COVER

THE CBC'S FUTURE

BUDGET CUTS HAVE PLUNGED THE CBC INTO THE WORST CRISIS OF ITS 52-YEAR HISTORY

RAE CORELLI August 7 1989
COVER

THE CBC'S FUTURE

BUDGET CUTS HAVE PLUNGED THE CBC INTO THE WORST CRISIS OF ITS 52-YEAR HISTORY

RAE CORELLI August 7 1989

Joan Donaldson dragged a chair into the cluttered and windowless cubicle on the fourth floor of the Canadian Broadcasting Corp.’s six-storey television production centre in downtown Toronto. The 43-year-old head of Newsworld, Canada’s first 24-hour all-news channel, sat down, smoothed her off-white summer dress and said calmly: “There is no magic about television. Television is 95-per-cent sweat.” This week, as Newsworld went on the air to a potential 4.5 million cable TV subscribers across the nation, the sweat percentage probably went up a notch. With the all-news channel, Donaldson and her 187-member team are making a bold gamble to wrest Canadian audiences from the slick U.S.-based Cable News Network (CNN), which has a nine-year head start in building viewer loyalty. But there is more riding on Newsworld than the careers of its creators. Its fortunes in the months ahead will likely have a profound impact on the CBC itself, where several budget cuts and the prospect of more to come have plunged the corporation into the worst crisis of its 52-year history and dropped morale to an all-time low.

Money is the major problem for the publicly funded broadcasting corporation, which in 1992 will move into its new $380-million Toronto Broadcast Centre. Government cutbacks in both the French and English TV services that began in 1984 have forced the English network, in particular, to compete head-to-head with private stations in the fight for commercial revenue and to scale down plans to Canadianize its schedule further. But money is far from the only problem. The seven-year term of CBC president Pierre Juneau expired on July 31, and as of last week, nobody had been named to replace him. At least three people have been asked by the Prime Minister’s Office if they would take the job, and all have said no. Inside the corporation, there is fear that a government plan to appoint a chairman as well as a president will divide and further weaken the leadership. At the same time, the directors of the CBC’s 10 regions are at loggerheads with network chiefs over who should bear the brunt of $140 million in cutbacks that must be made during the next five years. The regions want the board of directors to scrap some network services, while the board is debating whether to close some regional stations.

The dissension extends across the country. Regional managers complain about having to lay people off while touring board members use limousines and stay at luxury hotels. Program producers work with obsolete equipment and express concern about not having enough money to hire or keep good writers. Indeed, some present and former CBC executives speculate openly about whether the corporation—which turns 53 years old on Nov. 2—can even survive. “When you have to cut, you go to the fat, but they went to the muscle,” said a former member of Juneau’s management team. “I don’t see any hope.” Said Trina McQueen, 46, a onetime TV reporter in Toronto who became director of news and current affairs last May: “Every one of our new ventures is going to be held up as an indication of whether the CBC can survive or should survive.”

Fierce: The newest venture is Newsworld (page 40), the first program service in the CBC’s 36 years of television that will spend no public money. Its entire budget, $20 million in the first year, will come from commercial revenues and cable TV subscriber fees. The idea for the news channel came from William Morgan, McQueen’s predecessor, who told Maclean’s, “We needed a Canadian alternative to CNN if we were not going to end up with our information sovereignty going the same way that our entertainment sovereignty has already gone.”

In late 1987, the 49-year-old Australian-born Morgan asked Donaldson to run the operation if the CBC won the fierce competition for the licence. On Nov. 30 of that year, the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission picked the CBC over its chief rival for the licence, Edmonton’s commercial TV broadcasting and production company, Allarcom Ltd. The federal cabinet then overrode the opposition of western Tories and private broadcasters and refused to reverse the decision. Asked last week to comment on Newsworld’s impending launch, Allarcom’s 69-year-old owner, Dr. Charles Allard, told Maclean’s, “The decision to allow the CBC to proceed is one of the few occasions when the Prime Minister proceeded against 97 per cent of his caucus.” Said Morgan, now the corporation’s director of journalistic policy and practices: “It was the first big victory the CBC has had before the CRTC in God knows how long, maybe living memory. It is the biggest step ever for CBC television, bigger even than The National and The Journal, perhaps the biggest step since we went into color television in 1966.”

