WHILE Congress fusses over how to chop the United States public- broadcasting budget, Canada's budget cutters are sizing up a cultural icon with costs nearly three times larger: the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC).
No fewer than three studies peering into the CBC's future are in the works. One is a parliamentary report expected this month. A leaked draft of that report recommended a radical downsizing and elimination of sports coverage - yes, hockey included - among other sweeping moves.
Until the 1990s, the CBC seemed relatively secure. Canadians' love affair with public broadcasting runs deeper than it does in the US; it has been around longer and has served as a nation-builder and a bastion of Canadian culture. Yet, despite continuing concerns over the intrusion of American programming, some damaging CBC programming mistakes have eroded audience loyalty and political support. A venerable Canadian institution is now exposed to the budget-cutter's axe.
"CBC television has lost its way," says Michael Bliss, a University of Toronto historian. "It isn't quite sure whether its mandate is to provide elite programming or schlock drama. The problem is that if you produce something distinctly Canadian, you can't sell it globally."
Will Canadians - already up to their necks in "Gilligan's Island" reruns - now simply wave goodbye to classy shows like "The Road to Avonlea" that celebrate Canadian culture?
Possibly. A mix of laissez faire "market" economics and political conservatism is sweeping Canada. And with Canada's budget deficit still huge despite new cuts, many question the wisdom of spending C$1.1 billion (US$803 million) annually to fund the CBC's 9,000-employee operation. That is about $26 a year per Canadian, compared with about $1 for each American to fund public broadcasting.
"It must learn to operate as efficiently, innovatively, and productively as any other broadcaster," wrote John Crispo, a former CBC director in a public critique of the CBC. He cites: excessive layers of management, obsolete work rules, and widespread overstaffing along with its "left-wing perspective" as problems that must be fixed.
Big changes are already flowing. This year's budget outlines cuts of C$350 million (US$252 million over the next three years. The CBC's new president recently announced a cut of more than 1,000 jobs with more to follow.
But will a radically downsized CBC or a privatized one be able to produce enough Canadian programming to stem the erosion of national values?
"Canadians have loved their CBC," says Maude Barlow, who heads the Council of Canadians, an Ottawa-based nationalist lobby group. "It is a symbolic vehicle through which many of our cultural values are transmitted to the next generation. We're already inundated with so much American programming and our children are absorbing that. Privatizing the CBC or cutting it so far back that it is unable to function is dangerous."
While public broadcasting was born in the 1960s in the US, the CBC has been around since 1936, providing Canadians with an alternative to American broadcasting. It has been more pervasive in Canadian society, where for years it was a monopoly.
CBC used radio in those early years to create one community from this nation's far-flung reaches, from Whitehorse in the Yukon to Halifax, Nova Scotia. Its coverage of war and elections, as well as its offerings of humor and drama written by Canadians about Canadians, gave the CBC the ear and loyalty of millions. Radio is still a key, C$300 million part of the CBC mission. But television is the flagship.
Tony Burman, executive producer of "CBC Prime Time News," says 20 years at the CBC have confirmed for him why the CBC is an essential ingredient of Canadian culture - its ability to "wire together" the nation. He felt it most powerfully in a Toronto television control room in October 1992.
Tension had been building for six weeks prior to a national referendum on constitutional change to accommodate the aspirations of Quebec and native Canadians. And despite the popular wisdom that nobody cared anymore whether the country would split with Quebec, Mr. Burman saw something else.
"There was real anxiety among Canadians about where this country was headed," he says. "We could almost feel nightly the audience turning to us as the network of record for an understanding of the issue.... It was humbling. It is these moments of domestic crisis that Canadians most need us and turn to us."
This was the CBC at its best, bringing together Canada's far-flung communities in a virtual town-hall meeting. But not all are persuaded.
"We have a fundamentally very different view of the role and future of the CBC," says Jan Brown, a member of Parliament who is cultural affairs critic for the federal Reform Party. "We believe the Canadian marketplace and not government funding levels should be the determining factor."
Public outrage could still surface if cuts are seen as especially damaging, some suggest.
"The CBC is Canada's most important cultural institution," says former CBC president Tony Manera who resigned in March rather than implement further cuts. "It has tremendous power to promote and advance Canadian culture. But the funding outlook is quite severe and, in my view, if those funding decisions are maintained, it will cripple the CBC."
Still, it couldn't be more clear that the CBC's halcyon days with the "Happy Gang" and the "Plouffe" family of working-class Canadians are long gone. Canadians still enjoy modern Canadian drama from time to time, but millions more prefer to be entertained by American sitcoms and get their news from commercial networks like CTV and Global.
In the 500-channel television universe of the 1990s, where everyone is an "electronic hunter-gatherer," the CBC monopoly of a generation ago is long gone, acknowledges new CBC president Perrin Beatty. "We are going to look at how we produce our programs, how we market them to our audiences, and how we distribute our signals across the country," he said in a speech last month. "We are going to make some badly needed changes."