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Time to Lead: Why does our public broadcaster ignore the arts?

Listening to PBS president Paula Kreger speak recently, I was reminded of an Oscar Wilde declaration: "We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars."

Ms. Kreger was telling TV critics why PBS is presenting the PBS Arts Fall Festival, which she described as "a celebration of the arts that will invite viewers on a journey around the country" and will feature an eclectic array of performances and documentaries, from a production of Gilbert and Sullivan's HMS Pinafore in Minnesota, to a Seattle-based documentary about the band Pearl Jam, to Miami City Ballet's Cuban-infused performance of work by George Balanchine and Twyla Tharp. There's also a documentary about banjo music in the Blue Ridge Mountains.

What a superb idea, and what a great inspiration for a CBC arts festival showcasing the arts – high and low – in various parts of Canada. But, of course, the CBC, in its current incarnation, would never do any such thing. The arts have essentially disappeared from our public broadcaster.

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As the CBC reaches its 75th birthday, it seems to have reverted to the giddiness of teenage tastes and inclination. Pop music, yes, the arts, no. CBC TV's big new production for the coming season is Cover Me Canada, featuring unknown Canadian singers performing cover versions of Canadian songs. This is the CBC at 75 – Karaoke Club, sure, but ballet? No thanks.

What's particularly galling is that we're very good at producing performing arts TV. In fact, we're brilliant at it, and Canadian productions in the genre have awed international audiences.

There are historical reasons for this, partly rooted in what was once the CBC's role in Canadian culture. So many performers depended on the CBC for employment that the arts became interwoven with the TV world. (One can cite former ballerina Veronica Tennant as a beneficiary of that environment. After her career in dance ended, she directed a series of excellent specials for the CBC.)

For a time, in the 1990s and into the early part of this century, a new strand of TV emerged in Canada – performing arts productions sensitive to TV's needs. Rhombus Media led the way, making productions that weren't just filmed arts performances for TV but television art. The CBC used to air these productions in prime time, but no more.

In fairness, although PBS and the CBC are both public broadcasters, they're not equivalent. PBS carries no advertising and is really a group of individual stations working together. The CBC is a peculiar hybrid of public and commercial broadcaster, competing for eyeballs with commercial broadcasters. But both share similar aims: They're mandated to offer an alternative to commercial TV and are meant to serve all citizens, not just those who live in large urban areas.

For Paula Kreger, the arts emphasis is a key part of keeping PBS relevant in a multichannel universe. "The arts can stand as an example of an area that is never covered on commercial TV," she told me. "It's what PBS does. Someone who lives on a farm, far from the city, and is interested in the arts is entitled to be exposed to ballet [and]classical music. If you live in a city, the performing arts are there in front of you. If you live on a farm or in a small community, PBS gives you the performing arts. It's what we're supposed to do."

She also points to the failure of cable channels, once seen as arts champions, to deliver. "There have been cable channels that have made an effort to try to bring arts programming to the American public. That is how A&E started. The 'A' in A&E does still stand for the arts. The work that Bravo! showcased when it first went on the air was very much focused on arts content, rather than the kinds of programs they're doing now." She's correct: A&E now airs reality TV series, and the U.S. version of Bravo! concentrates on makeover programs. It's still up to public television to focus on the arts.

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The CBC, of course, is in a beleaguered position. It must constantly justify its existence and the public expenditure it receives, by pointing to viewing numbers. And since the arts aren't delivering those numbers, CBC TV shies away from them. But surely there's room.

The last platform for the arts on CBC TV – the place of such Rhombus Media productions as Stormy Weather: The Music of Harold Arlen and Crossing Bridges, about the National Arts Centre Orchestra's trip to Israel – was Opening Night, a two-hour show that aired once a week during the TV season. Can't we have a couple of hours a week to look up from the gutter at the stars? It isn't too much to ask for.

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About the Author
Television critic

John Doyle is The Globe and Mail's television critic. His column appears in the Review section Monday to Thursday and on Saturday. He has been the paper's critic since 2000. More

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