For 60 years, the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. has served as this nation’s ears and eyes on the world, as a unifying force in a vast, diverse country and as a training ground and showcase for native talent such as actors Jim Carrey, Michael J. Fox, Kate Nelligan and Donald Sutherland, director Norman Jewison and journalist Peter Jennings.
But the public broadcaster, battered in recent years by government budget cuts and the loss of viewers to American programs now widely available in Canada, has faded so much from public consciousness that even some supporters wonder if it can survive as a serious creative force in the fragmenting broadcast market.
The future of CBC has been a prime topic as more than 1,000 television executives, producers and writers from Canada, the United States and other countries around the world met this week at this Rocky Mountain resort for the 17th annual Banff Television Festival. The event ends its six-day run today.
In public appearances and private talks here, CBC executives did their best to appear confident and optimistic in what they concede are difficult times. And they made clear that they are staking the network’s future on the contrarian premise that the best way to win back viewers and public support is not to imitate Hollywood but to distance the CBC further from the American model.
“Television to call our own” will be the network’s slogan for the fall season. It means dropping the three American series currently on its prime-time schedule and looking forward to the day when most of the remaining U.S. programs that show in the day can also be terminated.
“The only rule in this industry is change or die,” Perrin Beatty, CBC president and chief executive, said in an interview. “If we try to out-Hollywood Hollywood in the English-language market, we won’t succeed. We have to define our own terms.”
“These shows should look, feel and smell like this place. It’s not disguised American programming and it’s not generic,” Phyllis Platt, chief of entertainment programming, said of the fall lineup, which includes a comedy series about taxi drivers in Newfoundland, a drama featuring a South African refugee in Toronto and hourlong biographies of famous Canadians.
Even before the fall shows were announced Wednesday, the CBC was a bastion of unabashedly Canadian programming against the rising popularity of American shows. More than 80% of the English-language prime-time programming offered by Canada’s private networks in recent years has been foreign, mainly American. On CBC, those numbers are reversed.
Ian Morrison, spokesman for the CBC’s citizen support group, Friends of Canadian Broadcasting, fears the “bombardment” of U.S. television carries serious implications for Canada. “Our children are growing up much more aware of the experience of living in Los Angeles or Miami or New York than they are of Halifax or Toronto or Saskatoon,” he said.
The CBC decision to expand Canada-originated programming follows the prescription recommended by Morrison and others who argue that there has been too little on the network to differentiate it from private competitors.
“Too often it looks like everything else on the dial, and the CBC programs are no better and often worse than everyone else’s,” said Mike Boone, the respected television critic of the Montreal Gazette.
But this new approach raises two major questions:
* Will there be enough money to maintain quality programming? CBC receives about $700 million a year from the federal government, but it has absorbed nearly $167 million in cuts in the last two years and is facing reductions of $138 million in the future. Beatty and others acknowledge that they have been unable to rally public support. According to a nationwide poll released in February, most Canadians are ready to go further, with 61% of those surveyed favoring selling off the network.
* Can the network produce programs compelling enough to draw Canadian viewers away from “Seinfeld,” “ER” and other U.S. favorites? These are available on competing Canadian stations or on American network affiliates carried into Canada on cable.
Based on recent evidence, it might not. In the last two years, the CBC’s entertainment offerings have been largely ignored by viewers and sneered at by critics.
According to ratings compiled by A.C. Nielsen Canada, CBC’s prime-time audience share from last August to February averaged only 8.9%, compared with 15.4% for CTV, a private national network that carries many U.S. programs.
That gives CBC a smaller prime-time market share in Canada than the No. 4 rated Fox network has in the U.S. Only CBC hockey broadcasts and a half-hour sketch comedy featuring a troupe called the Royal Canadian Air Farce consistently draw top national ratings.
Critics, meanwhile, have faulted CBC dramas as dull, marked by excess political correctness and obsessed with victimization. Although the network has had success with sketch comedy, “they’ve never been able to produce a quality situation-comedy, and we’ve had television here since the 1940s,” notes the Gazette’s Boone.
Platt notes that picking on CBC is “almost a national blood sport,” but she acknowledges “this is a very significant moment in time for the CBC. We really do have to assert ourselves in the public mind as the Canadian broadcaster, with the emphasis on ‘Canadian.’ ”
Founded as a radio service, CBC today operates separate television and AM and FM radio networks in English and French; 24-hour cable news channels in each language; an international shortwave service; and it broadcasts into Canada’s far northern regions in English, French and eight native languages.
Although it is classified a public broadcaster, the television--but not radio--networks also sell commercial advertising. The English-language TV network receives about half its revenue from commercials and the French network about 40%, according to a recent study.
CBC’s widely recognized strengths include its worldwide news operation and public affairs programming. In addition, the French TV network in Quebec, in contrast with its English counterpart everywhere else, scores big with audiences, helped by Quebec’s insulation from most U.S. programming because of the language barrier. The most popular show in Quebec is “Urgence” (French for “emergency”), a CBC drama set in a Montreal hospital.
CBC Radio, advertising-free and devoted to public affairs and the arts, has positioned itself as the high-quality alternative to commercial radio and attracts loyal listeners across the country.
“Anywhere in Canada, if you turn on the radio, you can close your eyes and turn the dial and know when you come to CBC radio,” Beatty said. “Our goal is to do that with CBC television.”
Despite the increasing Canadian content of the network, Beatty and other CBC executives emphasized at the festival that they remain interested in co-producing programs with U.S. and other foreign companies as long as there is a Canadian focus to the project. They cited as examples the CBC partnership with Walt Disney Co. on the children’s series “Road to Avonlea,” based on the works of Canadian writer Lucy Maud Montgomery, and the co-production with CBS of “Million-Dollar Babies,” a miniseries on the Dionne quintuplets.