The CBC faces the music

Gillian MacKay December 24 1984

The CBC faces the music

Gillian MacKay December 24 1984

The CBC faces the music


Gillian MacKay

In CBC offices across the country, the panic had been building for weeks. The Conservative government’s plan, announced on Nov. 8, to cut $75 million from next year’s projected $906-million grant, with an additional $10 million taken from a special program for replacing equipment, had left almost everyone fearing for their jobs. At 1 p.m. last Tuesday, the majority of the corporation’s 12,000 employees huddled in sound studios, boardrooms or reception areas to watch president Pierre Juneau over closedcircuit television from Ottawa. Forty-five minutes after he was due to begin speaking, Juneau finally appeared before the camera. Wearing a dark suit, seated in an orange armchair, he begged his employees to treat his words as “a privileged communication.” Then he told them he had done his best to “carry out a painful task in as fair and rational a way as possible.” Juneau’s gloomy holiday season message: 1,150 positions would be eliminated from the CBC effective April 1,1985.

Massacre: The depleted ranks and shaved budgets will almost certainly undermine the quality of programming at the battlescarred corporation. The cuts include $30 million from administrative and nonprogram expenditures, $15.5 million from network programming, $10.4 million from regional programming, $13 million from capital expenditures, $3 million from overtime and further savings from cancellation of a Teletex project and equipment changes in parliamentary broadcasts. The CBC hopes to eliminate 400 positions through attrition, early retirement incentives and not filling vacancies. Juneau said that among the 750 people to be laid off, 450 will come from administration and the rest from production. Although the largest numbers will be laid off in Toronto, Montreal and Ottawa, regional stations including Vancouver, Winnipeg and Windsor have suffered proportionally larger cutbacks, and a small nine-man radio station —CBG, in Gander, Nfld.—will be closed. Said independent

producer John Kastner, whose documentaries have won two Emmy Awards for the corporation: “Before the current cuts the CBC was a weakened and bleeding body. What the CBC required was delicate surgery. What we got was the Tory chainsaw massacre.”

And some observers say that the impact of the cuts goes even deeper than it appears on the surface. Union spokesmen claim that cuts in contract work

outside the CBC—for such freelance employees as actors, writers and musicians—could raise the total of jobs affected to more than 2,000. Said Jean-Paul Trepanier, spokesman for the Montreal-based Inter-union Cartel of CBC Employees: “One can easily imagine the disastrous impact on the development of the arts world in Canada.” Senior CBC executives were unwilling last week to go beyond vague predictions about the impact of the cutbacks on programming. Only a few shows, including the 23-year-old high school quiz show Reach for the Top, have actually been cancelled, but most predict that the

quality of the CBC’s offerings will suffer. Insiders say that the 1985-86 schedule, already in production, will not be hurt as much as future seasons. The prestigious news department has been affected. But hardest-hit will be big-budget television dramas, specials and documentaries on the scale of the acclaimed and internationally exported Empire, Inc., and The Canadian Establishment. Juneau admitted that the CBC must now postpone

its much-vaunted plans to increase drama and children’s programming and to increase Canadian content on prime-time television to 80 per cent by 1986, objectives that Juneau himself avidly championed in 1983. Said John H. Kennedy, head of CBC television drama: “This is a major crack in the dream of Canadianizing the TV schedule.” Appalling: Many members of the arts community perceive the cutbacks as part of a larger pattern of retrenchment from the traditional Liberal emphasis on cultural nationalism. In recent weeks the government has ordered cuts ranging from $3.5 million to $1 million in the budgets of the Canada Council, the National Film Board, the National Arts Centre and the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission. The Tory government’s new green-light attitude to foreign investment has also created un-

certainty over its commitment to maintaining Canadian ownership of cultural industries. Author Pierre Berton, a longtime

panelist on the CBC’s Front Page Challenge, told Maclean's: “The cultural cutbacks are part of a

total downplaying of economic and cultural nationalism. They are taking the finger out of the dike. It is very dangerous—and appalling.”

But by far the most dramatic surgery has occurred at the CBC. Said Halifax producer Havoc Franklin, president of the 310-member National Radio Producers’ Association: “There seems to be a sentiment in the government that the CBC should be sold off—or be a propaganda machine.”

In an address last week, Juneau acknowledged that the Canadian public and politicians believed the CBC to be wasteful and overstaffed. Juneau admit-

ted that the public perception is partly justified. In a report last summer Auditor General Kenneth Dye accused the corporation of sloppy management practices, including poor longrange planning and inadequate control over overtime pay. After Dye’s report, David Crombie, then Conservative communications critic, denounced the CBC for waste, saying: “The CBC needs more programs, not more vice-presidents; more money for talent, less money for a forest of memos on how to talk their way out of the auditor general’s indictment of their unacceptable wastages.”

