ONE INSIDE OBSERVER quoted in Wayne Skene's cri de coeur about the destruction of Canadian public broadcasting complains that Canadians all have two jobs -there's the regular one and then there's running the CBC.
The CBC should be so lucky.
The truth is, as Skene's plethora of statistics amply shows, most Canadians don't give a damn about the CBC. The real problem is that the English-language television network hasn't earned the loyalty and affection of enough viewers. Fewer and fewer taxpayers watch it. Outside the corporation and a small public-interest advocacy group, the silence in response to the Tories' budget cuts has been deafening. Who can get excited about defending a public television network that looks so much like its private competitors? And who can be persuaded that a corporation that still operates on a billion-dollar annual budget is truly strapped for cash?
Skene, who worked for the corporation for many years, paints a dismal picture of an over-managed, over-centralized organization better at producing plans and studies than programs. Every disparaging cliche you've ever heard about the CBC can he found in the pages of Fade to Black. In a nutshell, the CBC is a fat, gutless monster suffering from bureaucratic inertia and an atrophied imagination.
But what's striking isn't so much the message as the voices delivering it. The author is clearly a fiercely partisan advocate of public broadcasting, as are the CBC insiders many of them unnamed - whom he quotes. Because all these witnesses are or were in love with the idea of an effective national public broadcaster, their testimony has the force and gravitas that the CBC's cranky and shrill rightwing critics do not. Despite Skene's own occasionally wobbly logic and frequently tired metaphors, I liked his book for its street-smart observations, its good grasp of detail, and its gritty honesty.
The author's main concern is that the CBC' English television network has destroyed its richest possibilities by centralizing all decision-making in Toronto. Canada is a regional country, he argues, and our national public broadcaster should be rooted in the regions. As it is, Toronto programming apes New York's and L.A.'s, and so CBC-TV lacks any distinctiveness.
That makes sense, as far as it goes. But as part of his case against centralization Skene laments the axing of local supper-hour news shows in many cities across the country. As a result, he reports triumphantly, the CBC has lost a huge audience share. But hey, wait a minute, isn't chasing audience share what got the corp into trouble in the first place? You can't have it both ways. Either public broadcasting should be devoted to quality programming, or its raison d'etre is the seduction of the maximum number of eyeballs, in the manner of NBC and CBS.
Skene is much more compelling when he lambastes the CBC for failing to produce the national shows that $1 billion a year ought to have been able to buy. Think of it: over the past 2 5 years, American TV has produced dozens of dramatic series that, however we might judge them, have captured the popular imagination. The CBC has produced none. (The network's one great drama series of recent years, "Anne of Green Gables," was not a CBC production.)
It's an old Canadian problem. We're telecommunications geniuses, brilliant at setting up systems of hardware, from telephones to cable networks. But, with the notable exceptions of CBC radio and television news, we seem to be lost for words on the airwaves. Why couldn't the CBC have tapped all those talented writers and performers Canadians always knew we had? It's a question that may never be answered. Skene believes narrowcasting and the 200-channel universe have rendered the old dream of public broadcasting obsolete, RIP.