CBC president and CEO Hubert Lacroix, under fire for a massive and unprecedented downsizing of the Canadian public broadcaster, says he has no plans to resign from the top job anytime soon.
“We think we have a great plan and a great team. I have no intention of resigning,” he said to reporters after a heated town hall meeting with employees to reveal the future direction of the corporation.
The CBC is at a crucial tipping point that some fear will lead to the eventual dismantlement of the broadcaster. And that has led to more outspoken stakeholders. At the meeting, Lacroix outlined the CBC’s strategy for the next five years that would see workforce downsized by about 25 per cent by 2020.
“In the past seven years, the most painful and frustrating task for me has been to implement one round after another of reductions,” said Lacroix. “We need to find a path to sustainability.”
The CBC estimates anywhere from 1,000 to 1,500 jobs will be lost over five years. About 1,000 employees are eligible for retirement and the broadcaster loses about 300 through attrition annually, it said.
These losses will be in addition to the 657 jobs eliminated as a result of a $130-million funding cut announced earlier this year. Before cuts, CBC has 6,994 permanent employees, 859 contract employees and 329 temporary employees.
Other key changes, which Lacroix says “meets all conditions of licensing” from regulators, will see the broadcaster:
• Move to a “digital first” strategy, shifting priorities away from television and radio over the next five years. That means producing original and exclusive content for mobile devices.
“Most of our resources are for people attached to TV, radio, digital and mobile. We’re saying let’s invert that, let’s start producing for mobile first,” said Heather Conway, the broadcaster’s head of English services.
Conway said the broadcaster hoped to get the initiative underway over the next 12 months.
• The CBC promised to preserve its local presence to be “even more local but at reduced cost.” Stations across the country will not be closed, but 90-minute newscasts may be trimmed to 60 or even 30 minutes.
“We’re going to look at each market and see if we have audience success, revenue success, do we have a mandate or condition of licence there?” said Conway. “We will use that criteria to determine the programming, but the base model means that every show will get at least 30 minutes.”
• In-house production will be “significantly reduced” apart from news, current affairs and radio. But the famed documentary unit will still be under the knife. The CBC’s own broadcasters, including National anchor Peter Mansbridge, had signed a petition against such a move.
“It’s further transformation of the public producer to the public broadcaster,” said Conway. “We already don’t produce any scripted programming in-house so this is a further evolution along that path.”
• The CBC will continue to downsize its real estate footprint by two million square feet. That represents about half the space it currently occupies. And nothing is off the table, including the 1.4 million-square-foot Front St. headquarters.
“Should an offer come, we will certainly entertain it,” said Lacroix in response to a query from the Star. “We’ve been trying to lease the buildings and to do more.” The CBC would potentially become a tenant in its building if sold.
The BBC sold its historic television centre in 2012 for £200 million (about $360 million). And private broadcasters such as Global and CTV have their studio headquarters outside the downtown core.
The CBC has leased or sold about 1.2 million square feet since 2011, said Lacroix.
Not surprisingly, the changes did not go over well with union representatives.
“We are shocked and outraged that 25 per cent of the staff, and half the real estate, are being cut over the next five years,” said Marc-Philippe Laurin, president of the CBC branch of the Canadian Media Guild. “These are irreversible cuts that will permanently change public broadcasting in Canada. It’s equally disturbing that the management is trying to make it sound positive.”
The issue became further politicized with Liberal MP Stephane Dion calling on the Stephen Harper government to “reverse their reckless cuts” after former heritage minister James Moore had promised to maintain or increase support for CBC.
Lacroix, who was appointed by Harper in 2008, also faced calls for his resignation during the town hall meeting. Canadian Media Guild leader Carmel Smyth said Lacroix should “resign in protest” at the deep cuts from the Conservative government.
The line was echoed by lobby group Friends of Canadian Broadcasting.
“Lacroix should resign. He is helping Stephen Harper drive CBC into the ground,” said spokesperson Ian Morrison.
But Lacroix said in a media call that the CBC isn’t alone in going through transformative change; the entire media landscape is in flux.
“The private broadcasters are facing the same kinds of challenges that we are,” said Lacroix, pointing out that the CBC has had no increase in funding since 1973.
“After I came back to my desk (from the town hall meeting) the first seven emails were positive and supportive of the vision,” said Lacroix. “There is a realization we have to change or we cannot fulfil our mandate.”
In terms of TV programming, the CBC, under criticism for producing lacklustre drama, has given itself a mandate over the next five years to produce at least three dramas “meeting the high critical and creative standards of premium cable.”
It is also focusing on scripted comedies that are more “cutting edge” instead of traditional sitcom formats.
“We must look forward, we can’t look back,” said Lacroix.