The CBC Must do Slow TV and More

by Jonathan Brun

slow-television

Over the past few years I have come to know many journalists at the CBC/Radio-Canada and as a concerned Canadian citizen, I have grown worried about the fate of our public broadcaster. This summer and fall, I had the pleasure and privilege of sitting down with Shelagh Kinch, head of CBC Québec, and twice with Hubert Lacroix, president of CBC/Radio-Canada. The meetings were all a closed-door frank discussions of the challenges our public broadcaster faces in this evolving media landscape.

I went into the meetings as a skeptic, thinking that Lacroix might be doing Harper’s biddings with the cuts he has implementer or thinking that the CBC did not really want to change. During the three meetings, both Hubert and Shelagh expertly outlined the important changes the organization is making to trim costs and modernize its service offerings. They confronted challenges – from Aboriginals who felt left out of the CBC reporting to millennials who hated their simple apps to rural communities who were not getting coverage. They spoke truthfully and honestly and I am now convinced there is progress.

High Tech Solutions

The apps are looking better and specific projects such as the World Cup video player and the Sochi Olympics show the CBC understands the potential for digital tools to compliment and augment content. Yet, the cuts continue and one wonders how much innovation and high quality content they will be able to produce with their reduced staffs and budgets. There is enough commentary on their need for better technology, going mobile and going online – so I will not add to it.

Low Tech Solutions

Though the CBC needs to keep its apps, online solutions and interactive productions up to speed with consumer expectations, there is an area that the CBC has yet to tap. The national Norwegian broadcaster, NKR, recently embarked on a simple, counter intuitive and powerful type of show: Slow TV.

One of their producers recently gave a hilarious and inspiring TED Talk on the subject. The concept is ridiculously simple, film apparently mundane events in real time and show them on television. The Norwegians did a seven hour show that filmed a train crossing the country, then they filmed a five day boat journey from southern Norway to Northern Norway, then a show an 8 hour show that included cutting and burning firewood and most recently, they filmed 8 hours of salmon fishing, it took 3 hours to catch the first fish!

There are a few remarkable things about this. First, over 20% of the Norwegian population tuned in at some point to these shows. Secondly, it build a link between Norwegians as the events filmed were all closely tied to their National identify. And lastly, the shows go against everything you are taught about the modern viewer – that you need action, plot-lines, big budgets and drama to keep someone engaged. Of course, Slow TV cannot replace all forms of television, but it is a beautiful compliment to our frenetic lives and bombardment of our minds with action, explosions and violence.

As you watch these shows, you are forced to slow down your own thinking and you suddenly start to see the layers and nuances that exist in life. You watch someone cutting firewood and you slowly see the scares on their hands, the look in their face and the forest around them. You see details and perhaps you even start to construct a plot. Was this person who is cutting wood a good father? Was he a good son? How did he end up where he is? Of course, you do not and will not get the answers, but just having the time to ask the questions changes the way you see yourself and your fellow citizens.

The CBC should produce Slow TV. They can start with just one show and like the NKR, it should be an annual or semi-annual event. The show should focus on something Canadian and it should help build our national identity. Perhaps the Trans-Canadian train, a long sled ride across the north, a long canoe trip, fishing, or some other event. Slow TV would be a low-tech, low-cost solution that makes Canadians wake up to the need for a National Broadcaster to link us together and maintain our national identity.

No Magic Solutions

Yet, despite progress, there are no magic solutions. A number of interesting statistics were highlighted by Hubert Lacroix. In short, the CBC only receives $29 per Canadian per year and has a mandate to serve all Canadians, in two languages and in six time zones. In contrast, the Norwegian broadcaster, NKR, receives 180$ per Norwegian. Also of note, the cuts did not start under Harper, but have been a continuous trend for the last twenty years. If you also include the current massive migration of ad revenue to online platforms such as Facebook and Google, the CBC is between a rock and a hard place.

funding-chart
It is easy to say, “Be like the BBC” – produce more and better content and you’ll get more funding. However the BBC gets $ 97 per Brit (and there are more of them) and they only have to serve one time zone in one language, it’s like an NHL team competing against a junior hockey team.

