New CBC president Catherine Tait makes huge promise on local services

Photo: Glotman Simpson/Flickr

Catherine Tait, the newly named CBC president, will be the first person with a significant background in the media industry to hold the job since J. Alphonse Ouimet and Tony Manera.

Ouimet led the CBC from 1958 to 1967. As an electrical engineer he had helped develop an early prototype of the television machine, and had been part of the CBC, and its predecessor organization, the Canadian Radio Broadcasting Commission, from its founding in 1934.

Manera was also an engineer. He was a CBC vice-president when he took over the top job in 1993. He quit in 1995 to protest the Chrétien government’s deep cuts to the public broadcaster.

Most other past presidents were senior civil servants, politicians or both.  Pierre Juneau had significant broadcasting experience as head of the CRTC and in a senior role at the National Film Board, but he worked at an over-arching managerial, not hands-on, level.

Juneau had to deal with the Brian Mulroney Progressive Conservative government, which was, in significant measure, ideologically hostile to the very notion of public broadcasting. To ardent free-enterprisers, including many Conservatives, the CBC is a perfect example of government spending money on something the private sector can do perfectly well.

But Liberals have had their own reasons to distrust the CBC. The current prime minister’s father thought the CBC’s French network (Radio-Canada) was a separatist hotbed.

During the Chrétien era, the business-oriented wing of the Liberal party, which held great sway at the time, argued that it was a waste of money for government to fund such frivolous activities as comedy, drama and music –- or even local news, which, they said, the private sector does better. Begrudgingly they saw some use for the all-news television networks.

If the CBC has survived, despite the long-term ill will of much of the political class, it is probably because too many voters do not know better, and they cherish it. In proportion, that group is bigger among francophones than English speakers. There are some French network shows that attract an enormous piece of the Canadian French-speaking audience, an audience share beyond the wildest dreams of their English language counterparts. The fact is that French networks do not have to compete with the American cultural behemoth and its tsunami of English language product that floods daily across the border.

Building up local programming after decades of devastation

The current government is the first in this writer’s long memory that actually seems to sincerely consider the CBC to be a priority. But that can change, easily and quickly.  One of Tait’s big challenges, perhaps the biggest, will be to find institutional ways to maintain this and future governments’ support for the public broadcaster.  She will want to lead an effort to rebuild the CBC in such a way that is sustainable and enduring.

The new president might start by focusing on the too often ignored area of local and regional programming.

At their joint news conference, both Canadian Heritage Minister Mélanie Joly and Tait loudly declaimed that local news and other local programming has now become the highest priority for the corporation.

In Tait’s words:

“There is nothing more important than local stories and local news.  That's what will tie us together going forward as a country.  It is absolutely central to democracy and dialogue in this country.  So you can rest assured that it will be absolutely central in everything that we do going forward.”

Those are strong words, the strongest statement this writer has heard any CBC president ever make in support of local programming. Now Tait will have to deliver, and it will not be easy.

Joly repeatedly referred to the deep cuts the Harper government inflicted on the CBC and the need to recover from them -- all true. For local programming, however, the cutting goes back much further than Harper. The Mulroney Progressive Conservatives and Liberal governments, notably Chrétien’s, also took the axe to the public broadcaster, and it was local programming that took the brunt of it.

Indeed, CBC’s local stations have been ravaged over a period of nearly four decades.

There was a time when regional CBC television operations throughout the country produced programs other than the basic and barebones supper hour and late-night newscasts. There were in-house production teams for local current affairs and even variety shows; and regional managers had at least some funds to commission local independent productions. 

That is all in the distant past.

Local radio has fared somewhat better. In fact, under president Gérard Veilleux, who was in charge from 1989 to 1993, there was an explicit policy to focus most local activity on (lower cost) radio, while, in effect, turning the television service into a national network affair.

But even radio has suffered. 

Regional noon-hour shows on English Radio One, for instance, used to have small staffs, including, perhaps, a producer and researcher. That people-power added depth and quality to the programs. Now, typically, the on-air host has to do it all on her own. It is no fault of the hosts, but that lack of resources sometimes shows in the program quality.

When you talk to the local programming people today and ask if they are feeling any benefit from the new Trudeau government funding, they ruefully answer no. They report that, so far, the bigwigs at network headquarters appear to be keeping most of the additional dollars for themselves.

CBC local facilities as incubators of talent and creativity

Making local programming a priority will entail a huge culture change for the CBC. Tait might have to knock some network heads together to make her pledge come true.

And, given the decades of devastation local programming has suffered, if and when the CBC does get around to reinvesting in its local and regional operations it will also have to virtually reinvent them.  

In large measure, the corporation will have to imagine a new vocation for locally produced content, almost from scratch.

The CBC might consider, for instance, breathing new life into moribund local and regional production facilities. The corporation could transform parts of those facilities into incubators for creativity, modelled on the incubators that now exist for start-up businesses and technological innovators.

To support creative and original local programming initiatives that go beyond the traditional newscast, CBC can exploit current accessible and portable technology. These days, after all, a small digital single-lens reflex camera can shoot professional, broadcast quality video, while producers can, these days, edit full length documentaries right on their computers.

Talking about documentaries, it would be interesting to see what would happen if the CBC were to decide to let a 1,000 flowers bloom and fostered a capacity to produce and commission television documentaries locally and regionally -- a role now tightly and jealously controlled by network headquarters. If the public broadcaster and its new leadership truly aspire to be a part of the Canadian fabric it will have to encourage creativity and productivity from the grassroots up, not only the other way around.

Network HQs naturally seek to maintain control

There are major institutional impediments to a decentralized approach to managing the CBC.

Corporately, the CBC is structured as an extremely skewed pyramid. There is one president at the top presiding over vice presidents for each of the two languages, and a series of area heads and other managers beneath or beside them. It is a structure more suited to a centralized and authoritarian regime than a decentralized and federal democracy.

At the news conference this past Tuesday, Tait mused that the CBC might be the only public broadcaster that has services in two languages. That is not, in fact, true.

In the North the CBC provides services in a number of Indigenous languages, such as Slavey, Gwich’in and Inuit. So there are, in fact, more than two languages.

As well, the public broadcaster of India, to cite one example, operates services in multiple languages, including Punjabi, Telugu, Tamil, Gujarati, Bengali and Malayalam -- in addition to India’s national language, Hindi, and what the Indians call their “link language”, English.

It is true that some other countries with more than one official language have chosen to provide broadcast services in a more decentralized way than does Canada. The Belgians, for instance, have entirely separate corporate entities for French and Flemish broadcasting.

Germany has only one official language, but it is also, like Canada, a federal country and its broadcast system reflects that reality. Germany has one centrally controlled, national broadcast network and another that is an alliance of the Länder (state or province) owned and operated systems.

Catherine Tait will not have the power to restructure the CBC, and it is doubtful the government has the will or appetite to do so.

But if the incoming president is serious about fostering local programming, she might want to explore ways to dramatically decentralize power and control within the CBC’S existing corporate framework.

The historic tendency for the CBC has been to pay lip service to local content while maintaining tight control at the centre. Resisting that almost natural tendency will be a tough task. It is normal for those who sit at headquarters to believe they have all the best ideas and all the wisdom; and that if they do not keep a firm hand on everything that happens out in the hinterlands, anarchy will be loosed upon the land. 

Well, maybe little dose of creative anarchy is just what the CBC could use. 

Photo: Glotman Simpson/Flickr

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