A corporation programmed for failure
The CBC under siege
It was the second day of the Canadian Radio-Television Commission’s hearings, held last winter to consider renewal of the CBC’s broadcasting licenses. People were slowly, talkatively, resuming their places after lunch. Remote from the floodlit podium, where the 14 commissioners were settling back behind their table, sat the CBC’s president, Laurent Picard, alone in the last dim row of public seating. He had removed his spectacles to massage the bridge of his nose between forefinger and thumb, and looked weary, his greying head bent.
Picard had survived — for the moment, at least. The day before, the long opening day of the hearings, he had presented the corporation’s case for further renewal of its licenses. His performance, judged “brilliant” by most of the TV columnists in attendance, had shown the verve of an advertising executive in pursuit of a lush account.
The morning of this second day, with three more days of briefs and CBC rebuttals yet to come, had not been too rough on Laurent Picard. There had been two briefs voicing complaints, but the third brief of the morning, from the Canadian Broadcasting League, had more than made up for the earlier attacks. Like everyone else in the room, Picard had strained forward to see the man who led the league’s delegation to the tables at one side of the podium, the legendary Graham Spry, who more than any man living could claim credit for the existence of the CBC. In his seventies now, his head silver-tonsured, Spry was still erect and vigorous in his movements. It had been an occasion: probably the last defense that Spry would make of what he and a few others had created 40 years ago. Pierre Juneau, CRTC chairman, had leaned forward to voice an affectionate welcome and Spry, briskly thrusting his head toward the microphone, had boldly laid out the league’s demand that the CBC’s licenses should be renewed without conditions. At the end of the presentation, when the hearings had broken off for lunch, Laurent Picard had hurried forward to shake Spry’s hand.
But now Picard looked weary, even a bit discouraged. I wondered why. Pierre Juneau had pointed out that this was not an “investigation” of the CBC. There was never any doubt that the commission would renew the CBC’s licenses, and a few months later they were renewed for five years, with the stipulation that the CBC slash its advertising by 50% and double its Canadian programming in prime time. And after two years as president, and four as vice-president, surely Picard was hardened to bearing the slings and arrows continually aimed at the corporation.
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So I approached the president. He recognized me, since I’d interviewed him only three weeks before. I said that I’d been intrigued by a reference he’d made to Margaret Atwood’s Survival in his presentation and that I too had been struck by its relevance to the CBC, though not quite in the same way.
“You know,” Picard said with an almost boyish enthusiasm, “I am very impressed by that book. I found it very interesting. Do you know Margaret Atwood?”
I said I did.
“Well, you know, I would very much like to meet her and talk to her about that book. Do you think you could arrange that? I’d be most grateful . . .”
Pierre Juneau had begun to introduce the next brief; I said I’d try to arrange a meeting, and returned to my own seat.
The passing reference to Atwood’s book in Laurent Picard’s presentation had not touched on her central thesis of survivors and victims but on her implied argument that Canadians have a strong desire to fail rather than succeed. “Every president of the CBC,” he had said, “has been labeled a failure. Is CBC so close to Canadians that we have the feeling that it cannot and should not succeed?”
At least Picard had demonstrated forcefully that he did not regard his own presidency a failure. During his bravura presentation he proudly flashed graphs and statistics that showed the CBC to be the leader among public broadcasting systems throughout the Western world in distributing the most programs over the widest network for the least cost. CBC producers, he boasted, turned out four times the amount of programming of, for in-
stance, their opposite numbers with the BBC. Had it occurred to him, I wondered, that below him in the CBC pyramid the pressures inevitable in such cost-efficiency were taking their toll in substandard programs? What about the program staff battling obsolescent equipment and ill-organized services and finely pared budgets to produce all that is demanded and produce it well?
I was reminded of something that Peter Desbarats had said to me: “When I was at the CBC I realized that most of the energy of the producers I worked for was directed inward toward the corporation rather than outward toward the audience. They spent more time fighting for their programs with CBC executives than they did in trying to please the viewers. And given the limited judgment and experience of those executives, the effect on programs was devastating.”
