in Toronto, largely because my parents listened to CBC radio before a television came our way in the early 1950s. Then it was favourite shows like "Juliette," "Wayne and Schuster," "Front Page Challenge," "Jake and the Kid" (radio) and "Hockey Night in Canada," though in those early days the hockey coverage, which I loved, only began with the second period. We got another channel from Buffalo, but the CBC had the lion's share of attention from the Peterman family in those days.

Fast forward seven decades and I find myself worrying about what lies ahead for the CBC. In my years at Trent University I became aware of how very important the CBC had been in keeping Canada informed and together through its early years. My continuing commitment and curiosity led me to attend an information session and membership rally last Nov. 21 held by the Peterborough chapter of the Friends of Canadian Broadcasting (FCB) in the Nexicon Studio (Showplace Theatre). I came away impressed by the local Friends organization and by their shared passion for the CBC.

A first item of business at the meeting was to celebrate Ian Morrison's retirement and welcome Daniel Bernhard as Ian's replacement. The other was to call attention to certain immediate pressures facing the CBC and to encourage local initiatives in support of the Corporation. It was a well-focused event that, through slides and speeches, held the attention of those in attendance. Local organizers like Kady Denton, Sue Hubay and Jim Thompson made sure that the challenges facing the CBC were clearly articulated.

Here are some pertinent facts, often subject to blurring or dismissal when the Conservative Party of Canada is in power. On a per capita basis the CBC receives 34 cents for each Canadian while the BBC receives 90 cents per citizen. In comparison with most developed nations, our national broadcaster is poorly funded. Moreover, we are always susceptible to the powerful, often biased and bullying journalism from south of the border. And the work of lobbyists here. In the U.S., public radio and nonprofit television are underfunded and largely obscured by the big networks and their budgetary power. Nevertheless, many concerned Canadians continue to look to the CBC for professional journalism, reliable news, unbiased reporting and careful attention to our history, culture and place in the larger world. Canadians in general trust what the CBC has to tell us and pay close attention to its news coverage and its emphasis on Canadian stories.

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Though I have not seen comparative reports, I suspect that the trust I am celebrating here comes as much, or more, from CBC radio (and Radio Canada) than its television equivalent. I regard CBC radio in the morning as an important part of my day and wish I could make more time for such great programs as Michael Enright's on Sunday mornings and Randy Bachman's on Saturday nights.

The smallness of our per capita support is registered most significantly during the 10 p.m. National News, which remains an important daily institution in our home. However, as many of you will have lamented, after about 15 minutes of straight, well-presented news the viewer is assaulted by a flurry of two-minute commercial drills. For me those commercials are intrusive and repetitive. Increasingly, I am inclined to turn away and turn off once they appear. While I like the bright and congenial four-person delivery of the news that has followed from Peter Mansbridge's retirement, the commercials are my signal to head for bed.

The CBC has been underfunded for years and has been losing financial ground under successive federal governments. But that said, the corporation remains top heavy with high-paid executives who siphon off money dearly needed to produce interesting and quality programming. I readily admit that entertainment programing has improved in recent years, while the news itself and news programs have maintained a level of excellence that is the envy of many other nations.

Now the CBC is facing two new challenges. The first is the popularity of corporations like Netflix, Facebook and Amazon Plus in the Canadian marketplace. Though Netflix has an enormous number of subscribers in Canada, it lobbies to be "unambiguously excluded" from having to obey the Broadcasting Act in Canada. As well, they want to pay no taxes here while maintaining complete control of their program development. They play a cute game in saying that they are producing plenty of Canadian programing, but they are doing so on their terms and to their own advantage unlike other broadcasters in Canada. As Daniel Bernhard has put it, "This is what we are up against. On the one hand, a pathological company with billions to spare, thumbing its nose at Canadian democracy. And on the other, a Canadian government that just sits there and lets them do it."

A front-page story in the Globe and Mail (Feb. 1) reported that CBC president Catherine Tait told the annual television industry conference in Ottawa that Netflix operates like the once-powerful British Raj in India. Her comparison of Netflix, as a global (and invasive) company, to an oppressive 19th-century imperialism did not sit well with some commentators. Ms. Tait's analogy was for many observers tone-deaf or ham-fisted, but it did serve to signal the CBC's sense of vulnerability in facing new challenges from such commercial giants from the south.

While lamenting Netflix's advantages here, the CBC is partnering with that company in financing shows like "Alias Grace" and "Kim's Convenience" which, through that alliance, have made a fresh impact upon American audiences. A complex web of laws underlies Netflix's ability to stream in Canada what it finds profitable while playing by its own rules and evading corporate taxes north of the border. Full disclosure requires that I admit to being a Netflix subscriber who enjoys the streaming options it offers.

Finally, there is the issue of the new generation — the millennials — and their relationship to the CBC. I had the chance recently to talk to several bright young Canadians who hope to attend university in the United States. I asked them if they found time in their busy schedules to watch or listen to the CBC. Their answers were not encouraging. Most of them use their cellphones to access news while one surprised me by saying his go-to television station is PBS. My own children who are leading busy lives in Toronto don't have much time for the CBC though they know of their parents' long-standing affection for the network.

What lies ahead? The CBC has recently been designing its programing with the hope of attracting young Canadians to its offerings. That strategy may bear some fruit in the long run, but my anecdotal evidence is not very encouraging. That said, we need to find new ways to assure the CBC's active presence in showcasing Canadian perspectives and culture, and in speaking directly and effectively to the diverse regional parts of our large country.

Michael Peterman is a professor emeritus of English literature at Trent University.

© Peterborough Examiner

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