Arts programming can save the CBC from oblivion by Peter Raymont

May 8, 2014

Source: Globe and Mail

The tragic cuts of programs and jobs at the CBC – caused, we are told, by the loss of ad revenue from Hockey Night in Canada and ongoing reductions in government funding – creates an opportunity for our national public broadcaster to re-imagine its role and mission and to truly reinvent itself. Yet during the recent flurry of public debate, there has been little mention of the role of arts programming on the CBC.

When the CBC was created 78 years ago, and through much of its history, arts programming was an essential ingredient in its prime time TV schedule. In the years 1961-82, for example, there were 72 regular arts series on CBC TV – series, not one-offs. They had quaint and fanciful names like Lively Arts, Festival, Music to See, Music Canada, Opening Night, Passionate Canadians, The World on Stage. More recently there were shows like Adrienne Clarkson Presents (1988-99) a popular weekly cultural entertainment series featuring Canadian musicians, film makers, architects, dancers and writers, hosted by our future governor-general.

Most regard the appointment of former treasury board secretary, Gerard Veilleux, as CBC president in 1989, as the beginning of the end of arts programming on the CBC. The “father” of Canadian public broadcasting, Graham Spry, and CBC presidents like Al Johnson and Pierre Juneau understood the CBC’s vital role in championing and promoting the arts in Canada. Born in small town Saskatchewan, spending his formative years working with Tommy Douglas, and having a long-standing love of the arts, Mr. Johnson called the CBC “the social glue” that holds our country together. Pierre Juneau worked at the National Film Board of Canada for 17 years, co-founded the Montreal International Film Festival and was the first chairman of the CRTC. He established Canadian content requirements for radio and TV and is widely credited with creating the conditions that led to the boom in the Canadian music business. The Juno Awards are named for Juneau. Mr. Johnson died four years ago; Mr. Juneau in 2012. They saw massive changes to the CBC they once proudly led.

There is a perception that most Canadians don’t really care about public broadcasting and care even less about watching Arts programming on the CBC – especially those who vote Conservative. Empirical data disproves this myth. Polls by respected independent public opinion research company Canadian Media Research show that 80 per cent of Conservative supporters think CBC TV is important to Canadian culture. And 70 per cent of those CBC supporters, regardless of their political leanings, support the idea of the CBC having a channel dedicated to arts and culture.

Arts and culture have always been mainstays of CBC’s French-language TV programing, SRC, and of CBC Radio – English and French. Radio is widely considered to be the CBC’s most successful service. Shows like Q with Jian Ghomeshi, The Sunday Edition with Michael Enright, The Next Chapter with Shelagh Rogers, The Vinyl Cafe with Stuart Maclean, Writers and Company with Eleanor Wachtel, Randy Bachman’s Vinyl Tap and Ideas have a loyal national audience and hundreds of thousands of listeners in the U.S. and beyond via the internet. Graham Spry called national public radio “An electronic railroad, holding Canada together”. I spent the summer of my 19th year as the hired help on a ranch in the Alberta foothills and remember how important Peter Gzowski’s This Country in the Morning was to that family. CBC Radio was their cultural lifeline, a way of connecting with and understanding the chansonniers of Quebec, mummers of Newfoundland, poets of Upper Canada, writers of B.C. and film makers of The North.

Though we share a long and porous border with the most powerful media-producing country in the world, at just $33/Canadian/year, the CBC is the third-worst funded public broadcaster of the 18 major western countries – just ahead of New Zealand and the U.S. (Canada’s funding for public broadcasting is 60 per cent less than the $83 per capita average among these nations). While the present Canadian government has been particularly miserly with the CBC and other cultural institutions, all federal governments in the past 20 years, including the Liberals, have cut funds for public broadcasting. The CBC has lost 26 per cent of its federal government appropriation since 1994. Other public broadcasters. like the BBC, don’t depend on annual government allocations. They have stable, multi-year financing via a tax on TV sets.

Canadian corporations, foundations, businesses and philanthropists have a long history of support for the arts. Our banks, oil and gas, technology, mining and mineral companies donate millions of dollars each year to arts initiatives and arts institutions. Surely this is the time to break down the barriers to corporate support for arts programs on the CBC.

It’s easy and comfortable to romanticize our public broadcaster’s past glories. But today’s financial crisis at the CBC provides a terrific opportunity to learn from the past and embrace the future. To do more with less. The appointment of Heather Conway as the CBC’s Head of English–language Services provides a fresh start. A former executive at the Art Gallery of Ontario and Alliance-Atlantis Communications, Ms. Conway understands and appreciates the arts. There are rumours that a CBC “arts strategy” is under consideration. We must ensure that this really happens and is properly funded with a healthy mix of private and public financing. Arts programming on the CBC should be considered an “essential service”, a welcome home and showcase for Canadian music and musicians, edgy arts biographies (drama and documentary), performances, arts news and talk shows with artists of all genres, produced across the country.

Many see the future of CBC Television at stake and muse whether the CBC deserves to be “saved”. For me, the cultural survival of Canada’s soul hangs in the balance. As Lawren Harris wisely wrote 94 years ago, “Art must grow and flower in the land before the country will be a real home for its people”.

© Globe and Mail