CBC and Mansbridge still standing, but for how long?


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Word on the street is that Stephen Harper has changed his mind.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 29/10/2009 (4960 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Word on the street is that Stephen Harper has changed his mind.

The CBC’s revamped The National is just too compelling. Contrary to last week’s pronouncement, the prime minister has tuned back in to Canadian TV news. Sayonara, CNN and CNBC.

Sorry, but it’s too tempting to make jokes about the People’s Network in wake of this week’s ambitious relaunch of the flagship 10 p.m. newscast.

The National’s Peter Mansbridge is outstanding in his studio.

Its major esthetic change, as all have noted, is that anchor Peter Mansbridge now stands and talks, a little like Letterman and Leno delivering their monologues.

He interviews his guests and the reporters as they stand facing him around a Plexiglas table. This is similar to what the CBC did in its live coverage of the last federal election.

The camera takes in the subjects’ full bodies in profile and often from the rear. (Any journalist with an over-ample posterior risks being jettisoned in the next round of layoffs, save for Mansbridge, of course, even though from the side he resembles that old graphic of Alfred Hitchcock).

Globe and Mail TV critic John Doyle said the new set reminds him of a bar: "The beer taps and liquor bottles were missing."

In the Toronto Star, Greg Quill noted: "The lingering impression is one of compression and pace at all costs."

Some of adjustments are fine. The new music theme zips along. The hour opens with a commercial-free segue from the previous show. At the end, it also segues mercifully without ads to the new 10-minute local update.

"Holy crap," the veteran Toronto TV critic Bill Brioux said on his blog, "CBC is behaving like a network."

Most of these changes, however, are cosmetic, as is changing Newsworld’s name to "CBC News Network." The innovations that may work in the long run are those on the new digital platforms, including podcasts and news programming for mobile devices.

The CBC, like all conventional media, including this newspaper, faces enormous pressures, most brought on by ever-developing technology.

There are more media choices than ever before but still just 24 hours in a day to consume them and a fixed amount of advertising to go around.

How to maintain a share of the pie is everyone’s problem. Privately owned media, such as CTV, Global and, again, this newspaper, are accountable only to their customers. But the CBC, with its $1.1 billion in annual federal funding, must endure continual public scrutiny.

The network had a budget shortfall of $171 million this past year and laid off 800 people across the country.

It claims it has found the money for this expensive rebranding — not to mention its current campaign with the privates for carriage fees from cable companies — through back office integration of its various news functions.

When the CBC was born, it made sense to try to be all things to all people, an electronic ribbon of steel. In today’s fragmented media landscape, the argument for a public broadcaster must rest on excellence.

The radio side of the CBC largely achieves this. It provides a service not duplicated by private stations. On TV, the argument is less persuasive.

True, prime-time CBC programming is now virtually all-Canadian. But Canadian content is not synonymous with excellence, or even popularity.

The CBC’s parliamentary appropriation has declined in real terms for 25 years. It is said to be the third lowest for public broadcasters in the industrialized world. The CBC gets roughly $34 per person per year. The BBC in England gets $124.

We can mock the network’s performance, but we should be asking hard questions.

Do we need a public broadcaster in TV news, sports and public affairs today? Is there a more efficient way to realize Canadian content and to keep Canadians employed in TV production? Or should we bite the bullet and fund the CBC the way other civilized countries support their public broadcasters?

Answers that meet wide approval deserve a standing ovation. From Peter Mansbridge… and Stephen Harper.



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