New Heritage Minister to Tackle CBC

There are two ways Peter Mansbridge could still appear in his usual 10 p.m. time slot on Tuesday evenings this summer.

New Heritage Minister to Tackle CBC

There are two ways Peter Mansbridge could still appear in his usual 10 p.m. time slot on Tuesday evenings this summer. The CBC programmers who decided to bump The National newscast by an hour to make room for The One: The Making of a Music Star might change their minds in the face of the firestorm of criticism the move sparked. Or Mansbridge could get some singing lessons from his pal Gord Downie, of the Tragically Hip, and audition for the imported U.S. talent show.

That the CBC brass would expose their flagship newscast and its iconic anchor to that sort of easy joke - all for the sake of trying to grab reality TV ratings - set off howls of protest last week from those who regard the public broadcaster as a sacred trust. Strangely absent from the uproar, though, was the voice of the federal politician responsible for the CBC, Heritage Minister Bev Oda, who jumped into politics as a Conservative in 2004 after a three-decade career mainly in private BROADCASTING.

Oda's reluctance to get embroiled in the summer scheduling furor is in line with her cautious approach so far when it comes to the CBC. Many had expected her to announce a sweeping rethink of CBC's mandate at the recent Banff World Television Festival. But she put off that review, instead ordering a six-month CANADIAN RADIO-TELEVISION AND TELECOMMUNICATIONS COMMISSION study into how new technology is changing broadcasting. Inside the CBC, the delay was greeted with sighs of relief, and Oda, despite her private-sector broadcasting background, began to be viewed by some CBC insiders as a benign figure - even a buffer against those Tories who are instinctively hostile toward Canada's biggest state-owned cultural institution.

But in an interview with Maclean's, Oda left little doubt that she suspects the CBC's English TV service may have lost touch with what Canadians want it to be. Although she declined to comment specifically on Mansbridge's news taking a back seat to reality TV schlock, Oda did express skepticism about the CBC trying to follow the lead of profit-seeking networks. "If the CBC is going to provide service that's very similar to the commercial broadcasters, if they are providing programs that are very similar, people are going to ask the question, 'Why the use of public funds to deliver those services and programs?' " she said. "It's a natural and very valid question to ask."

And a question that has rarely seemed more pressing. CBC's English TV service is in the hands of a new triumvirate determined to fill its prime-time schedule with homegrown commercial hits. At the helm is Richard Stursberg, who took over two years ago as executive vice-president of CBC English TV, after heading Telefilm, the federal film financer. (The debate is almost all about English TV, and Oda echoed the widely held view that CBC's English radio and French services are basically healthy.) Stursberg set out to find Canadian drama and comedy shows that can hold their own against the U.S. imports that dominate the peak viewing hours over at CTV and Global. He recruited Fred Fuchs, formerly a producer in Francis Ford Coppola's movie company, as executive director of arts and entertainment, and Kirstine Layfield, a former executive at Toronto's Alliance Atlantis, as director of English-language programming.

Coming from outside the CBC, Stursberg, Fuchs and Layfield are unabashed about chasing bigger, younger audiences. They know they're not going to get them with ballet and documentaries. This fall, they are betting heavily on new drama, including a series called Rumours that revolves around a women's magazine, and Intelligence, a police-vs.-organized crime drama set in Vancouver. As well, they are banking on The Canadian One, a planned made-in-Canada spinoff of the U.S. show that's bumping Mansbridge for eight Tuesdays this summer. Stursberg makes the case that he needs popular shows to earn advertising dollars: only $275 million of the $580-million budget for CBC TV and Newsworld comes from the federal government.

