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Our Public Nodcaster Illustration by Aubrey Nehring.

Our Public Nodcaster

How can we fix the CBC? Tim Forster writes the script.

Somewhere in the midst of season seven of the show Dragons’ Den, there’s a moment that redefines the concept of vapid. The show invites wannabe entrepreneurs to pitch to investors, and partway through one episode, two Vancouver women begin touting their “artisanal ice” concept to the panel of judges. They want to “refresh an industry [they] feel hasn’t changed in a long time.” As the segment stretches into minute five, the judges get into a fuller debate over whether the ice world needs a new player. And what’s in the corner of the screen? That iconic red starburst logo—it’s painful, and you paid for it.

The CBC has a problem: it’s bad. Take a look at the public broadcaster’s cultural output—that is, everything other than news and current affairs—and you’ll find a bland Canadiana so safe it’s often unwatchable. Even worse, the CBC is alone among western public broadcasters in being  boring and unpopular; the BBC and Australia’s ABC prove that things could be different.

The CBC’s mandate, which is short and vague (it reads, in part, “be predominantly and distinctively Canadian”), is not what holds it back. Nothing in it requires the production of the twelfth season of Dragons’ Den or the airing of rock band Sloan’s Christmas tracks.

In March 2016, the Trudeau government’s first budget promised a $675 million injection into the broadcaster over five years. It’s hard to know, though, whether to be optimistic or depressed by that new cash. On one hand, it’s a rare chance for the CBC to fix what ails it. On the other, does the CBC even realize how desperately it’s in need of an overhaul?

CBC’s music programming is a telling example of everything wrong with our national broadcaster. Music is split between two main outlets, Radio 2 and Radio 3 (as of last month, Radio 2 has been officially rebranded “CBC Music”). While Radio 2 is more of a mainstream music network, Radio 3 is supposed to have a youth-oriented feel. Another major difference pops out if you listen for long enough: Radio 2 is practically incoherent. Formerly a classical station, CBC rebranded it as part adult-alternative in 2008, meaning it plays some classical and some soft rock. A recent morning show playlist ranged from Fleetwood Mac and k.d. lang to Adele and Mumford and Sons, an unhinged mix that’s the norm throughout much of the day.

One former Radio 2 host, Ian Alexander, suggested in the Toronto Star in 2014 that the programming change had been a deliberate attempt by the CBC to “dismantle” the station. Another Toronto Star writer, Brent Ledger, had earlier called it “unimpeachably dull.” Perhaps the only Radio 2 offering with a consistent aesthetic was Laurie Brown’s late-night show The Signal, which managed to remain unified as it reached across genres from singer-songwriters to spacey electronica to more avant-garde sounds. Too bad she left in 2017.

Meanwhile, Radio 3, while coherent, is the aural equivalent of a plaid shirt: men’s, purchased at a Walmart in rural Nova Scotia. Its programming strategy often seems like little more than a producer scouring Bandcamp’s “Canadiana” tag; the dominant sound is guitar-focused rock, often folky, skewing white, straight and male. There’s a reason men-strumming-guitars groups like Yukon Blonde, The Rural Alberta Advantage and Said the Whale, all Radio 3 favourites, haven’t made it big internationally. They’re six-out-of-ten pleasant at best.

When I surveyed three weeks of Radio 3’s Top 30 charts, just one hip-hop track (“Mutations” by Grand Analog) appeared, and it was no higher than the twenty-sixth most-played song. A majority of the songs came from established musicians, rather than new artists, with Arcade Fire, Gord Downie and Wolf Parade among the most prominent. While some airtime went to innovative artists like Cold Specks (soul meets electronic) and Iskwé (electro-R&B), guitar-driven rock dominated.

Oddly, Radio 3 isn’t officially classed as a rock station. A CBC representative reached via email asserted that its goal is “to reach all listeners who have an interest in Canadian music—and specifically in discovering exciting new artists.” The broadcaster’s unawareness of its own preferences perhaps explains another repetitive note: Radio 3’s Top 30 charts are blindingly pale, featuring only a very light sprinkling of non-white artists. This is another area where closer attention to CBC’s broader mandate could help—it’s supposed to “reflect the multicultural and multiracial nature of Canada.”

