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Under one flag

by The Concordian October 4, 2011

VICTORIA, B.C. (CUP) — The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation is approaching its 75th birthday. What does it mean to us three quarters of a decade later?

The CBC was born out of the Canadian Radio Broadcasting Commission on Nov. 2, 1936. The celebrations have started, and a new logo and slogan remind us that the CBC is “yours to celebrate.” And so it is.

The crown corporation CBC/Radio-Canada is the chief provider of Canadian news, music, and storytelling. It’s gone from black and white to colour, colour to high-definition, and is currently transitioning from analog to digital. Our media climate is shifting and our beloved CBC is up against a weak economy, changing demographics, and emerging technologies.

Birthday or not, life slows down for no one.

In March, Canadian Finance Minister Jim Flaherty announced that the CBC must submit two proposals to meet reductions in operating appropriations. The proposals will outline how to meet a five per cent and 10 per cent cut over three years and will inform the 2012 federal budget. It’s part of a government-wide strategic and operating review of 67 organizations. Sounds like the government is asking the CBC to buckle down and not only prepare, but plan, for cuts.

During the weak economic period of 2009, the CBC had losses of $171 million for which to make up. The public broadcaster shifted its game plan, sold assets, and cut close to 800 jobs. Now, two-and-a-half years later, the federal government is asking the CBC to prepare for another round of wallet wringing.

What did you get the CBC for its birthday?

Every year, Canadian taxpayers contribute what works out to be $34 per capita to the public broadcasting service. Collectively, Canadians contributed nearly $1.1 billion last year.

The CBC is by far the largest public broadcaster in the country, but it’s not exclusively publicly funded. The CBC has four sources of funding. During the first quarter of 2011–12, tax dollars made up 61 per cent of CBC’s funding, while advertising covered 24 per cent. Specialty services and other revenues wrapped up the remaining 15 per cent in the form of subscription and ad sales from specialty programs, real-estate sales, and rentals.

Compared to other industrialized countries, $34 is a bargain. A 2011 Nordicity analysis shows Canadians are ahead of only New Zealand and the United States. Americans pay $4 per year. On average, other Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) member countries pay $87 annually in support of their public-broadcasting corporations.

And yet we still hear complaints about left-leaning content about our Canadian content provider. CBC Radio freelancer John Threlfall doesn’t necessarily agree with that take on the broadcaster.

“Is it left-of-centre?” says the Victoria resident. “Who defines the centre? If the centre is currently defined by Stephen Harper and the federal Conservatives then, yes, it’s left-of-centre. If the centre was defined by the mythical alternative universe where Jack Layton and the NDP got into power then, no, it would be more centre.”

Threlfall, also the former editor of Victoria alt-weekly Monday Magazine, doesn’t let his journalism background escape him while analyzing the CBC.

“Is it left-of-centre in that it challenges the government?” he asks. “It challenges things that are being put out there and it doesn’t accept them at face value. But why is that left? And why is that just not inquiry?”

Angus McKinnon, spokesperson for CBC/Radio-Canada, says complaints that the CBC is politically left-of-centre don’t bear themselves out in fact.

“Quite rightly, as Canada’s public broadcaster, our news and current affairs operations are held to a higher standard,” he says. “CBC/Radio-Canada strives every day to provide fairness and balance in its news coverage and platforms where Canadians can find, and add to, a wide diversity of viewpoints and voices from all across the political spectrum.”

Steven Larsen, a 29-year-old history student at Camosun College, says he’s a fan of the CBC in a lot of ways, but adds that there are drawbacks to being publicly funded.

“The whole idea raises a lot of issues for me, in terms of the validity of what they’re telling me,” says Larsen. “I mean, they’re paid for by the government by tax dollars.”

This quickness to criticize the public broadcaster reveals a certain passion that most Canadians have for the CBC.

What’s a Canadian anyway?

CBC/Radio-Canada connects Canadians across a nation that boasts the world’s second largest land mass. The 1991 Broadcasting Act states that “the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, as the national public broadcaster, should provide radio and television services incorporating a wide range of programming that informs, enlightens, and entertains.” It also mandates that the CBC “reflect the multicultural and multiracial nature of Canada.”

