Public Broadcasting Has Cultural Significance Beyond Hockey

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.

By Millie

Millie is a perpetual grad student, an internationally recognized curmudgeon, and an occasional hugger of trees. She also makes a mean batch of couscous.

6 replies on “Public Broadcasting Has Cultural Significance Beyond Hockey”

I love this post! My dissertation is on the CBC. (It’s weird, 12 yr old me thought the CBC was cool and wanted to live in the 1940s and now I research representation of the Canadian nation, environment, and First Peoples in early CBC (1940s) radio plays and their music).  Anyways, I think one of the things that makes Canada an excellent place to live is the government promotion of artistic life, through organizations like the CBC,  SOCAN (society for Canadian composers) and the CRTC.  They really protect and promote Canadian art, and make sure that it is seen and heard… and while it may be a tad paternalistic I think it has been really excellent for Canadian artistic life. Music is what I know, and I don’t think we would ever hear Canadian artists, composers, and musicians if it weren’t for the strict Can-Con regulations which John Weinzweig- the composer whose music I research- fought for in the 1940s-60s.

ALSO- I am so glad that you touched on the documentary aspect of the CBC. I think one of its greatest strengths is the quality of documentary material about different animals, people, and places in Canada. To have programming like the Hinterland Who’s Who  available which showcase the nation to people who haven’t necessarily visited all of it is a really marvelous thing.

I disliked the CBC when I was growing up, but I’ve grown to really appreciate it as I’ve become older and started studying Canadian media – mostly film – at university. I no longer have cable, but I try to support it by accessing some shows on and watching it when I visit my parents. I really wish people would realize that the CBC is more than just hockey, and if you can wade through some of the crap they air (like Republic of Doyle, a show I’ve tried to watch and disliked immensely) there are some real treasures.

I think that for whatever reason (possibly that it’s publicly funded?)  people are a lot less willing to wade through the schlock on the CBC than they are on network TV.  The fact that some of the shows they make are bad is held up as why the whole entity is not worth funding; I don’t see anyone arguing that a for-profit channel should just call it a day on the basis of some bad shows amid some really good ones.

Yes! It’s so important to have the CBC and Radio-Canada! And the CBC has produced some great programming in a number of different areas – Mr. Dressup was my favourite children’s show growing up. CBC radio has some really interesting programs that address Canadian culture in a way that no other venue does because it’s not profitable. And the regional news coverage is essential in a country with such an uneven distribution of population & wealth.

Most of my friends are writers & artists, so I am surrounded by people firmly in favour of the CBC. But I’m lucky that way ;)

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