Keeping Canada Canadian Is Goal of Public TV Network : At the CBC the thinking goes like this: If people watch and listen to its programming they will be less likely to pick up strange ideas and attitudes from American television.
Gerry Caplan, a media analyst and left-of-center political commentator here, says he felt a rush of patriotism while watching the Super Bowl with his wife a few weeks ago--but it wasn’t at all the sort of patriotism meant to stir the hearts of American viewers.
It came during halftime, Caplan says, when ABC interrupted the festivities on the field for an Operation Desert Storm newscast and remarks from President Bush. Then the cameras returned to Tampa Stadium, where children of military personnel were being honored by cheering fans, and one youngster warbled “You Are My Hero.”
“It pulled out every demagogic, patriotic, frenzied form of support for the war that you can imagine,” Caplan said with disgust. But then the note of national pride comes into his voice, as he added: “And I’m here to tell you, it can’t happen in Canada.”
Caplan ought to know. In 1985 and 1986, he co-chaired a Canadian Department of Communications task force on broadcasting policy and in so doing helped shape the principles that govern the Canadian Broadcasting Corp., or CBC.
The CBC is a public network chartered to foster Canadian unity and to discourage people here from tuning in to the seductive shows traveling the airwaves up from the United States. If people watch Canadian TV and listen to Canadian radio, the thinking goes, they will be likelier to remain Canadian through and through, and less apt to pick up strange American ideas and attitudes.
Canada has a number of private-sector television networks, to be sure, mostly dedicated to the rebroadcast of American programs with Canadian ads. But these have a largely regional following, and only the CBC is considered to be in business to help Canada stay Canadian.
For decades, Canadians have worried that if their vast, sparsely populated country isn’t carefully protected, it will fall into the orbit of the powerful and populous United States. Those fears are stronger than ever today, when domestic linguistic differences are perceptibly weakening Canada’s sense of its own future, and when increased trade ties are putting this country at an ever-greater disadvantage in a North-South contest.
In broadcasting, the concern looms especially large, because nearly three-fourths of all Canadians live within 93 miles of the U.S. border and many of them can easily pick up American TV and radio. With that in mind, the CBC’s enabling legislation calls on the broadcaster to “contribute to the development of national unity,” and network executives have sought to do this by, among other things, trying to fill 95% of prime time with programs of Canadian origin.
Realists at the network say they are at 80% and holding. But even that much domestic content means Canadians can flick on the CBC and--depending on where he is and the time of day--see anything from a news bulletin in French to a northern hunter demonstrating the skinning and butchering of a freshly killed caribou. There are talk shows in eskimo languages and a 24-hour news channel that focuses on Canadian events. Canadian-made dramas and sitcoms try to treat Canadian themes--programs such as “Street Legal,” a Canadian counterpart to “L.A. Law” that takes its story lines from current court cases north of the border.
Perhaps most strikingly different of all, the CBC airs an hourlong prime-time news show each night that doesn’t take a single commercial break for the first 35 minutes.
Ratings show that Canadians are only mildly stirred by the CBC’s Canadian entertainment offerings. Of the top 10 shows nationwide in early February, the first two were “America’s Funniest Home Videos” and “America’s Funniest People,” served up on Canada’s only coast-to-coast private network, CTV. But when it comes to news and public affairs, Canadians are dedicated CBC loyalists. The network’s ad-less evening newscast, called “The National,” is the third most-watched show in Canada, and the public-affairs segment immediately following the news, called “The Journal,” ranks fifth.
There are, of course, critics in Canada who complain that for all the CBC’s efforts at promoting Canadian ideas, the network still follows the American broadcasting model too closely. There are also those who grumble that no sooner does talent emerge at the CBC than it hastens across the border to America, where the news shows are thought to be shallower, the entertainment dopier--but the money and opportunities better. Such American institutions as Peter Jennings, Morley Safer, Norman Lear and Norman Jewison all got their starts at the CBC.
