Sunday, 25 March 2012

The CBC and the Problem of Mediocrity

In praise of British produced television shows.

TUE MARCH 20, 2012 by Will Straw, Communications Professor, McGill 

The only way the CBC will ever produce a world-class piece of entertainment is if the Corporation starts partnering with other media companies.
I spent many evenings this winter addicted to The Killing, a two-season crime serial produced by Danmarks Radio (Denmark’s national broadcaster) and subtitled in English for its successful run on the British network BBC 4. The British success of The Killing sparked a surge of interest in the UK for all things Danish, and the series itself was remade in a U.S. version which debuted in 2011.
All through The Killing, I found myself wondering why English-language CBC television had never produced anything so good or so internationally successful. (The French-language arm of our national broadcaster is a much different and generally happier story.) The familiar argument about English-Canadian television being held back by its small market and smaller talent pool hardly applies here. The population of Denmark is roughly one-fifth that of Anglophone Canada – almost equal, in fact, to the number of French-speaking Canadians. It’s true that The Killing was written by a popular author of Danish crime novels, and that its lead actors had honed their craft in dozens of locally produced and film and television series. Canada is hardly lacking in popular novelists, however, and our professional actors are nothing if not versatile and hard-working.
The CBC’s failure to produce a series like The Killing still puzzles me, but the dream that our national broadcaster might be more like its counterparts in European countries is a familiar and longstanding one. Like many who have grown up with the CBC and cared for it, I’ve dreamed of it becoming more like the BBC – an internationally trusted brand, the go-to place for news and quality programming.
Of course, much of what we think of as superior British television (Prime Suspect, say, or the current hit Dowton Abbey) was produced for networks other than the BBC (ITV, in both cases, with American PBS station WGBH coproducing the latter.) The high achievement of British television runs across the system, with private networks forced to fulfill stringent public service obligations and to buy their programming from clusters of independent production companies. The independent boom in British cinema in the 1980s had much to do with the commitment of the then-new Channel 4 to producing and showing films by upstart young filmmakers (think My Beautiful Laundrette or Young Soul Rebels.)
It’s hard to imagine Canadian private television networks supporting a national film industry in the way that Channel 4 did. The fact that we ask so little of these private networks may be one reason we expect so much of the CBC. Still, there’s no reason not to envision the CBC being more active as a partner in the early stages of Canadian feature film production, then showcasing these films in its schedule once their theatrical runs are complete. More generally, Canada needs a tighter integration of the different parts of its audiovisual production system. When Telefilm Canada, the National Film Board and the CBC fail to see each other as natural partners in that system, none benefits from the skills, assets or successes of the other.
My first suggestion for improving the CBC, then, would be this: that we re-imagine its relationship to other pieces in our audiovisual puzzle, like the NFB or Telefilm Canada. If we remain committed to supporting films and television programs with public money, as I hope we will, we should direct that money in ways that would pull these different institutions into tighter, more effective kinds of collaboration. (This reimagining, I hasten to add, would touch dramatic programming only. News, sports and variety programming are another story.)
At the same time, I would urge the CBC to engage in more international co-production of dramatic programs, spreading its brand around the world and opening itself up to new influences. In return, we might “internationalize” the CBC schedule a little more, countering U.S. influence with a rich, multinational diversity rather than an all-Canadian cultural breakwater. I’d happily give up a little prime-time CanCon in return for a top quality Danish thriller on the CBC on Saturday night. I’d be even happier if I knew Canadian programs were finding their way onto prime time schedules in countries around the world.
Will Straw is the director of the McGill Institute for the Study of Canada.

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