Saturday, April 18, 2009

Typical CBC

This past week, I had an experience that pretty evenly combined pleasure and exasperation: my name finally came to the top of the long list of those waiting to borrow the 8-dvd set "The National Dream" from the Ottawa Public Library. It took about 3 months. I first discovered that this CBC series, first produced in 1974, was available on dvd when I read a comment on the IMDb listing for the program. The poster provided a link to the CBC educational materials department, and sure enough, there it was - for a mere $400 a copy.

I didn't have quite that much change lying around the house, so I was happy to discover that the Ottawa Public Library system has 3 copies of this series, and I put my name on the list to borrow it. When I got to watch it, I was happy to discover that the old series has held up quite well. There's a new introduction by Pierre Berton, who states that when it was first aired in 1974, this series broke viewership records in Canada. It was really quite unique and lavish, by Canadian standards - a combination of costume drama re-enactment and documentary. We really didn't do this sort of thing in Canada, and I always loved this series for being a single, sparkling refutement of the the usual assumption that "Canadian history is boring!" This wasn't boring - it was funny, engaging and downright gripping in places. Canada's history has never had all the dramatic portrayals of American and English history, so it was fun to think that we could provide a good "story" too.

What aggravated me was the path I had to follow to get another look at this series. As I mentioned, it aired in 1974. From Berton's introduction, I gather that it was re-aired in the early 2000s sometime (probably because of the 30-year anniversary of the making of the series). I didn't see that, and it's possible that we were still in Boston then. The dvds date from 2003. So that was about 30 years when no one could get a second look at this series. And when it FINALLY was issued on dvd, how was it done? In a $400 set that is clearly marketed to "institutions" - universities, government offices, libraries.

This is just so...CBC. Presumably, the whole reason for making the series (funded by tax dollars) was to present to Canadians a window on an important episode in their history. But when it comes to actually putting the history in the hands of the people who should know it, the instinct is to direct them to some institution, which can ladle it out a few drops at a time, like the gruel at Oliver Twist's poorhouse. God forbid that individual Canadians could be allowed to buy a copy of this to keep at home! No, Americans can buy "Roots" or Ken Burns's "The Civil War" to watch at home as often as they like, but Canadians have to go stand in line to get their limited ration of CBC footage.

And the rationing is strictly enforced. I wasn't allowed to renew this set for a second week, because there were others waiting in line behind me! So if one were unable to watch the entire 8-hour series in the time allotted, the only recourse would be to go to the end of the line and wait another 3 months for a chance to see it again!

I'm not the first to complain about this. A few years ago, when the CBC was in the midst of the financial troubles that will eventually kill it, a journalist wrote that the CBC has a huge treasure of past programs locked in its vaults, and seemingly no intention of ever making use of it. I can't understand this absolutely cement-coated disdain for anything even remotely resembling user- or consumer-friendliness. The BBC sells dvds of past programs good, bad and indifferent. So does PBS. Only the CBC is too proud to consider treating its viewers as individuals; instead, we must be funnelled through some antiquated system of "official channels" before we can be allowed access to programs we paid for years ago.

It reminds me of the old way we used to buy alcohol in Ontario. It's not that long ago - there was an LCBO (Liquor Control Board of Ontario outlet for you foreigners - we don't have privately-run wine stores, only government-run ones) which ran like this when we moved to the Glebe, in 1989. You walked into a nearly empty shop, with a few dozen different bottles of wine and alcohol on display. To buy one, you had to fill out a chit with the name and number of the bottle you wanted, hand it to a clerk, and the clerk would go into the mysterious back area and eventually come out with a bottle for you to take to the cashier. It was similar to handing in a prescription at the pharmacy, and I think it stemmed from the same attitude - that giving a citizen access to liquor was a dangerous business, which needed to be controlled and scrutinized by officials. We're lucky we didn't have a 5-day cooling-off period for every bottle of Bordeaux.

Well, that's my rant about the CBC. Just for fun, I uploaded one trailer from the series, because it presents a memorable moment in Canadian parliamentary history. William Hutt played a terrific Sir John A. Macdonald, and there were a lot of good Canadian actors throughout the series, including John Colicos as William Cornelius Van Horne. In this little scene, resentments boil over in the House of Commons. Donald Smith was responsible for the fall of Macdonald's Conservative government in 1873, and 4 years later, the Conservatives had neither forgiven nor forgotten.


Anonymous Joe Clark said...

Even without looking into the particulars, it seems obvious the explanation is “rights.” CBC’s existing contracts may prohibit distribution of old programs, or may permit solely educational distribution. It borders on impossible to revisit old contracts, particularly since production companies go out of business and their principals scatter to the four winds.

Your other complaints are with the library system, not CBC.

9:20 am  
Blogger Dwight Williams said...

Eyes on the Prize comes to my mind when you raise the question of distribution rights.

Is there nothing useful that can be done to remedy this?

4:59 pm  
Blogger red collar said...

"Is there nothing useful that can be done to remedy this?"

Yes, I'm going to start reading.

4:44 am  

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