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Canadian media offer pleasantly different experience

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About two years ago, TCI Cable took CBUT, a British Columbia television station, from our home. They had to, they said, because there weren't enough channels available in our area for the programming they were obligated by law to provide, and other programming that, according to them, was more important to viewers.
      I was one of "many" (we were told by news stories, but not by TCI) who objected to the cut. It did us no good then, of course, nor has it done any good since. We still don't have it, and I miss it.
      It was hard to explain to the cable folks just what it was we were going to miss, and that may be part of the problem. CBUT is an affiliate station of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, and its programming is as different as the programming of the Public Broadcasting System and commercial TV is in this country.
      But it's even more different than that. It is, well, Canadian.

Just because we're neighbors...
It's characteristic of us in the United States that when we start thinking about Canada, too rare an event in itself, we tend to think of that country and its people as being just like us.
      That was my initial perspective when I started paying close academic attention to Canada and its media four years ago. As I've seen more of both, that perspective has changed a great deal.
      Canadian media focus, naturally, on Canadian events and issues, and I'm amazed at the interesting and important things going on north of the border that we aren't aware of.
      But they also report international news in general with greater depth and breadth and, perhaps most important, they don't report on it as though Canada were the world, as our media often portray the United States.
      Finally, they also report about what we're doing, but with an often wonderfully fresh perspective. Who better than the neighbors to tell you what you really look like?
      These specific differences add up to a significant overall difference in what Canadian listeners, viewers and readers know that we Americans don't.

[The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation building in Vancouver, B.C., is home to very innovative programming.] Radio
Canadian radio may be the most different medium of them all.
      I've always been a fan of radio. For one thing, it tends to be more personal and more engaging than print or television. Those attributes loomed even larger for me in Canada.
      Radio is a particularly vital medium in a country that is so vast and whose population, except along the southern border, is spread thinly across that vastness. Newspapers and television don't serve that kind of far-flung market efficiently. Radio does, and the Canadian government has invested heavily in creating a public radio system designed to bind together this huge and diverse nation. The result is CBC radio.
      Put yourself on a transcontinental Canadian train, as I did one February. As we wound through the mountains of British Columbia and Alberta and out across the plains of Saskatchewan and Manitoba into Ontario, I picked up Canadian newspapers at every opportunity. But I also tuned into the CBC with my Walkman.
      I listened to it day and night, and it was like browsing in a good used-book store, pulling items from the shelf, perhaps leafing through them, then moving onto the next book or another shelf, never knowing what lay just around the corner. There were the arts, politics, business, humor, sport . . . and on and on.
      I recall one late, moonlit night in the dome car. I sat by myself, watching as ice-shrouded water and earth slipped by on both sides. As we rolled across the prairie, passing lights of one community and then another, I skipped across the radio dial, touching not only on CBC stations, but an ever-changing array of commercial stations, too. I marveled at the many languages I heard. Some I recognized and some I didn't, as my radio plucked from the air threads of a rich tapestry of ethnic identities. I was listening as a nation kept in touch within and among its many parts via the airwaves.
      While the United States has been characterized as a melting pot into which ethnic identities are stirred and blended,Canada has been described as a mosaic with ethnic identities laid side by side. Canadian radio gives proof to the metaphor, and the CBC network and its affiliates are its heart.
      The guidebook I carried on that trip had advised me that CBC Radio "carries more Canadian content in music and information than any of the private broadcast companies . . . (it is) a fine service which unites listeners across the country with some of its programs."
      Fine, indeed. On a recent drive to British Columbia and back, I was able to tune into a Vancouver CBC affiliate, and it was like meeting an old friend on the street.

I feel somewhat the same way about television's Public Broadcast System in the United States. Like PBS, the CBC is noncommercial, which means it is free of the obligation to feed the financial bottom line by tailoring content to advertisers rather than listeners. But I detected a difference even from PBS.
      While PBS does a wonderful job of tapping into the significant and complicated issues of the nation, it seems to do so most often through the voices of "movers and shakers" within those issues. I'm not surprised at the voices I hear. While not predictable, they are not unexpected.
      In listening to CBC, I was often surprised. It was as though an effort was being made to bring onto the air the views of the widest cross-section of Canadians possible. The result was a richness not only of viewpoints, but also of dialects and experiences that seemed most unusual to these American ears.
      CBC television delivers much of the same richness in Canadian culture and perspectives. During a month in Ontario, I discovered Sundays with CBC television, and I truly regretted there was only one Sunday a week. I have found nothing that compares with it on U.S. television.

Then there are the newspapers. As with many U.S. cities, there is only one daily newspaper in town, and it most likely is part of a large newspaper chain or group. They run the gamut from intellectually grounded, high-quality newspapers such as the Toronto Globe and Mail, the Vancouver Sun, the Ottawa Citizen and the Montreal Gazette, to a number of more sensationalistic tabloids, seemingly transplants of the British tabloids, only more responsible.
      As with their broadcast brethren, they, too, tend to focus more on international events and issues and provide a more even-handed view of U.S. goings-on.

Serving the national audience
Does the information, particularly the news content, that results from this "different" media better serve its audience than that in the United States? I hesitate to say yes, overall.
      But it is pleasantly different. Unfortunately, that difference -- as far as television programming is concerned -- may be blurring.
      Because an overwhelming portion of the Canadian population lives within a couple of hundred miles of the border, much of it has ready access to U.S. television. Despite Canadian government efforts to enforce use of content by and about Canadians, U.S. programming -- particularly that of the commercial networks -- continues to make inroads among Canadian viewers. As Canadian cable companies spread their presence to the far reaches of the country, they also spread that programming.
      I think this is unfortunate for the Canadian people. But if I had even a little regular access to Canadian television and radio on my cable, maybe I wouldn't be so bitter.

Cliff Rowe is professor of communication and advisor to the student newspaper, The Mast. He has taught at PLU since 1980.

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