Blades or Ballet on CBC? It’s not an either/or proposition

June 22, 2012

“President says CBC can’t be all things to all people.” That’s one of the headlines that made the rounds after a speech I gave in Toronto a few weeks back to talk about the future of public broadcasting. It’s true, we can’t, and there’s no pretending we can. Missing from that headline, however, is the second and much more important notion – which was in that same speech – that CBC can and must “be something for, and mean something special to, every Canadian.” That, ultimately, is our goal.

A reduced budget for the public broadcaster, a digital revolution, industry consolidation: today’s mediascape has prompted new discussion across the country about where public broadcasting fits in the mix. People are thinking about it, talking about it, sharing ideas with each other and with us. That, in and of itself, is great to see. It’s a reassuring sign that public broadcasting matters.

Front and centre in the discussion is the age-old question of whether CBC/Radio-Canada should be “elitist” or “popular.” Whom should it serve, and how? Or, as it was recently framed in the Toronto Star’s online feature, The Network, should CBC be doing ballet or Battle of the Blades?

I’ll suggest that public broadcasting isn’t an either/or proposition. It can’t be. Its role isn’t to discriminate and serve only this or that audience, or deliver only this or that story or program, or do it on only this or that platform. Rather, it’s to embrace the wonder of our diversity, reflect the depth and fullness of our culture, and enrich our democratic lives in so doing.

CBC/Radio-Canada has a mandate to serve everyone when it comes to distinctively Canadian content. Across the whole range of everything we do, one will find a broad range of services and program offers that seek to build audiences and grow popularity among Canadians without sacrificing cultural meaning, relevance or quality. That’s the way it should be. Truly and respectfully, one or the other just won’t do.

The biggest issue with the ballet or Blades dichotomy is that it’s a primetime English TV-centric and thus narrow-sighted row. Whereas our mandate calls for a wide range of programming that informs, enlightens and entertains across multiple regions and platforms, and in multiple languages. There’s good reason for that, and ensuring the availability and accessibility of that range is at once both our biggest challenge and greatest opportunity.

A news clip on CBC News Network story might make Jenn vote. A guest on a local CBC Radio One morning show might make Stefan see his neighbour in a new light. A discussion on CBC.ca might make Anick want to get involved in a community project. A playlist on CBC Music might lead Sanjay to discover his new favourite band. An emergency news bulletin received via CBC Mobile Services might get Lei information that could save her life. A primetime TV drama that Melinda turns to just to relax might unexpectedly show her something about Newfoundland that makes her want to plan a trip there, while a Thursday night documentary about a fossil discovery in Alberta might make Logan want to become a paleontologist.

To have something for everyone, and to mean something to everyone: that’s what public broadcasting should aspire to, and that’s our goal. We offer some 30 different services today across multiple platforms in English and in French from coast to coast to coast, and in eight Aboriginal languages in the North. Classical music, kids programming and reality TV all have their place in that offer, as does so much else that trying to catalogue it all is to do it a disservice. It’s quite an array, and more and more Canadians are taking note. Our research last Fall shows that 81 percent of Canadians use at least one of our services in a typical week. Eighty-one percent each week: as far as public services go, that seems a solid usage rate. Of course, our challenge is to help the other 19 percent discover that there’s something in what we do for them as well. And no doubt there is.

I invite all Canadians to scan our services, to peruse our schedules and online offerings. There, if you haven’t already come upon it, I’m confident you’ll discover that there’s something special for – and something of interest and of meaning to – you.

Hubert T. Lacroix
President and CEO
CBC/Radio-Canada

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