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Richard Stursberg: The sad truth is that Pierre Poilievre may be right about the CBC

Commentary

Pierre Poilievere wants to defund the CBC. Not all of it, just English TV and the English news network. He proposes to keep the French services and English radio intact. In his fundraising ads, he says “Send me $20 and I will save you a billion”. His math is poor, but his attack is sophisticated. 

The possible savings are not even close to a billion. The news network finances itself from cable fees and advertising. There are no government dollars involved. As for the billion dollars of public subsidy (1.25 actually), it is traditionally split 60/40 English/French and 80/20 TV/ radio, so there is only 750 million for English services, of which 20 percent goes to radio. Thus, there are only 600 million dollars spent on English TV, not the billion Poilievre claims. 

Although not good at math, Poilievre’s approach is clever. Unlike his predecessors, he does not attack CBC/Radio-Canada as a whole, just English TV. Why? Because it’s the weakest of all the services. Radio-Canada’s TV service, Ici Tele, has a 25 percent prime-time share, Ici Radio 17 percent, English radio 17 percent, and English TV 5 percent. English TV’s audiences have been shrinking for more than a decade. It is now a service with almost no viewers and what it has skews very old. 

As audiences collapse, so does public support for the service. This is not particularly surprising. Why would Canadians care about or want to protect English TV when it no longer matters in their lives? Why spend their political capital on a service that is irrelevant to them? 

The problems of English TV are not new. At the beginning of this century, its share of prime time had been in decline for 30 years. In 2004, its share had fallen to the lowest level ever. There was considerable despair about whether it could be revived. 

Beginning in 2005, a new strategy was put in place based on making Canadian shows that Canadians wanted to watch. This was considered a radical and likely impossible undertaking. There were also fears that CBC would be “dumbed down”. The strategy was inspired by the BBC’s famous assertion: “Audiences are everything to us”. (Full disclosure: I was the head of English TV at the time.)

The strategy had two components. First, it was necessary to get rid of the shows that nobody was watching. The performing arts block (essentially ballet on TV) was eliminated; the coverage of increasingly obscure arts awards was ended (everything from the Urban Music Awards to the Gillers); and the historical documentaries masquerading as drama (endless Canadian political figures from the deep past) were dumped. The rule was simple: if nobody is watching a show, it must go. 

Second, new shows were commissioned that respected the TV conventions that English Canadians preferred. A long parade of hits began: Little Mosque on the Prairie, Heartland (now into season 16 and still on the network), Dragon’s Den (now in its 17th. season), Battle of the Blades (that would garner an incredible 3 million viewers), The Rick Mercer Report, on and on. The new shows dramatically lifted English TV’s audiences. Its all-Canadian prime-time lineup made it the number two network in the country behind only CTV’s largely all-American schedule. 

As the audiences improved, Canadians’ impression of English TV improved. In survey after survey, Canadians said that they valued it more, that it was more distinct, and that it was essential to them personally. Interestingly, morale within the corporation also improved. In 2006, only 41 percent had been optimistic about the future of the CBC; by 2010, the number had climbed to 74 percent. 

The falling audiences of English TV have no doubt dramatically eroded Canadians’ confidence in the network. Unfortunately, the CBC does not report Canadians’ attitudes to the different services, service by service. Rather it rolls up Canadians’ attitudes across all services, including the very popular French ones and English radio. It is impossible to imagine, however, that Canadians’ support for English TV has not vanished as its audiences have disappeared. 

Pierre Poilievre’s polling doubtless shows this. That is why his focus is on the part of the CBC that is weakest and most vulnerable. He has no fundraising ads in Quebec, urging French Canadians to give him money to defund Radio-Canada. 

The sad truth is that Pierre Poilievre may be right. Perhaps it’s time to eliminate English TV. What is the point in maintaining all of its infrastructure, personnel, and unwatched shows if nobody cares? Perhaps it’s time to try something new. If the CBC were a normal corporation with multiple product lines, where one was failing and the others were strong, that is exactly what would be done. 

The alternative to Poilievre’s suggestion would be to take the $600 million spent on English TV and not return it to the public purse. Instead, it could be spent on creating a digital on-demand service, featuring the best Canadian documentaries, dramas, kids’ shows, and comedies. Like Netflix or Disney Plus, the shows would be streamed and available to Canadians whenever they wanted to watch them. 

It’s worth noting that the $600 million would trigger much more than $600 million worth of production. The new service would presumably have access to the Canadian production subsidies (the tax credits, the Canadian Media Fund, and the coproduction treaties), which would easily raise the amount of new money entering the system to more than a billion dollars. To put this amount in perspective, the total expenditure on Canadian entertainment shows in 2021 was not quite $570 million.

