Zooming in on what went wrong at the CBC
The Globe and Mail, October 23,, 1993
Fade To Black: A Requiem for the CBC
By Wayne Skene
Douglas & McIntyre, 287 pages, $28.95
You’re dead, son; get yourself buried.
—J.J. Hunsecker in Sweet Smell of Success
“Requiem” is definitely the appropriate noun in this instance. The television part of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation has been dead for about two years now. It’s still shuffling around, of course. But Wayne Skene’s book illustrates with copious detail, well-marshaled evidence and calm, reasoned argument that the CBC TV network seldom — if ever — knew what it was doing when it was alive. And whenever it made a decision, it always made the wrong one.
In a work that focuses on the past few years, Skene — a former CBC manager — takes note of the network’s dwindling audience numbers. The trend they indicate might lead one to conclude that Canadians just don’t want to “go public,” no matter how many times such a notion is drilled into them. But Canadians obviously do want public television. They want it so badly that the American Public Broadcasting System knows it can rely on some funding from north of the 49th parallel.
So how did this happen? Skene’s detailed post-mortem first offers evidence of a severely sclerotic management system. The biggest chunk of the corporation is its head office, a triangular building on Ottawa’s Bronson Avenue. Fade To Black paints a picture of hundreds of people whose connection to broadcasting is not immediately apparent making all the decisions about where CBC money goes and which programs will be produced and where and who will produce them. These are the very people who decided, in December 1990, that radical amputation was the best way to revive an already sickly patient, firing hundreds of people and canceling all local production except for news at the network’s affiliates.
Skene recalls that, as a member of a task force “trying to figure out what ‘Head Office’ was and where we could cut it, I walked into two managers’ offices whose desks were clean of paper and clutter — except for the crossword puzzles sitting, poised for instant use, in the middle of each desk.”
“It is like a Potemkin Village,” an unnamed Toronto television manager is quoted as saying. “Everybody looks busy doing jobs they don’t know anything about.”
Another major reason for the corpse’s expiration was a deadly combination of problems. Skene works up a corporate pathology, including arthritis, which made the CBC incapable of adapting to the vicissitudes of the broadcasting business; acute myopia, which made in unable to see obvious facts; and a cavalier disregard for the audience.
By Skene’s reckoning, too much of his circa-15 years at the CBC was spent puzzling over chunk after chunk of pretzel logic policy and management decisions that he suggests would have confused Franz Kafka.
Given those circumstances, you might expect this to be a bitter book. But it’s clear from the outset that Skene wants only to understand why something with as much promise as the CBC kept shooting itself in the foot.
He trains his sights on English television for most of the book because he believes that where the most demonstrably disastrous decisions were made (tripartite prime-time confusion, over-dependency on sports, too many Anne Murray specials, killing The Journal, launching Newsworld, for example).
Radio gets comparatively sparse mention because it saved itself. The people at CBC Radio figured out how to run a national public broadcasting service about 20 years ago, and not even the ham-fisted meddling of the recent “Creative Renewal” initiative could ruin it.
Throughout the book, one piece of damning evidence after another adds up to a guilty verdict leveled at whatever it is that passes for management at the CBC. Skene takes pains to show that the people who actually shot the pictures, recorded the sounds, asked the questions, came up with the program ideas, wrote the scripts and got it all on the air worked hard. Most of them are portrayed as professionals who take pride in their work. Many of them have left the corporation in frustration or been pushed out by a management which Skene demonstrates prefers obedience to creativity.
As Fade To Black makes clear, this didn’t have to happen. Former CBC president Gérard Veilleux saw it coming and tried to stop it, and having made no headway finally quit. Patrick Watson was touted as a potential savior for a while, but Skene comes down hard on him for rapidly switching allegiances from his broadcasting colleagues to a coterie of powerful new friends in Ottawa.
The next time you’re channel-surfing and find mystifying signals at the spot on the dial where the CBC used to be, you’ll have this book to tell you how and why that happened.