Desbarats was speaking as someone who had been host of a CBC-TV news and public affairs program in Montreal, and later co-host of the national public affairs show, Weekend. He is now with the Global television network. As Laurent Picard pursued his defense of the corporation, stabbing with a pointer at his charts and diagrams, I called to mind some of the other talents the CBC has lost, by design or default: Morley Safer, Charles Templeton, Percy Saltzman, Don Harron, Stanley Burke, Helen Hutchinson, Norman Jewison, Tom Gould, Bill Cunningham, Gordie Tapp, Larry Mann, Beryl Fox, Mike Magee, Warner Troyer, William Shatner, Moses Znaimer . . . The list goes on and on.
Peter Reynolds, executive producer of current affairs programs in Edmonton, calls CBC current affairs “a minor
disaster.” He told me: “When I listen to the CBC brass and look at what they do,
I just get depressed. When you see management backpedal and fumble over such programs as Up Canada the Mordecai Richler play, The Bells Of Hell, you begin to wonder if CBC is the place to be.”
Perhaps it takes a peculiar sort of stubborn dedication to put up with the CBC. Jeannine Locke, a producer of information programs, put it this way: “There’s a missionary quality about program people. You seem to be willing to put up with so much to get a program done that you just don’t dare to ever think it’s not worthwhile.”
She gave me a wry smile. “I remember when I was almost finished my second documentary and a script assistant came to me and asked me for the details of the credits that would be run at the end of the show. And I said to her, ‘There’s only one credit — Produced and directed by Jeannine Locke despite the best efforts of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.’ And I said that from the heart.”
For cultural nationalists of recent origin, the CBC’s history and present situation offer some sobering reflections. The corporation was created, after all, in an early attempt to establish our cultural sovereignty, to develop here some larger purpose for broadcasting than the merchandising of goods. In the late 1920s batteries of powerful American radio stations, set up by entrepreneurs with an eye on the commercial potential of the new medium, were threatening to obliterate the few Canadian transmitters. And Canadian entrepreneurs saw little wrong with that, provided there was a buck in it for them. Almost alone Graham Spry and his friend and colleague, the late Alan B. Plaunt, sensed the dangers in this development. They rallied behind them in their Canadian Radio League a national force of farmers and teachers, trade unionists and intellectuals, women’s groups and community organizations, progressives and journalists, actors, musicians and writers, and bulldozed the Conservative cabinet of R. B. Bennett into giving them a public broadcasting system.
But it wasn’t quite the system they wanted. The gap between the completely public system the league had hoped for, and the mixed system of public network and private local stations they got, may have seemed narrow at the outset; before long it was to develop into the schizophrenia that is the CBC’s most debilitating disease.
And so, yet again after some 40 years, Graham Spry had to go out to defend and plead for his creation. A few weeks before the hearings, as he was nearing the end of several months’ work on the
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league’s written presentation, I went to see him.
“The mess you see when you consider CBC’s situation is not created by CBC, but by the conflict between public and private broadcasting, between public service and private interest. You cannot run a broadcasting system where there are so many conflicts of interest. Within the CBC, especially in television, the smaller affiliated stations to which CBC is obliged to deliver a profitable audience create an insuperable conflict, between the programming expected of CBC and the programming wanted by advertisers,” Spry told me.
And the CBC itself has become increasingly dependent on the money of those same advertisers, in attempting to fill the gap between its government funding and the cost of the multiplying services the government demands. Graham Spry was trenchant on that subject:
“The commercial stations, with so little asked of them, have the easy road. The CBC, on the other hand, has to provide eventually for every uneconomic service demanded of it. It pays for the International Service. It pays for the Northern Service, and it will pay vast sums of money to extend Frenchlanguage radio and television right across the country, often for minimal audiences. I don’t disagree with that service, or with any of the services, but their cost and effect on other CBC operations should not be blamed on the corporation. They should be blamed on the people, who demand these services through the federal government.”
In retrospect, the practice of annual government financing appears to have assured the CBC’s victimization. Every year, CBC executives are obliged to trudge up Parliament Hill, cap in hand; if they never get as much money as they need, they can be certain, as one former CBC executive, Gunnar Rugheimer, has put it, to be offered moral guidance.
“These annual requests for money also meant, by definition, a discussion in parliament; and with MPs from rural districts who objected to everything from a production of Macbeth to any show of the female form, a tradition was created which continues to hamper the CBC from doing its rightful job.”
