Friday, February 1, 2019

Reflections on CBC President's "colonial" lens on Netflix

President of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, Catherine Tait, yesterday resorted to the fear-mongering flag of colonialism, in reference to Netflix’s intervention in the Canadian “cultural wars” market. Without diving into the  waters around the way Netflix should be required to pay for its opportunity to “play” in the Canadian marketplace, (taxes, royalties, fees, or whatever would help to level the playing field among television production houses), the matter of programming merits its own special look.

Comparing the amount of time, based on aroused interest from trailers, that both my wife and I spend watching Netflix with time spent eyeing new productions on CBC (Working Moms, Schitt’s Creek, Cavendish, to take just a few examples) Netflix wins hands down. Of course, we recognize that we represent a smaller demographic (60+) than the proverbial 35-49, and therefore comprise a smaller advertising target and reduced revenue. We also acknowledge that our perceptions about what is worthy of our “entertainment” time have been shaped by decades of movies and television dramas that played to a longer attention span, an appetite for more reflection and less “action,” complex characters facing different challenges with which we could readily identify.

However, in-depth interviews with David Letterman, for example, are extremely “inexpensive” to produce, and Canada certainly has a treasure house of both worthy interviewers and interesting human subjects, about whom we would like to know more. CBC’s mandate could, and even should, focus on the development of such programming, and not merely on the Documentary channel. We have a national obsession with breaking things into smaller and smaller files, presumably for the purpose of measurement, control, costing, and budgetary purposes.

We have not relegated “Still Standing” a fresh, innovative, creative and stimulating, and highly relevant piece of comedic entertainment to the speciality channels, nor should we. The American show with the same name, however, presents obvious survival issues….and yet Johnny Harris’s name carries sufficient weight, based on the work he has already accomplished that a re-branding ought not to present an insurmountable hurdle.

There is a significant appetite, in Canada, for television entertainment/insight, that point to a potential motivation and commitment among CBC upper-level brass, to meet that need. CBS’s Sunday Morning, for example, has no comparable Canadian offering. The former Adrienne Clarkson Show, for example, merits being taken from the archives, as a model for a new, in-depth, examination of the contemporary Arts scene, with a thematic approach, rather than a biographical/gallery sketch. The splintering of networks into such a wide range of offerings, of course, has presented deepened competition, not merely on a revenue basis, based on the monster menu from which patrons can and  do choose.

Another model, potentially for consideration by CBC exec’s, is Intermezzo, from France. The Canadian private broadcasting systems are less likely to record and present concerts by any of the many outstanding orchestras in Canada, starting with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, and the Orchestre symphonique de Montreal, are offering world class presentations throughout the year. Thousands of Canadians would welcome an opportunity to hear/watch/appreciate their work, and, it would be shocking to learn that a deep list of advertisers would not jump at the opportunity to support such broadcasts.

Small amateur theatre, too, has deep routes across the country, offering quality performances, including professional writing, direction, acting, set design. These dramatic offerings warrant a serious and critical examination by CBC exec’s responsible for programming. Again, advertising funding would not only underwrite the television production; it would also offering significant support for the place of theatre in schools and colleges across the country.

CBC’s opportunity to provide leadership, through not merely “edgy” writing and production of new series based on “commercial” viability, extends much wider, deeper and historically into a range of opportunities that have been excluded from many of the seats in the Mirvish, Royal Alex, and Princess of Wales theatres, simply because of cost.

Nature abhors a vacuum, and given the current vacuum of Canadian visionary offerings, readily available right here at home, grounded by native artists, writers, directors, producers and actors (and note only indigenous, aboriginal troupes), into which international production agencies, like Netflix, will inject their menus, and benefit from the revenues that result. Global perspectives stretch from the corporate board rooms, to the auto manufacturing plants, to the medical research labs, and reach into the creative, artistic offerings.

A bland, and yet interesting example of international production can be found in the BBC production Escape to the Country a program CBC has purchased and offered to Canadian audiences, one has to guess, to good reviews. Nevertheless, the “escape” model applies not only to British urban retirees. In Canada, there is a similar demographic impetus, married to one of the most beautiful and majestic countries in the world, in a nation in which hundreds of thousands, dare I say millions, have not, and will not be able to afford to visit many of its vistas. Furthermore, there is also a long list of countries outside Canada, where there is undoubtedly a market for a professionally produced Canadian television program. Canada on the Edge, while worthwhile, (and produced by the Simthsonian, not by the CBC) offers a broad-brush, American perspective on many of the landscapes, rivers and mountains, with brief ‘sips’ of the towns and villages from the heli-camera.

It is, however, the anxious, even neurotic attitude, mind-set and basis, on which the Tait words are based that is most troubling. If the statement was a shot over the bow of the federal government looking for more sustainable funding, then, if I were a member of the government overseeing CBC’s mandate, I would respectfully submit some of the provisional proposals included here. Canadians want, need and clearly deserve an extremely highly functioning, imaginative, courageous and creative national broadcasting network, that can and does “walk and chew gun.” “Walking” as in 22 Minutes, The National, At Issue, The Week, The Scrum, Hockey Night in Canada, The Juno’s, The Giller Prize, does not preclude an in-depth offering like Allison Smith’s “Perspective,” or a national conversational conversation/debate on a much more regular schedule than that offered by the occasional Munk Debates.

The Ingenuity Gap, an insightful piece of critical examination of the Canadian ethos by Thomas Homer-Dixon, merits a close look as a stimulant/motivator/shaper of Canadian business design as well as a potential basis for a CBC television offering. The work of the Centre for International Governance Innovation in Waterloo, and of course, the Munk School of Global Affairs, along with other departments of International Relations in Canadian universities offer a deep and diverse reservoir of potential guests, perspectives and programming options for the CBC.

Ideas, ideas, ideas….the world is overflowing with a million menus from which to select, test, audition, develop and test again…and the CBC has the reputation, the infrastructure, the networking, the access to creative participants and to funding sources and the mandate to become the visionary among all apprentice visionaries currently and potentially building the next century of Canada.

If Netflix is a threat to the CBC, this country needs to re-think that perspective. The victim and the colonized are both archetypes out from which we collectively need to escape!


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