CBC continues to play a key role in reinforcing to Canadians what it means to be Canadian.

Elizabeth Grove-White, an associate professor in the department of English at the University of Victoria, says that the CBC “enlarges our imagination and our understanding to know what’s happening in other parts of our country.”

She moved from Ireland to Toronto in 1973. With no Canadian connections, Grove-White says that the CBC was a great introduction to this country.

“The CBC has served a very important function in welcoming new Canadians,” she says. “For people like me, who come from other parts of the world, the CBC has been a window into Canadian culture and arts and life and politics.”

Grove-White eventually came to work for the CBC, writing, interviewing, researching and producing several radio programs. She eventually earned a Peabody Award in 1980 for her work on a documentary.

It’s often said that the CBC reaches out to Canadian communities, but in the experience of Grove-White, it also reaches out to individual community members.

Those individuals, of course, have their own varying opinions on what CBC means to them.

“I think CBC is a little left-wing sometimes,” says Victoria resident Evelyn Mason. “You can tell it’s propped up by government; nobody seems to put any effort into it.”

Her husband David says that when it comes to program selection, there is a bad side to publicly funded media entities like the CBC.

“They’re not at the mercy of who’s going to buy advertising as much as the private networks, so they’re willing to carry stuff just because they like the people who are doing it, or whatever.”

Mason loves Coronation Street, but is tired of seeing the same personalities and programming year after year. But David gives credit to CBC personality George Stromboulopoulos, saying that “he’s smart, a little irreverent.”

What has the CBC done for you lately?

Canadians are a collection of diverse fragments held together by publicly funded mortar.

“If there was no CBC, Canadian stories and news would still exist on the internet, but there’s the problem of not really knowing what to look for,” says Josh Driver, a criminal justice student at Camosun. “We’d probably end up disconnected from the events going on in our local area. We’d end up with just the U.S. media. We’d end up knowing more about them than ourselves.”

A Harris/Decima study released in the spring of 2010 declared that 81 per cent of Canadians agree it’s important that the Canadian government work to maintain and build a culture and identity distinct from the United States.

In 1970, Pierre Juneau, the first chairman of the Canada Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission, famously said “Canadian broadcasting should be Canadian.” Canadian content regulations were drafted and have stimulated the artistic landscape of Canada ever since.

Canadian musicians such as Bryan Adams and Sarah McLachlan have full-fledged careers and international acclaim. You can still hear Rush and The Tragically Hip on the air. The Arcade Fire, Kid Koala, K’naan, and so many more Canadian artists are right up there in Canada’s musical mountain range.

Canadian content regulations have created a weird and wonderful filtration system that pulls diverse artists from above the 49th parallel and launches them out on national airwaves.

What’s a world without the CBC?

The CBC’s programming is expansive; it’s touched the lives of practically every Canadian, in some ways more directly than others.

“Honestly, I would be hard-pressed to imagine Canada as we know it today without the CBC,” says Threlfall, who now works at UVic as communications and special projects officer for the faculty of fine arts. “So many peoples’ cultural memories and cultural backbone have been fashioned by or supported by the CBC over the years.”

The CBC: we love it, we hate it, and we pay for it (some of us involuntarily)

Petitions exist online about it: save it or suffocate it. The discussion is there. The fact that everyone has an opinion demonstrates the invisible ties that tangle Canadians with the CBC.

“It’s providing Canadian identity—multiculturalism, regionalism, all of us together individually and collectively,” says Victoria mayor Dean Fortin. “The CBC is a very important institution. It’s the one that is dedicated to Canadian culture: bringing forward and developing Canadian identity.”

CBC’s McKinnon says that the organization aims to express culture and enrich democratic life, and that their new five-year strategic plan committing to deepening the CBC’s relationship with Canadians.

“[In the plan] we commit to providing a publicly owned, publicly-minded space where Canadians can meet and exchange with each other and with the country,” he says.

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