Recently I’ve been thinking about the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, and how it spends the billion dollars a year it gets from the Canadian taxpayer. It’s not just because Sun Media is on a mission to have it shut down. There’s also a debate over whether it should be exempt from cuts the federal government is imposing on all its services.
And there are people who think the CBC should be doing more than it does right now. OpenMedia.ca has a project called Reimagine CBC in which people are asked to pitch ideas to transform the public broadcaster and make it more relevant in this new media universe. There are things the CBC does already, like be active on social media. There are ideas that are so vague they sound like they came out of management.
Then there’s Kai Nagata, who is suggesting the CBC get out of producing television entirely and shift all those resources to the Internet so it can become an online news and cultural leader. He even spiced up his submission by posting a video to YouTube parodying the Rick Mercer rants in which he explains his reasoning.
Nagata, you’ll recall, is the former CBC and CTV television reporter who did not own a television.
His reasoning is interesting. He points out that people are moving away from TV and toward online these days, and suggests that abandoning television and focusing on online will give it more bang for their buck.
But I’m not convinced. For one thing, if the CBC succeeds in making killer web videos, wouldn’t it just make sense to put that kind of stuff on television, where it can make more money? The CBC does have a lot of infrastructure, including hundreds of television transmitters, many of them in small communities where the CBC is the only over-the-air television. It also has regional control rooms and studios for newscasts that might be less important if everyone was getting their news from the web.
I think Nagata underestimates the power of television. Canadians still watch it, and many supplement it with online consumption of media. CBC’s ratings may be low compared to CTV and Global, but they’re still high when compared to most cable networks, and more people watch television shows on TV than online.
And that’s assuming we forget all about Radio-Canada. Nagata points to the success of its Tou.tv online video website, but seems to ignore that the thing that makes it so popular is that it has a bunch of television series on it.
What should the CBC get out of?
Still, I like Nagata’s suggestion because it gets us thinking. I don’t want to start sounding like Pierre Karl Péladeau, but it annoys me a bit that the CBC competes directly with private broadcasters in some areas. Particularly areas where the private sector does a better job.
Like local news. In Montreal, the market leader among anglophones is CTV’s CFCF. It kills in the ratings. It has more hours of original local news than its competitors combined. It has more journalists, and more of its news is local.
So why is CBC trying to compete? More importantly, why is the CBC trying to compete by doing the same thing? Why not abandon the supper-hour newscast and do something else, like local cultural programming?
On the French side, it’s a bit more complicated because Radio-Canada is so popular and because the main private broadcaster already produces so much original programming. On one hand, there’s a good argument that the culture is healthy enough that it doesn’t need the CBC’s help, and that removing the public broadcaster would make the private broadcasters healthier and encourage them to invest more in original Canadian programming. On the other hand, shutting down Radio-Canada would lead to having only one major television player in French, and that’s very worrisome. It would also be a net loss for original Canadian television no matter how you slice it.
CBC television can be thought of in two ways: a creator of television programming and a conduit for that programming. For scripted series, “creator” usually means that the CBC hires a production company to produce a TV series and it airs episodes of that series. A scheme could be conceived in which those series are still produced but air on private television, on cable or online.
Or what if the funds that went into the CBC were instead transferred to the Canada Media Fund, which helps fund television series no matter what network they air on? What if we focused our money more on creating better Canadian television series, ones Canadians actually wanted to watch? What if we got rid of the overhead and gave all that money directly to the people who actually produce Canadian television programming?
And what if, instead of a network that carries the CBC network to distant communities, infrastructure was used to bring both private and public Canadian programming to them? What if CBC’s production facilities were made available to ordinary Canadians to make their own television, which could then be uploaded to YouTube or the CBC’s website for people to see?
I don’t think anything like that is going to happen. Even if we establish that it makes sense, there’s still too many unanswered questions. Cutting local stations would seriously affect CBC News Network. And communities will resist efforts to take away their television stations, even if they’re just low-power retransmitters of distant CBC stations.
But this discussion needs to start somewhere. And that means we have to figure out exactly what we need the CBC for, and what we’ll need it for in 10 or 20 years. I don’t have all the answers, but I think technology has changed enough that we don’t need the CBC to be doing the exact same things it was doing 30 years ago.
