I wanted to highlight John Doyle’s complaint, in the Globe and Mail, that the Giller Prize and occasional author appearances on talk shows aren’t enough: there needs to be genuine arts programming on TV, and the CBC isn’t doing it any more. The operative term being “any more”; the CBC has a long tradition of great arts programming ranging from music to original TV plays, but there hasn’t been much of that in a long time.
It’s not just the CBC, of course. Arts programming — meaning not just talking about the arts, but actual displaying and performing — has been in decline in a lot of countries for a long time. This is one of those things that cable was never fully able to take over; remember there was this idea, in the ’90s, that cable would make public TV obsolete. But cable channels like Bravo! (both versions) have commercial pressures that inevitably push them toward a different mission statement and more conventional program choices.
Meanwhile, pressures on public television have a lot to do with a perception that they’re elitist and use public money to show things the general public doesn’t like. Fighting back against this perception is not the only reason why Highbrow (or high Middlebrow) material is hard to find on PBS or CBC, but it does help explain why it would be difficult to get these things back on the channels. Plus much of traditional arts programming has its roots in theatre, and the whole idea of theatrical television is on the ropes in an era when film, not theatre, is the most respected dramatic art. The concept of a studio-bound “TV play,” once one of the things the CBC did best, has been hard to come across for a while, except for one-offs like George Clooney’s live version of “Fail Safe.” Not that the “TV movie” is in much better shape. The collapse of anthology programming is just something that makes it very tough to find a regular slot for the work of playwrights, screenwriters, composers and performers.
Most of the TV plays the CBC did, like the BBC’s, seem to be lost or at least hard to find. But this clip has some bits of a CBC live TV play, written by Arthur Hailey, that had quite a bit of cultural impact: the following year it was adapted into a U.S. feature called “Zero Hour!” and you know what other U.S. feature that eventually became.