Why the CBC should stop the hissy fit

Monday afternoon, just after the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) made public its intriguing but slippery plan to solve the infamous fee-for-carriage dispute, the nabobs of the TV and cable rackets unleashed their responses.

The cable guys were a tad miffed – dismissive even, in the usual manner of cable execs who believe they control the universe. The TV types were pleased, but in a hesitant manner.

Then it came – the sound of rattling cufflinks. Umbrage. Outrage. Steven Guiton, the CBC’s regulatory officer, stepped up to the microphones, looking furious. He proceeded to announce the imminent end of public broadcasting in Canada. “There does not appear to be a future for public broadcasting further to this decision” he said.

Horror! Murder in Gatineau, Quebec. The CRTC has killed the CBC. Driven a stake through its heart.

Watching this unfold on CBC was an interesting experience. The CBC reporter, Rosemary Barton, admitted to not understanding the CBC’s problem. Nobody did, actually. Not long after, Hubert Lacroix, the CBC’s president, turned up on CBCNN’s Power & Politics. More umbrage and dismay. Cufflinks rattling like castanets, all finger-wagging fury. Host Evan Solomon was as mystified as the rest of Canada – exactly what was the CBC’s big problemo?

There’s a tall woman, fortysomething, staring right at you. Skeptical look on her face. You know what’s she’s thinking: “Life is full of little pricks.”

When Nurse Jackie (TMN/Movie Central, 10 p.m.) first aired last year, Showtime promoted it to U.S. viewers with billboards bearing that provocative slogan – and a shot of a nurse with a needle. The show’s star, Edie Falco as the formidable wife of Tony Soprano. Here she was, returning to TV as a formidably complex nurse, a woman brutally sarcastic to doctors and brazenly manipulating patients she didn’t like.

It turned out that this event was more than an actress managing to follow one extraordinary role with another. The arrival of Jackie, and United States of Tara (TMN/Movie Central, 10:30 p.m.) was further evidence of the strength and importance of cable TV drama. It is such shows that tell us about the vast, chaotic canvas of reality. It is such dramas that emphasize, again, how feeble network shows have become. These shows are art; both declare a willingness to engage with ugliness and despair. They are a vastly different form of escapism than what appears on network television. With these shows, the viewer is escaping the inanity of formulaic, conventional TV.

In the case of Nurse Jackie the marketing slogan was perfectly apt. The show, with Falco as its fulcrum, emerged as a tough-minded hospital drama, one lacking in McDreamy-type doctors and stick-figure, husband-chasing nurses. One element that made it different was its emphatic working-class milieu. Jackie, complicated and provocative, was a worker worried about bills and the money to make it through the next month.

Dragon's Den is a hit show for the CBC. From left, Robert Herjavec, President of the Herjavec Group; Arlene Dickinson, President and CEO of Calgary-based Venture Communications, Jim Treliving, Chairman and Owner of Boston Pizza; Dianne Buckner, host; Kevin O'Leary, Co-Host of BNN's Squeeze Play; and new dragon W. Brett Wilson, Co-founder and Chairman of FirstEnergy Capital Corp.

The gist is easy to grasp but remains very puzzling. The CRTC excluded the CBC from the possibility of negotiating a fee for its signals with the cable and satellite gang, for the very good reason that the CBC is mandated to provide its content to Canadians. It can’t negotiate over what it is obliged to provide. The CRTC put the CBC’s position to one side and said it would deal with it later.

The CBC response was the spoilt-brat reaction epitomized. Private broadcasters, which have only one stream of revenue for over-the-air channels (ad revenue), were being given the possibility of a second revenue stream from cable companies paying fees. The CBC already has two revenue streams – government money and ad revenue. In this instance, it gave all the appearance of wanting three revenue streams.

Even those who admire the CBC and fully support its existence as a stalwart public broadcaster – as I do – must be gobsmacked here. The CBC says the private broadcasters are getting a break because the old model, relying on advertising revenue to support all commitments, is broken. CBC says it too has suffered from a drop in ad revenue. Therefore, it should get a break too – even though it operates under an entirely different set of rules. Talk about a sense of entitlement. Braying about their business model and complaining about “a level playing field,” Guiton and Lacroix would not have last 30 seconds on Dragons’ Den.

When Konrad von Finckenstein, the CRTC chair, appeared on Power & Politics, he looked as perplexed as everyone else. “First of all, the CBC has a future. It’s an integral part of the Canadian broadcasting system,” he said. He patiently explained that the Broadcasting Act states that the CBC must always be accessible to Canadians. Thus, it can’t use removal of CBC signals as leverage. “We cannot have decisions where access to the CBC is in doubt,” he said. Eventually, he explained, the CBC situation would be dealt with: “There was just too much on the table to deal with in one sitting, so we decided to deal with the private broadcast system before turning to the public one.”

It was rather like a parent explaining to the kid having the hissy fit that the gifties would be coming later, that’s all. The CBC’s reaction to the CRTC plan was hysterical and utterly unwarranted. It is in the unique position of providing a ton of Canadian content to Canadians while the private broadcasters have been given a break on that issue. It was the time for CBC to act with maturity and point to its responsibilities and achievements. Instead the cufflinks rattled and the umbrage unfolded.

What’s odd is the fact that CBC was creating a PR disaster. And it markets itself relentlessly and successfully these days. When it rejigged The Nationaland CBC Newsworld, it spent a fortune on marketing and advertising. The ads keep coming. Fair enough. The Corp has had hits with Battle of the Blades and Dragons’ Den, and Republic of Doyle is doing well. CBC has a swagger about it these days. Crying poor and complaining is far from the best strategy. A little dignity and a reality check, please.

Also airing

America’s Next Top Model (CW, A Channel, 8 p.m.) features the question, “What type of music are you?” tonight. See, the photo shoot is dance-inspired and forces the young ladies to pose while demonstrating their “fancy footwork.” From what I’ve seen, it’s priceless. If you enjoy this fluff, check out the BBC’s Britain’s Missing Top Model (Mondays, 8 p.m. on ONE channel), which is about eight young women with disabilities who competed for a modelling contract. What’s striking is how alike the shows are, except for the small details such as the difficulty of a model in a wheelchair getting to the photo shoot.

Republic of Doyle (CBC, 9 p.m.) tonight has Victor Garber is fine fettle as the guest star. He plays a smooth, very successful crime writer looking for material and he follows Jake Doyle (Allan Hawco) on Jake’s usual quest for a missing, beautiful woman. Garber is enjoying himself immensely here, his character needling Jake relentlessly.

Water on the Table (TVOntario, 10 p.m. on The View from Here) is well worth your time if you have access to TVO. A documentary that’s pointed but visually sumptuous and poetic (made by Liz Marshall), it features Maude Barlow, who explains her international work against the privatization of water. The gist is that water is a human right but increasingly treated as a product to be traded.

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