These indie-lite inclinations recently became one focus of a Canadian music-world brouhaha that illustrates Radio 3’s problem. A dispute broke out between a senior CBC Music staffer, Grant Lawrence, and Johnnie Regalado, then a community-level radio station manager and writer, when both were on a jury for the Polaris Music Prize in 2015. Writing later in Canadaland, Regalado published internal discussions from the jury, slamming “a mob mentality around the indie rock music preference” and “a hostile, boys’ club atmosphere.”

Looking overseas, other public broadcasters don’t tend to make the same mistakes. In Australia, ABC has its own youth-oriented music station, Triple J, which has established itself as a tastemaker. It even has a digital station, called Unearthed, dedicated to finding unestablished artists. (It does not, thankfully, have a morbid fear of hip-hop.) The well-funded BBC splits its efforts between multiple music stations, including Top 40 and an indie station that garners 2 million weekly listeners.

Radio 3, in contrast, serves up just 100,000 songs per week, and while Radio 2’s draw of 2.1 million weekly listeners isn’t bad for Canada, the station, and CBC’s broader music department, lacks the cultural clout and tastemaker status that Triple J and BBC Radio enjoy. That’s disappointing in a country that regularly produces brilliant musicians, including those outside mainstream pop. It’s no coincidence that Canadian artists often say it’s easier to get discovered abroad than at home.

Over at CBC Television, the network’s original series (news and current affairs excluded) also churn out twee Canadiana. Out of eight current CBC TV drama productions, four are period pieces set between 1840 and 1930—Frankie Drake Mysteries, Alias Grace, Anne and Murdoch Mysteries—and three of those are crime dramas. To me, the worst offender is Anne, CBC’s redundant Anne of Green Gables remake (at least ten TV movies or series have already been based on the book), built on fetishized sentimentality. Meanwhile, the show Heartland, which retreads tired old tropes about freedom in the great North American west, is currently in its eleventh season—roughly the same vintage as Dragons’ Den and Murdoch Mysteries.

In the absence of original ideas, CBC Television leans, ironically, on imported ones, especially in its reality-show mainstays. Dragons’ Den varies minimally from other iterations produced  by the same franchise in other countries. The show’s theme song isn’t even Canadian; it’s Oasis. The Great Canadian Baking Show, CBC’s version of The Great British Bake-Off, is a by-the-numbers cash-in that relies on buzz from a better-produced idea, offering little that’s distinctly Canadian, unlike the oh-so-British feel of the original.

Instead, it’s often been private broadcasters coming to the rescue of Canadian culture with series such as the Space Channel’s Orphan Black and CTV’s Cardinal, the latter of which the Toronto’s Star’s TV critic, Tony Wong, compares favourably to acclaimed American crime series The Killing. “It’s moody, it’s atmospheric, it’s got great casting,” he says. Wong describes Global’s series Mary Kills People, which is about euthanasia, as “the loopiest show ever” and “quirky, trippy, and dark.” Both shows are contemporary and intrinsically Canadian—Cardinal in its North Bay setting, and, given Canada’s recently passed assisted-death legislation, Mary Kills People in its theme.

It’s not that CBC TV isn’t trying, in its own way. Among more contemporary offerings, soccer drama 21 Thunder is passable, but other attempts aren’t, like comedy series Kim’s Convenience. Based on a theatre production, it depicts the misadventures of a Korean man running a convenience store in Toronto and confused by westerners, such as LGBTQ people. It’s a ham-fisted fish-out-of-water story and it’s barely funny, much like the network’s other comedies.

One promising exception is The Baroness von Sketch Show. And Wong praises the “bizarre” 2014–2015 show Strange Empire, a period piece set on the Alberta-Montana frontier—unfortunately, it only survived one season.

We can all hope the Ceeb, like others in the TV world, is taking a definitive step towards gambling on edgier concepts guided by an authoritative voice, rather than something written and produced by committee. “To a certain extent, Canada has never had the cult of the showrunner, [where] the writers are bigger than the actual actors,” Wong says. “That’s a leap of faith that Canadian writers have not been allowed in the past.”

A knack for taking risks and fostering talent is one thing that turned Australia’s ABC into a proven hub for local entertainment, especially in certain genres, says Queensland University of Technology media professor Stuart Cunningham.

