FEATURE: Innovation and nostalgia – keys to a brighter CBC

FEATURE: Innovation and nostalgia – keys to a brighter CBC

This article first appeared in the June 2017 issue of Life in Québec Magazine.

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By Katrine Deniset

For those who benefited from the glory days of the CBC, that circular, pizza-looking logo is as Canadian as maple syrup and hockey sticks. But if you were not around when the public broadcaster produced much of its own content, maybe that logo means nothing.

Still, hearts broke and shouts were heard across the country when Stephen Harper’s Conservative government imposed a $115-million annual funding cut for the CBC in 2012. As a result, the broadcaster cut 657 jobs in April 2014 and announced shortly after that it would say goodbye to another 1,000 to 1,500 staff by 2020.

In 2016, Justin Trudeau’s Liberals made a $675-million reinvestment pledge to CBC/Radio-Canada, a promise that should provide a glimmer of hope, according to Alain Saulnier, a communications professor at Université de Montréal.

“Sometimes I see my journalism students lose hope when it comes to finding a job after university. But even though what Trudeau is proposing is coming up late in the game, the promise is substantial, and there will be jobs for those who stand out and seek them, even if it won’t be one-for-one. Some jobs will open up at CBC/Radio-Canada and other jobs will be waiting for [graduates] elsewhere.”

Saulnier was fired from his position as director-general of news programming at Radio-Canada in 2012 and since wrote a book entitled Ici ÉTAIT Radio-Canada (Here was Radio-Canada). While the Harper days are over, Saulnier maintains that the Conservative reign left a big mess to clean up. He blames CBC/Radio-Canada’s dismantlement on CEO Hubert Lacroix, who was appointed by Harper in 2007.

“Lacroix generated a serious situation; he really didn’t deal with the budget cuts the way he should have,” says Saulnier. “He could have led a public campaign, for example, but he chose to be the public broadcaster’s gravedigger instead. He’s done so much harm and I’m just excited for him to leave, to turn the page on him. I’m convinced that without him and over the next couple of years, we’ll begin the recovery.” (Lacroix did not respond to repeated requests for comment for this article.)

Nostalgic for fading traditions

Reduced staff and resources at CBC/Radio-Canada have taken a toll on coverage of stories in smaller communities. For decades, the public broadcaster prided itself on often being the only source of news in remote areas of the country.

The CBC/Radio-Canada mandate under the 1991 Broadcasting Act states that the programming should “reflect Canada and its regions,” as well as “the different needs and circumstances of each official language community, including those of English and French linguistic minorities.” The cuts are making it difficult for the broadcaster of accomplish that task, community activists observe.

“I realize that it’s increasingly challenging for the CBC, but I would like to see how they can connect with us, with the little guy,” says Corrinna Pole of the Townshippers’ Association, an organization for the English-speaking community of the Eastern Townships. “I personally remember when I was small, [the CBC] was at every event. That’s not as much the case anymore, and it makes me sad. We live as a minority and, well, creating that link between all those communities, that’s their history.”

According to Pole, staying true to tradition would represent a victory not only for her community of English speakers living in small-town eastern Québec, but for Canadians tuning in from coast to coast to coast.

“We need our voices heard and our stories told. And that wouldn’t only benefit us; it’s bigger than that. We need the country to realize that we exist.”

Killing shows creates dead air

According to Alain Saulnier, there is still much inherent value in the public broadcaster, a value that simply does not exist in private media. He calls the CBC a “bulwark against disinformation” in a world where there is plenty of it. He thinks it would be a shame to see the public broadcaster slavishly follow the footsteps of its private competitors.

“CBC/Radio-Canada needs to stay independent and avant-garde, and it should absolutely not become a broadcaster for the state,” explains Saulnier. “What it needs to thrive again is some more investigative journalism, even more fact-checking and more special programming. And cultural journalism, too.”

When Saulnier was still employed at Radio-Canada, he fought hard to keep Une heure sur terre alive. It was a successful weekly television show produced by the CBC’s French counterpart focusing on international stories, but one year after Saulnier’s departure, the show was cancelled.

“Radio-Canada still releases information, even good information. But it needs to be more than that; otherwise, it’ll die a slow death with loads of game shows and an advertising model,” Saulnier concludes.

Pierre Maisonneuve, now retired, dedicated 41 years of his life (1971-2012) to Radio-Canada as a television and radio reporter. He believes the public broadcaster should resist the temptation to become a carbon copy of American media. He recalls being a witness of great work during his years at the French-language network, but says the public broadcaster’s core mission is endangered.

“If it keeps going like this, everything’s going to be produced by teams from the private sector, and eventually even the archives won’t belong to Radio-Canada anymore,” Maisonneuve says. “They gave away Hockey Night in Canada to Rogers. They’ve cancelled good shows. The public broadcaster needs to take back the control that it’s lost, by using its expertise and becoming a producer. I’m tired of pretty speeches from the broadcaster saying everything is going well, because we are not creating the conditions for things to go well.”

Maisonneuve believes original programming is only a part of the solution for a brighter future at the CBC. According to him, the solution should be collective. “We need a societal debate, a phenomenal wake-up call. People need to believe in the public broadcaster’s future. We’ve fought, and the next generations need to keep fighting, for a viable CBC,” he says.  “I’m not a pessimist; I just think we need to show the younger generations what the CBC is, because they need to feel exactly what it is that they could lose.”
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