Excitement: Now, a French version of Newsworld may not be far off—the CBC applied to the CRTC four weeks ago for an all-news channel licence in Quebec, where the corporation attracts proportionately more viewers than it does in English Canada. Five of the six top-rated shows in the province are productions of Radio-Canada, the French-language service, which also provides French versions of The National and The Journal.

Behind the excitement about Newsworld, the CBC is mired in uncertainty. The most immediate cause: who Prime Minister Brian Mulroney will pick to succeed the 66-year-old Juneau. The retiring president told Maclean’s last week that he knew of several people who had turned down the job because the government intends to amend the Broadcasting Act to provide for both a chairman and president. The latest speculation about Juneau’s successor settled on three individuals: Peter Herrndorf, the Amsterdam-born 49-year-old publisher of Toronto Life magazine and a former CBC vice-president and English network general manager; Pierre DesRoches, 57, former head of the corporation’s French TV network and now executive director of the Montreal-based federal funding agency Telefilm Canada; and Adrienne Clarkson, 50, a veteran broadcaster, Ontario’s former agent-general in France and, until last year, president of the publishing firm McClelland and Stewart Ltd.

Priority: Last week, the trio had mixed reactions when asked about their rumored candidacy. Herrndorf said that he had not been asked to take the job and “I’d be surprised if I were.” DesRoches, just back from a vacation, said simply, “No comment.” And Clarkson said, “Nobody has approached me, and it would be inappropriate for me to comment on something that hasn’t happened.” Something might not happen for a while: with Parliament not resuming until Sept. 25, the federal government’s introduction of broadcasting legislation is not imminent. And, last week, the CBC board of directors voted to make executive vice-president William T. Armstrong, 59, a 31-year CBC veteran and former public relations manager with the match-making E.B. Eddy Co. in Hull, Que., acting president as of Aug. 1.

The idea of dividing the CBC’s leadership, first raised last year in the government’s original broadcast legislation, has been widely criticized. In an interview last week about his retirement and the state of the corporation (page 39), Juneau himself said that he thought the idea was “a gimmick—I don’t think it responds to a need.” And one former highly placed CBC executive, who asked that his name be withheld, said, “This will be a head-on collision waiting to happen.” Another was even more forceful. “Right now the corporation is at one of its lowest points since the beginning of television, and putting together a chairman and a president is to me just about the last straw,” he said. “They’re determined, it appears, to have a chairman who’s inexorably going to be drawn into a tug of war with the president, and these two are going to spend all their time fighting with each other.” The priority for whoever gets the two jobs, said Herrndorf, “is to boost the CBC’s sense of self-esteem. Its people really have to believe again that what they do is important, that it is not just a job.”

New Democrat MP Ian Waddell, the party’s communications critic, says that the danger of dual leadership is that it would be unclear who was in charge. Added Waddell: “Someone has to see that the CBC does its job in safeguarding Canadian content. Now, combining cutbacks with more commercials, it is becoming like a private network. I think that is the way the government wants it.” One former member of Juneau’s management staff says, “Politicians are against public broadcasting and are feeling free to dismantle it because they believe the public just doesn’t give a damn any more.”

Layoffs: For years, Juneau has been arguing that, in the face of relentless austerity, the CBC could not continue to fulfil its mandate to provide a two-language broadcasting system. Last week, he again said that he was “very pessimistic” about the CBC’s ability to stay healthy under Ottawa’s latest plan to cut its parliamentary appropriation—which was $915 million last year—by $140 million over the next five years. Between the fiscal years 1984-1985 and 1988-1989, that appropriation rose by only $10.6 million, or less than 2 per cent. The CBC’s gross revenue of $363 million—up nearly 59 per cent in the same period—comprised the balance of the $1.28 billion 1988-1989 budget. Between Dec. 31, 1982, and June 30 of this year, the number of permanent CBC employees dropped to 10,341 from 12,255. Said McQueen: “The greatest problem for the CBC is that it is funded on a year-to-year basis. If we had five-year guaranteed funding, we could achieve our goals a lot more effectively.”

