CBC: "Canada Lives Here – In All Its Incarnations”

With a new, more proactive diversity mandate, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation carries on in the television market with programming that aims to reflect the changing face of Canada,
and to help Canadians be able to recognize themselves on-air.

by Consuelo Solar

When CBC’s Little Mosque on the Prairie debuted in January 2007, it generated unusual international media interest, and it was considered controversial because it focused on the interactions between Muslims and non-Muslims in a small Canadian town, contrasted conservative and liberal Islamic views, and treated post 9/11 tensions with a humourous perspective. For many critics and viewers, the series – about a young Imam who moves from Toronto to run a mosque in Saskatchewan – was worth watching if only because it was radically different from every other situation comedy out there. The show premiere drew an audience of 2.1 million – an exceptionally strong rating for domestic programming in the Canadian television market. Even though after four seasons its ratings have shrunk to more normal numbers, the show has successfully remained in CBC’s prime time schedule, demonstrating that even if viewers watched the first episode out of curiosity, a good percentage of them have kept tuning in.

Its creator, writer-producer Zarqa Nawaz, has said that “comedy is one of the most powerful ways to break down barriers and to encourage dialogue and understanding between cultures,” and for CBC this series is a perfect example of how television can challenge cultural preconceptions among viewers and contribute in creating a perception of national belonging, an objective that is at the core of CBC/Radio-Canada’s mandate to “reflect Canadian culture – in all its incarnations.”

Canada founded a national broadcasting service in an effort to resist the American broadcasting invasion of the Canadian market, and preserve the country’s cultural identity. The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation was created in 1936, and within a year, national coverage reached 76 percent of the population, and included French-language broadcasting. In September of 1952 the first CBC/Radio-Canada television broadcasts began, in Montreal and Toronto, and twenty years later a “minimum 60 percent” Canadian content rule was established for public and private television broadcasters in Canada, in another attempt to protect the nation’s television industry and culture.

In the 1990s, the Corporation published “Mission, Values, Goals and Objectives,” a document that put into words CBC’s vision for the future of genuine Canadian television. Since then, CBC has been run according to the 1991 Broadcasting Act, which states that the programming provided by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation should among others “be predominantly and distinctively Canadian and reflect the multicultural and multiracial nature of Canada.”

However, it wasn’t until recently that CBC’s diversity committee was expanded and given a new, more proactive; “in-your-face” mandate that clearly defines diversity as “inclusiveness.” As Christine Wilson, executive director for CBC network programming and a member of this committee explains, “CBC thinks about diversity in terms of inclusivity, because diversity is always about difference, while inclusiveness is about showing the richness of Canada back to itself. As soon as you tell people ‘I want this program to be diverse’ they think about finding people who are different, but if I ask them to make these programs inclusive, they feel the need to represent Canada. Only then it is about serving the audience better, and not just about checking a check box.”

The national public broadcaster’s current slogan “Canada Lives Here” conveys this desire of nation building and the ideal of reflecting Canada’s distinctive multicultural nature throughout all their programming, because CBC not only sees it as an obligation, but as a business strategy as well. Wilson says, “We’ve done studies that have demonstrated that diverse audiences want to see themselves in television, so we believe that it is a tremendous competitive advantage from a business point of view, and it is a necessity for CBC to have an inclusive programming strategy.” She adds, “If you were to take an entire demographic group, like women 35 to 50, for example, and decided to never put any women 35 to 50 on television, how could you possibly expect women 35 to 50 to watch your channel if you never had them on? Having diverse programming is exactly the same thing.”

Because CBC believes that having inclusive programming will be more appealing to all Canadians, it is a major factor when selecting new content. They require that all independent productions submit a “diversity plan,” a policy that ensures that diversity potential will be monitored and integrated through the program development stages and into pilot production. Wilson explains, “All over the world people talk about diversity programming but they don’t really have a way of measuring it, if a show like Grey’s Anatomy, for example, has two diverse cast members out of ten, does that mean it is a diverse show? We don’t know. So we are trying to establish ways where we can actually know for sure what is diverse and what isn’t in the eyes of the audience, and then be able to target programs and say what you need to do in order to be considered a diverse program”.

Wilson clarifies that the weight of the diversity plan in the decision depends on the type of show. “In a program like Battle of the Blades that is about hockey players and figure skaters, who are not a tremendously diverse group, the diversity plan would be not that important, because of the nature of the content, but with other types of shows like a scripted drama or factual entertainment shows, then it becomes a lot more important because there is no reason why there can’t be significant diversity elements in those programs”

That goes for the behind the camera team as well. A strong diversity plan requires that the key creative people behind a show’s production, such as the producer, director or screenwriter, be diverse because to CBC the easiest way to produce representative programming is by having a representative workforce.

For the same reason, the broadcaster is committed to attracting a diversified staff, therefore ensuring that their recruiting mechanisms are as inclusive as their schedule.

Each manager is expected to employ workforce that reflects the makeup of Canadian society, and to meet hiring goals every year to improve the representation of diversity groups.

Little Mosque might be the “poster show” for diverse programming, but it is certainly not the exception. King of Kensington, a sitcom that aired for five years in the 70’s, revolved around a convenience store owner in Toronto’s Kensington Market, who was known for helping a multicultural group of friends. The Beachcombers is the longest-running dramatic series ever made for Canadian television (1972-1990) and it followed the life of a Greek-Canadian log salvager in British Columbia, and many of its episodes focused on the protagonist’s Greek heritage. The Newcomers was a series of seven hour-long television specials aired from 1977 to 1980 that explored the theme of Canada as a nation built by immigrants. These are a few examples of how CBC has historically strived to demonstrate to the nation that it has a continued role to play by “showing Canada back to itself.”

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