Fixing CBC

MCMSunday, April 23, 2006

CBC has been struggling for years to make an impact on Canadian TV while not sacrificing their mandate to be the voice of Canadians. It's a tough job to do, especially since we don't have a tax on TV outlets like some countries, and our culture isn't all that popular in our own borders. Yes, it's hard to sell Canada when more people watch the least popular show on American TV than do the biggest Canadian blockbuster.

The solution appears to be gutting the homegrown hits we do have, such as Da Vinci's City Hall and This is Wonderland. Sure, neither of them are mega-hits on the level of CSIor 24... but I find it astounding that the heads at CBC think they'll ever make a show with viewership in the tens of millions of people. Are they daft? If you try and make a name for yourself creating cheap knock-offs of slick brand-name items, you're going to be know for making cheap knock-offs of brand-name items! Gee, what'll I watch on Monday night: 24 or that new CBC show about a CSIS agent named Mack Bouter who is trying to stop terrorists from blowing up Calgary? Sigh.

So rather than necessarily trying to beat NBC, ABC, CBS and Fox at a game they very much dominate in this country, why not put some effort into doing something that oozes into the gray areas they don't cover.

More, more often, and shorter: Rather than trying to create the next big show that'll last for ten years and have a devoted following (which statistically almost never happens), why not make a series that lasts for 11 one-hour episodes and then wraps up, done for good, all's well that ends well? The benefits are many: you can cram more series into a year, meaning more actors and crew and producers get a crack at things, meaning you have a better chance of discovering the next Canadian superstar. If you have a show that gets decent ratings, but not stellar ones, it won't be long before it cycles out. Re-teaming certain acting pairs or production teams suddenly becomes big news, and makes hype for you. It's not a year built on slogging through the filler episodes, it's a year built on constant change... the drama is in the methodology as well as the shows it produces.

Shorter! Shorter!: An hour for a show? Bah. Make a block of time in the morning (between the early morning news and the mid-morning news) that is exclusively short-form dramas. Ten to fifteen minutes every day, a serialized drama, going about six months at most. Training ground for the 11-episode shows or vice versa, it's a great way to suck people in. I don't have an hour to spend watching a show in the morning, but I could set aside ten minutes to see something I especially like.

Variety Shows: There's this fantastic genre of show that exists in Japan that consists of stars from TV and music sitting around a strangely-dressed studio, talking about topical stories with moderation from a stand-up comedian. The shows are really hard to appreciate until you see them, but they're immensely popular. The thing in pitching such a show is that you can't really say why it's interesting, it just is. What the people say isn't scripted or planned, it's just the odd chemistry of a particular group of people going at each other (usually with the intention to get the biggest laugh) for an hour. Two hours, after dinner and up to prime time on CBC... raid your other shows for actors, plonk 'em on a stage, give 'em some beer and let 'em rip. I would give up any show on American TV to see Luba Goy and Rick Mercer drunk together.

Internets, obviously: Every single day, release the content you've made onto the web. Make a world-class media server, drop the complete broadcast files (including commercials) at a high resolution right out there. Make Podcasts of things so people can subscribe to shows. Put it all out there, no holds barred, ready to be eaten up. Hell, sell special advertising for an international audience and make CBC.ca the place to be for content on the web. No next-day release, no DRM, no "you can only watch this on one computer during the hours of 5 and 9 on Tuesdays"... put it out. The money you'll save by not trying to lock down unlockable content can be better spend paying for bandwidth. The reason American culture is so pervasive around the world is because they used the mechanisms to spread it far and wide. Luckily, they're buggering it up now with their obsession with DRM. Take the plunge, make the maple leaf the new cultural powerhouse on planet Earth.

In the end, none of these ideas matter, because there's always been this myopic view in Canada that we've either got to be more American to appeal to ourselves, or we've got to be so anti-American that we don't even like what we've become. The truth is much easier: we're American and not at the same time. A lot of American culture is the product of Canadians doing their thing south of the border. A lot of Canadian culture is not what we typically think of as "Canadian". We're a country with a billion little sub-classes, and yet we tend to ignore most of them. Give them all a shot at making it big, make our national broadcaster a true representation of the make-up of the nation.

If you scatter your assets, not everything is a life-and-death struggle, and you have more room to have more fun.

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