The first presidential victim of this tradition in the television era was J. Alphonse Ouimet. A long-term CBC man and a pioneer in television engineering, ,he seemed at first sight ideal for the job. Unfortunately he turned out to. be the pioneer also of a still-pervasive belief that the CBC can best be managed according to wayward corporate theories of the Harvard School of Business.
Ouimet spent 14 years in the CBC hot seat and the effects of his belief, given the relentless imprecision of people (and of federal politics), were pre-
dictably disastrous. Managerial surveys were ordered and then ignored, lines of command were continually redrawn, vice-presidencies proliferated, the network chiefs were even withdrawn from their operational bases in Toronto and Montreal to languish in the presidential anterooms in Ottawa. Eventually, while Alphonse Ouimet fiddled with his theories, the corporation began to seeth and burn under the ineptitudes of his disoriented deputies.
During this period, the corporation was also showing itself to be less than sensitive to the loss of talent. Morley Safer, a well-known face on television as the CBC’s London correspondent, was being wooed by the Columbia Broadcasting System in the U.S. Safer told me: “The offer from CBS was very flattering, but psychologically I was not prepared to leave CBC. I asked CBC management if they’d match the not impossible salary of $15,000 that CBS were offering.
"But management said there was no
way they could give me that. They gave me the impression that they didn’t consider what I was doing, what CBC News was doing, to be very important. So I went to CBS.”
Today Safer is co-host of CBS’s top news magazine, 60 Minutes.
In 1966 the team producing the highly popular, controversial and innovative television program This Hour Has Seven Days misjudged by a countrywide mile the tolerance of CBC management. H. G. “Bud” Walker, the head of the English-language network, decided it was time to show his muscles. Overreaching the accepted chain of authority, Walker attempted to pluck out the beams most offensive to managerial eyes, the bright gang-busting hosts of the show, Patrick Watson and Laurier LaPierre.
Because the program had been so popular (or as some would have it, so notorious), the fracas was the most public the CBC had ever known. And the bloodiest. Both sides reeled back from it with heavy casualties. The program makers, however, because they were fighting in the open, lost more men. The heart of CBC television, the public af-
fairs department, was never to beat as strongly again.
Alphonse Ouimet himself obviously thought he might survive in office. But less than two years later he was goaded out by the not unjustified remark of the Secretary of State, Judy LaMarsh, that his management was “rotten.”
It was George Davidson who stepped into Ouimet’s muck-caked shoes. The coincidence of his appointment with a federal cutback in spending allowed him to conduct his presidency with much the same parsimony he had shown earlier as Secretary of the Treasury Board.
Davidson was, probably, in government eyes, the best president the CBC ever had had: at once victim and dedicated victimizer. His instinctive response to a three-year federal freeze of the CBC’s budget was to freeze all program budgets and reduce staff by banning the refilling of any personnel vacancies. Since senior executives tend to work with an eye on their retirement dates, very few executive posts were vacated during that period. Program staff, on the other hand, many of them on short-term contract, were decimated, either being laid off or quitting to search for jobs where there was more money to make programs. In the end the ban on hiring had to be relaxed, but not before more of CBC’s creative blood had drained away.
Whatever Canadians may have saved as taxpayers they undoubtedly lost as television viewers: the dismal waste of shows such as Comedy Crackers, The Hart And Lome Terrific Hour, Zut!, 55 North Maple, Countrytime, Irish Coffee, and A Time For Livin' stands as a memorial to Dr. Davidson’s economies.
It remains to be seen what, if anything, Laurent Picard will do for the quality of CBC programs. Picard came to the corporation as number two to George Davidson in 1968, tempered by the Harvard School of Business and broad experience as a consultant to industry. For several months before, the Pearson government had been openly conducting a national manhunt for candidates of suitable fortitude and pliancy for the presidential and vicepresidential posts. There had been no takers. So the pair who eventually had the CBC thrust upon them could hardly have felt themselves flattered. In 1972, when Davidson departed for the UN, his sacrifice finally rewarded, Picard became president.