Lean: Still, the CBC’s excesses seemed modest by comparison with other broadcasters—public and private. In 1978 the U.S. management consulting firm McKinsey and Co. concluded that the CBC was “lean and efficient” in its operations compared with public and private broadcasters around the world. Six years ago it cost $11,600 to put one hour of original CBC programming before viewers, compared with $43,500 in Britain and $78,400 in Japan. The report concluded, “The private sector simply could not do the job with the level of resources now committed to the CBC.” Since then, the CBC’s budget has declined in terms of constant

dollars by four per cent a year. In that period the corporation has absorbed $300 million in new expenditures on goods and services—and such expensive programs as The Journal—without a corresponding increase in budget.

The department of communications reportedly persuaded the CBC to cut more from management and less from the politically sensitive regions than the corporation had originally intended. Juneau’s controversial 1983 plan to centralize control in Ottawa had created considerable duplication of management

functions with the regions. Juneau insisted last week that administration had borne the brunt of the cutbacks. But even after the trimming of an estimated 70 out of 600 jobs at the CBC’s Ottawa headquarters on Bronson Avenue, producers claimed that senior management will still be top-heavy. The CBC will not reveal if any of its 14 vice-presidents, who earn between $75,000 and $100,000 a year, has been fired.

Severe: Early rumors of CBC plans to apply particularly severe cuts in the regions caused local agitation across the country. Although no jobs were lost at the CBC’s five production centres in the Yukon and Northwest Territories, eight Northern Service jobs in Ottawa and Montreal were cut. Said Colin Hoath, CBC area manager, Yukon, in Whitehorse: “They realized our role in the North is not duplicated by other broadcast media.”

Still, the regions were hit hard. In Vancouver, which lost 90 jobs, Donald Williams, head of B.C. television drama, argues that the CBC is centralizing production and control at the expense of the regions. Said Williams: “The whole business of playing a significant part in the cultural life of this country is being flushed down the toilet.”

The government left most key decisions about programming cuts to the CBC itself. At the news conference last week Juneau defended his autonomy, and said, “There was no attempt to take us back to Caesar’s time and give Canadians more fun and less information.” In fact, the CBC’s news and information progamming will be the least affected by the cuts. The corporation is going

ahead with plans to add two information shows early in 1985, Midday, a current affairs show to replace the defunct Take Thirty, and a business show, Venture.

Acclaim: Still, even such popular shows as The Journal and radio’s Sunday Morning will probably labor under reduced budgets next year, which could result in less of the foreign coverage for which both shows have won acclaim. In last week’s cuts the reporting staff at the Montreal television supper-hour news show Newswatch was cut to eight permanent staff from 13. Said Sheila Moore, director of English public affairs programming for Montreal, where 30 out of 200 positions were eliminated: “We will have to let complete stories go because we will not have the people to do them.”

Radio has been sheltered more than television. Still, English radio vice-president Margaret Lyons said the network would be reluctant to initiate ambitious projects such as this year’s five-hour, $200,000 documentary on George Orwell, which has been sold to radio networks, including the British Broadcasting Corp., in five countries. Radio Canada International, which faced the prospect of being scrapped, was merely cut back. Radio Guide, a listings magazine with 34,000 paid subscribers is due to die in April.

Television drama, long documentaries and other nonnews categories will be the major losers. Independent producer Richard Nielsen, chairman of Primedia Productions Ltd., which produced last year’s adaptation of Timothy Findley’s novel, The Wars, attacked the CBC’s decision to protect news at the expense of the weaker entertainment and drama division. Said Nielsen: “We already have in this country effective news services in the private sector on CTV and Global. [Juneau] should have chosen drama instead of news.” Independent producers and CBC staff members also complained about the CBC’s plan to cut investment in outside productions in 1985-86 to less than half of current levels. This year the CBC has invested $25 million in cofinancing deals with Telefilm Canada’s broadcast fund, spawning a boom in Canadian production. But for any producer to gain access to the $35-million fund, producers need a broadcast partner, which in practice has almost always meant the CBC. Said John Hunter, the screenwriter of the critically acclaimed The Grey Fox: “Without the CBC’s participation the broadcast fund is useless.” And without CBC support for indigenous drama, Hunter contends, “There will be no outlet for Canadian film writers to write about Canadian themes.”

With new communications technology delivering a mounting torrent of

U.S. broadcast signals into Canada, the issue of cultural nationalism is more urgent than ever. As Juneau said in a rare emotional moment in his speech: “Canada now needs the CBC even more than when the CBC was created 50 years ago.” But the government’s commitment to the CBC has never seemed more precarious. Rumors of further cutbacks persist, despite repeated denials by Juneau. Meanwhile, morale has rarely been lower within the shell-shocked ranks of the CBC. Said Toronto television drama publicist David McCaughna, who

narrowly escaped the cutback knife: “My job is safe, but for how long? As long as the present government is in power, the future is going to be cloudy here.”

While the national broadcasting system is not yet in danger of fading to black, the lights on its screens last week seemed dimmer—for many employees and viewers alike.

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