Among those goals, year after year, has been the need for the corporation to keep the peace with its 19 unions representing producers, announcers, reporters, technicians and clerical staff. Both union and management spokesmen say that, in a climate of restraint, such an objective is increasingly difficult to achieve. And, because of the layoffs and the shortage of cash, production people in both the regions and the network are working longer hours with outdated equipment. Bruce McKay, the 45-year-old Stratford, Ont.-born director of television network production, said that, if the U.S. networks were regarded as having 1989 technology, “then CTV has 1987’s and we’re back somewhere around 1980.” When the CBC’s Broadcast Centre opens in the shadow of Toronto’s CN Tower, McKay said, “half our production gear is going to be unbolted from the floor where it is now and carried over there.”

But McKay, one of the technical geniuses in the creation of The Journal 10 years ago, said that the budget cuts begun in 1984 had already forced him to lay off technicians, and “we are having to worry about how tired people are.” Added McKay: “We work them so many hours in a week that you have to start getting concerned about whether this lighting guy up there in the ceiling grid is overly tired and is there a chance he is going to fall.”

The anxiety about the future has heated up the debate between those who think the CBC should compete with the commercial networks for viewers and those who say it must be a forum for so-called alternative programming. Said Herrndorf: “The most frustrating thing is that CBC people sometimes look at themselves as another network. That is not what the CBC is. The CBC is closer to a movement for nation-building and, whenever it plays narrowly by the rules of the other networks, it loses.” Said McQueen: “In the 1950s, ’60s and 70s, the people who worked here did so with a sense of mission. Many still do, but some don’t.”

Controversy: To Clarkson, who spent 17 years in CBC current affairs as a host and interviewer before her diplomatic appointment in Paris from 1982-1987, there is no mystery about the changed attitudes. “What the government is saying to the CBC is that we don’t believe in your future,” she said. “Every organism that is healthy has its own inner life, its own culture. Well, that is dying at the CBC. We are not hiring nearly enough young people because of the cuts. Nobody is being brought up in the culture of the CBC, and we are cheating the next generation of their right to public broadcasting.”

What keeps the CBC endlessly embroiled in public and political controversy is the conflicting opinion about how that right should be defined. That is a controversy mostly confined to television: audience surveys of CBC network radio have long revealed an intense listener loyalty across the country to such commercial-free programs as Sunday Morning, As It Happens and Morningside, hosted by the veteran broadcaster Peter Gzowski. As a result, the corporation’s 10 regional directors see their primary role as confined to championing the public interest in the realm of television. As a way to accommodate the looming $140-million budget cuts, they drafted a proposal at a Halifax meeting in May that the CBC take drastic action: fire 10 of its 14 vice-presidents; sell commercials on The National, save $18.8 million a year by discontinuing Radio Canada International, the CBC’s overseas service; and hire a private-sector agency to handle public relations, now done in-house. The directors’ report will be part of a larger CBC financial survey due for presentation to the board of directors in September.

Strengthen: From the other end of the operation, Juneau and the CBC board have, during the past few months, explored the idea of closing down CBC stations in such places as Sydney, N.S., and Windsor, Ont., in order to strengthen the $255-million-a-year English TV network. The Canadian Association of Broadcasters (CAB), which represents most of the nation’s 72 commercial TV stations, has long wanted the CBC to abandon its regional supper-hour news shows across the country—a move that would enhance private station commercial revenues. CAB president Michael McCabe commented recently that shrinking budgets may force the CBC to focus on national programming and abandon local broadcasting.

Ratings: But Herrrnorf, among others, says that withdrawing from regional programming would be disastrous. “There has been a lot of talk about getting out of local and regional programming and that to me would be the slow death of the CBC,” he said. “That is how talent is developed, that is how audiences are built.” Added Herrndorf: “When you start to prune away at the things that make the place special and give it its lifeblood, pretty soon you have got a thing that nobody really cares about. And if people don’t care about it any more, then any government that looks at a billion-dollar bill is going to say well, hell, it can’t be that important.”

