Killing off the CBC

Bob Wakeham
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So, do you want to read more enthralling commentary on the deficit and the debt?

Want additional insight into "cost mandate analysis," that piece of mumbo-jumbo being tossed around by Finance Minister Tom Marshall this week, the latest proof that politicians and bureaucrats have forgotten how to speak English?

Well, you'll have to look elsewhere in the paper because I haven't got it under my hat to even have some fun with what is invariably the driest story of the year - coverage of numbers upon numbers upon numbers, television journalists especially working with stone-faced diligence to convince us that grave and important matters are at stake, seeking out interviewee after interviewee for bland and predictable reaction.

No thanks. Been there. Done that.

Nope, this week it's the CBC on my personal docket.

And since just about everyone and his mother and his mother's dog have taken an opportunity to perform the annual autopsy on the CBC during the past couple of weeks, I'd find it awfully difficult, having spent 25 years or so embedded in the bosom of Mother Corp, not to have a word or two to say about our much maligned public broadcaster.

It's become somewhat of a rite of spring, like the opening of baseball season, for governments of the past couple of decades to slash the CBC budget, although the cuts appear to be made with fiendish relish and evil satisfaction and revenge by the Harper team with its lineup stacked with heavy hitters from the right side.

A little context might be in order here: when the first major cuts occurred at the CBC, I was in a position pretentiously labelled as the area/executive producer of television news and current affairs, and was at the receiving end of a phone call late one night from Jim Byrd, then the regional director of the CBC in Newfoundland, telling me that every single show under my jurisdiction, with the exception of "Here and Now," was being scrapped.

I was in shock in my Corner Brook hotel room as Byrd rattled off the shows that were being destroyed: "Land and Sea," "On Camera," "News Final," "Coffee Break," the "Midday" news and even that harmless, inexpensive religious show called "Dialogue" (I've always wondered whether having my name attached to the credits of "Dialogue" as its executive producer may have earned me a free pass to eternal happiness; alas, I fear it will have no bearing on my status in the hereafter, especially given my agnostic ways).

In any case, it was a shocker. I had been in Corner Brook to inform the television staff members there that their news segment, a time when they would break away from the main "Here and Now" program on a nightly basis to deliver coverage of west coast events, would be reduced significantly, but temporarily, during the upcoming holiday season. They weren't pleased. Ironically, what I didn't know at the time, and neither did they, was the fact that their segment was going to disappear entirely. Forever. A reduction in programming time at Christmas would have been a relatively benign development.

As it turned out, "Land and Sea" was the only show to actually survive the cuts, due, in large measure, to the yeoman efforts of one of its hosts, Bill Kelly.

And I thought that we, the assorted producers, reporters and technicians at the CBC in Newfoundland, also did a tremendous job - I've let modesty disappear from my thought process ages ago - in using whatever resources we had left to turn "Here and Now" into a diversified, magazine-formatted supper hour show, one that, when shown at meetings of executive producers upalong, was invariably described as innovative, a program that pushed the envelope at every turn.

What I had hoped back then was to make the show so damn good, so unique, that we might be given a reprieve if the supper-hour programs were eventually killed, a direction in which they appeared to be headed. That didn't happen, but the cuts have continued and programs like "Here and Now" have been forced to constantly reinvent themselves.

Some of us have used the Newfoundland Railway as an example of the way in which the federal government, and the CBC hierarchy, have treated the regional operations of the CBC: downgrade the service to a point where there's a diminution of viewers, not many of whom would even protest the day when a skeleton crew is left to run the local stations.

Unfortunately, "Here and Now" has been roughed up continually over the years, turning itself inside out to appease its Toronto bosses, and has ultimately been forced in recent years to adhere to a generic, cookie-cutter format, dominated by short news stories and weather hits, one that all supper-hour shows have been obliged to adopt.

"Here and Now" does its thing relatively well, but it's impossible to make the argument that it is unique, that it provides a service not already available to Newfoundlanders. A valuable and hard-hitting show like "On Point" helps the local cause for survival, as does "Land and Sea" (anyone who's taken the opportunity to view the deluge of "Land and Sea" programs aired during the Stanley Cup playoffs would be aware of just how classy the program remains, the quintessential example of the corporation mandate to reflect Canadians to Canadians, or, in this case, Newfoundlanders to Newfoundlanders).

But it's just such an uphill battle for local broadcasting. Radio still delivers what no other station in the province delivers, thus fulfilling another corporation obligation to provide alternative programming; plus, it's much cheaper than television and operates with fewer staff than it used to.

Part of my soul still resides in the St. John's CBC station, so I hope I'm absolutely, positively wrong about its future.

I fear, though, for the television side of things, especially if Stephen Harper and his gang are permitted to govern for an extended period of time and continue, as they will, to cut the CBC to pieces.

Bob Wakeham has spent more than 30 years as a journalist in Newfoundland and Labrador. He can be reached by email at bwakeham@nl.rogers.com.

Organizations: CBC, Corner Brook hotel, Newfoundland Railway On Point

Geographic location: Newfoundland and Labrador, Corner Brook, Toronto St. John's

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Recent comments

  • BBI
    May 03, 2012 - 14:56

    Here & Now "Early Edition" affords me the opportunity to hear & see the news first hand without resorting to the bumbling dialogue of Glen Carter on NTV. Gawd!, even Wolfe Blitzer would cringe at the punctuation, and I'm sure Glen's English Teacher went into a coma long ago. As for Radio. How many times in a morning do I need to hear "I'm Anthony Germain"? I quit last summer after hearing the same melody from Robyn Brown, on loan from Toronto or somewhere upalong.

  • Chris
    April 28, 2012 - 16:56

    Carl, I could not disagree more. 'Making money' is what has driven mainstream (and especially mainstream American) news into the gutter of scandal and disinformation. The goal of gaining viewers, selling adspace and 'making money' is fine and good for entertainment programing, but our country has been (and must continue to be) served very well by an unbiased, publicly-funded news service whose primary interest is in keeping the public informed. CBC, for all of it's faults, has done a wonderful job of informing and unifying this massive and culturally diverse country over the years. I shudder to think of what Canada might become without them.

    • Carl
      April 30, 2012 - 12:28

      I don't see why you think a publicly-funded broadcaster is necessarily any less biased than a private-sector broadcaster. The very fact that it relies on state funding actually makes it less independent, and puts it in a conflict of interest that other news broadcasters do not have. I do not think CTV, Global and all the other Canadian purveyors of news (as well as entertainment) are in "the gutter of scandal and misinformation" as you suggest.

  • Carl
    April 28, 2012 - 11:34

    I don't want to kill the CBC. I just don't think I should have to pay for it. It should be able to make money just like all other broadcasting companies. And if it can't, then I guess that means Canadians don't want to watch or listen to its programming anyway. There is no reason for anyone to be forced to pay for a broadcaster whose products and services they do not want.

    • a taxpayer
      April 28, 2012 - 17:12

      I could not have said it better myself. I too do not want to pay for it. Period. So if the CBC can only survive with taxpayer money, then upon the CBC I certainly wish death.