Despite the underdog story, the CBC has clearly thought through their options and there are many smart and devoted people working there. They have summarized their strategy in the CBC Plan for Us All, which lays out their attempt to modernize their offerings and go digital. The plan is good, but ultimately not enough. Hubert Lacroix is a very smart man and I believe he is sincere in his attempts to save the CBC, despite what some former Radio-Canada journalists might believe. Beyond government cuts and ad revenue issues, there are problems with the unionized workforce that protects older employees and reduces their ability to hire young digital natives, there are also inherited costs of infrastructure and a perception in Western Canada that the CBC is not worth anything. The list of problems is long, but the key element here is a lack of resources.

At the end of the day, the CBC needs to drive eyeballs and ears to their content and the best way to do that is through high quality and differentiated content – such as Slow TV. Easier said than done. When top-quality productions like House of Cards cost 7 million dollars to produce, for one hour of television and the most costly CBC show ever, The Border, cost 1.3 million dollars an hour to produce, it is clear that the CBC cannot compete with HBO and Netflix. Ultimately the English part of CBC is competing with the United States and so far, Canadians seem to prefer US shows. The CBC could cut a lot of mediocre shows, but that still won’t be enough. And, it is notoriously hard to pick winners and losers based on scripts. The head of a major Hollywood studio once said, “If I had said yes to all the films I refused and no to all the films I produced, I would be in the same place.” With the current funding, the numbers just do not work and there is no clear way the CBC can dig itself out of its current death spiral.

Sure, they could try and emulate some other broadcasters with higher quality reporting. They could try and jump on a variety of internet platforms that the ‘cool’ kids are using, Facebook, Twitter, today and Quartz and Medium tomorrow. Tackling multiple and ever changing platforms is a very hard challenge and likely futile, it requires intimate understanding of the nature of the platforms and constant adaptation to new platforms. It strikes me as unsustainable for the CBC to chase after all these broadcast channels. The only way to bring back the CBC is to produce great, innovative and Canadian content.

To produce great content, in a market that is overshadowed by Hollywood, we need to decide as a society if the CBC is something Canada believes in. At first, I was a skeptic of the CBC’s desire to change or to invest in new talent. They have been slow to move on data journalism, online access to content, mobile apps and data visualization – but they are headed in that direction. Their plan is good and their top brass seem keenly aware of the need to move faster. Now, there remains only one remaining piece in the ‘Save the CBC puzzle’, Canadians.

A public broadcaster is a societal decision. We must decide if we want one and if we do, we must give it the means to fight in a competitive market and produce great content. Each Canadian should contribute, from one source or another, as much as the average of the top twenty countries, 82$ per year. That would nearly triple the current funding and would allow the CBC to actually invest in it’s people, which represent 70% of its costs, and its technology. Frankly, more money is the only solution for our public broadcaster and the only people who can make that happen are Canadians. Canadians need to wake up and choose between a well funded CBC or no CBC at all.

So, in no particular order are four crazy ideas for the CBC.

1. Become a Landlord Not a Tenant.

The CBC is proposing to sell its real estate and become a tenant of newer, more modern buildings. It has closed large buildings in Canadian cities and is downsizing its physical footprint. Instead, the CBC should grow its footprint and use the extra real estate to offer affordable rents to emerging artists and innovative technical organizations who can work with and compliment CBC offerings – helping plant good ideas in the CBC.

2. Move away from Windows and costly web hosting

CBC could likely save millions of dollars by movings its computer terminals away from Microsoft products and movings its hosting solutions to lower cost hosts.

3. Reduce the footprint in Toronto and grow operations in Montreal, or other low cost cities

By moving a good portion of operations to Montreal or other Canadian cities, salaries and real estate costs could be dramatically reduced from the current downtown Toronto operation.

4. Go on a Strike and/or Run

To wake Canadians up to the reality of the funding at the CBC, the staff and administration could hold an unlimited strike. The risk is of course Harper shuts down the CBC, but the upside is he might be forced to increase funding – a little friendly wager shall we say. Hubert Lacroix likes to jog, so perhaps during the strike he could run across Canada – Terry Fox style – to raise awareness for the CBC and its handicap. It could even be filmed as Slow TV!

I hope you will join me in encouraging the CBC and its attempt to modernize and grow for a 21st century audience.