The CBC, or, highbrow/lowbrow

I spoke to my father this evening, and we came to the topic of the CBC. Apparently, in his opinion, the CBC has hit a 'new low' this year with programming such as MVP (which has in fact already been cancelled), and The Week the Women Went (which has apparently been very popular, and will return for another run). My father's solution? The CBC should run "more of the good BBC shows".

Now -- I'm a total sucker for BBC programming. I'm not sure what percentage of my Netflix rentals over the last two years have been BBC shows, but it's a substantial number. I've gone through the new Doctor Who, As Time Goes By, Fawlty Towers -- and, actually, after that, the list starts (ahem) to get embarrassing. But, as I said to my father, "We're not a colony any more!". Given the near-saturation of Canadian channels with American (and, to a lesser extent, British) programming, my nationalist inclination is, perhaps problematically, this: if we're producing television about Canadians, and Canadians are watching it, that's a good thing. Genres that people watch -- yes, even soap operas and 'reality' television -- do have a place on the programming roster of a government-funded national broadcaster.

This is a problematic perspective, yes. The more I dig into the issue of nationalism, the more I'm inclined to see it as something toxic -- and, in fact, to think that Canada works reasonably well as a country specifically because it lacks the coherent, mythic identity of so many more powerful, and historically more dangerous, nations. At the same time, I have to dig in my heels when I see my national culture being subsumed -- or aborted? -- by Anglo-American imports. Even if its content is lowbrow, even if it's the product of a Canadian government institution, I instinctively regard Canadian cultural products as evidence of postcolonial resistance, be it to the colonial power of the past (Britain) or the pseudocolonial power of the present (the US). Perhaps I've spent too much time immersed in the work of Margaret Atwood, Dennis Lee, et. al. -- the generation of writers who came of age in the late 1960s -- but there still seems to me to be some inherent value in this enterprise.

There is, however, an inherent paradox in this argument, because at least with regard to television, what this comes down to is a debate about the model in which the CBC, as a public broadcaster, should be cast. Should it be highbrow, 'educational', something that strives to provide a clear alternative to the lowest-common-denominator programming of private broadcasters? Or, as an institution funded by taxpayers, should it be concerned with offering programming that appeals to as broad a range of Canadians as possible? The paradox: the former model is that of PBS; the latter, that of the BBC. So though I might defend a broader-based approach to programming by the CBC, including Canadian content of all stripes, what I'm really defending is the model of the BBC.

I'm not sure what the alternative is. Is there a third possibility, a new model for the CBC? Is our best option to simply follow the BBC model, with an emphasis on Canadian content (as was done literally with MVP, which turned Footballer's Wives into the wives of hockey players)? What I'd love would be a reinvigorated CBC, with all the shining glory of its best programming -- The Newsroom, Twitch City, This Hour has Seven Days, even the old Degrassi. What was so glorious about all of that old programming? Thinking, offhand, of these examples, I'd have to say that they were deeply Canadian without being intentionally Canadian. The express national identity, with little explicit nationalism. They didn't hide their Canadian attitudes, Canadian settings -- but they weren't terribly emphatic about them, either. They set aside most of the anxiety about national status, accepted that they were immersed in Canadian culture in a global age, and went about their business. Perhaps instead its persistent identity crises, the CBC could try learning from its past successes, and take these up as models.


Jane Austen Jr. said...

Yay! You're posting again. Also, I like that one of your tags is "My Dad". I hope that he makes guest appearances now and again.

You know which show I miss? Made in Canada. SO snarky, I loved it. I think you're right about all those older shows being very Canadian without trying. The Canadian identity crisis that can be seen on CBC lately is pretty embarrassing.

cancrit(at)gmail.com said...

Made in Canada was pretty great, I agree. It's The Newsroom that I miss most of all, though. I understand that it had run its course -- and I'd rather have them stop production than hobble along -- but still. Great, great series.

Katie said...

I also loved Made in Canada. Corner Gas was also good, and I think Robson Arms also has its moments, as a soapy-drama type show, with its snarky comic undercurrents. Note that both of these good Canadian shows are currently running on CTV, not CBC.