MEDIA

OPEN SEASON ON THE CBC

Mark Czarnecki November 1 1982
MEDIA

OPEN SEASON ON THE CBC

Mark Czarnecki November 1 1982

OPEN SEASON ON THE CBC

MEDIA

Mark Czarnecki

The CBC has been backed against the wall so often that at times it seems to be permanently attached there. Last week, with corporation President Pierre Juneau under attack for his quick agreement to grant the prime minister access to the airwaves on three consecutive evenings, was one of those times. Only four days before, $10 million had been cut from the budget of the CBC’s English Services Division, resulting in controversial program reductions and some personnel layoffs with apparent political overtones. Bad publicity and hard financial times are old hat at the public network. But overshadowing the recent events is a new and much more ominous prospect—a threat to the CBC’s very existence as a producer of Canadian programs.

A section on broadcasting contained in the upcoming report of the Federal Cultural Policy Review Committee— the so-called Applebaum-Hébert, or “Applebert,” committee—recommends in part that in the interests of efficiency the CBC get rid of its in-house TV production facilities, except for news.

The report, which is notably hostile toward the corporation, also calls on CBC TV to follow the lead of CBC Radio and operate without commercials. Summing up the events of the past few weeks, one producer commented, “All the mistakes the CBC ever made have come home to roost—it’s imploding under its own weight.”

Dismantling CBC TV’s production facilities would mean that programs that the CBC now produces with its own facilities— from The Beachcombers and The Tommy Hunter Show to Man Alive—would have to be put together by independent film and television producers in the private sector. With such other financial responsibilities as the operation of transmitters removed, the CBC’s television budget would be freed almost entirely for program purchases.

Except for news, the Canadian programming CBC TV wanted would have to be commissioned from the independents. Though affected by the recent budget cuts, CBC’s radio networks—AM and Stereo—emerge relatively

unscathed from the Applebert committee’s analysis. The TV network, however, would be a vastly diminished operation— its personnel and assets a far cry from the national cultural monolith Canadians have come to know.

Stunned by the unexpected threat, the CBC, under Juneau, who took over the presidency in August, is marshall-

‘We’re like the Foreign Legion surrounded in a fortress, ' remarks the CBC's embattled president, Pierre Juneau

ing its counterattack. Ironically, its efforts have been substantially aided by the federal department of communications itself, the ministry Applebert was commissioned to advise. During the past two years, while Applebert held hearings and formulated recommendations, the DOC, under Communications Minister Francis Fox, has formulated a broadcasting strategy of its own. The

department agreed not to release its plan until after the Applebert report appeared. But Fox was obviously upset when he learned of Applebert’s plans for the CBC. In late summer early drafts of the DOC paper were widely leaked to the media, effectively upstaging Applebert. Soon afterward, the Applebert chapter also appeared (some insiders say that it was leaked by the DOC, which had advance copies), and the battle was joined.

Both the DOC and Applebert want the CBC to become more distinctive by programming more high-quality Canadian shows. But they disagree sharply on how such shows should be produced. The DOC paper, in fact, proposes no major reorganization of the corporationonly more funding. According to Juneau, the only viable solution to the CBC’s problem is to provide more capital from various sources. “We are like the foreign legion surrounded in a fortress. There are so many gates but they are all locked except one. It’s very risky but we have to take it—we have to crack that economic problem,” Juneau said in an interview.

The reasons why two eminently qualified organizations came up with such differing suggestions for the CBC’s future reveals a great deal about the tangled web of Canadian cultural politics. The Applebert committee was originally set up in 1979 by the Conservative government with composer Louis Applebaum as chairman. Ironically Juneau himself, then holding the powerful cultural appointment of deputy minister of communications, soon became a member. In 1980, the committee was reconstituted by Communications Minister Francis Fox to make policy recommendations, with author Jacques Hébert as cochairman. Applebert’s report is now expected to be tabled in Parliament in late November.

Eventually, Juneau's civil service presence was criticized in the media and in Parliament as unwarranted government interference in the committee’s operation. Juneau left the committee in December, 1981, but it had already become clear that he and several committee members, notably Hébert, were at loggerheads over the CBC.

Both Juneau and Hébert are longtime friends of Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau and staunch federal Liberals. But Juneau wanted a strong, centralized CBC within a broadcasting system that functions, in the words of the preamble to the DOC paper, “as an effective tool of public policy.” Hébert, on the other hand, wanted to dismantle all CBC production facilities. That attitude puzzled his fellow committee members, some of whom finally concluded that his motives were at least partly political. Dismantling Radio-Canada, the CBC’s French Services Division, would satisfy a longstanding belief of the Quebec Liberal caucus that Radio-Canada harbors a separatist bias.

Applebert’s dismantlement recommendation may well stem from a belief in private cultural enterprise. In any case, the political aims of the proposal have been achieved in Quebec by other means. Trudeau’s own former press secretary, Pierre O’Neil, was appointed director of information at Radio-Canada last summer. And, just as Juneau was appointed president, Pierre DesRoches

stepped out of the CBC’s number _

2 job in Ottawa as executive vice-president to become head of Radio-Canada. Meanwhile, many of its top journalists— separatists or not—have moved en masse to the provincial and private networks.

The real debate between Juneau and Hébert over the CBC was just beginning when Juneau left Applebert. He continued to work on his own vision of the CBC at the DOC, where he masterminded the new broadcast strategy paper. The next logical step was for Juneau to man the battleship he had been refitting, and he became the corporation’s president.

In effect, DOC has left Applebert at the mercy of its prime target, the CBC. And the CBC has no hesitation in passing judgment on the committee’s findings. Juneau feels that the broadcasting recommendations are so unrealistic “they will hurt the credibility of the committee.” And Peter Herrndorf, vicepresident and general manager of the English Services Division, completely discounts the dismantlement recommendation.

