Updated: February 1, 2019
CBC CEO Catherine Tait said something truly insane on Thursday, and we owe her a debt of gratitude. It’s so rare that Canadians reach consensus on matters pertaining to Mother Corp. With Hockey Night in Canada now a Rogers production, there’s nothing left at CBC that really unites (anglophone) Canadians around their wireless sets — and even then, we were bitterly divided over the question of Don Cherry.
We can all agree, however, that Tait’s comments at a TV industry conference in Ottawa were bananas. “I was thinking of the British Empire and how if … you were the viceroy of India you would feel that you were doing only good for the people of India,” she said. “Or similarly, if you were in French Africa, you would think ‘I’m educating them, I’m bringing their resources to the world, and I’m helping them.’ There was a time where cultural imperialism was absolutely accepted.”
No word of a lie, she was talking about Netflix’s presence in Canada.
Tait conceded that “it is probably the most exciting time in terms of screened entertainment.” But what horrors might lie ahead? “What happens after imperialism and the damage that can do to local communities?” she asked. “Let us be mindful of how it is we as Canadians respond to global companies coming into our country.”
One struggles to imagine how anyone would arrive at the connection, let alone think it wise to articulate it in public. It seems foolish even to dignify it with a critique, but it’s particularly striking that subscribing to Netflix is a voluntary action — unlike, say, the French invasion of Algeria. Or getting mowed down by British soldiers. Or contributing to CBC’s annual subsidy.
It’s ridiculous and offensive on any number of levels. But it also bespeaks someone in a very important position who seems to be almost psychedelically out of touch with the corporation and the public she is supposed to work for.
To the vast majority of Canadians, including those who support the CBC, the idea that Netflix represents any kind of threat — and should thus be taxed or forced to carry minimum amounts of Canadian content or otherwise regulated, as various groups urge — will just seem irretrievably bizarre. Whether or not it’s a good idea, CanCon only works in a restricted market where channels broadcast specific things at specific times. Back in the day you might just find yourself bored enough to watch or listen to something you didn’t really want to, and it might just be Canadian.
No one watches anything on Netflix that they don’t want to — no one single, anyway — so there’s no earthly reason to put stuff there if people don’t want it. The irony, though, is that there’s a ton of Canadian content on Netflix, precisely because people want to watch it. And as University of Ottawa professor Michael Geist explained in a blog post on Friday, Netflix makes it very easy to find: Not only are there direct links to Canadian TV shows and films, but it algorithmically detects a user’s preference for CanCon and recommends other titles.
Goodness, just look at all the Canuck shows: Baroness Von Sketch Show, Workin’ Moms, Mr. D, Kim’s Convenience, Schitt’s Creek, Intelligence … hang on a tic, those are all CBC shows! How did those imperialist Silicon Valley pigdogs get their filthy hands on it?
Because as more and more Canadians cut the cord, Netflix is a perfectly logical place for CBC and the production companies it works with to showcase their work — not just to Canada but to the world. In short, there doesn’t seem to be any problem or threat here at all, to anyone — just success, and the opportunity for more.
If Tait’s in search of real problems at CBC, she needn’t struggle to find them. Perhaps most notably, the TV news offerings are basically indistinguishable from the commercial broadcasters’ — so what’s the point of them? Indeed, as I’ve argued before, CBC is long overdue for a comprehensive mandate review, and there is no time like the present. The Liberals in Ottawa are obsessed with media these days, to the point that they want to dole out hundreds of millions of dollars to struggling news organizations. Whatever you think of that idea, it makes no sense at all without first examining in detail how the CBC colossus fits into that marketplace. If the Liberals want a stronger public broadcaster, as they say, then they should launch a comprehensive review of everything it does and how it does it — especially since senior management seems unable to distinguish success from failure and opportunity from a 19th-century French military campaign.