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Consider This Before You Cheer CBC Cuts

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Recently there've been announcements of lay-offs at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation/Radio-Canada brought about by budget cuts.

Right-wingers chant gleefully "Death to the CBC!" like angry villagers storming the castle where rumours of strange and ungodly experiments are conducted. Often, the subtext is that they blame the CBC for all that they feel has gone wrong in their lives: atheism, same sex marriage, immigrants dating their kids.

Fiscal conservatives affect a more coolly rational argument by objecting to the spending of tax dollars on a broadcaster. Leave that to the private sector, they say. Have the CBC indulge in membership drives like PBS stations. Right -- because PBS stations like TVO are such cultural powerhouses using that model.

Liberals and intellectuals, though, argue that CBC/Radio-Canada is a crucial part of the Canadian fabric -- a glue and unifying presence. Its public broadcaster status meaning it doesn't assign a hierarchy to its audience like commercial broadcasters do, where one kind of audience (those with spending money coveted by advertisers) is of more importance than another (poor or rural). And they point out that public broadcasters are common in many countries, with institutions like the BBC enjoying far greater funding than the CBC.

The CBC is often accused of elitism by Conservatives, who see that as a convenient red flag word to wave before their supporters. It's snobbish! It's urban!

Yet big city conservatives mock it precisely because its programming can be rural and folksy. After all, it's hard to listen to CBC Radio funny man Stuart McLean and The Vinyl Cafe and think "big city elitism."

Even the whole right/left issue is a curious question. For every thing that can be construed as "left," such as the science show, The Nature of Things, with its often blatant environmental themes, there are also things that could be labelled "right," such as Dragon's Den. While CBC personalities like Rex Murphy and Don Cherry are often among the first names that might come to mind when listing conservative Canadian celebrities -- certainly outside of the Sun Media roster.

That isn't to say CBC programs can't demonstrate bias. But I wonder if critics of the CBC sometimes conflate bias with neutrality. I've seen editorialists criticize the CBC simply for hosting a panel discussion in which one of the guests expressed a left wing view.

Perhaps more interesting, I've had conversations with conservatives who will deplore the CBC's supposed left-wing bias, and then blithely segue into a discussion about the interesting news story, or a hilarious comedian they heard -- on the CBC!

And that's because, for all its innumerable flaws and short comings, the CBC remains a surprisingly ubiquitous part of people's lives -- often in ways they don't even think about. Even conservatives will grudgingly admit to making Heartland a part of their family viewing or of having the car radio tuned to CBC.

When it comes to radio, it's not like Shaw or Bell or anyone is offering a competing sea-to-sea-to-sea 24 hour radio service mixing music and talk, news and human interest.

Which maybe gets to a central tenet of the "kill the CBC" argument -- which is that the private broadcasters can do the job.

So why haven't they?

Even if you're right wing and conservative, but you do listen to Cross Canada Checkup, or The Vinyl Cafe, or Quirks & Quarks, or Q, or The Debaters, or Randy's Vinyl Tap, or Saturday Night Blues -- well, think about that.

And what about TV?

Critics blast the CBC for having an agenda -- but that agenda means it's committed to being "Canada's" network, and reflecting the Canadian experience. Just consider some of the recent scripted dramas CBC has: Heartland (rural Alberta), Republic of Doyle (urban Newfoundland), Arctic Air (the Far North), Cracked (big city Toronto), and The Murdoch Mysteries (the historical past). (Some of these series have been cancelled due to the very budget cuts championed by conservatives).

While the private networks? Pretty much all their scripted Canadian series are set in generic big cities -- and I do mean "generic", as most are aimed at securing American sales.

Is it necessary to the cultural fabric that someone in Toronto can groove to the adventures of a St. John's private eye? Or that a white Newfoundlander can become engrossed in the trials and tribulations of a First Nation northern bush pilot? Pesonally, I'd say "yes."

Regardless, it further raises the question what right wingers mean about CBC elitism when it's the only network that seems to feel Alberta horse ranchers are just as interesting as Toronto cops.

And that relates to the underlining disingenuousness of those insisting the private networks can pick up the slack. Because they may hate the CBC -- but that doesn't mean they like CTV or Global. In many cases, they hate all Canadian programming.

When I defend the CBC, it's because I'm defending the idea of Canadian culture and identity and I see the CBC as, for now, a necessary part of that. But when people criticize the CBC, I suspect it's part of a deeper and far more, well, insidious agenda that stretches well beyond public broadcasting. So before you throw your lot in with those who want to scrap the CBC, ask them what non-CBC Canadian shows they do consider essential viewing.

To the CBC, Canadian programming is kind of what it does. To the private networks, Canadian programming is a sideline to importing American programs which they buy cheap and sell to advertisers for a big mark up.

Canadian programs on private networks is a fair weather friend situation. Right now it's trendy, with TV series like Orphan Black and others landing American TV spots. Unfortunately, all it will take is a few misfires, and the private networks will lose interest in Canadian programs again like a child who's finding his jigsaw puzzle too complex.

(As an illustration of the private network philosophy: City TV dropped the successful, Canadian-set The Murdoch Mysteries in favour of the generic Seed, which brought in far fewer Canadian viewers, but they sold to a U.S. network.)

Imagine the CBC as a family run Chinese restaurant. Then suddenly the neighbourhood fast food franchise experiments by adding some Chinese dishes to its menu. "Why go to the Chinese restaurant?" asks customers, "when we can get the same at the local fast food joint plus burgers for the kids?" So everyone shifts loyalty to the fast food restaurant and the Chinese restaurant goes bankrupt. And then, six months later, the fast food joint announces it's dropping the Chinese dishes because they are too fussy to bother with.

And the neighbourhood no longer has any Chinese cuisine.

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