“They are looking for a panacea, a onetime solution to the problem of the Canadian production industry,” says Herrndorf. “But in fact it’s very complex.”

During the sensitive interval before the release of the Applebert report, the credibility of both the CBC and Juneau himself has been questioned in the controversy over Trudeau’s speeches. Applebert expresses mistrust of such powerful cultural bureaucracies as the CBC, and Juneau’s alacrity in allowing Trudeau access to the network fuelled fears about its vulnerability

to political abuse.

Top CBC executives contradicted one another trying to justify the prime minister’s programs. Juneau defended his action by citing CBC policy, which allows the government access to discuss issues “of exceptional national importance.” But when the CBC decided that no network commentary would immediately follow the speeches and its TV journalists protested, the importance of the broadcasts was abruptly thrown into question. News and current affairs chief William Morgan

had maintained from the start that the CBC had been acting in an “institutional” rather than a “journalistic” role. But, in apparent disagreement with Juneau’s position, he concluded: “How much news is Trudeau actually making? It’s not as though it’s urgent for us to go on the air with instant analysis.” Meanwhile, the job cuts resulting from the $10-million advertising revenue shortfall were not always handled sensitively. As television, and especially radio, operations were cut to the marrow, producers scrambled to keep their programs alive. As one insider said, and bat-

tered they don’t even look up anymore.” There were accusations that middle management appeared to be using the budget reductions as an excuse to get rid of politically undesirable employees. In Toronto three producers—David Hawkins, Karen Levine and Leslie Van Slyke—were released from Metro Morning, the CBC’s most popular Toronto radio program. They were accused, in a time of recession and record unemployment, of overemphasizing labor issues and told that their audience wanted to hear more “good news” on the current affairs show. But they also happened to be among the few producers who had refused to cross picket lines during a strike by the National Association of Broadcast Engineers and Technicians (NABET) against the CBC last summer. Personal injury aside, senior producer Hawkins deplored CBC middle management’s tendency to look out for number 1 at the expense of programming: “When the financial fires dim, some people’s solution for keeping the CBC balloon

flying is to jettison the program pilot and crew so the ballast won’t drop.”

Although the Trudeau affair has drawn most of the attention in the CBC’s current difficulties, Juneau and Herrndorf constantly emphasize the economic aspects of the crisis. According to a philosophy pioneered by Juneau, one that currently dominates government thinking on culture, certain arts, such as broadcasting, film, sound-recording and publishing, must also be treated as large-scale industries with significant economic implications for the whole country. Applebert and the DOC agree on the need for long-term funding for

the CBC and the destructive___

effects of commercials on Canadian programming. Juneau will even go along with the committee to the extent that,

“maybe the CBC should look at modifying or dropping certain activities—more of the same probably isn’t the right policy.” But Herrndorf will not accept the ancient charge of inefficiency. He refers instead to an independent management survey showing that CBC television delivers 1.4 hours of self-generated programming per employee per year, almost twice as much as the next most efficient public broadcaster in the world, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.

Applebert has little to say about how the dismantlement should be carried out or how it would be financed.

“Developments will move very fast in the next decade,” says Juneau. “If we waste it selling off $1 billion worth of assets, we will end up far behind.” Herrndorf believes that without financial incentives, independent producers would not be interested in producing noncommercial programming such as children’s and science shows and performing arts programs. And the same independent management survey concludes that the private sector would have to charge the CBC almost 45 per cent more for programs than the CBC now pays to produce them itself.

Dismantlement would also mean sig-

nificant displacement and loss of jobs for many in-house performers and technicians. Scoffs NABET spokesman Bryon Lowe: “It’s a totally naïve suggestion.” Both Lowe and Stratford artistic director John Hirsch, former head of CBC TV drama, stress the need for a “critical mass” of talent. They say it is essential to have a basic minimum of human resources gathered in one place in order to realize successfully a collaborative art form such as television or film production. According to Hirsch, the independent film producers have not demonstrated that they can produce quality work: “The Canadian Film Development Corp. gave them the opportunity to show their talent and they just sold out to Hollywood. What could be more inefficient than millions of dollars worth of CFDC-funded films sitting on shelves because nobody wants them?” asks Hirsch.

Not surprisingly, Pat Ferns, president of the independent film company Primedia Productions Ltd., finds Applebert’s recommendations “encouraging” and he agrees with the committee that part of the CBC’s problems comes from participation in too many different businesses. “The Broadcasting Act never said the CBC should be a producer,” says Ferns, who nevertheless hopes that its programming role will be retained. He and other independent producers in the Canadian Film and Television Association (CFTA) stressed in their brief to Applebert that, “For us in the mass media, culture is popular culture.” In order for Canadian popular drama, with its tremendous production costs, to compete against cheaply purchased U.S. competition, the CFTA suggested that special money be set aside for the CBC—the major buyer in the domestic market—to acquire programs from independent producers. Nowhere, however, did the CFTA recommend dismantlement.

While Fox reconstituted Applebert in 1980 to make recommendations to his department on a cultural policy, so far he is not impressed. On the other hand, Conservative culture critic John Bosley is delighted. “I think it’s wonderful that the principle of relying more heavily on the private sector in a competitive environment is being espoused by those examining cultural policy,” says Bosley. “It will be interesting to see what Fox does.” The final version of the DOC paper incorporating the committee’s recommendations will add insult to insult in being released on Nov. 15, days before the tabling of the Applebert report. If recent history is any guide, Bosley should not expect any dramatic action. For now, the Applebert committee is a sitting duck awash in a torrent of leaks. The CBC, for once, should escape relatively unruffled.