Yet it clearly is important to some viewers. Ratings made available last week by the A. C. Nielsen Co. of Canada Ltd. and comparing the same three-week periods in 1988 and 1989, showed that the CBC English TV network increased its share of the 7 to 11 p.m. prime-time audience to 19 from 17 per cent. The leader, CTV, declined to 23 from 25 per cent, and U.S. stations dropped sharply, to 28 from 32 per cent. For Ivan Fecan, the corporation’s director of network programming, the figures are a kind of personal vindication since his return to the CBC on Aug. 1, 1987, after two years in entertainment programming with NBC in New York and Los Angeles.

Challenges: In his spartan fourth-floor office at the CBC’s English-network headquarters in downtown Toronto, he swung back and forth in his swivel chair and talked about the fall TV schedule, which aims at 85-percent Canadian content in prime time—up from 78 per cent only three years ago. When he got back two years ago, Fecan said, “there was no plan, no strategy. The shelf was bare.” But now, “I have to feel very positive, that we have turned a corner.” Fecan points proudly to an upcoming season that features the return of many of the network’s most popular shows, including Man Alive, the fifth estate and Street Legal, as well as such new dramatic series as CBC Family Hour and Family Pictures and two situation comedies, In Opposition and Mosquito Lake.

And Fecan says that the CBC—where the top-rated series are still American acquisitions—is regaining the reputation it developed in the late 1960s and early 1970s for world-class entertainment programming. “We had lost our way,” said Fecan, “partly because of the emphasis on news and current affairs and partly because of successive budget cuts, when the first thing to go were the creative people. Anyone in private industry will tell you that the most important thing is research and development, and what we cut was our development. The first thing we had to do was convince the writers of this country that we were serious, and that’s now beginning to pay off.”

Still, for Fecan and the rest of the corporation there are challenges on the horizon even more critical than those of the present. Ted Rogers, 56-year-old president of Rogers Communications Inc., the broadcasting, cable and mobile communications giant, said that direct satellite-to-home technology only three or four years distant poses “a real threat to our nationhood and the survival of our own broadcasting services.” Canadians, he said, will be able to point satellite dishes “no bigger than the one you’ll eat your dinner on tonight” out their windows and pull in live programs from hundreds of channels. Said Rogers: “The danger is that once you start watching that stuff, you won’t watch your own TV stations, which will run into financial trouble because their audiences will drop.”

But dinner-plate-sized satellite dishes belong to the future. For now, the CBC has its hands full trying to stretch its resources, fending off hostile politicians and finding a clear-cut identity in Canadian broadcasting. To that latter objective, Newsworld may be a welcome contribution.

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“I think CBC should stick to what it does best and not be a copy of the American media.”

Maurice Colbert, 52, retired teacher, St. John’s, Nfld.

“The CBC is one of the things that keep us from being entirely American, and it should not be cut.”

David Morrison, 37, archeologist, Fitzroy Harbour, Ont.

“As far as information for the children goes, there is no other choice. But I wish that the CBC would stop trying to compete with CTV, Global and the American networks.”

Wendy Morrison, 36, legal secretary, mother of three, Yellowknife, N.W.T.

“I watch CBC TV news in preference to American news because they actually engage in political criticism.”

Charlotte Murray, 26, lawyer, Kingston, Ont.

“I listen to the classical music on CBC Radio all day—and I just love it. I would like to see it get more funding, because national radio helps pull the country together.”

Harriet Cummings, 49, housewife, Collingwood, Ont.

“CBC Radio is excellent and should be maintained at all costs. With some TV programming, though, the thinking seems to be if it’s Canadian it goes on, regardless of its merits.”

Richard Dyke, 26, economist, Halifax

“The CBC reflects too strongly the interests of Central Canada. The bias of CBC staff members seems to be stronger than it used to be.”

Diane Barker, 46, junior highschool teacher, Calgary, Alta.

“I don’t watch much CBC television, but I listen to programs like Morningside, Ideas and Brave New Waves. They are such an easy, pleasurable way to keep up with what’s going on.”

Marjorie Crowe, 45, psychic counsellor and woodworker, Edgewater, B.C.

“At the CBC they tend to be too traditional in their format. They aren’t creating films like Rambo, of that magnitude. And they should be. Let’s face it, their whole approach and style is weak and mediocre.”

Peter Doyle, 24, record retailer, Saint John, N.B.