Let’s get a few things out of the way first:
No, I don’t actually think Kai Nagata is mentally ill. My “are you insane?” question was somewhat tongue-in-cheek. Kai is a friend, one I’ve gotten to know a little bit during his brief stay in Montreal. I’ve admired what was until recently an impressive career in television journalism, but also his creativity in other areas as well. He’s a very smart guy, and a great communicator. That may be part of the reason he seems so eccentric sometimes (like the fact that he made a career in television journalism without owning a television set).
When Nagata quit his job at CTV after only nine months and change, I was taken aback. I was just as surprised by the reaction that was sparked by a blog post he wrote explaining why he left. Even though it became public on the evening of Friday, July 8, it went crazy viral over the weekend. Thousands of links on Twitter, including from such heavyweights as Roger Ebert, Margaret Atwood and Jay Rosen. It was reposted by Huffington Post Canada, Rabble.ca, The Tyee and the Toronto Star, and linked to from websites like MetaFilter, Digital Journal, The Mark and Small Dead Animals and some blogs. Nagata said by Monday morning the post had more than 100,000 views, not counting those from other websites that reposted the text. By Tuesday, it was 170,000. By Thursday, 271,000. More than 1,000 comments, many responding to each other.
The mainstream media began to take notice after the Monday-to-Friday crowd came back to work. Nagata was interviewed on CBC Daybreak on Monday morning, later that day on CJAD, and on Wednesday, at length, on The Current. News stories were written by CBC (largely based off the Daybreak interview), the Toronto Star (which drew comments on Toronto.com) and La Presse.
As is their way, many media found ways to relate Nagata’s story to others. Josée Legault and another CBC story packaged it with the News of the World shutdown, as if they were related in any way other than temporally. Others including the Ottawa Citizen and J-Source used Nagata’s story as part of articles about people quitting their jobs. OpenFile was one of many to relate Nagata’s story with that of Claude Adams, who was fired from his job at CBC after making a critical error while rushing on a story. Steve Proulx compared Nagata’s opinions on journalism to those of Gil Courtemanche.
A writer in the Regina Leader-Post said restrictions on Nagata’s ability to express himself also affect workers in other industries, and should be lifted.
But besides all that, the post generated a lot of discussion among his colleagues within CTV Montreal and other local media. And not all of that reaction was positive.
Less than a year after taking on the job of Quebec City bureau chief for CTV, Kai Nagata abruptly quit his post on Friday, publishing a long piece (one might call it a manifesto) on a new blog explaining why.
Nagata writes that his decision to leave is not the result of any falling out with CTV or any personal issues, but is more of a philosophical decision based on what he sees are the limitations of the news media, and television in particular. Among them:
- “… there is an underlying tension between ‘what the people want to see’ and ‘the important stories we should be bringing to people’.”
- “I admit felt a profound discomfort working in an industry that so casually sexualizes its workforce. … The idea has taken root that if the people reporting the news look like your family and neighbours, instead of Barbie and Ken, the station will lose viewers.”
- “… the target viewer, according to consultants, is also supposed to like easy stories that reinforce beliefs they already hold.”
- “the Kate and Will show. Wall-to-wall, breaking-news coverage of a stage-managed, spoon-fed celebrity visit, justified by the couple’s symbolic relationship to a former colony. … On a weekend where there was real news happening in Bangkok, Misrata, Athens, Washington, and around the world, what we saw instead was a breathless gaggle of normally credible journalists, gushing in live hit after live hit about how the prince is young and his wife is pretty. And the public broadcaster led the charge.”
- “I have serious problems with the direction taken by Canadian policy and politics in the last five years. But as a reporter, I feel like I’ve been holding my breath.”
- “Within the terms of my employment at CTV, there was a clause in which the corporation (now Bell Media) literally took ownership of my intellectual property output.”
“I quit my job because the idea burrowed into my mind that, on the long list of things I could be doing, television news is not the best use of my short life. The ends no longer justified the means,” Nagata writes.
Nagata, who’s all of 24 years old, isn’t sure what he’s going to do next. But he’s already heading out west to Vancouver to be with his family.
