Broadcasting

CBC at a crossroads

Anthony Wilson-Smith January 11 1999
Broadcasting

CBC at a crossroads

Anthony Wilson-Smith January 11 1999

CBC at a crossroads

Broadcasting

ANTHONY WILSON-SMITH

Perrin Beatty is wired for sound—and anything else he can summon up on the computer hardware surrounding him. In his fifth-floor office at CBC headquarters in west-end Ottawa, the 48-year-old president of the public broadcaster has just finished listening to a CBC radio program in Halifax which he has downloaded from the Internet. Now, he is back on the CBC’s main Web site (cbc.ca) testing its capacity to provide video images accompanying news stories. Alongside his desktop computer, a smaller laptop is loaded with charts and figures measuring ratings of the CBC’s Englishand French-language radio and television broadcasts. It is hard to believe that as recently as six years ago, when Beatty was communications minister in Brian Mulroney’s Progressive Conservative government, he was, he concedes, “the last person in the department to have a computer: I just didn’t think that I needed one.”

In this case, the more things change, the less they stay the same. In many ways, Beatty is staking the CBC’s future—and, for that matter, his own—on an ambitious plan to reshape Canada’s public broadcaster into a more flexible, computer-friendly entity for the uncertain times that lie ahead. That, Beatty said in an interview last week, means the CBC must be ready to consider everything from

the launch of its own specialty channels on television in the shor term to how it will greet the day when the technologies of radio, tele vision and computers all converge. “There are two certainties abou the future in broadcasting,” Beatty declared. “One is that there wil never be less competition than there is now. The other is that th( technology of today will look primitive a decade from now. Anyont in our business who ignores those realities likely won’t last unti then to acknowledge their mistake.”

Meanwhile, the CBC’s plans for its immediate future are con tained in a series of thick binders that are about to be submitted t( the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commis sion (CRTC). For the first time this spring, the CRTC is simultane ously reviewing all the CBC’s licence-renewal applications. Th process is likely to take a minimum of a year, and occurs even a: Beatty’s tenure as president expires on March 31.

That, in turn, has triggered speculation over whether Beatty wil be re-appointed to a full five-year term, have his present term ex tended by another year through the CRTC hearings—or whethe Prime Minister Jean Chrétien will appoint someone else to run thi CBC. The position pays about $200,000 a year—a tiny figure com pared to private broadcasting. (For example, last year CTV CE(

Ivan Fecan drew a base salary of $919,000 including bonuses, as well as a stock package worth $7 million.) Still, the prestige and influence associated with the CBC job are enormous. The prime minister, in his yearend interview with Maclean’s, was deliberately vague on the topic, saying only that he will announce his decision on the presidency “in the new year.” Although close observers believe that Beatty wants to be reappointed, he said only that “the first people to hear about my future plans will be my employees.”

In CBC circles, other favoured candidates are former CBC executives Peter Herrndorf, who unexpectedly announced his resignation as head of TVO, Ontario’s public network, in December, and Trina McQueen, now head of the Discovery Channel. Herrndorf, who was out of the country last week, explained his departure to friends by saying he will serve as a fellow at University of Toronto’s Massey College for the next academic term—a post that will allow him “time to just reflect about all kinds of things, including what I want to do next in my life.”

Beatty, Herrndorf and McQueen all “have friends within the CBC,” said Vince Carlin, a former head of CBC Newsworld who is now chair of the journalism program at Ryerson Polytechnic University. “Any of them would be seen as friendly choices.” Other names mentioned are James McCoubrey, currently the CBC’s chief operating officer, and Richard Stursberg, the head of the Canadian Cable Television Association. Both have extensive private-sector experience and are considered hard-nosed cost-cutters.

But in the short term, at least, Beatty remains the man in charge—and he has already started pushing the CBC in directions that seem certain to continue with or without him.

Despite massive budget cuts over the past five years—which have shaved $400 million from the corporation’s annual budget, reducing it to $1.1 billion—the CBC has been aggressively expanding in several areas.

They include: the launch of the Réseau de l’Information (RDI), the French-language counterpart to Newsworld; the “Canadianization” of the English television network’s schedule, so that more than 90 per cent of prime-time television programming is now made-in-Canada; and the launch and continuing expansion of the CBC’s Internet services.

