A blue-ribbon group of businessmen is preparing a serious attempt to buy the CBC’s English-language TV network and privatize individual stations, testing Brian Mulroney’s determination to sell off Ottawa’s Crown corporations. On the surface the proposal sounds as unrealistic as trying to buy the Parliament Buildings, but it is a carefully staged commercial proposition which its supporters had planned to make public next spring. The intention is to buy out the most profitable operating unit of the CBC—the Englishlanguage television network—dilute its public mandate and run it at a profit. The takeover is backed by big money, and growing support is being mobilized in boardrooms across the country.
“We are not planning a grab of the corporation,” Allan Slaight, the Toronto communications executive who is leading the assault, told Maclean's in an exclusive interview, “because we understand that first it would require an Act of Parliament to change the present broadcast act. The CRTC [Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission] would then put out a call for applicants to buy the TV network and individual CBC stations.” Slaight’s private company controls a Toronto country-and-western outlet (CFGM) and the FM rock superstation Q-107, as well as Urban Outdoors Corp., which rents out outdoor signs in 23 Canadian cities. The 53-year-old broadcaster started out as a small-town magician and got into radio as a reporter with CHAB in Moose Jaw, Sask., later helping to run the CHUM organization and spending three years as chief executive officer and part-owner of Global TV.
The idea of taking over the CBC was born over lunch on Nov. 8. Three senior executives of one of the commercial television networks, whom Slaight refuses to identify, outlined the concept to him, suggesting that he head its organizing committee. “I was impressed with them and some of the positions they put forward,” he recalled. But the CBC was due to appear before the CRTC for its licence renewal on Dec. 10—a date since postponed to some time in the new year—and Slaight’s notice had to be filed within 24 hours. His letter to the CRTC, with a carbon copy to CBC president Pierre Juneau, was only four para-
graphs long, but direct in its demands. It declared that “the time has come to move certain segments of national public broadcasting into the private sector.” The letter added that the CRTC should renew the CBC’s licence for no more than one year, holding hearings in the interval “to examine the benefits of responsible privatization.”
The takeover group includes some of Bay Street’s most prominent businessmen: C. Edward Medland, chairman of Wood Gundy Ltd.; Latham Burns, chairman of Burns Fry Ltd.; Norman Short, president of the Guardian Growth Fund Ltd.; Frederic McCutcheon, president of Arachnae Managment Ltd.; Charles B. Loewen, president of Loewen, Ondaatje, McCutcheon & Co. Ltd.; and J. Douglas Grant, president of Sceptre Investment Counsel Ltd. The group’s only nonfinancial charter member is Andrew Alexan-
der, president of Second City Productions Ltd., which runs Toronto’s Old Fire Hall Theatre. Because the group has had so little time to organize, only one of its members is from outside Toronto—Brian Flemming, a Halifax lawyer, onetime aide to Pierre Trudeau and a Maritimes power broker.
The privatized CBC network which Slaight and his partners envisage would be very different from the public operation. On programming, Slaight said, “We would retain the major news, public affairs, current events and sports coverage, but dramas, documentaries, sitcoms and all other entertainment programming would be farmed out to private sector producers.” A private CBC would reduce the current Canadian content level of 74 per cent to that of CTV (50 per cent in prime time and 60 per cent overall).
A parallel organization of business interests is being set up to make a bid for the French CBC’s television network. Excluded from the proposed takeover scheme would be all CBC radio stations, northern outlets, the international service and present interests in affiliates. “Of course we realize that the CBC is a national institution,” said Slaight, “but it has in so many ways failed to honor its mandate that we think it is time for a thorough analytical review of the whole situation. Should our group fail in its attempt to privatize CBC television—and we are realistic enough to realize that the odds are against us—we will still have accomplished a great deal by proving to the government there is no need to squander the sort of funds wasted each year.” The most interesting aspect of the offer may be the Mulroney government’s response to it. Declared Slaight: “Certain senior government officials are aware that our group is a-building and are looking on it with interest.”
On the face of it, the notion of subjecting the CBC to bottom-line disciplines is not an idea whose time has come. The people’s network is the essential electronic east-west forum of Canadian nationhood. Some of Mulroney’s supporters clearly do not like the CBC, but the Prime Minister has consistently pledged that no matter how many Crown corporations are sold off or how much foreign money is allowed to flow in, the integrity of Canada’s national institutions will be preserved. No institution among that thinning band ranks higher than the CBC.O
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