“I’m broke, and yet I know I’m rich in love. I’m unemployed and homeless, but I’ve never been more free,” Nagata writes.
I had only one real question for Nagata: “Are you insane?”
His response: “Fair question, and one I’ve been asking myself for a week. … I mean what I say about feeling free. And calm, and happy. And yes, sane. The tradeoff, so far, is worth it.”
Of course, “so far” has been a matter of hours.
More than three months after posting an opening for a Quebec City reporter to replace the retiring John Grant, CFCF reached out and stole an up-and-comer from its direct competitor, hiring CBC Montreal reporter Kai Nagata for the job.
The station didn’t get much demand for the job internally, with much of its staff consisting of veterans who aren’t eager to move to a city that’s more than a two-hour drive away and doesn’t have much of an English scene.
“I think our current staff of reporters are pretty happy with what they’re doing now, and simply chose to stay put,” CTV Montreal news director Jed Kahane told me. “Most of them have deep roots in Montreal, with families and other personal commitments here, so I wasn’t expecting any internal applicants.”
So instead, he reached out to Nagata and offered him the job, which Nagata formally accepted last Friday.
“I’ve been watching Kai since he started at CBC and was always very impressed with his work,” Kahane said in a totally not-press-release-y way. “He’s a serious journalist with a lot of insight and commitment. He’s also a great storyteller who is at ease in front of the camera. I think what matters most in this profession is curiosity, a critical eye and a strong desire to inform the public responsibly. Kai has all of that; the rest he’ll learn.
“I saw him cover the opening day of Marc Bellemare’s testimony the other day for CBC’s The National, and he did a great job. I’m really excited he’s joining our team, and like his predecessor John Grant who is retiring at the end of the month, I’m confident Kai will earn the respect of our viewers.”
Nagata, 23, has only been working at the CBC since the spring of 2008. He moved to Montreal from Vancouver a year earlier to take Concordia’s graduate journalism diploma program. I’ve known him since then – we play the occasional soccer or board game. (So feel free to compensate for any bias this post may have in his favour.)
“A chance to step up my game”
Asked about his move, Nagata said he was both excited about this new adventure and sad that “I’m leaving behind the only journalistic family I’ve ever known. These are people I respect professionally but I also shared a lot of laughs and frustrations and cold cafeteria meals with. It’s not an easy thing to walk away from.”
Still, Nagata said he has felt “a sense of restlessness” that this new opportunity can help alleviate. “They’re giving me the chance to cover the biggest stories in the province for the biggest anglophone audience in the province and to immerse myself in francophone culture in a beautiful city and find out what I’m made of.”
“CBC went out of their way from the very beginning to challenge me and to present me with opportunities to cover these interesting stories and to go places and talk to people and to file nationally for radio and TV, but when it came down to it I just felt like the job that CTV is offering me is a chance to step up my game as a journalist.”
Nagata said he’s particularly glad that he’ll have something few television reporters have the luxury of these days: a beat. “Politics is about people,” he said. “There’s a lot of beats that I admire, but politics has always attracted me.”
What about CBC?
The CBC was gracious about Nagata’s career advancement, while putting a positive spin on it.
“Kai is very talented and we’ll miss him around here, but we’re happy for him and wish him all the best,” said News Director Mary-Jo Barr. “I’m proud to know our journalists at CBC Montreal are second to none, and are sought after by other organizations.”
Barr can hardly fault Nagata’s move. She herself used to work at CTV, and plenty of people have jumped from one station to the other.
Nagata gave his two weeks’ notice and plans to keep working until next Friday. He’s currently passing on specialized videojournalist training he received (“videojournalist” being CBC-ese for “working without a cameraman to save us money”) to one of the station’s other up-and-coming young journalists (and a former classmate of mine), Catherine Cullen.
Mind you, this hasn’t stopped him from already becoming friends with CTV staff through Twitter.
Nagata will join the CTV family starting Sept. 27, and spend a few days training with Grant. He takes over the beat on Oct. 1.
From two expat Vancouverites, Adrian Underhill and my friend Kai Nagata, comes Montreal Postcard, a rhythmical expression of all that is sweet about living in this fine city (though no mention of poutine, bagels or
smoked meat Club Super Sexe).