The CBC will reveal its five-year strategic plan to employees in a town-hall meeting Thursday. And it will likely be the most dramatic overhaul yet.
One thing is for sure: the mood is bleak as the hobbled broadcaster struggles to maintain programming while dealing with a massive hole in its budget.
Sources say a radically downsized CBC means that nothing is off the table, from the cancellation of some local newscasts to the phasing out of live music recordings on CBC radio to gutting the sports department.
The angst over the direction of the corporation has reached something of a tipping point over recent months. High-profile CBC personalities such as National anchor Peter Mansbridge and Nature of Things host David Suzuki recently decried potential cuts to in-house documentaries, and the union representing employees held a mass rally in Ottawa this month asking the board of directors to defend the broadcaster against more cuts. One fear is the continued contracting out of work that will see a much more privatized CBC.
“I think Canadians sort of realize that this is it. We’re way beyond cutting to the bone, we’re sucking up the marrow and you have to draw the line somewhere,” says Marc-Philippe Laurin, president of the Canadian Media Guild’s CBC branch.
“We are all anxious. We would like to see a stop of the bleeding of jobs. We would like to see a plan that the CBC will continue to be vibrant and continue to serve Canadians. But I’m not convinced that this is what we will hear.”
According to the union, which represents the majority of the corporation’s workers, the CBC has lost 2,107 jobs since 2008 because of cuts and loss of advertising revenue.
Funding and advertising shortfalls mean that CBC/Radio Canada is cutting $130 million from its budget this year, resulting in 657 job losses.
The broadcaster is struggling to regain its footing from the loss of crucial hockey programming to Rogers Communications, while coping with an earlier loss of $115 million in federal funding over three years announced in the 2012 federal budget.
Since he was appointed to head the CBC in 2008 by Prime Minister Stephen Harper, CBC CEO Hubert Lacroix has presided over what seems to be a steady dismantling of the broadcaster as he reacts to budgetary pressure.
In his town hall meeting there will likely be much talk of having to do more with less in his address to employees. But the reality is, “Less is simply less,” says Ian Morrison of the lobby group Friends of Canadian Broadcasting.
“When the government decides to take 10 per cent out of the budget of Canada’s most important cultural institution, something’s gotta give,” says Morrison. “You will basically have a less effective public broadcaster.”
The group has been critical of the Harper government for promising to maintain funding at the CBC. Instead, per capita funding has been slashed from $34 to $29 over the last several years.
Programming has also been slashed, including staples such as Arctic Air and The Ron James Show.
“Programs are being shortened. You have a lot more repeats. Where does it end?” said Philippe-Laurin.
As for their last five-year plan, launched in February of 2011, Friends of Canadian Broadcasting’s Morrison gives it a failing grade.
The plan called for “more regional presence,” but the corporation took a step backward with the recent slashing of local programming, he says.
About 100 positions are being cut from local or regional programming in Canada (outside Quebec) according to the union. Plans to expand with a new station in London, Ont., were scrapped. And Thunder Bay loses its afternoon radio program. Lacroix himself has publicly questioned whether CBC should still be in the business of delivering local news.
On paper, CBC’s local TV stations have long been tempting low-lying fruit for bean counters, with dismal ratings compared to competitors.
On a given weeknight, CBC Edmonton’s suppertime program gets 11,000 viewers compared to 63,000 at CTV and 73,000 at Global. In Calgary, CBC viewership dips as low as 3,000 viewers compared with 59,000 for CTV and 60,000 for Global. Vancouver, meanwhile, sees as many as 10,000 viewers but is dwarfed by Global’s 216,000 or CTV’s 55,000.
But proponents say the CBC has a mandate to reflect the regions. The local broadcasters say they do investigative stories that are not always commercially driven.
And local news is not the only department endangered by the new strategic plan.
A petition calling on the CBC to protect its documentary department was signed by anchor Mansbridge as well as broadcasters such as Matt Galloway, Linden MacIntyre and Toronto Star columnist Tony Burman (former editor-in-chief of CBC News) as both insiders and observers, perhaps sensing a crisis at hand, have become more vocal than in the past.
In a letter in response, Heather Conway the vice-president of English services for the corporation, said the appetite for documentaries has not “changed or diminished,” but the corporation is looking at ways to produce them more cheaply.
In an earlier interview with the Star, Conway warned there would be more downsizing in the future.
“Are there more cuts to come? Absolutely. We have to deal with a really significant challenge in front of us. That means there will be more cuts and a smaller CBC,” said Conway.
The CBC is not the only broadcaster looking at cutting costs. Bell Media announced this week that it is trimming 120 TV jobs in Toronto or about 5 per cent of its local workforce. The private broadcaster, however, remains profitable, with parent company BCE Inc reporting first-quarter profit up nearly 9 per cent compared to a year earlier.