TORONTO, Canada — Gerry Caplan, a media analyst and left-of-center political commentator here, says he felt a rush of patriotism while watching the Super Bowl with his wife a few weeks ago--but it wasn't at all the sort of patriotism meant to stir the hearts of American viewers.
It came during halftime, Caplan says, when ABC interrupted the festivities on the field for an Operation Desert Storm newscast and remarks from President Bush. Then the cameras returned to Tampa Stadium, where children of military personnel were being honored by cheering fans, and one youngster warbled "You Are My Hero."
"It pulled out every demagogic, patriotic, frenzied form of support for the war that you can imagine," Caplan said with disgust. But then the note of national pride comes into his voice, as he added: "And I'm here to tell you, it can't happen in Canada."
Caplan ought to know. In 1985 and 1986, he co-chaired a Canadian Department of Communications task force on broadcasting policy and in so doing helped shape the principles that govern the Canadian Broadcasting Corp., or CBC.
The CBC is a public network chartered to foster Canadian unity and to discourage people here from tuning in to the seductive shows traveling the airwaves up from the United States. If people watch Canadian TV and listen to Canadian radio, the thinking goes, they will be likelier to remain Canadian through and through, and less apt to pick up strange American ideas and attitudes.
Canada has a number of private-sector television networks, to be sure, mostly dedicated to the rebroadcast of American programs with Canadian ads. But these have a largely regional following, and only the CBC is considered to be in business to help Canada stay Canadian.
For decades, Canadians have worried that if their vast, sparsely populated country isn't carefully protected, it will fall into the orbit of the powerful and populous United States. Those fears are stronger than ever today, when domestic linguistic differences are perceptibly weakening Canada's sense of its own future, and when increased trade ties are putting this country at an ever-greater disadvantage in a North-South contest.
In broadcasting, the concern looms especially large, because nearly three-fourths of all Canadians live within 93 miles of the U.S. border and many of them can easily pick up American TV and radio. With that in mind, the CBC's enabling legislation calls on the broadcaster to "contribute to the development of national unity," and network executives have sought to do this by, among other things, trying to fill 95% of prime time with programs of Canadian origin.
Realists at the network say they are at 80% and holding. But even that much domestic content means Canadians can flick on the CBC and--depending on where he is and the time of day--see anything from a news bulletin in French to a northern hunter demonstrating the skinning and butchering of a freshly killed caribou. There are talk shows in eskimo languages and a 24-hour news channel that focuses on Canadian events. Canadian-made dramas and sitcoms try to treat Canadian themes--programs such as "Street Legal," a Canadian counterpart to "L.A. Law" that takes its story lines from current court cases north of the border.
Perhaps most strikingly different of all, the CBC airs an hourlong prime-time news show each night that doesn't take a single commercial break for the first 35 minutes.
Ratings show that Canadians are only mildly stirred by the CBC's Canadian entertainment offerings. Of the top 10 shows nationwide in early February, the first two were "America's Funniest Home Videos" and "America's Funniest People," served up on Canada's only coast-to-coast private network, CTV. But when it comes to news and public affairs, Canadians are dedicated CBC loyalists. The network's ad-less evening newscast, called "The National," is the third most-watched show in Canada, and the public-affairs segment immediately following the news, called "The Journal," ranks fifth.
There are, of course, critics in Canada who complain that for all the CBC's efforts at promoting Canadian ideas, the network still follows the American broadcasting model too closely. There are also those who grumble that no sooner does talent emerge at the CBC than it hastens across the border to America, where the news shows are thought to be shallower, the entertainment dopier--but the money and opportunities better. Such American institutions as Peter Jennings, Morley Safer, Norman Lear and Norman Jewison all got their starts at the CBC.
But for the most part, Canadians are proud of their country's public broadcasting achievements; pleased that the CBC boasts more "information" programming than any other broadcaster in the western hemisphere, and proud that more than half of all Canadians tune into the CBC from time to time, unlike Americans, who tend to watch public TV only if they are educated and well-off.