BY JIMMY THOMSON
Yesterday we learned that WORST would be getting a nod on CBC’s The National tonight, so it’s not without irony that I’ve decided to write a polemic about the CBC’s television news service.
But it’s not entirely coincidental, either, and that should become clear by the end. Stay tuned.
I’m not the first person to say this, and I know I won’t be the last. But I’ll phrase it instead as a question: what purpose does CBC News television, in its current form, serve in major markets today? Don’t get me wrong, here; I don’t mean news with a visual component in general. I mean the ancient practice of airing television news at a specific time of the day, divided into stories that are ordered in such a way that they keep viewers hooked for a full show.
That product was invented as a natural means of presenting the news within the confines of an analogue, one-way presentation. It isn’t the best possible way of sharing news: it was the best possible way of sharing news in 1940. It was clearly never meant for the Netflix generation, and maybe it’s time to rethink the nightly newscast.
The only reasons I can think of for maintaining this relic of an obsolete technology are: a) inertia, and b) the incomplete penetration of the Internet.
Let’s start with inertia. There has never been a point at which CBC’s television news was suddenly and completely unviable, stimulating the will for a sudden change of course to try new ways of doing business. Its viability has been slowly chipped away by cuts, declines in advertising, and, as a product of those two things, the loss of hockey revenue. And today, the broadcaster announced a new five-year plan that will see it diminish even further, in an action that should have been taken five years ago when they saw the tweets on the wall.
Not that you can blame the CBC for not setting itself on a completely new course without first being certain that the iceberg was ahead. That’s the kind of move that capsizes ships, or at least causes squabbling and mutiny. It’s a monstrously huge corporation structured for stability, not innovation. It does some things extremely well, but the fleet-footed outmaneuvering of an unapologetically hostile government funder is not one of them.
In short, the will or vision to try to get ahead of what should have been an obvious curve just wasn’t there. That inertia is propelled further by the second factor: the lack of penetration of the technology that could be the cure to the CBC’s woes. As Peter Mansbridge himself announced in the first ever news broadcast about it, “It’s called… Internet.”
Now, the Internet is essentially 100 percent available to city dwellers. But the CBC is not just for city dwellers; its mandate clearly states that it should “be made available throughout Canada.” As a nation, we have large, spread-out rural populations and, especially in the North, people living in remote places who rely on expensive and unreliable satellite connections. That’s the only justifiable reason I can see for keeping the nightly newscast on life-support, as the new five-year plan proposes.
“Television” news and documentaries can—and should—still be produced by the CBC. But they should be presented in a truly digital format that is cheaper, more efficient, and isn’t seventy years behind. And seriously, nobody is going to miss Republic of Doyle, so let’s just scrap CBC TV in its current form while we’re at it. As the Tyee’s Shannon Rupp suggests, use the cost savings to pump up the radio, which has a growing and dedicated audience and exceptional programming.
At the bottom of the hour I teased a clean wrap-up, and here it is: WORST is on The National tonight as one example of some of the things young journalists are doing to try to make their way in an unstable job market. We don’t want to be jettisoned in the next round of CBC cuts, so we’re trying something ourselves. The reason we’re interesting to them is that we can do things that they can’t. Our small size makes us relatively powerless, but it also gives us some measure of freedom from the burdens of legacy television. Soon, the CBC will have to reconcile its future with its history, and the sooner, the better. ♦
Image via the CBC Archives