But for the most part, Canadians are proud of their country’s public broadcasting achievements; pleased that the CBC boasts more “information” programming than any other broadcaster in the western hemisphere, and proud that more than half of all Canadians tune into the CBC from time to time, unlike Americans, who tend to watch public TV only if they are educated and well-off.
Yet for all their national pride, Canadians are deeply worried these days that the CBC is in trouble and won’t be able to survive in a time of increasing hostility toward subsidized broadcasting.
Now that there is a war on, the issues of broadcasting and national sovereignty have become more prominent than ever. Canada may have sent about 2,200 sailors and airmen to the Persian Gulf, but it did so with grave reservations. Canada’s war policy is a good bit more than an echo of America’s--Canada has been supporting the Jordanian truck drivers plying the dangerous route to Iraq, for instance, even as U.S. pilots bomb them. So, when Canadians turn on the news every night, they expect coverage that reflects their own doubts, and not what perhaps a majority here regard as America’s overweening self-confidence.
To a great extent, they get it.
“If you compare the way American television has covered the war in the Gulf to any Canadian TV or radio newscast, you would understand why our Canadian broadcasting system is so crucial to our existence as a nation,” Caplan said.
It certainly isn’t technological feats that have made Canadians fond of their national network’s war coverage. On the contrary, the CBC can’t afford the fancy cellular phones and other equipment that American broadcasters use, and, thus, on a technical level it gets scooped, time and again. On the night the allied bombardment of Baghdad began, for instance, while reporters from ABC and CNN gave compelling on-air descriptions of the anti-aircraft fire from hotel room windows, the CBC was left in the dust, showing maps and interviewing generals in its studios, half a world away from the action.
Likewise, the CBC has been shut out of the accredited news-gathering “pools,” small groups of reporters with relatively good access to several fronts. This has left the Canadians much more reliant than they would like to be on the American view of events.
But Canadian media analysts say that what the CBC has lacked in physical presence, it has compensated for in the breadth, scope and internationalism of its coverage.
Retired U.S. generals tend to turn up far less often on the CBC than on American television; they are countered by anti-war intellectuals and Middle East experts, Arab nationalists, Iraqi-Canadians, Palestinians, detached British correspondents in Washington and even a lexicographer expounding on such jargon as “airborne sanitation” and “incontinent ordnance.” One recent CBC evening newscast spent 35 minutes of its allotted hour on a mini-documentary relating to the uses of propaganda.
“My general conclusion is that the CBC, in particular, has been trying harder (than American television) to take a balanced view, and not to take sides,” said Graham Knight, a sociology professor at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, who takes a scholarly interest in television news.
CBC anchors do not sport yellow ribbons, for instance, the way some local American newscasters do. Nor has anyone at the CBC saluted the troops in the Gulf, as anchorman Dan Rather has on CBS.
Barrie Zwicker, a Toronto publisher and media analyst, studied Canadian and American coverage of the bombing of civilians in Baghdad’s Amiriya shelter and found the CBC offered the lengthiest reports and most graphic footage of any network he evaluated.
“The CBC just didn’t censor itself the way the (American networks) did,” he says. “CBC television performed in a more journalistically responsible way.”
Knight points out that the CBC has banned the word “we” in all references to the government or the troops in the Gulf. U.S. journalists often say “we” when they talk of the allied war effort or the U.S. government, and refer casually to “our” troops. While they may mean nothing by such usage, Canadians think it reveals an unseemly American willingess to identify with the war effort at the expense of professional detachment.
“It was the ‘we-ness’ that characterized the way the American networks have handled the crisis from the beginning,” alleged Caplan, arguing that ABC’s handling of the Super Bowl halftime festivities knitted up sportscasters, newscasters, athletes, children and President Bush himself, into one seamless “We.”
Yet even as the CBC’s perceived achievements in covering the Gulf War are being trumpeted by proud Canadians, they are also heightening longstanding Canadian jitters about sovereignty and U.S. encroachment. For just as Canadians are realizing their public network’s importance in bringing them a separate view of the war and the greater world, the CBC has fallen into such desperate financial straits that some insiders say they wonder how much longer it can survive.
