Cbc Past, Present & Future Essay, Research Paper
In the words of Prime Minister R.W. Bennett Canadian Broadcasting could be “a great agency for the communication of matters of national concern and the diffusion of national thought and ideas.” Does the CBC fulfil the mandate originally set forward by the Aird Commission? Does the CBC’s current mandate reflect its original purpose? How has the CBC coped with the changes brought about by technology? Theses are questions that must be answered if the CBC is to preserve Canada’s unique cultural environment from the ever growing threat of Americanization. It must make an honest and focused effort to meet the needs of all Canadians. The CBC has been a significant cultural force in Canada since the inception of the CBRC in the 1930’s and continues to foster national unity today in the form of the CBC. If the CBC is going to continue to provide a Canadian voice, it must undergo serious change to meet the new challenges that technology has presented. Faced with satellite television that offers hundreds of chancels and the popularity of the Internet, Canadians have never had more foreign influences present in the media. This cultural imperialism is a clear threat to Canadian culture, a threat that must be taken seriously by all Canadians. We watch American television and films, we read American books and magazines far more often than we watch or read Canadian media. The effect of this cannot be taken lightly. We are in danger of cultural assimilation, now more than ever.
The CBC was created, in part, to counter the influx of American media in Canada. Ironically there is a significant presence of American programming on CBC television. This is counter productive and hypocritical. This paper will examine the forces which led to the creation of the CBC, its mandate, both historically and contemporarily and finally, make suggestions for the future.
The Aird Commission
In 1928 the Canadian broadcasting scene was a scattering of private broadcasters mostly in and around the urban centers. The small broadcasters were either owned by large corporations or depended on advertising revenues for their survival. There were two factors that led to the need for change in the government policy toward broadcasting. First was the demand for licences by religious organizations and second, the lack of wavelength availability to accommodate the demand for licenses.
The practice of broadcasting Sunday services was becoming increasingly popular in urban areas and several religious organizations had obtained licenses. The problem was that the government could hardly grant licenses to one religion and deny the application of another. With the limited wavelength ability they could not all be granted licenses. The non-renewal of five licenses in 1928 changed the licensing from a technical problem to a political issue.
The problem of wavelength availability was caused by the ineducable distribution of wavelengths between Canada and the U.S. The demand for licences in the Toronto area was steadily increasing and so too was the controversy over whose applications were granted and whose were denied.
The increasing controversy led to the formation of what would be known as the Aird Commission. Its purpose was to enquire into the broadcasting situation in Canada and advise to its future administration, management and control. The goal was to set up a regulatory system that put more emphasis on public service. The commission was also fueled by concern over the vulnerability of the Canadian market to the flood of American popular culture that was pouring over the boarder.
The fate of the Canadian film industry was still fresh in the minds of concerned Canadians and they wanted to protect radio from the same fate. The momentum was gathering for change, and most agreed that there were three choices; establish one or more group(s) of stations operated by private owners but subsidized by the government, establish a government owned and controlled group of stations, or establish a series of provincially owned and operated stations. After touring Europe, the U.S. and Canada the commission could say one thing for certain, the state of broadcasting in Canada was deplorable. Reform was needed. Most broadcasters favored private ownership with government subsidies to augment the coverage area. The private owners claimed that government ownership would make the broadcaster a political tool for the government but they were in favor of government regulation to ensure the quality in broadcasting.
However the private broadcasters felt the commission was moving steadily toward the opinion that Canada needed a national broadcasting system, organized for public service rather than profit. The commission also felt that Canadians were not particularly interested in listening to advertising but wanted more educational material. There was an obvious threat of American domination in a private market and the quality of programming would surely decline in a profit driven market.
The commission concluded that private broadcasters could not cope with the revenue shortages of a small, widely disbursed market. The need to counter the inundation of Canadian youth with American ideas and opinions would be best served by a publicly owned broadcaster. It made recommendations for the establishment of a number of high-powered stations to be supplemented by several smaller stations. The commission also recommended a financing plan that included revenues from indirect advertizing. The reason being that Canadian business needed a voice to counter the advertizing so prevalent on the American stations.
In addition to technical specifications the commission also outlined a programming structure. The commission made recommendations for educational programs for both adults and children as well as supervised religious and political broadcasts. They also recommended that there be a continued effort to obtain an equitable allocation of wavelengths from the U.S. The commission also provided for access to quality programming from abroad to be broadcast.
The impact of the Aird Commission on broadcasting in Canada cannot be overstated, it radically changed the direction broadcasting in Canada would evolve. While the commission accomplished a great deal, it also left huge gaps in policy which would prove to create problems for generations to come. Most notably among the shortcomings is the ambiguity of the programming recommendations. The commission failed to outline specific programming guidelines for a new national broadcaster. This allowed for the creation of a new public corporation with little or no direction. Two of the prime motivations of the Aird Commission were the fostering of national unity and the protection of young Canadian minds form foreign influence. How could this be accomplished without laying down a specific mandate? The task left to those charged with the implementation of the recommendations of the Aird Commission was daunting at best. The lack of focus in the initial setup of the CBC continues to haunt Canadian Broadcasting to this day.
The second major problem created by the Aird Commission was the allowing of quality programming from other nations to be broadcast by the CBC. The very institution created to protect Canadian culture broadcasting foreign programming is hypocritical to the extreme. While the commission qualified this contingency by specifying that only “quality” programming be broadcast. What are the criteria for quality programming? This is another question that combines to plague the CBC.
