The People’s Network in an Era of ‘Content on Demand’

Grant Bishop

In Barney’s Version, Mordecai Richler’s satirical ode to our “cloud-cuckoo-land” of a nation (“an insufferably rich country governed by idiots, its self-made problems offering comic relief to the ills of the real world out there”), the author reserves his most cutting jabs for the Canadian cultural establishment and all of its hangers-on.  Through Richler’s mouthpiece of the tragicomic Barney Panofsky, who sustains a fortune on producing lackadaisically mediocre CanCon, the CBC is made particular fodder: “Charged with virtue, those intellectual mice from the People’s Network tended to condescend to me as a money-grubbing TV shlock-meister, even as they protected us from the cultural vandals to the south.” Irony awaited.

When Richler’s 1995 novel was turned into a 2010 film, the final cut was sanitized of nearly all of its noisy Canadiana so as not to confuse American audiences: the latter-day plot is stripped of the tumultuous backdrop of Quebec’s referendum; Montreal is strangely devoid of anyone with French accents, excepting obsequious waiters at the Ritz; and New York even pinch-hits for self-satisfied Toronto (“this country’s counting house”), a walk around Central Park substituting for a stroll through Yorkville.

Richler had once joked that for the continent to be one country would solve many cultural problems for Canada: we wouldn’t have to complain about the lack of Canadian theatre; we’d just go to New York.

His writing was at once worldly and provincial.  His satirical style took a page from Sholem Aleichem, and his “New World” comedy shared more with Philip Roth than with the Southern Ontario Gothic of Robertson Davies (who, incidentally, praised Richler as “one of the writers we have to thank for delivering Canadian writing from a narrowness that plagued it for so long”) or Margaret Atwood (who remarked of Richler, “If he had been a woman behaving like that, he wouldn’t have gotten nearly as far with it”).  Predictably, given his inability to suffer fools (even those wearing Order of Canada pins), Richler’s sojourn at Massey College among Toronto’s chattering classes was short-lived.

Yet Richler’s landscape was definitively Canadian.  His work holds a mirror to all of the eccentricities and contradictions of that most Canadian of cities, his beloved and comically tribal Montreal. Montreal remains my very favourite city.  Despite never actually having lived there, I’ve  been able to cultivate my own distant love for the place by the vibrant music, literature and politics that flow from its messy mosaic.  Its perennial corruption notwithstanding, I’ve always respected Montrealers’ intolerance for a losing hockey team (playoff season is just something we weak-kneed Torontonians have accepted life without).  And I have always been fascinated that Montrealers remain Montrealers wherever they go.

To me that is the point of our Canadian cultural institutions and in particular, of Canadian public broadcasting: to allow us to feel as much attachment to places and people that we’ve never even visited or met as we do with our physical neighbourhood and neighbours. The magic of our country (unless the péquistes have their way) is that a girl from Côte-des-Neiges can just as readily settle on the shores of Vancouver Island as can a Yarmouth lad call Toronto’s towering skyline home.

Through the CBC, I have listened in on lectures from Toronto while driving down the Mackenzie Highway, enjoyed music from the Rock while painting cabins in Algonquin Park, and heard stories from Davis Inlet from my college lodgings overlooking English Bay.

Such a sense of interconnection was Leonard Brockington’s very hope and vision when he inaugurated the CBC in 1936: “There is no country in the world which offers to its citizens any more infinite variety of human type and human activity than Canada does.  Our national tapestry is coloured and strengthened by many threads. … Wherever a Canadian radio speaks, within the confines of this nation or in foreign places, it is Canada calling.  And I think we should all be anxious for ourselves and for our children’s sakes that she calls with the accents of which we shall not be ashamed.”

Furthermore, Brockington expressly reassured the listeners that, although there were university professors and other “high-brows” among the CBC’s directors, the audience wouldn’t be “harangued over your radio as though you were children. The merry heart is the one that goes the furthest and the truest education of all can well come from delight in the wonders of the world around us.”

That vision is more than ever relevant, but Brockington’s world has long since passed.  In this era of “over-the-top” access to online content, our broadcasters and cultural policy-makers cannot count on a captive audience or condescend to its audience about our preferences regarding content.

At my own homestead, we still tune in to Matt Galloway during hurried mornings, find rhythm in Tom Allen’s eclectic afternoon mix, and snag a witty recap of the day from Carol Off.   However, excepting Olympic hockey or to await the B.C. election results (my girlfriend remains a proud west-coaster), we haven’t turned on CBC television in over a year.

We would sooner binge on House of Cards or Breaking Bad than sit down for the latest force-fed CanCon offering.  While I grew up on Street Legal, Road to Avonlea and Degrassi, I haven’t tuned in regularly to a Canadian dramatic program for the past decade (although I’m pretty hooked now that Being Erica is on Netflix).  While I’m a sworn groupie for TVO’s Agenda, I download the podcast and can’t remember when I last watched it during its scheduled airtime.

Increasingly, Canadians can and are doing their viewing online where no fetters (or at least none that a VPN can’t circumvent) constrain what we can watch.  Simply put, if Canadian programming isn’t good enough, we just won’t watch it.  And you can’t make us.

Nonetheless, promotion of Canadian culture over our airwaves remains predicated on a “push” model that is well past its expiry date.  The framework remains one of content quotas, demanding Canadian broadcasters to devote prescribed airtime to Canadian material.  Our cable packages have been stacked with many channels that no one wants to watch, many advancing shaky cases of patriotic programming and then filling their airtime with cheap reality TV.  At the same time, the CBC’s cultural and public affairs programming has languished from underinvestment, increasingly uncompetitive with other offerings.

As Lawson Hunter, Ed Iacobucci and Michael Trebilcock argued in their CD Howe Institute study of Canadian broadcasting policy, rather than such increasingly ineffective content control that aims to “push” Canadian culture on viewers, cultural promotion must move to a “pull” approach that recognizes that viewers will watch what we want to watch.  Rather than the current quota system, those authors argue in favour of direct subsidies for cultural programming, with a revitalized CBC – reestablished as a well-funded public broadcaster that Canadians want to watch – as the cornerstone.

Commencing the move to liberalize broadcasting, the current government asked the CRTC this past fall to examine the impacts of compelling cable companies to unbundle their channels.  And this past December, the CRTC opened national news services to head-to-head competition, with cable providers required to offer CBC News Network, CTV News Channel, Le Canal Nouvelles, Le Réseau de l’information and Sun News Network on a stand-alone basis.

Such pick-and-pay unquestionably responds to consumers’ demands for more choice and the very credible threat that we’ll simply tune out (or, rather, tune in online).   But, as Lawson Hunter and Ben Dachis of the CD Howe Institute observe, the move also upsets the current model for cultural promotion that forces cable companies to carry a comparable contingent of Canadian channels in a given bundle.

Canadians shouldn’t and won’t tolerate condescension about what we should watch. Competition for Canadian culture is inevitable.  The wrong response is to call for protectionism.  The right response is to make Canadian content that Canadians want.

We are an invented country, with individuals bound together in an ever-changing collective identity by civic institutions rather than a narrow ethnic or linguistic definition.  The CBC was an integral part of the 20th century invention of a distinctly Canadian identity, sharing stories of an evolving consciousness and its broadcasts defining our national neighbourhood. The mission of the CBC is no less pertinent in this century. But the tools no longer fit the task: the medium of the CBC must be reinvented for an age where it is the audience who controls the message.

Grant Bishop is an alumnus of Massey College, at the University of Toronto


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