By Dorothy Dobbie
In the Broadcasting Act of 1991, the mandate of the CBC states that “the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, as the national public broadcaster, should provide radio and television services incorporating a wide range of programming that informs, enlightens and entertains.”
The mandate lists three of its seven priorities as: “be predominantly and distinctively Canadian, reflect Canada and its regions to national and regional audiences, while serving the special needs of those regions; actively contribute to the flow and exchange of cultural expression; and contribute to shared national consciousness and identity.”
Nothing is more in tune with these values than the performing arts in Canada, particularly, the regional symphony orchestras, the various theatre companies and the ballet and opera companies, all of which serve the CBC mandate in uniquely Canadian ways.
These companies not only provide for the expression of Canadian culture, they produce countless jobs in both the creative and operational business spheres. They also offer opportunities for the development of trades and skills in building sets, making costumes, creating and repairing musical instruments and so on. The talent and enterprise they nurture and the atmosphere their presence creates in our communities encourage innovations that extend to other business pursuits.
COVID-19 has hit them hard – as hard or harder on a proportional basis than has been visited on any other sector, including the airlines, and certainly harder than on summer sports. Nor will it be easy for them to recover until there is a vaccine for the COVID-19 virus. Meanwhile, thousands of artists, arts administrators, and trades people will be unemployed because audiences are forced to stay away. If they do open, it will be with sharply curtailed revenues from audiences sticking to social distancing codes.
CBC television can become an important vector for recovery, and at the same time regain much of its original mandate. Each individual company will devise ways to stay safe and avoid spreading the virus (and they are generally very intelligent people), but the gigantic resources of CBC television can be put at their disposal on a regional basis. Prime time viewing hours would be turned over to this very important expression of our Canadianism. (Daytime could remain as it currently is, basically devoted to kids, but here again are opportunities for Canadian culture).
CBC has the professional production capacity and, most importantly, the delivery mechanism to make this possible in a seamless way. Programming will be produced locally and shared on a rotational basis to promote intra-Canadian understanding. This could dovetail neatly with CBC’s emerging digital capacity. It would make far more sense than piecing out tiny sums to individual groups. The aggregated effort would pack a powerful punch on the Internet.
With planning and development, this programming can be sold to audiences in burgeoning economies of Southeast Asia and others.
Government, which has been generous with other industry, should be expected to pitch in to help the companies weather the losses the spring shut down imposed on all of them. This should be looked at as an investment, not a handout.
Professional digital/television won’t end live performances. People need to be with people and the live performances will return. But CBC television has been a lame duck for many years, thinking of itself as in competition with the private broadcasters. It is not.
Becoming the broadcaster for Canada’s performing arts will give the corporation new life. It will give Canadians new options. And it will bring Canadian art into the homes of many who cannot afford to attend concerts or plays.
Dorothy Dobbie, is the former President of the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra and a Former Chair of the Canadian Arts Summit 2015.