Capital Broadcasts Culture

Reviewed by Jeff Fedoruk

The CBC’s Canada Reads program, having developed from a radio show in the early 2000s to a live television show with a studio audience in its present format, is probably the most immediate example of Canadian broadcasting on the topic of literature. Whether or not Canada Reads actually gets Canada reading, it is revealing that the program’s website outlines its producers’ initial designs for a reality TV show where books are voted “off the bookshelf” to create an intriguing scenario and promote a single book that the whole country should read and ultimately purchase. The books in this review do not concern Canada Reads, but they help to unpack the cultural politics of Canada’s broadcasting history, delineating the longstanding efforts of the CBC as well as the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) to shape national tastes while attempting to direct the influx of broadcasting capital. The relationship between broadcasting and its public is not as straightforward as producers often make it out to be.

Robert Armstrong’s Broadcasting Policy in Canada is a detailed and clearly written resource for understanding policy development and policy changes throughout the history of Canadian broadcasting. The second edition takes up digital broadcasting and digital rights more comprehensively, culminating with an open question concerning how policy might adapt to compensate for the revenues lost from Internet-recycled content that does not participate in the development or financing of programming. And while there are critical limitations to the large scope of Armstrong’s survey—the author readily admits that a full discussion of broadcasting’s social and cultural issues, for example, “would require a book-length treatment”—each chapter offers a platform for expanded discussion. There are interesting intersections between outright policy frameworks and the discourses surrounding their implementation, such as the regulations for Canadian content as stipulated in Canada’s Broadcasting Act, which, as Armstrong notes, leaves definitions of “what constitutes ‘Canadian creative resources,’ ‘Canadian programming,’ or a ‘Canadian program’ . . . to the discretion of the CRTC.” English and French language requirements, along with “ethnic programming” discretions, mean that the cultural content of Canadian broadcasting is highly centralized, less reflective of an active public and more an impression of what is sustainable for the industry. Armstrong’s conclusion is skeptical of the federal government’s role in public (and commercial) broadcasting, since, despite the CBC and CRTC supposedly operating at “arm’s-length,” Stephen Harper’s Conservative government appointed many Conservative supporters to the CBC’s Board of Directors; meanwhile, private broadcasting corporations—some of which financially supported the federal Conservative Party—were able to put pressure on broadcasting policy developments by threatening to withdraw their funds.

Len Kuffert’s Canada before Television focuses on the initial period of struggle between private and public broadcasting interests in Canada. Kuffert relies primarily on archived communications between CBC staff to trace the narrative of “cultural democracy” burgeoning in the CBC’s formation, organizing principles, and programming directives, given the consistent pressure of competing with private broadcasting stations for listener attention. It was not enough to simply gain more listeners; the “public” premise of the CBC meant that it was trying to cultivate tastes counter to British or US models. Kuffert’s use of taste as a key word enables a consistent analysis of CBC operations in the first few decades of its existence, linking Gladstone Murray’s intention to set “high standards” for the CBC with J. S. Thomson’s idea that public broadcasting should “leave them better than we found them.” The first chapter on radio “intimacy” also draws out the central notion that public Canadian broadcasting was intended as a form of direct communication between broadcaster and listener—even if this conversation ends up being somewhat one-sided. The general assumption that the listener was “valuable, impressionable, or eager to be entertained,” beyond guiding private and public programming, raises issues related to cultural conditioning, when the product-placed pop of private radio is contrasted with state-funded taste experimentation. Ultimately, capital flows through all radio waves, and even private stations must jump through political hoops to maintain certification. The “cultural democracy” that Kuffert examines, then, is less public and more bureaucratic, since “broadcasters could only imagine or plan for a limited range of listening outcomes, namely: continued interest in a program, tuning in something else, or switching off altogether.” Sure, one could write or call in to the station, but the listening “public” remains a relatively amorphous entity. The more detailed statistical data that digital media provides does not necessarily help the public cause, either—transformations in broadcasting technologies have only led to the defunding of public broadcasting.

Broadcasting began as an amateur hobby, and in this way it grew out of the public sphere, taking shape through cultural democratization as operators and listeners fumbled their way across the dials. The subsequent marketization and bureaucratization of broadcasting has distinguished and limited “amateur” pursuits, however. Stephen Broomer wrestles with this process in Hamilton Babylon, attempting to recuperate the history of the student-run McMaster Film Board—particularly with the story of its founding member, experimental filmmaker John Hofsess. There is a strong narrative thrust throughout Hamilton Babylon, from the Film Board’s early days and constant head-butting with the Student Union and school newspaper, to its participation in an international avant-garde scene, to its increasing commercialization in the hands of Ivan Reitman and Dan Goldberg, before it fizzled out completely after Columbus of Sex’s obscenity charges and under less talented management. Broomer might rely too much on notions of heroes and villains, pitting Hofsess and then Reitman and Goldberg against more antagonistic characters, but their efforts for artistic recognition with limited resources and support are telling of how quickly Canadian broadcasting had become reliant on stable genres and predictable audiences. The mistrust of the McMaster Film Board seems ill-informed now, but at the time there was little room in existing funding models for art films, and even now artists must navigate through layers of policy for funding opportunities in a system primarily meant to protect a centralized economy and centralized ideas of taste.

This review “Capital Broadcasts Culture” originally appeared in Eclectic Mix Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 234 (Autumn 2017): 129-130.

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