The CBC Today
The CBC has been a large part of Canadian culture for more than sixty years and its value can scarcely be overstated. It has linked listeners across Canada, bringing them information from across the country and around the globe. For more than six decades Canadians have been listening and more recently watching the same documentaries, social and political commentary and uniquely Canadian entertainment. It has certainly provided a buffer against foreign influence on our culture, but is it still up for the challenge? Has the CBC managed to keep up with the rising tide of American cultural imperialism? These are important questions in considering the success of the CBC in fulfilling its purpose.
A visit to the CBC’s website will quickly reveal what the CBC considers to be its role; tell Canadians’ stories reflecting the reality and the diversity of our country, informs Canadians about news and issues of relevance and interest, supports Canadian arts and culture, and
build bridges among Canadians, between regions and two linguistic communities. This somewhat limited summary of their mandate does provide us with a working definition of the role of the CBC. What the statement doesn’t explicitly mention is that the purpose of the above activities is to strengthen and protect our cultural identity. Never in the history of the CBC has this role been more challenging or important. The changing environments in the broadcast industry have provided new problems for the CBC. Starting with the introduction of television and subsequent cable and satellite providers and most recently the Internet, the corporation has been under a technological assault of sorts. If the CBC is going to remain a cornerstone of Canadian culture change is needed.
Since its inception the CBC has gone through vast changes, most notably the creation of CBC television and subsequent speciality channels. The financing of the CBC was originally supposed to through public funds but the high cost of television forced the corporation to turn to direct advertising. In the 70’s, at the suggestion of the CRTC, CBC Radio went commercial free, however television is largely dependant on commercial revenue. The CBC received $759.5 million from the Canadian government for operating costs for the 1998-99 fiscal year.
Radio & Television
Television arrived in Canada in 1952 (Weir, 65, 259) and quickly grew in popularity just as it was doing south of the boarder. The Massey commission had concluded that the CBC be the only station in Canada, at least until a national system was established. Although Canada had learned much from letting the Americans pioneer television, there were still many problems along the way to providing adequate national service.
CBC Television is the target of an unending stream of controversy, some feel that it tries to mimic American television, that it is too commercial and it is too expensive to run. Canadian content has been an extremely hot topic in the debate surrounding CBC tv. Canadian Content is defined by the use of Canadian actors, settings, producers, writers, and subjects (Young, 95, 47). The CRTC has implemented a policy whereby the CBC must maintain 60% Canadian Content in it’s programming to justify their presence on Canadian airwaves. The goal of the CBC is to achieve 80% Canadian Content, this is made difficult by the fact that it is cheaper to buy the rights to American shows than to produce shows in Canada. This has prompted the CBC to purchase many high rated American programs to fill time slots. These shows cost less and are often very popular, thereby generating commercial revenue. Justification for this practice is quite simple, the revenue from the American shows can be used to produce high quality Canadian programs all at less cost to the public. Less financial cost perhaps, but there is certainly a price to be paid. Young states “The Canadian government has established cultural defenses and promotions through the CRTC regulations. These are a defense against cultural penetration.” The broadcaster was set up to protect Canadians from the rising tide of Americanization, how can it justify airing American shows, especially the popular ones?
There is one glaringly obvious success in the CBC and that is radio. Since it has gone commercial-free, CBC Radio has been a resounding success. The lesson here is that radio stopped trying to compete with the commercial industry and by doing so gained a greater market share. To understand why one must only switch between the CBC and a commercial station a few times. The difference is obvious, commercial stations are fraught with fast talking announcers, loud, annoying commercials and the same music, over and over again. CBC radio has a calm, laid-back attitude. The shows are interesting and informative and best of all not sensational.
Why is CBC Radio so different from CBC Television? CBC TV is still competing in the commercial market. They are failing to provide the service that is their mandate because they are trying to do two things at once. On one hand they have an obligation to the Canadian public to provide a valuable service, and on the other hand they are in a ratings war with other networks. The duality of the network is having a severely crippling effect.
Wayne Skene’s book Fade to Black addresses some of these concerns. Skene feels that the CBC cannot be treated as other crown corporations are treated. It’s success or failure cannot be reflected in an annual budget statement. He questions the ability of those entrusted with what he refers to as our most important cultural entity. His concerns are well founded. The CBC has been subjected to ever increasing budget restraints, leaving them without the needed resources to accomplish the important task before them. It is a no wonder that most literature available on the CBC has been written by disillusioned former employees like Skene.
In order for the CBC to continue to fulfil its role as a bastion of Canadiana in an ever growing sea of Americana it must address several key issues. Firstly, is it a public corporation or a private enterprise? This identity crisis is the cause of major problems for the CBC. The decision must be made to either prioritize competitiveness in the private market or public service. Clearly both cannot be accomplished at the same time and trying to serve both masters is surely suicide for the CBC. Secondly, CBC TV must use the success of CBC Radio as a blueprint for its future strategy. To compete with private networks is counter productive to the mandate set before the corporation. Now, even more than in the 1930’s Canada needs a strong, focused cultural voice to guide it into the new millennium, if the CBC is to be this force it must embrace the obvious success of CBC Radio and use this recipe to revamp CBC TV. In closing, for all the criticism of the CBC, few Canadians can deny its achievements in providing a voice and forum for all things Canadian.
Skene, Wayne, Fade to Black, Toronto, Douglas & McIntyre, 1993
Vipond, Mary, Listening In, Montreal & Kingston, McGill-Queen’s Press, 1992
Weir, E. Austin, The Struggle for National Broadcasting in Canada, McClelland & Stewart, Toronto & Montreal, 1965
Young, Sarah, The CBC and Canadian Culture, Thesis Mt. A, 1995