Perhaps the most controversial and ambitious of those is Beatty’s on-line news project, which was announced in November. That move will cost an estimated $20 million a year to operate and have its own, separate staff— meaning that it draws money and personnel that could otherwise have been used in radio and television. So far, about a half dozen journalists are working full-time for the service, which also heavily relies on the resources of radio and television.

That innovation, predictably, has drawn harsh criticism internally from personnel in both sectors, who argue that the move is eroding the CBC’s strength in core areas. But, Beatty insists: ‘The choice is to change, or die—and surely the second choice should

not be an option.” And Beatty’s arguments in favour of expanded services—even at the expense of more traditional ones—is backed by figures. A survey conducted jointly by CBC Research and Nielsen Media Research last fall showed that 23 per cent of Canadian adults now have Internet service—an increase of 77 per cent over the previous year. By next year, according to the survey, half of Canadian adults are likely to be using the Internet, at least occasionally.

At the same time, following a trend that is also evident in the United States, the audience share for traditional networks such as the CBC and CTV is continuing to decline because of the growth of pay and specialty channels. In 1997, the CBC’s share of the English-language audience fell to 10.8 per cent from 11.3 per cent the previous year. That drop was small but does indicate a trend, one apparent in the increased share won by pay and specialty channels, which grew from 19.5 per cent to 26.4 per cent in that time period.

Because of such results, Beatty is proposing that the CBC pattern itself after the British Broadcasting Corporation, which in the past decade has successfully reinvented itself by launching such new services as a digital broadcasting service with improved picture quality, a television news service on cable in the United States, a magazine group and an on-line Web site. That expansion was achieved despite similar government pressure to reduce its dependence on public funds. (About $700 million of the CBC’s annual budget comes from the federal government, while the rest is from other revenue sources, such as advertising.)

Beatty insists the CBC can do the same without having to ask for more government money. ‘We need to learn how to be more creative using the resources that we have in a variety of different ways,” he says. One option is to work in “partnerships” with other companies on joint projects. That idea, used by the Public Broadcasting System in the United States, would see private corporations individually sponsor whole programs or series. Rather than show advertisements throughout, Beatty says, the sponsors would be identified at the start and close of the program; they might also supply production resources.

Staking the CBC’s future—and his own—on an ambitious plan

Another challenge is to find ways to use programs produced for the CBC in more than one way. “When you have as much original programming as we do,” Beatty says, “it is crazy to only use it once, and then just put it aside.” Already, some news programs produced for the main CBC network are reshown on Newsworld—and vice versa—and that practice could be expanded if the CBC wins permission for new specialty channels. As well, the French-language Radio-Canada network is cooperating on some ventures, including an upcoming, jointly produced TV series on the history of Canada that will be the same in both languages.

Still, the biggest of the CBC’s new ventures is without question its

efforts on the Web. Four years ago, the corporation launched Web sites in both official languages; in 1996, it began offering audio on them, featuring regular CBC radio broadcasts. Now it offers about 50,000 pages of Web content, and some 7,000 hours of audio and video content that can be downloaded every day (including programming from the main network and regional stations on television and radio). As well, the CBC’s new media section now offers services available only on the Web or by satellite. They include

Galaxie, a 30-channel audio music channel devoted to Canadian talent, and CBC4K3DS, a channel aimed at 8to 13-year-olds.

Still, those efforts have often been overshadowed by the ongoing controversies and infighting that have come to be regarded as a fact of life at the CBC. For one, insiders say that Beatty’s relationship with the board of directors has frequently been strained. Under cloak of anonymity, some board members have sniped at Beatty to journalists, suggesting he does not understand the “inner

culture and tradition” of the CBC, and claim ing his powers have been reduced within th( corporation. Beatty emphatically denies tha assertion, saying: “My mandate and power; are exactly the same as they have alway; been.” Some board members have dost ties with the federal Liberal Party, for in stance Richard O’Hagan was once a pres; secretary to Pierre Trudeau, and lawye John Campion is a close friend and forme law partner of Health Minister Allan Rock Several board members feel closer to CB( chairwoman Guylaine Saucier, a charterec accountant who is considered more inter ested in spending controls than creafivt output. She, in turn, was believed to be di rectly responsible for hiring McCoubrey whose keen eye for the bottom line has ran kled many employees. (Beatty, for his part calls McCoubrey “an outstanding additioi who, by taking over day-to-day manage ment, is allowing me to devote the time need to planning.”) The president has him self not hesitated to implement cuts: Beatty sold off the CBC’s old head office quarter; on Ottawa’s Bronson Avenue, moved senio: officials into their present space atop the CBC’s local studios, and has overseen a re duction of the work force from 12,000 em ployees to the current 9,000.

