COVER

Setback for an all-news service

MICHAEL ROSE February 8 1988
COVER

Setback for an all-news service

MICHAEL ROSE February 8 1988

Setback for an all-news service

COVER

The announcement dealt a serious blow to the CBC’S ambitious plan to launch a 24-hour all-news television service on Sept. 1. Communications Minister Flora MacDonald said in Ottawa last week that the Conservative cabinet had decided it would “not be prudent” for the CBC to proceed further with the project until the Crown corporation had made new efforts to find a private-sector partner. As well, MacDonald said, the cabinet was concerned that the CBC was not offering a similar service in French. MacDonald said that no final ruling on the fate of the CBC’s allnews licence will be made until the end of the government’s formal review period in October, but she left little doubt that the network’s original plan— approved in November by the Canadian Radiotelevision and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) — was doomed.

MacDonald’s announcement came after intense lobbying by many Conservative MPS and lobby groups from Western Canada. They were angry at the CRTC decision to grant the allnews licence to the CBC over a rival bid from Alberta’s privately owned Allarcom Ltd. MacDonald denied that the furore in the Tory caucus and in the West had influenced the cabinet’s thinking—but the political stakes of failing to respond to such pressure were clearly high. Opposition MPS charged that the government had effectively bowed to political pressure. But CBC officials, for their part, said that they would make a serious effort to meet the government’s new conditions.

Technically, the cabinet is empowered to review a CRTC licence only during a 60-day period after it goes into effect—in the CBC’s case, on Sept. 1. Its options then are to reject the decision altogether or send it back to the CRTC for further study. But MacDonald said last week that the cabinet wanted to “state publicly that it has concerns that it will consider when the issue is brought forward in the fall for formal review.” Chief among them: what Mac-

Donald called a “concentration in management and operation of broadcast news in Canada.” The CBC should seek out private-sector partners, the minister said, and ensure that a similar service be established for francophone viewers.

CBC officials, although obviously troubled by the announcement, did not appear to be surprised. Said CBC president Pierre Juneau: “We are not wildly enthusiastic about this decision, but it

is more positive than many other options that were in the air.” Juneau said that the corporation would resume its search for private-sector partners, but pointed out that an earlier search had been unsuccessful.

Officials also had intended to try to provide a similar TV news service in French but decided to postpone an application until it completed a feasibility study. The results of that study are due by June, but CBC officials said that it is already clear that cable TV subscribers would have to pay much more for a French service (about $1.50 a month each) than for the proposed English service—which would cost between 25 and 40 cents a month. Said Juneau: “The financing situation is not easy [for a French service] because we are talking about a smaller subscriber base. There are five million cable subscribers in English

Canada and only a million in French Canada.”

For their part, many opposition MPs and supporters of the CBC condemned the cabinet decision as unwarranted interference in the operations of the Crown corporation and of the CRTC, a regulatory agency designed to operate at arm’s length from government. The communications minister, charged Liberal MP Brian Tobin, “has abdicated her responsibilities in favor of the

backbenchers and the caucus meetings of the Tory party.” Added Louis Applebaum, co-chairman of the 1982 federal cultural policy review committee report: “The government has the right to set general policy for the CRTC, but it certainly should not participate in decisions to this degree.”

But the Tory backbenchers who led the fight for a review of the CBC licence were pleased to have won the latest skirmish. And MacDonald said that, when she completes her much-delayed review of broadcasting policy later this year, she may “redefine the role and mandate of the CBC.” That warning of more fundamental changes to come in the beleaguered corporation may prove even more troublesome than last week’s setback in establishing a new all-news service.

— MICHAEL ROSE in Ottawa