ABC pulled this off partly by devising a sort of beta platform. Its online streaming service iView, which predated Netflix in Australia, includes original series never aired on TV, meaning it doesn’t have to gamble on sending a new writer or comedian straight to primetime television. Cooking show parody The Katering Show is a prime example: two young comedians, Kate McCartney and Kate McLennan, were given a mini-series on the streaming service; within a couple of successful years, they’d been granted a full half-hour comedy show in primetime.

IView shares some parallels with the network’s Unearthed radio service. “It gives newcomers a chance to shine and to see if they go well,” says Cunningham. The streaming service’s audience has consistently grown: by mid-2016, it was racking up 48 million “program plays” per month, which is  approximately equal to every Australian watching a TV show or movie on iView at least twice per month. And, not unrelated, none of ABC’s current drama or comedy shows has gone beyond four seasons on air.

To Cunningham, re-licensing overseas hits and following commercial crazes like reality TV is not a public broadcaster’s job. But that doesn’t mean reality shows are off-limits: instead, he points to original concoctions by Australia’s two public broadcasters, ABC and the smaller, multiculturally oriented SBS. “They’ve typically had a twist on them,” he says. “Rather than a reality program about weight loss or partnering up, there’s a reality program about how you would survive in the colonial era, so it’s sort of like a costume drama.”

To be fair, the BBC has produced some heavily commercial reality shows, including The Apprentice and The Voice. But it also has several TV channels and a hefty budget for production. That means for each frivolous dating show, there’s another show set in a painstakingly recreated Victorian slum, or something else informative, entertaining and ambitious.

When it comes to the CBC, specific grievances may matter less than the network’s biggest problem: nobody’s watching. CBC TV has a 5.5 percent market share in national primetime, compared to 9.8 in metropolitan primetime for ABC in Australia, and a whopping 32.2 for the BBC’s total national share of networks. Surely someone at the CBC has noticed.

One inevitable response to criticism is that the CBC has finite funding. But it’s not that simple. For one thing, budget-friendly entertainment can be great. The Radio-Canada talk show Tout le Monde en Parle is one such example—well-chosen guests, a boisterous audience and timely, sharp discussions make it a joy to watch (plying the guests with free wine might help, too). Tout le Monde en Parle has spurred debate on topics from racism to Canada’s involvement in Afghanistan.

Some productions are inevitably, of course, more expensive. And courtesy of the current government, the CBC will get that extra $675 million by 2021. The problem is that the broadcaster has a record of misspending its cash, especially on the budget suck of the Olympics. While the BBC might be able to splash on rights to air the games, broadcasters with tighter belts, such as ABC and PBS, don’t bother: they know a private broadcaster will pick them up anyway. While the CBC’s contemporary Olympics licensing spend is unknown, it spent $73 million to secure the 2006 and 2008 Olympics combined ($85 million in today’s dollars). That’s about the same cost, roughly speaking, as 170 hours of Canadian TV drama. CBC did, in 2014, eliminate its hugely expensive NHL exclusive licence, letting it go to Rogers and facing the inevitable criticism—proving it has the stomach for this kind of dramatic change. Why not commit?

Some kinds of change have even fewer downsides: first among them, taking a chance on fresh blood instead of relying on a work-your-way-up culture. One recent example: the dull new host of culture show Q, Tom Power, who replaced rapper Shad after spending years on Radio 2. On the website Glassdoor, where employees review their workplaces, CBC staffers make it clear how they feel about this culture. In the words of one anonymous former employee: “as much as they preach innovation, this place is run by dinosaurs.”

Short-lived radio host Candy Palmater would have been an ideal example of new talent. “A gay native feminist comic raised by bikers,” she was engaging, lively, culturally astute and all-around interesting when she was granted her own show for summer 2016. Yet for reasons never made public, she has barely appeared on the network since.

It’s tough to say why CBC culture-makers don’t seek out more of these fresh faces, not to mention fresh thinking, fresh music, fresh shows. In any case, the CBC’s reliance on safe bets adds up to a failure—and the longer it continues, the longer we’ll be stuck with a public broadcaster that seems to think “no complaints” is code for “good.”