The most recent blow to staff morale came with the unexpected resignation jus before Christmas of Jim Byrd, the widely liked vice-president in charge of English language television programming. In hi; resignation letter, Byrd—who is refusing in terviews in the wake of his decision—sait only that he wanted to “move on to new chai lenges.” Some employees speculate that he was pushed because he was seen as resis tant to change. Others believe that Byrd who began his 29-year career as a video edi tor and was regarded as friendly to the CBC’s unions, finally gave in to frustration a the scope and pace of cuts and changes.

That may be true—but the place when the budget cuts are felt most keenly is aí CBC Radio, where employees are still reel ing at the unexpected revelation last yeai that they faced a further $3-million budge; cut because of an alleged accounting error That led to a new round of layoffs that have resulted, says Carlin—who also formerly rar CBC Radio news—in what he calls an “on-aii deficit: you can literally hear the loss o: quality that the cuts have caused.” One rea son is the elimination of an entire level of pro ducers who used to oversee local newscasts and provide editing advice: now, in mam cases, the person who writes news copy alsc edits his own work—which, because of thr absence of fact-checking, almost inevitably results in errors and oversights.

At the same time, journalists at CBC tele vision have been demoralized by severa recent incidents. They include the suspen sion of The National reporter Terry Milewsk for his role in what is known as the APEC Affair. Milewski provided CBC’s lead cover

tge, probing the role of Chrétien and the Time Minister’s Office in curbing demonérators at a November, 1997 meeting of eaders attending the Asia Pacific Econome Co-operation summit in Vancouver, Hiere protesters were repelled with pepper ;pray. Milewski was suspended by his em>loyers after he wrote a letter to The Globe ind Mail suggesting he had been muzzled >y the PMO.

Now, many CBC journalists are furious vith McCoubrey for remarks that he made ecently to the National Post in which he ippeared to question their objectivity. HcCoubrey—who did not respond to a Waclean’s request for an interview—told he newspaper that he often hears criti:isms “about the CBC having a left-wing )ias,” adding “[that] suggests to me that ve need to take a long hard look at whether ve are as balanced as we think we are.” Those comments, one senior CBC journalst said bitterly, “are the sort of thing we ex>ect to hear from people at other networks, lot our own.”

Both incidents have led to widespread suggestions that the Liberals are turning >n the heat at the highest levels of the CBC >ver its news coverage. Both sides, in turn, leny that. Beatty, in fact, defends the THO’s action in filing an official complaint >ver APEC coverage to the CBC’s ommdsman, saying: “We are one of the only lews networks to provide such a method of ■ecourse for our viewers: there is no reason why the Prime Minister’s Office should not be allowed to use it like anyone ;lse.” But, he added: “I never heard from he prime minister or anyone around him ibout the incident.” Chrétien, in turn, said he same: “I don’t tell [the CBC] what to do:

never call them.” When asked about the ligh number of Liberal sympathizers on he board of directors, he answered sarcastically: “It’s not very visible when I vatch the news.”

Such criticisms do not appear to faze or surprise Beatty, who is used to hearing the TBC criticized from both inside and outside ts walls. As a Tory MP from 1972 to 1993 and i cabinet minister for nearly 10 years, he ecalls that “criticism of the CBC news was a egular part of life on Parliament Hill.” As :ommunications minister, with a mandate o oversee the corporation, he says that he vould sit down at the start of cabinet meetngs and “look at my watch and wonder low many minutes it would take before someone started grumbling about the lews the night before.” One of his associées remembers that when Mulroney aplointed Beatty to the department, he oked, “Now the CBC is all yours.” Despite til that, says Beatty, “I loved it: the CBC has tlways been a part of my life.” Today, both ibservations still ring true—and despite he corporation’s flaws, frustrations and nfighting, Beatty clearly wants to keep hings that way. □