Though I have not seen comparative reports, I suspect that the trust I am celebrating here comes as much, or more, from CBC radio (and Radio Canada) than its television equivalent. I regard CBC radio in the morning as an important part of my day and wish I could make more time for such great programs as Michael Enright's on Sunday mornings and Randy Bachman's on Saturday nights.
The smallness of our per capita support is registered most significantly during the 10 p.m. National News, which remains an important daily institution in our home. However, as many of you will have lamented, after about 15 minutes of straight, well-presented news the viewer is assaulted by a flurry of two-minute commercial drills. For me those commercials are intrusive and repetitive. Increasingly, I am inclined to turn away and turn off once they appear. While I like the bright and congenial four-person delivery of the news that has followed from Peter Mansbridge's retirement, the commercials are my signal to head for bed.
The CBC has been underfunded for years and has been losing financial ground under successive federal governments. But that said, the corporation remains top heavy with high-paid executives who siphon off money dearly needed to produce interesting and quality programming. I readily admit that entertainment programing has improved in recent years, while the news itself and news programs have maintained a level of excellence that is the envy of many other nations.
Now the CBC is facing two new challenges. The first is the popularity of corporations like Netflix, Facebook and Amazon Plus in the Canadian marketplace. Though Netflix has an enormous number of subscribers in Canada, it lobbies to be "unambiguously excluded" from having to obey the Broadcasting Act in Canada. As well, they want to pay no taxes here while maintaining complete control of their program development. They play a cute game in saying that they are producing plenty of Canadian programing, but they are doing so on their terms and to their own advantage unlike other broadcasters in Canada. As Daniel Bernhard has put it, "This is what we are up against. On the one hand, a pathological company with billions to spare, thumbing its nose at Canadian democracy. And on the other, a Canadian government that just sits there and lets them do it."
A front-page story in the Globe and Mail (Feb. 1) reported that CBC president Catherine Tait told the annual television industry conference in Ottawa that Netflix operates like the once-powerful British Raj in India. Her comparison of Netflix, as a global (and invasive) company, to an oppressive 19th-century imperialism did not sit well with some commentators. Ms. Tait's analogy was for many observers tone-deaf or ham-fisted, but it did serve to signal the CBC's sense of vulnerability in facing new challenges from such commercial giants from the south.
While lamenting Netflix's advantages here, the CBC is partnering with that company in financing shows like "Alias Grace" and "Kim's Convenience" which, through that alliance, have made a fresh impact upon American audiences. A complex web of laws underlies Netflix's ability to stream in Canada what it finds profitable while playing by its own rules and evading corporate taxes north of the border. Full disclosure requires that I admit to being a Netflix subscriber who enjoys the streaming options it offers.
Finally, there is the issue of the new generation — the millennials — and their relationship to the CBC. I had the chance recently to talk to several bright young Canadians who hope to attend university in the United States. I asked them if they found time in their busy schedules to watch or listen to the CBC. Their answers were not encouraging. Most of them use their cellphones to access news while one surprised me by saying his go-to television station is PBS. My own children who are leading busy lives in Toronto don't have much time for the CBC though they know of their parents' long-standing affection for the network.
What lies ahead? The CBC has recently been designing its programing with the hope of attracting young Canadians to its offerings. That strategy may bear some fruit in the long run, but my anecdotal evidence is not very encouraging. That said, we need to find new ways to assure the CBC's active presence in showcasing Canadian perspectives and culture, and in speaking directly and effectively to the diverse regional parts of our large country.
Michael Peterman is a professor emeritus of English literature at Trent University.
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