Broadcasting on a new wavelength

WARREN GERARD August 10 1981

Broadcasting on a new wavelength

WARREN GERARD August 10 1981

Broadcasting on a new wavelength


CBC radio was plotting a happy little surprise to start this week for faithful listeners who have been on short and mouldy rations of news and public affairs since the corporation’s 2,100 technicians went on strike May 21. Fans of the three-hour news magazine Sunday Morning, who have been making do these past 10 weeks with reruns of old documentaries, were promised a short, sharp jolt of Sunday Morning, no less: Jean-Luc Pepin trying to rationalize the cuts in VIA Rail runs, a panel pondering the CIA’s troubles and author Edward Said having his say about how the Western media covered the Iranian crisis. Only half an hour, but a beginning toward getting things back to near-normal on the strike-crippled network.

Last week, As It Happens began going live again, too, with four or five of its typical today-fresh interviews each evening. The World at Seven (Eight, Nine and Six) wasn’t officially back on the air yet, but the main news broadcasts were stretching out a bit, although still shorter than before members of NABET (the National Association of Broadcast Employees and Technicians) walked out. CBC management has been taking heart and is trying to put things back together again. “The whole thing is predicated on doing as much production as your technical capability will allow,” says CBC spokesman Cec Smith. And that hasn’t been much up to now.

In fact, CBC called a press conference last week to announce what television viewers would not be seeing in the fall season. There will be a delay until late fall or January of such familiars as Home Fires, the Tommy Hunter Show, Great Detective and I Married the Klondike, as well as a delay until early 1982 of the much heralded shift of The National to 10 p.m., along with Journal, its experimental public affairs follow-up.

In describing what wouldn’t happen, Peter Herrndorf, CBC vice-president and general manager, said it would take about 12 to 14 weeks after a settlement for production to gear up before Journal made its debut. Then, knowing perhaps what others don’t, Herrndorf said that “everything we’re doing is based on the assumption that the strike will be settled in two to four weeks.”

A reason for his optimism may be the belief on the part of CBC management that the union is cracking. NABET chief negotiator Bryon Lowe told Maclean's that management had told union nego-

tiators they are no longer representing the membership. To find out, the union is polling its members across the country (electronically, of course, and not by mail) before returning to the table. The corporation had already set up its own hot lines so that union members could call in, anonymously, to ask questions about the corporation’s position. Certainly the strikers have lost some of the good humor they started with. Many went happily off on extended holidays. The atmosphere on the picket lines was buoyant as still-working employees, most of whom are members of 22 other unions which make up the corporation’s labor nightmare, chitchatted and traded jokes with the strikers; but the camaraderie has all but disappeared. Now greetings are bitter and colleagues are called scabs. It is the way of strikes, but this one is significantly different. What it involves is no less than the shape of things to come in Canadian broadcasting, especially in news and public affairs programming.

The issue is jurisdiction, or who gets to do what, at a time when the CBC, with a little prodding from its masters on Parliament Hill, is hot to increase Canadian content. Times have changed, says Clive Mason, the corporation’s assistant general manager; the old NABET contract is buried in the past, the wording that starts the CBC shall not is too rigid. “We’re involved in a creative process and we’ve got to have the flexibility of production, ” says Mason.

What it means is that CBC wants to have the freedom, without NABET always looking over its shoulder, to hire independent producers and free-lance technicians to do jobs that under previous contracts have been solely under the jurisdiction of the union. NABET’s crews (whose present average salary is $19,300, although money is not a real issue in the strike*) are employed as cameramen, lighting, sound and videotape operators, master controls techni-

*The CBC is offering a 36.U-per-cent wage package over three years.

cians, etc., and have always provided the expertise for all programs and productions, except in rare cases when union members weren’t available. That hasn’t prevented CBC from financing, in part anyway, independent productions such as Bill Macadam’s Connections and the KGB show, Michael Maclear’s The Ten Thousand Day War and John McGreevy’s Cities series. Perhaps such shows helped NABET to read the writing on the wall, and in the current negotiations the union has moved from its traditional position, agreeing to give CBC access to free-lancers for the purpose of increasing Canadian content as long as NABET technicians are not


left sitting on their hands. “We don’t want to be forced into featherbedding,” says Lowe. For CBC now wants the freedom to hire at whim even for certain segments of news and current affairs programs, which would leave the technicians with a guarantee of work on inhouse productions only.

To soften the blow, management has offered the union a five-year job guarantee, but Lowe counters that a fiveyear career isn’t what the union had in mind for its members. And while management swears up and down it’s not trying to bust the union, that is just what NABET thinks the CBC is trying to do. The union leadership is putting on a brave front, declaring that its membership is solidly supporting it, but there has been no movement in the negotiations, which were adjourned two weeks ago. Management has rejected a union proposal that the issues be settled by binding arbitration, probably because the CBC fears an arbitrator would rule in favor of the union. “It’s not like an industrial dispute,” says Mason. “It’s a complex philosophical discussion, if you

like, about the future of the broadcasting industry in this country. Our feeling is very strongly that this is not the kind of discussion that lends itself to the orthodox style of arbitration.”

Meanwhile, morale is at what one producer calls an all-time low at CBC. It is a strain for many who cross picket lines, not knowing whether they will work with the strikers again, suspecting that if they do it will be in a sour atmosphere. Most program creators currently say they have nothing to do. “How much can you plan?” another producer says. “You go in, talk it up, go to lunch and go home, but every time you cross that picket line you think about your own future. I don’t know where the corporation is going. It’s a laugh. I don’t think anyone does, including [President] AÍ Johnson.”

So far, union spokesmen say there have been no cases of hardship reported amongst the membership, even though the base strike pay is only $30 a week for members on the picket lines. Many of the strikers have working wives and more than 50 per cent of the member-

ship, according to Lowe, have found fullor part-time jobs. Some, although the union doesn’t know how many, have found permanent jobs with other broadcast organizations. They don’t plan to return to the CBC. And for those who do, the CBC will be a different place to work. -WARREN GERARD