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It's time for the CBC to think outside the box

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Heartland has been renewed for another season of drama and intrigue on the ranch, but it's hardly must-see TV for most Canadians.

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Heartland has been renewed for another season of drama and intrigue on the ranch, but it's hardly must-see TV for most Canadians.

No one seems to know what the CBC will be in the aftermath of its latest financial implosion.

What's certain, however, is what it won't be: the same old CBC.

Simply put, it can't be. Through years of diminishing budgets, declining financial fortunes and round after round of layoffs and programming cuts, various regimes at the public broadcaster have tried hard to maintain a CBC that was a slimmed-down and tightened-up version of what it has always been.

Those days are gone. With the loss of NHL telecasts as a revenue engine that allowed CBC to meander creatively through other parts of its schedule, combined with ever-dwindling funding support from a federal government that clearly views CBC with scorn, the broadcaster's English TV service finds itself at a moment of crisis unlike any it has experienced in recent years.

CBC will still air Hockey Night in Canada for the next four (or perhaps more) years, but it will derive no revenue from the broadcasts. It will serve only as a lingering connection to CBC's past identity and a promotional platform in which to advertise other shows on its schedule.

So, if it's not going to be the hockey network, what will CBC be? There needs to be something, or things, in its schedule that will make it a channel that interests TV viewers. For most Canadians, the recently cancelled Arctic Air, Cracked and Battle of the Blades were not those things. Nor, for that matter, are such renewed CBC properties as Heartland and Mr. D and Murdoch Mysteries.

During this spring of upheaval and downsizing, CBC brass have trumpeted such new titles as Schitt's Creek, a new comedy starring old SCTVers Eugene Levy and Catherine O'Hara, and Strange Empire, a dark, serialized Old West drama, as the type of programming that will help define a "new" CBC.

Whether one or both will become "tentpole" shows that lure masses of new viewers into the CBC fold remains to be seen. Going two-for-two on hit-series launches is highly unlikely, but it would certainly be a big help. What the CBC needs more than anything else is to have people care about what it's broadcasting on TV.

And to do that, the CBC needs to be something other than what most folks expect the CBC to be.

Here are a few things which, in one observer's opinion, the public broadcaster must and must not be as it moves into its uncertain future:

It must be: A destination for viewers. As the search for a new identity, CBC programmers would be wise to consider the game plans employed by several U.S. cable networks whose fortunes have risen sharply during the past decade. FX network transformed itself from a stale old-movie channel to a creator of noteworthy original programming, starting with The Shield and following with boundary-pushing titles such as Nip/Tuck, Rescue Me, Sons of Anarchy, Justified and American Horror Story. AMC got into the original-content game with Mad Men, then followed up with Breaking Bad, The Walking Dead and Hell On Wheels. The Starz cable net rebranded itself as an original-content programmer with Spartacus, Magic City, Boss, Da Vinci's Demons and Black Sails.

These days, networks are defined not just by the shows, but by the kinds of shows they carry. CBC needs titles that excite viewers, shows that people talk about as "CBC" shows.

It must not be: Safe. Because of its "all things to all people" mandate, CBC has rarely been inclined to challenge or risk offending its viewers. To be part of the water-cooler conversation these days, however, a "destination" network has to provide boundary-pushing shows that deliver "Did you see that?" moments. Put it this way: while shocked viewers were trying to wrap their heads around Game of Thrones' Red Wedding episode last season, it's unlikely that their TV chatter turned to what happened on that week's Heartland instalment.

It must be: A destination for content creators. By creating one, then two, then an expanding roster of original shows that expand the boundaries of TV drama and comedy, networks like FX, AMC and Starz, along with pay-TV heavy hitters HBO and Showtime, have become outlets with whom the brightest creative minds want to do business. There's really no such safe harbour for big TV ideas in Canada these days; CBC should seek to make itself one.

It must not be: All things to all people. The notion of reflecting Canada to Canadians was a noble goal -- and, perhaps, a necessary mandate -- for the public broadcaster back in the three-channel, over-the-air, pre-cable TV era before digital compression, channel expansion and multi-platform content delivery allowed every Canadian to find his or her individuality reflected in the content sources of their choosing. CBC can't be everything to everyone anymore, because the population is too diverse, the mandate is too broad and the competition is too fierce. It needs to forge a new mission statement and then pursue its amended goals with ferocity and courage.

It must be: Brilliant, frugal and brilliantly frugal. However its future unfolds, CBC is not going to have the budgetary might to create the next Game of Thrones or American Horror Story. But big TV success doesn't necessarily depend on fat budgets; in fact one of Canadian TV's biggest-ever hits, Trailer Park Boys, was created on a shoestring budget, but found a creative way to turn the absurdity of Canadian TV's funding system into the show's central low-budget conceit. TPB looked cheap on purpose, and fans loved it. It isn't a gimmick that could work a second time, but its success shows that unconventional thinking can yield unexpected results.

It must not be: Scared. At least, not outwardly. These are the most uncertain times the public broadcaster has ever faced, so fear is bound to be widespread throughout the organization as budget cuts are finalized, redundancy notices are sent out and those left in the CBC's employ figure out what to do next. But the people setting the new direction must act with purpose and aggression rather than fear and the basic desire to preserve what remains.

It must be: Willing to take BIG chances. In doing so, the CBC is bound to suffer some big failures on the way to achieving the big successes it needs to survive, but a few high-profile programming disasters aren't necessarily a bad thing if they're part of a process. Get Canadians talking about the CBC one way or another. Get them tuning in to see what the fuss is all about. And then -- with one great show, then a few, and then a roster -- give them a reason to stay.

What will the CBC be? In order to survive, something other than what we know as the CBC.

Twitter: @BradOswald

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 3, 2014 G3

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