In what could have a seismic affect on Canadian TV, it was announced that the CBC has lost its broadcast rights for the National Hockey League. The CBC has been the home of Hockey Night in Canada literally for generations. The impact of this won't be felt immediately -- the CBC will still broadcast it for the next four years.
Although there have been no reports of CBC executives throwing themselves out of office windows, most pundits assume the CBC is going to have a massive hole in its schedule to fill.
Which is a cue for the semi-annual "whererfore the CBC" discussion.
What should be done? How? Should it all be shut down? What is its mandate? What is culture? And can I have fries with that? (Oops, sorry, I'm writing this while ordering lunch.)
Without Hockey Night in Canada, the CBC will lose its flagship program.
Yet according to some, Hockey Night in Canada was a financial drain. So by losing it the CBC might actually increase overall revenue.
That sounds insane, right? Who would consistently hold up as a hit something that was losing money?
Was the CBC brass simply revelling in the chic value of bragging rights at the expense of good management?
Or maybe it was a sincere belief that their mandate is to serve Canadian "culture" and not worry about the bottom line? (One wonders if Rogers will come to regret their multi-billion dollar hockey acquisition in time -- certainly hockey fans might when Rogers starts passing the cost onto them in a way the CBC never did).
Or maybe they rationalized that a hit show benefits the entire network stable.
Still, losing hockey opens the door to another round of discussion and kibitizing over the CBC.
Perhaps the biggest problem facing something like the CBC -- like discussions about culture in general -- is it's the proverbial riddle about blind men describing an elephant.
What is the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation?
It's TV, radio, and Internet. It is news, lifestyle, documentary. It is scripted drama, comedy, sketches, music. Movies, series and mini-series. Kids TV and adult programming. It's culture with a "C" and it's "pop" culture.
Right wingers claim it has a left wing bias, left wingers that it is too conservative.
Some argue it should broadcast only Canadian programming, while others insist it should be a purveyor of "high culture" with eclectic programming from around the world.
Editorialists lament its middle-of-the-road shows -- while others say it's "elitist."
Some say a "public" broadcaster is an anachronism -- ignoring the fact that most countries have them.
Everyone can agree there's something wrong with the CBC -- not many will agree on what.
And when people slam the CBC as irrelevant, do they mean Canadian media in general? (Something worth pondering if you're an executive at CTV or Global who pops champagne every time you read an editorial demanding the CBC should be shut down -- 'cause they might be coming for you next.)
When detractors sneer at the notion of the CBC as a defender of Canadian culture, they could mean: it needs to do a better job. They could mean: I think the private broadcasters can do it themselves. Or they could mean: I want Canada to be a 51st state and we shouldn't be trying to preserve a "Canadian" identity at all. So next time you think you're agreeing with someone about the problems with the CBC, make sure you know with what you're agreeing.
So what's the solution to the CBC dilemma?
Funnily, as I started laying out the problems, citing my "blind men and elephant" example, and pointing out the difficulty of the CBC trying to be all things to all people, I suddenly had a thought.
Maybe what needs to be done is that the CBC, which has mutated over time into a multi-platform mega corporation, should be divided into semi-autonomous parts. Still an umbrella organization that can co-operate with itself, but where each branch has its own mandate, and the autonomy to pursue it. Now certainly one gets the impression the French and English arms don't even share the same bedroom, let alone the same bed (and maybe they should be closer -- too much regionalism can erode national unity).
But in general no one can say if the CBC is doing a good job -- because no one agrees on which job has priority. Deliver hard hitting news or provide escapist entertainment? Score big ratings or garner critical acclaim?
So maybe it should be divided into autonomous branches. TV separated from radio. But then TV divided -- almost like separate networks time-sharing the same channel. Scripted entertainment. News. Sports. Each department -- or "network" -- would be allocated a certain budget, and a specific number of hours in a week to do with what they will, to sink or swim. And if budgets were cut, they'd be cut -- but not funnelled into the budget of a rival department. And if one branch wanted extra time for some reason -- if a sports game ran overtime -- they'd negotiate with the other branches for the extra time, as equals, rather than just arbitrarily pre-empt the others.
A while back, CBC Radio shut down its radio drama department. Under my idea, they couldn't do that, because drama would be its own branch, and not a whim that an executive with a bias for songs or talk could dismiss as irrelevant and wipe out with an arbitrary stroke of the pen.
Arguably the problem with something like Hockey Night in Canada is that it allowed the drama and news to bask in the ratings glory of the sports department -- while sports was presumably paying for hockey with money that rightfully belonged to news and entertainment.
Obviously, the branches would be expected to co-operate, even co-produce things. But no longer would the drama producers feel they were an after thought to an executive who only respected news -- or vice versa. The people making dramas would be passionate about drama. The people in charge of news would eat, sleep, and breathe current affairs.
Perhaps the role of CBC boss could be more like an ombudsman, insuring the branches played nicely with each other (like a parent overseeing children), rather than that of an executive playing favourites.
Sure, I suspect if you looked at the CBC's employee roster you would be astonished at the multitude of Vice-Presidents in Charge of this or that. A frequent complaint about the CBC is its overpaid executives are as multitudinous as baby bunnies after a rabbit orgy. But are they really autonomous? Answerable to the needs only of their department?
By breaking the CBC into smaller, tighter organizations (but still associated with the whole) it might actually eliminate a lot of bureaucracy.
Would what I'm suggesting be entirely workable? Probably not exactly as I've presented it here. But as food for thought, as a starting point for some new ways of looking at the CBC -- who knows?
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