Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Why do public broadcasters need to be popular?

The new regime at the CBC seems to believe that they have been given the power to remake the TV and now, it appears, the radio networks into popular platforms. But that goes against the very concept of public broadcasting.

People will pay for what's popular--that's why private, for-profit, broadcasters show those programs. And private for-profit radio plays those songs. But why would a public broadcaster care about being popular?

I guess their argument is that since it's the taxpayers' money that's paying their salary, they want as many taxpayers as possible to watch. Actually, I agree with that. As many people who've paid for something should want to use it. But they're going to resent paying for something they can get for free by watching private broadcasters.

The CBC should only have a mandate to be excellent. But instead of putting the best possible news, sports coverage, drama and variety programs on TV, the regime just seems to be jealous of how popular and pretty the private sector appears to be and aspires to the same. But that's not what I'm paying for.

When I was in university I spent a lot of my time at the university radio station. We were alternative before there was such a genre. Without a local CBC radio station, we were also the only station that played classical music in Saskatoon in the late 70's. Once I asked one of the senior programmers what would happen if we started to play stuff that actually became popular. He replied that we'd have to stop playing it. Now there was a guy who understood that station's mandate! (He later went on to become a rabbi in Israel, which doesn't surprise me.)

I want people with a vision in charge of our public institutions. Instead, the Harper government seems to feel that people who couldn't make in the private sector would be perfect at running the public sector.

Apparently the CBC now wants to be in the popularity business. But I don't think the taxpayers of this country want public institutions that are popular. They want institutions they can be PROUD of. The CBC should get out of the popularity business and get into the excellence business.

So, they cancel the apparently low-rated, but critically-acclaimed excellent drama they had on the schedule--Intelligence--and trumpet the potential ratings bonanza of lots of shows waiting in the wings that no one but focus groups have seen.

Man, if Shakespeare had to deal with focus groups, Hamlet would have had a happy ending.

Even Hollywood in its heyday didn't rely on focus groups. They great Hollywood studio heads--Thalberg, Mayer, Selznick--they had vision and lived or died on their decisions. My problem with all the regimes that have manhandled the CBC into submission over my lifetime is that no one ever paid a price for a bad decision. They kept their cushy, government jobs regardless of whether their decisions--which have had a direct impact on my ability to earn a living from screenwriting or acting--ultimately worked out.

Get out of the popularity business, CBC, and get into the excellence business. If you're excellent, you don't have to apologize for being unpopular. But if you're merely popular, you have sold the concept of public broadcasting--and the people who pay for the institution short.

It's a tougher row to hoe, admittedly. And I don't know if the people in charge of CBC have the guts--so far they have shown they don't--to not be popular. But what's better than popularity? Even the stupidest teen slasher movie gets this one right. Respect.

Instead of being popular, I wish they'd crave respect. Maybe it's lonelier, but the class of friend is better.

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