Public broadcasting gets a bad rap in Canada. Shows produced by the CBC (the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, for the non-Canadians) are often written off a boring dreck by the general viewing public. The CBC is generally acknowledged to do news, hockey, and some very specific stripes of comedy (ie, Rick Mercer) very well, but beyond that, in my opinion, it doesn’t have a lot of pan-Canada cultural clout.
Part of this is simply because that in the early days of radio and television, the CBC was the only national network, whereas now there are considerable numbers of competing networks and stations crowding the airwaves. Part of it is that the CBC operates on a comparatively shoestring budget and can’t put on the razzle-dazzle that for-profit media conglomerates can afford. That razzle-dazzle is what draws in eyes in a visually saturated cultural environment, so the CBC has become sort of the staid uncle of the airwaves: not exceedingly cool, but reliable, relatable, and while maybe you wouldn’t admit it to your friends, someone you like hanging out with.
In a country (and continent, because last time I lived in a house with a TV, half the channels were from the US) where the mainstream media is both controlled by a few companies and wields a staggering amount of cultural clout, it’s easy to declare that the CBC is irrelevant, and that money put into it is money wasted. While it’s easy to shake fists at Harper (it’s becoming a reflex, I do it so much!), it’s not like they’re the first Canadian government to cut severely the CBC’s funding. I’m not even sure they’re the first to muse about selling it off, but I’m reasonably certain that they’re the first who may actually do it.
And that would be an outrage and a travesty. The CBC is one of the very, very few cultural institutions that reaches all corners of this nation–including the remote north, which often gets left out when we talk about national culture. I can’t think of any other cultural institutions that are both so accessible and tax-payer funded (i.e. not beholden to commercial demands as a private network would be). The CBC isn’t just news and hockey and Rick Mercer–it’s a chronicler of Canadian culture (which is not axiomatically the same as USian culture, and shouldn’t be treated as such) on national, provincial and territorial, and local levels. It serves a much greater purpose than for-profit media because it can (and does!) invest in documenting and presenting stories that are not necessarily eye-catching, glitz-, glam-, and celebrity-filled, but are nonetheless very important to a deeper sense of Canadian culture. Take, for example, the upcoming series 8th Fire. It’s a series about the relationship between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Canadians, and how to proceed from a history of colonialism filled with atrocities. Would a for-profit media put money into an endeavour like that? Probably not, because it’s not something that would sell a lot of ads (and thus make a lot of money); it’s not exactly light, entertaining fare. Is it culturally important? I’ve not seen it, but I’d wager that yes, it is; we as a culture really need to talk more and openly about Aboriginal issues, and programs like 8th Fire have a role to play in that conversation.
Television and radio (which is something that the CBC, in my mind, excels at) are now Western culture’s form of storytelling. The stories they tell are the stories that form the lenses through which we see our broader culture and help to inform how we place ourselves within that broader culture. But stories are malleable and leaving the decision about which stories get told and in what way to media conglomerates, who see stories not as elements in a cultural narrative but merely vehicles to astonishing profits, does a grave disservice to ourselves. Without the CBC, who will tell the stories that actually exist, rather than the fairy tales a handful of people think will sell?
If you support public broadcasting in Canada, you may be interested in Friends of the CBC.