The CBC carries advertising, but not enough to cover its needs. So each year federal subsidies make up the difference. Since 1984, though, when the Progressive Conservative government of Prime Minister Brian Mulroney took office, Ottawa has increased the CBC’s budget by only 2.2% per year. That hasn’t been enough to keep pace with Canadian inflation, and, in fact, CBC executives say, the net effect has been to shrink the network’s “real” budget by some $110 million each year.
Until recently, the CBC made do by making trims here and there, keeping the basic shape of the network intact. Last December, though, the network concluded that mere pruning was no longer enough. Blaming the government’s shortsighted stinginess, CBC executives closed 11 local stations, discharged 1,100 employees--more than 10% of the staff--and canceled about 150 regionally produced programs. Corporation executives warn that even these cuts probably won’t be enough, and say some 500 to 600 additional staffers may be let go in April.
Canadians have responded as if the government were dismembering the country itself, not simply cutting back the national public network. In Quebec’s southeastern Gaspe Peninsula, flags have flown at half-staff to mourn the closure of three French-language stations, while Francophone nationalists rail that the government is trying to stifle embarrassing debate on Quebec’s possible secession from Canada.
In Ontario, there have been demonstrations demanding the immediate rehiring of fired staffers, and a one-year moratorium on the station closings. The CBC says it closed local stations to better preserve “the jewel in its crown,” the nightly national newscast. But angry viewers say that without those far-flung backwater stations forwarding local reports to the national desk, the CBC won’t be able to tell the country’s diverse and fractious regions much about each other.
What happened in Windsor, Ontario, is instructive: Ever since the local CBC station there was closed, the peaceable burghers of that border city have been forced to stare straight into the heart of the beast: If they want to watch local TV news, they have to tune in to the stations of crime-ridden, alien Detroit, across the river in the United States.
In Toronto, citizens recently came out for a public forum on the plight of the CBC and the country and listened in growing dismay as prominent media figures and even one CBC vice president predicted the network’s eventual demise. Listener after listener approached the stage with pleas for the CBC’s return to health, but no one seemed to have any concrete ideas, beyond the usual protest marches and meetings.
Finally, one woman in the crowd stood up and suggested that the problem is that the CBC’s viewers are too Canadian: too passive, too stoic, too willing to accept whatever the government dishes out without unruly protest.
“We need to become a little more like Americans,” she told her listeners, and in spite of their nationalism, they applauded.
What They’re Watching on Canadian Television
SCHEDULE BREAKDOWN FOR ENGLISH-LANGUAGE PROGRAMMING
(These fugures are for fiscal year ending Mar. 31, 1990, before budget cuts.) Drama: 45% News/analysis: 16% Human interest: 17% Sports: 11% Variety shows 11%
Total staff size: 10,733 Total broadcast hours: 5,917
These ratings describe a broadcaster’s “reach” in Canada, which is defined as the percentage of people over age two who tuned in for at least 15 minutes during the survey period, the week of Feb. 11, 1991. CBC: 62% CTV (the national private network): 66% Independent Canadian commercial stations: 48% U.S. pay TV / specialty services: 8% Total conventional U.S. TV (as opposed to pay TV, cable, etc.): 63% ABC affiliates: 38% CBS affiliates: 39% NBC affiliates: 38% U.S. public stations: 21%
TOP TV SHOWS IN CANADA
When Canadians want entertainment, they seem to find American imports irresistible, whereas when they want news and information they tend to turn to the CBC. 2.93 million people watched “America’s Funniest Home Videos” on CTV 2.93 million watched ""America’s Funniest People” on CTV 2.93 million watched “The National” on CBC 2.93 million watched “Full House” on CTV 2.93 million watched “The Journal” on CBC
SOURCE: CBS, Bureau of Broadcast Measurement
CBC ALUMNI AT WORK IN AMERICA
Robert Mac Neil, Executive editor of “The MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour” on PBS.
Morley Safer, Correspondent on CBS’ “60 Minutes.”
Peter Jennings, Anchor and senior editor of “World News Tonight” on ABC.
Norman Lear, Television producer, “All in the Family”