This would be a colossal shot in the arm for Canadian TV production, at a time when the money committed by the private sector to Canadian entertainment shows has been falling year over year for many years. It would also constitute a new beginning for English television, one which might not only save the network from irrelevance but also position it to make a major, future contribution to Canadian culture. 

Malcolm Jolley: An ode to the third place

Commentary

A large café closed around the corner from where I live in mid-town Toronto. It took up two storefronts and was fronted by large floor-to-ceiling windows facing the street. I would walk by it several times a week because it was housed underneath my gym, and I would often see friends and neighbours through the windows, working on laptops by themselves or having a coffee and a chat for some kind of meeting.

I don’t know the intimacies of the café’s business or its troubles, other than an eviction notice on the door said the owners owed a couple hundred thousand in back rent. On the Summerhill stretch of Yonge Street, that might not take too long to accumulate. What the closure made me think of was the idea of the “third place” and that the regulars who populated it, especially in this era of remote work, would miss it.

The idea of the third place, where people can gather that’s neither home nor work, was developed formally by the American sociologist Ray Oldenburg in the late 1980s and ’90s. But the concept of the third place was popularized in physical manifestation by Howard Schultz, the president of Starbucks who led the chain to its explosive growth in the final decade and a half of the 20th century.

Schultz positioned Starbucks as an American version of the Italian espresso bar (or just “bar”, since most serve alcohol too), and serve as a meeting place for all sorts of occasions in a village or city neighbourhood. In Anglo-Celtic Europe, the traditional third place is the “public house”; or the “local”, which performs the same function. It’s where you go to hang out.

Churches, of course, are also third places. And gyms or sports clubs allow for that function too. In warmer climates, a town square is also a natural place for people to habitually cognate outside of the pressures and obligations of family and work life.

Back in Toronto, despite our recent loss, my neighbourhood still has lots of coffee shops. Some are closer to in-and-out Italian bars selling mostly take-out, others more inviting of laptop workers. It also has a few pubs, and I am a regular at one, where I meet people or take some reading to do over a casual lunch or a beer in the late afternoon once or twice a week.

Part of the charm of going to a place where everybody knows your name is that things mostly stay the same there, so change, when it comes, is noted. Not long ago I spotted a new red tap behind the bar and was pleased to see it read in white lettering “Oast House” and ordered a pint of the clean drinking Pap’s Pilsner.

An oast house was the building in damp British breweries where hops were dried in kilns. The Niagara Oast House Brewers is a brewery just outside of Niagara-on-the-Lake that was established by three employees of the Inniskillin winery in 2012. At first, it was a kind of local secret and a treat to try their artisan beers on trips to wine country. Trying the Oast pilsner brought back memories of wine trips and the maybe not-so-well-known relationship between wine-making and beer.

I fear many outsiders to the wine trade think it’s full of snobs. It may have more wine snobs than other groups, but it’s the same trade that makes, sells, and writes about all the wines, so in my experience the true snobs are mostly consumers who can afford to buy only expensive wines. As I have written before, if all you drink is fancy wine, then you’ll miss out on some simple pleasures, and most of us in the thick of it try and keep our minds open.

But even if you spend a day tasting through beautifully made wines, or especially if you have spent a day tasting through any kind of wine, few things taste as good at the end of it as a beer. Wine is high in acid, which is why it almost always benefits from being served with food.

With some sour exceptions, beer is generally low in acid and slakes thirst while camping the palate. They say it takes a case of beer to make a case of wine, and I can see why after a day of constantly tasting the product and physical labour in the vineyard or cellar, many if not most winemakers and crew would welcome a cold one after a long day. 

The wine press, by and large, likes beer too. Some writers also cover beer and are aficionados in their own right. Others, like me, just like a break and enjoy the product without thinking too much about it, especially after a long day of tasting. On my last trip to Alba, to taste the newly released Barolo, Barbaresco and other Langhe wines, a few of my colleagues and I discovered a bar devoted to birre artigianale near our hotel.

The bar, which does not seem to have survived the pandemic, soon became an unofficial canteen for the foreign press. Cold glasses of IPA were bought between colleagues who’d spent the day swilling and spitting young, highly tannic wines. Sure enough, we discovered a few winemakers in there too one night, and I was able to arrange a winery visit on my free day based on the meeting.

It was our own impromptu third place between work and home; a place to drink a beer and talk about wine after the busy events of the day, during that time when small conversations happen and life is mostly lived.