Hour-long weekly dramas featuring cops and glamour, serialized TV contests that showcase spunky talent - it might just work. On the other hand, some or even all of the new shows might flop, or at least fall short of Stursberg's tough targets - including a goal of a million viewers per episode for drama, well above the numbers achieved by even highly regarded Canadian offerings in the recent past. (This is Wonderland, the courtroom drama that won three 2005 Gemini awards before it was cancelled last February, failed to attract more than 650,000 viewers.) Pamela Brand, executive director and CEO of the Directors Guild of Canada, says demanding massive commercial success sounds laudably ambitious, but may be unrealistic. In the U.S., she says, about 20 shows are developed to produce just three ratings winners. "It takes lots of misses before you get the hits," Brand notes. "Unfortunately, there just isn't that kind of production money in Canada."

Even if Stursberg's fresh offerings beat the odds, traditionalists will argue the CBC is shredding its soul as a public broadcaster in the ratings quest. Oda seems to be tuned in to that view of the CBC's true identity. "The public comment has been that they believe advertising has caused the CBC to make decisions that make it look more like a commercial broadcaster, make it look for large audiences," she said. "The debate is, if it's a public broadcaster, is that the service Canadians want? Is that the service Canadians demand?" She was careful to comment in terms of how she understands public perceptions of the CBC - not on her personal view, much less the government's policy.

Oda, 61, has a veteran insider's sensitivity to the tensions between public and private TV, and how closely anything she says will be studied by both camps. She began her broadcasting career at TV Ontario in 1973, and later worked for Citytv and Global. She served as a commissioner of the CRTC in the early 1990s, and later as a senior vice-president at CTV, where she was viewed as an expert on regulation. Despite her private network background, though, she is credited with having persuaded Stephen Harper not to take a hard line on the CBC in the last election campaign. Since then she has settled in as an understated figure in cabinet, considered a moderate, notable for being the first Japanese-Canadian MP.

Exactly when Oda will launch the expected CBC review, and how extensive it will be, isn't clear. Her first priority is that CRTC study into technological change in broadcasting, which she expects to have in hand by December. "In the interim, we will also be looking at how are we now going to consider the CBC," she said. Oda seems just as concerned about the economic health of private broadcasters, which she says are "struggling" under an outdated regulatory framework.

From CBC's perspective, though, private TV looks robust enough, encroaching steadily into what were once CBC's strong suits. Not only did CTV outbid CBC for the 2010 and 2012 Olympics, the long-time face of CBC Olympic coverage, sportscaster Brian Williams, recently jumped to CTV too. Speculation that CBC might lose NHL hockey abounds. Even more fundamental is the CBC's loss of pre-eminence in delivering nation-binding news. According to Nielsen Media Research, CTV drew an average of 1.5 million viewers for its coverage of the Jan. 23 election, while CBC attracted 1.2 million viewers.

Even high-quality Canadian drama and comedy have migrated, in part, up the dial to specialty channels, now the place to find shows like Slings and Arrows and Trailer Park Boys. From 1997 to 2003, viewing numbers for Canadian drama on CBC and the conventional private networks fell to 2.7 million hours from 7.2 million. But on specialty and pay channels, viewing of Canadian drama rose over the same period to 13.9 million from 7.5 million hours, according to ratings figures analyzed by the directors guild.

With Canadian storytelling, news reporting and sportscasting scattered across more stations, what's distinctive about the CBC is harder to isolate. Last week, a Senate committee urged it to wean itself off commercials, a radical change that would certainly separate it from the private pack. But how would CBC make up the $400 million in foregone revenues across all its services, largely from ads, that now supplements its billion dollars in federal funding?

Oda's review might eventually sort out what the CBC should be and how to pay for it. But her go-slow approach suggests that it might not be completed until after the next election, which some expect to come next spring. Until the review gets under way, critics of CBC's hit-seeking management can only rail on. They might pause to reflect, though, on how the British government recently instructed even the venerable BBC to make being entertaining and popular a core aim. Competition for viewers, after all, has never been stiffer. And the temptation to lure them with fun stuff - even if that means favouring the fake reality of a talent show over the real reality of newscast - has never been greater.

Maclean's July 1, 2006