How to fix the CBC: Why the Ceeb needs to take heed by Ben Kaplan

Jan 16, 2009

Source: National Post

A talented Canadian filmmaker recently had a show shut down at the CBC. The director obviously had a few choice words for the public broadcaster, but didn't want to comment out of fear of the network's reprisal.

With a stipend of over a billion dollars in government funding and roughly another $400-million brought in through advertising each year, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation is a bastion of power. But the mixture of public and private revenue streams also makes it a target for critics and prime ministers alike.

Last Saturday, when an audit revealed that the CBC was the worst federal institution with regard to providing the public access to information, it was just the latest flare-up in a news cycle of what's wrong with the broadcaster.

But the new year began with the network's viewership up 30% from an all-time low in 2002, so perhaps the CBC is ready to live up to great expectations. We asked five insiders how that might be done.

Put content in the hands of artists

Bruce McDonald, award-winning Toronto-based filmmaker

"Before Christmas, I sent Fred Fuchs, who runs CBC's English programming, a couple of joints and two tickets to see Broken Social Scene. Like, 'Hey, you should know one of the greatest bands in the world.'

"You don't get the sense they're having any fun over there, just mashing of teeth, pulling of hair and worrying about focus groups. The building even looks like an impenetrable mausoleum. It looks like they're under siege.

"I don't know enough about television and financing to say we should give money to artists, but part of me thinks, why not? Daniel MacIvor, Daniel Gross, Stars, Apostle of Hustle, why aren't these people on TV? CBC wants to control every programming element. It's exhausting, and you can feel the overwrought, overworked mathematics on the shows. I've met CBC decision makers, good, smart people trying to do something. I know they're trying hard. I'm sure they get a lot of pressure. Because they're the flagship, everybody wants them to be doing what they want them to do.

"But speaking from an independent-movie point of view, I look at German new wave cinema - Fassbinder, Herzog, Wim Wenders - and these guys all started on German public TV!

"If you put content in the hands of independent writers, producers and directors, you get better, fresher, wilder, more entertaining programs. We shouldn't compete with 24. How do they sell that? Affiliates will be like, 'This is like 24, but way worse.'

"We need to be smarter, faster, quicker and braver than other programmers. Give artists permission. Then set them free."

-McDonald's latest film, Pontypool, comes out March 6.

Look to the BBC

Alfred Hermida, assistant professor of journalism at the University of British Columbia

"How can a news organization make themselves relevant to a generation that's grown up with an abundant choice of everything free instantly? Adapt from the 20th to the 21st century - and a good way to do that is look to the BBC.

"CBC can't just translate what it does for new media, it needs to evolve how it delivers the news. BBC built a new delivery system for its brand. Given that CBC doesn't have a director of digital operations after Jonathan Dube went back to ABC, I can't see in the current lineup who'll be its digital evangelist.

"CBC must stop thinking of itself as a broadcaster. It's a content provider. Of course, in every organization there's inertia. CBC is a cruise liner and there's an iceberg approaching; it takes time to get that ship turned. There will be resistance. At BBC, new media was met with suspicion: Why are we going online? So we found the journalists, editors and producers interested in exploring - we got the early adapters and worked the edges of the organization. Then it spread.

"Newsrooms are notoriously reluctant to change. When change comes, the initial reaction is defensiveness. But BBC changed and so can CBC. It starts with strategy. Don't blog because everyone else does. Innovate! In 2007, the BBC iPlayer streamed programs to hand-held devices which proved tremendously popular - think about getting content out there so it suits the audience. CBC is in the process of re-invention. They have to change how, not what, they do."

-Hermida spent 16 years at BBC as a founding member of

Bolster the Canadian star system

Amanda Rosenthal, president of Amanda Rosenthal Talent Agency Inc.

"A 'star system' is a general term that means we need to create vehicles that celebrate our talent in a way that makes it appealing for them to stay in Canada and work. CBC has really stepped up in this area over the last few years. When I started, there was a perception that a CBC show might have a lower budget than another network, but I don't think that exists any more. CBC has invested in their star system and that's built up over time.

"As an agent, I think The Hour is a great show for my clients. The format is cool, edgy and young; any of my clients would want to get an interview with George. His show is great because it's another way of getting talent out there. Celebrating it. Promoting it. And bolstering talent will also help more shows get made: When an actor can sell a Canadian project, more projects get filmed.

"John Buchan was recently brought in as the head of talent at CBC, and his associate Jason Knight is the casting consultant. These people know everyone in our industry. And CBC has done a good job at making new stars. This is so important for everyone in our business.

"We don't want our best people abandoning us for L.A."

Forget about being hip

John Fluevog, fashion designer

"Canadians, especially young Canadians, are cynical. They don't fall for crap that comes and goes. CBC can't tie themselves to a fad to attract the 'youth market.' The brand is too valuable.

"When you see trends coming, steer in the other direction. Like, I won't do Uggs. It's the biggest phenomenon, but when they disappear, I don't want my brand to disappear, too.

"CBC must not try to attract kids. Kids are already there! I have a 27-year-old, he lives downtown, goes to all the restaurants and listens to CBC AM talk radio. He loves that CBC isn't over-branded. The Key of Charles and The Vinyl Café are hokey, earthy and homey. That's what makes them so cool.

"Sometimes, I get a sense CBC is justifying its existence. That, because of government harassment, it has to prove it's 'Canadian.' CBC has no need to apologize. It's not our culture, that's too much pressure. It's the glue that holds Canadian culture together. Hip is being yourself, it's a naturalness of owning who you are. Be quirky and offbeat, but don't try to be cool - young people smell that a mile away."

-Fluevog is a 40-year veteran of the fashion business.

Fight Ottawa and prejudice with good shows

Nicholas Campbell, actor

"Most of CBC's problems stem from the fact that it's allowed to sell commercial time and get a whack of dough from the government. That invites enemies. I mean, the battle for the Olympics didn't seem like a fair fight. Of course, the government will back the CBC bid. In the private sector, this bolsters hatred.

"As an actor, I have my complaints. It's frustrating when you see Mad Men emerge on AMC. Why the hell haven't we come up with that? Then you've got Marketplace and the fifth estate being cut back and the news division being pushed into American-style presentation. It's scary.

"If Ottawa wants to find a way to get rid of it, CBC only has a 50/50 chance to survive. I got told by a member of Parliament that Paul Martin began planning on how he'd spread the savings once he got rid of CBC. And Jean Chrétien was the worst. I love him, he didn't even call me by name, he'd just yell, 'CBC!' He'd get so mad talking about it, I'd have to calm him down. He thought they ambushed him at a press conference and made things hard on everyone and brought morale way down.

"There's a prejudice out there against them, like it's CBC so it's not very good or it's a copy of American things. Talking with Don Cherry, he'd say Da Vinci is so good I thought it was American. I'm like, 'Don, man, that's the worst thing you can say.'

I love CBC and I'm willing to fight for it. Loyal, patriotic Canadians should have something that blows their minds."

-Campbell played Dominic Da Vinci on CBC from 1998 to 2006. He most recently appeared on The Border.

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