BROADCASTING

Mixing the signals

CBC employees grapple with ‘repositioning’

PATRICIA HLUCHY November 30 1992
BROADCASTING

Mixing the signals

CBC employees grapple with ‘repositioning’

PATRICIA HLUCHY November 30 1992

Mixing the signals

BROADCASTING

CBC employees grapple with ‘repositioning’

In a CBC Radio newsroom in Montreal, staff members have mounted photo-, graphs of network chief Gérard Veilleux on walls and ceilings—along with the caption, “The president is watching you.” In Toronto, things are reportedly so chaotic and fractious behind the scenes at the fledgling 9 p.m. news and information program, CBC Prime Time News, that it has acquired the nickname “This Hour Has Seven Bosses,” a play on the network’s 1960s program This Hour Has Seven Days. And more than 1,000 CBC employees—including Prime Time hosts Peter Mansbridge and Pamela Wallin—have signed a petition denouncing the way the CBC dealt with complaints about the Second World War documentary series The Valour and the Horror. At Canada’s national public broadcaster, fear and loathing seem to have reached a fever pitch. Said a former Journal staff member: “Morale is bad across the board. There is a real sense of loss on the part of everyone, both in news and in what used to be current affairs.”

Battered by eight years of government cuts and clear hostility on the part of many Conservative MPs, the CBC stumbled into the 1990s. And with the impending proliferation of viewing options as direct-broadcast satellites come on-stream, cluttering an already competitive TV landscape, it seemed clear that the network had to redefine itself. That process began this

year, with Veilleux’s so-called repositioning strategy. The boldest change was the dissolution of The National and The Journal, and their replacement, at 9 p.m., with CBC Prime Time News, which first aired on Nov. 2. But so far, the CBC makeover has been uneasy at best, and Prime Time is suffering from growing pains.

At the same time, many CBC staff members interpret ombudsman William Morgan’s recent criticism of The Valour and the Horror as proof of the network’s new willingness to capitulate to government pressure—and of a diminished commitment to provocative information programming. Morgan’s Nov. 10 report described the series as not up to CBC standards. Groups including the Canadian Independent Film Caucus and the Writers Guild of Canada quickly denounced the ombudsman’s critique as unfair. The Toronto local of the Association of Television Producers and Directors collected more than 1,000 names on a petition condemning the ombudsman’s inquiry process as “secret and arbitrary,” and calling his report an attempt to “appease the Senate,” which had convened hearings to evaluate the show. Late last week, Veilleux agreed to meet with union members on Nov. 26 to discuss the controversy.

The petition says that the ombudsman’s report has “put a chill on controversial documentary production and journalism in general.” CBC chairman Patrick Watson, a veteran

documentary maker who many observers hoped would add his voice to the chorus of protest against the ombudsman, told Maclean’s that he, too, is concerned about journalists feeling that there was less support for provocative information programming. “We’ve got to make sure this last episode, which has spread some chill, doesn’t spread it very far,” he said. “I don’t think you see the chill on the air, but you certainly hear it in the corridors.” The chairman did, however, defend the ombudsman process and contended that it would compromise Morgan’s autonomy if Watson or the CBC board in its entirety were to condemn the ombudsman’s report.

Last week, the debate between the ombudsman and Galafilm, the Montreal company that co-produced the series with the CBC and the National Film Board, escalated. Galafilm had released a detailed rebuttal of the ombudsman’s document on Nov. 10. Then, last week, the ombudsman released a 15-page response to Galafilm’s rebuttal, contending that the producers of The Valour and the Horror, which mixes documentary footage with dramatized sequences, “didmake up words and put them into the mouths of actors portraying real people.” Brian McKenna, who directed the series and co-wrote it with his brother Terence, a reporter at Prime Time News, told Maclean’s that the latest ombudsman release is merely a “desperate” attempt to malign him and his film-making partners. He said that he offered to give Morgan additional documentation proving that the words spoken by the actors were endorsed by the real-life sources, but that Morgan did not ask for it. “For us, this is simply a betrayal of good faith,” said McKenna. “We expected fairness.”

At Prime Time news, meanwhile, there is a pervasive sense that CBC management has left journalists in the lurch. Several Prime Time staff members, all speaking to Maclean’s on condition of anonymity, were critical of the new show’s format and its 9 p.m. slot, arguing that viewers were turning away. A.C. Neilsen ratings for Prime Time did indicate that the average audience dropped from 1,079,000 for the first five shows to 980,000 for the second week, marginally less than the National-Jour«ö/viewership in the last 18 months. However, Prime Time executive producer Ron Crocker countered that the overall average for the first 12 days shows averages at a respectable onemillion-plus. Said Crocker: “I’m not apologetic—I’m proud of that figure. The reality is that we’re in the heart of prime time, when competition is most fierce.”

Still, a huge upswing in the number of viewers for the CTV News suggests that there is still a big demand for late-night information programming—and that CTV is benefiting from the demise of local CBC news at 11 p.m. Neilsen figures show that during the week that Prime Time debuted, the CTV News registered an average 1,398,000 viewers, a striking 29-percent increase over its viewership during the first eight weeks of the fall season. And in the week of Nov. 9, it attracted 1,436,000. Over at Newsworld, the CBC’s all-news cable channel, the 10 p.m. news program The National, a half-hour spinoff of the old network show, has been attracting 60,000 viewers on average, up from the 23,000 who used to watch This Country in that period. Said one former Journal staff member: “The time slot is one of the big concerns right now in determining the longevity of Prime Time. When you see CTV’s ratings shoot up to 1.4 million, it is a pretty good indication that all those viewers who were supposed to be in bed are still watching TV.”

Many Prime Time staff members express dissatisfaction with the mix of news reports, interviews and short documentaries. Particularly troubled are former Journal employees, who say they are worried that a long-standing documentary tradition is being abandoned. Said one staff member: “They act as if there has been a hostile takeover, and we’re all the leftovers.” She added: “The whole art of documentarymaking is being ignored. - And there has been no indiI cation from management * that it is valued.” Crocker, 5 however, insists that Prime Time does have a strong commitment to documentaries, which have run almost every day. And he says that the discontent of some staffers is understandable. “People felt displaced,” he said. “They have five or 10 years’ allegiance to fine programs, The National and The Journal." Crocker also noted that there was very little time to prepare the new show, and that it is evolving—“The staff is only now in the stages of becoming cohesive.”

Underlying the anxiety about new shows and the CBC’s commitment to provocative documentaries is the perennial concern about layoffs. With a predicted shortfall of $53 million for the 1993-1994 fiscal year, the spectre of staff cuts looms once again. “People are getting out their résumés and demo reels,” said one employee. “Between the chaos of the show, and not knowing whether you’re going to last out your contract, things are very unsettled.”

PATRICIA HLUCHY

DIANE TURBIDE