TV, eh?’s lament for the CBC that could be

Before the CBC announced which shows would be returning next season — and by process of elimination, which wouldn’t — I was making the joke that my recommendation would be “keep Michael: Tuesdays & Thursdays, poach Call Me Fitz, and change the network name to DianeTV.”

There are a few truths in that jokey non-answer:

  1. I don’t love a lot of Canadian television shows. That’s no slam on our homegrown industry — I don’t love more than a few currently airing shows at any given time.
  2. I don’t voluntarily watch anything else on CBC (ie not for the purposes of keeping up to speed for TV, eh? on some of the other fine-but-not-my-taste shows, or not because I’m trapped in a sports bar during the Stanley Cup playoffs).
  3. Everyone wants a CBC that reflects their individual tastes. Everyone is doomed to disappointment.

There is no way to talk about the current cuts without being highly subjective, coloured by our own favourite shows and expectations for a public broadcaster. But next year’s CBC lineup is not what I want to watch, and not what I want from a public broadcaster, and not just because they cancelled my favourite show.

I want a public broadcaster that doesn’t have to rely solely on ratings, that can take risks on the kind of challenging and creative programming private networks won’t touch. Unfortunately in Canada, “programming private networks won’t touch” narrows the field down to “Canadian shows that might be a hard sell to a US network.”

The 2012/13 lineup is a safe lineup, exactly what many of us expected given the magnitude of the recent cuts to CBC’s budget. Anything with a pulse was renewed, even a fading pulse. Anything that could play to a broad audience … the kind of audience a country’s private networks should be serving, only Canada doesn’t have any private broadcast networks who believe creating content is more important than simulcasting content.

I look back at some of my favourite Canadian shows, the ones I named as my top 10 of the last 25 years, and I see Intelligence, The Newsroom, Twitch City, Anne of Green Gables, Made in Canada, Rick Mercer Report and “some years of This Hour Has 22 Minutes” on my list. That’s 7 CBC shows in my top 10, many of them creative risk-takers.

The list was compiled long before Michael: Tuesdays & Thursdays aired, but it would now make the cut too. Sadly, it didn’t make the cut at the new CBC, so I will have to be grateful for this lovely mini-series that entertained me and spoke to me, that I found funny, poignant, and important (but not in a boring pretentious way).

When it was clear that Michael would have, as co-creator Matt Watts liked to joke, no more than “boutique ratings,” critics remarked that HBO Canada would be a better fit for the series. That may be true, but that’s a sad statement on where we’re at in the Canadian television landscape.

Specialty stations such as Movie Central/The Movie Network and HBO Canada, stations few Canadians have access to, are currently the only fitting home for shows Americans don’t want access to and that aren’t populist enough for a gutted CBC.

There should be a place on a public broadcaster’s schedule alongside more popular fare for a critically acclaimed cult show and, yes, even a dipped-in-maple-syrup-and-riding-a-moose reality series such as Battle of the Blades.

We can write our MPs or protest about cuts to the CBC, but their woes (and mine) are part of a bigger issue. Our Canadian television industry as a whole does whatever it can to not produce Canadian television, leaving our public broadcaster to try — and fail — to appeal at all times to all people.


9 thoughts on “TV, eh?’s lament for the CBC that could be”

  1. I also found the show Michael witty, moving, hilarious and very relevant. I am upset it has been cancelled.

  2. It’s truly sad that the CBC of today isn’t what a public broadcaster should be, but at least there are venues for the kind of programming the CBC of yesteryear would have produced and nourished. Places like HBO Canada, The Comedy Network, Showcase, and online “broadcasters” have, thankfully, taken a few risks and produced some shows deserving of an artistic nation such as Canada.

    Again, it’s just too bad that our nation’s public broadcaster isn’t really that place anymore, save for a few lucky survivors.

    I proudly wear my little CBC logo button on my jacket, but at this point it’s more for the idea of CBC rather than what the CBC is today.

  3. Isn’t this because, in a sense, all Canadian broadcasters are public broadcasters when it comes to Canadian content? Because they all take the CMF money to make their original programming?

    I wonder what would happen if CTV and Global and TMN and City and the rest had to make a quota of Canadian scripted programming, but had to use (and therefore risk) their profits to do so. They’d probably all push toward the mainstream, popular, and profitable with their offerings. THEN, the CBC could– especially with a much bigger influx of government cash if we gave them the lion’s share of CMF money (we should probably still kick some into kids and youth programming)– create a massive slate of risk-taking, adventurous, creative shows and no one would care one bit

  4. My experience is that when pitching a show the people in the room from the private networks don’t care where the money is coming from – government or their own company (they’re just employees afterall, not owners) – they really are trying to pick the shows that will get them the biggest ratings.

    The same goes for pitch meetings at the CBC.

    Just like the Maple Leafs really are trying to win the Stanley Cup.

    Maybe the network issues are at a much higher pay grade, as they say, or maybe it’s as hard to make quality TV shows that also get great ratings as it is to win the Cup.

  5. I adored Michael too, and I do hope CBC keeps trying different outside-the-box shows like Michael, but I disagree with the premise that Canada’s public broadcaster should continue producing a show that the vast majority of Canadians had absolutely no interest in watching.

  6. I agree, the people working to commission the shows aren’t trying to make bland shows. The problem, particularly at the CBC, is the direction set by the person in the chair. You’re seeing the results of Sturs, and now Layfield and the people feeding them statistics. If you want to expect something different, Lacroix will need to set this “different” as a direction, and demand it of his senior team. Only then do you get to see shows like Intelligence.

    And this will still take 24 months to appear on the screen.

  7. Sure, the direction gets set from the top (though not always consistently, I pitched a show set in the early 50s and was told the mandate was for no more historicals and a couple weeks later they picked up The Murdoch Mysteries, so there are always exceptions).

    But no matter what the directions, they’ll always have to choose from among the projects pitched and I doubt whether the money is government or private makes much of a difference to the process.

    It’s like the Leafs (or the oilers of the Flames or…), is it the players or the management? Or a combination of both?

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