Canada's top network fights to overcome lure of US programs

Pierre Juneau, president of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, hit the front page of the Toronto Globe and Mail again last week. It's not that unusual. To Canadians, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) is more than just a television and radio network. It is a national unifier, a cultural force, a supporter of the arts, and one of Canada's largest business concerns.

Canada is a large but thinly populated country with considerable regional or language tensions, says Mr. Juneau. ``By presenting events from one part of the country to other parts, the CBC helps keep the people together.''

Subsidized by the government, the CBC costs each Canadian about a quarter a day through their taxes. Parliament has given it $869.5 million ($634 million US) for the 1986 fiscal year. That helps finance the CBC's English and French television, its AM and FM radio programs, its service to northern Canada in native languages, its broadcasting of parliamentary discussions via satellite to cable TV, and its short-wave version of Voice of America: Radio Canada International, which broadcasts in 12 languages.

What put Juneau on the front page was his appearance before a committee of the House of Commons here examining the CBC's 1986-87 spending estimates. He warned the committee that because of budget restraint, the CBC would have to cut back programming.

Last fiscal year a tight budget meant that the CBC had to reduce its staff positions. Recently, Juneau said the corporation plans to eliminate more positions. But it will still employ some 11,000.

Since the CBC had something of a reputation here for being overmanned, the cuts have prompted little public sympathy. But cutting programs does cause some concern among Canadian nationalists, who see the politically independent CBC as one preserver of the national identity in the face of that siren to the south, United States culture.

``Culture is a constant matter of concern, even of worry, in our country,'' Mr. Juneau noted in a recent talk at Harvard University. ``Canadian policy has traditionally adopted a very broad definition of culture. Because of our brittle sense of nationhood, culture and identity have become somewhat synonymous.''

The French-Canadian executive went on to explain that this concern about culture ``is why Canada has numerous statutes and institutions through which provincial and federal governments have acted to support cultural expression.''

Most Canadians have access to US television, either directly or through cable. In order to keep its large audience, the CBC broadcasts situation-comedies, variety shows, sports, and other less-than-``artistic'' shows.

A Conservative government introduced legislation creating the CBC in 1932. It passed Parliament unanimously. The current Broadcasting Act passed with only one dissenting voice in 1968.

The law speaks of the need to ``safeguard, enrich, and strengthen the cultural, political, social, and economic fabric of Canada.'' The government-appointed Task Force on Broadcasting Policy is now looking at Canada's system of broadcasting.

Even with the CBC spending more than $1 billion on programming and broadcasting, nearly 72 percent of all the English-language TV programming available in Canada -- off-air or via cable -- comes from the US. Only 2 percent of the drama programming on Canadian English TV is Canadian and nearly 90 percent is US.

``There is no question, Canadians want American TV,'' says Juneau.

Indeed, to compete with the quality and flash of American TV drama, the CBC must spend much more to polish each hour of English-language drama than it does on its French-language drama where the competition is not so stern, Mr. Juneau notes.

Canadian drama, however, does get a good audience. A normal CBC play might get an audience of 1 to 2 million from among a population of 18 million English-speakers.

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