Reportedly Picard agreed to remain for a limited period only, and because he wished to complete the organizational changes he had initiated rather than because he felt any great enthusiasm for the job or the corporation. The government, anxious to avoid another national manhunt, was much re-
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lieved. It was Quebec’s turn to supply
the victim anyway.
After a significant pause, the vicepresidency was filled by Lister Sinclair. There were wild huzzas outside the corporation, from almost all of the TV columnists. But within the CBC the silence from most quarters, and particularly at the program level, was eloquent. The image that Sinclair had assembled over several decades as playwright, broadcaster, producer, pop scientist and fast talker, was a public image. As one close former colleague of Sinclair’s said reluctantly to me at the time: “Lister has always been a Lister man, and I don’t knock him for that. But why should I imagine he’ll suddenly become a CBC man? We don’t need a rival up there, or a colleague. As we’ve always done, we need a leader and a defender.”
Until last February’s CRTC hearings the ostensible leader, Laurent Picard, remained the unknown quantity. To those scavengers of CBC scuttlebutt, the TV columnists, Picard generally seemed an impervious and uninteresting technocrat, however pleasant he was personally. But a few who have persisted and gained his confidence have been startled by his candor, by the almost ruthless edge that occasionally shows through. One writer was shaken by being offered, off the record, a checklist of many senior executives whom Picard would like to drop. “If only,” he had added, “I could find replacements for them.” To another columnist, Jack Miller of the Toronto Star, shortly before the hearings, Picard openly admitted that he would like to get out of the CBC himself in another year — but that before he went, whenever it was, he wanted to restore the English-language television network to something like the health of French-language television and the radio networks (a disarming honesty calculated, I suspect, to be glimpsed just before a public hearing in which the English television network would come under the heaviest fire).
Immediately before the hearings, that unsuspected edge was flashed publicly also. Eugene Hallman, the veteran and vulnerable head of the English networks, a prime target of public criticism, was offered the job of managing the 1976 Olympic Games coverage, in effect a demotion. He chose to retire (effective at the end of 1974), to the reported satisfaction of Lister Sinclair. And toward the end of the CRTC hearings, with Sinclair himself at his elbow, Picard was asked why he had not brought more program staff into management: “It’s a funny thing that I’ve noticed since I came to CBC,” he said brusquely. “These men are brilliant when they are producers. They become stupid when they come into management — within half a day.”
Apart from Laurent Picard’s unexpected performance, which was virtually solo because he had instructed all but his most senior managers to stay away, there was one other moment of significance at the hearings. On the third day, a delegation from the Toronto based Association of Television Producers and Directors came forward to present their brief. For anyone who has worked in the CBC, as I had, there was something very moving about the group: they were all good producers, some distinguished; almost all of them were survivors of several uninspiring, submissive presidencies; a few I knew to have been victims of specific acts of managerial incompetence.
And yet, despite a rumor that some of their more headstrong colleagues had wanted them to blast away at management, venting the simmering frustration that is endemic at the program level, their brief was quiet and reasonable. Harry Boyle, vice-chairman of the CRTC, and a survivor of the CBC himself, leaned forward to his microphone and asked gently: “I’d like you each to tell us, why do you go on working for CBC?”
Norman Campbell explained it this way: “Although I often go down to work in the States, I love working with Canadians and I use them whenever I can. CBC is a grand ideal, that we all have to run alongside to keep it going. CBC is marvelous, a holy grail, a fantastic unique organization. I love Canada and I think it would be very deprived without the CBC.”
The convention room was quiet as the producers left the table and dispersed.
Most of the CBC producers I know and have talked to, not only in Toronto but in Vancouver and Edmonton and Montreal and Halifax, would have responded to Harry Boyle’s question in much the same way.
Laurent Picard is the latest heir to an unbroken tradition of victimization, created by a succession of CBC presidents who always have accepted the role of victim for themselves and for the corporation. It has always been thought more expedient to pass victimization down the line to the studio floor than to outface the government. It remains to be seen if Picard will carry on that tradition or turn and fight for the CBC, or abandon it altogether.
In some eyes he has emerged from the CRTC hearings with a new, almost heroic image. But images run more to gloss than reality. The true realities that shape the programs you and I see on our screens, for better or for worse, are the realities facing those creative people in the production line, “running alongside” the CBC, “trying to keep it going.”