BROADCASTING

A mix of signals

The CBC tries to change its image—dramatically

VICTOR DWYER July 6 1992
BROADCASTING

A mix of signals

The CBC tries to change its image—dramatically

VICTOR DWYER July 6 1992

A mix of signals

BROADCASTING

The CBC tries to change its image—dramatically

Just two months ago, CBC president Gérard Veilleux unveiled a radical restructuring of his TV network’s weeknight schedule for the coming season. In the new lineup, the news and public affairs shows The National and The Journal will move into the heart of prime time, beginning at 9 p.m., late-night local news shows will disappear and hour-long regional suppertime newscasts will expand by half an hour. Last week, as the magnitude of those changes continued to reverberate in CBC offices across the country, Veilleux set network staff members reeling with his surprise announcement of another set of dramatic changes for Canada’s national public broadcaster. Saying that he was continuing to “reposition” his network, Veilleux followed the make-over of prime time with a major shakeup of his senior executive ranks.

“What I have done,” Veilleux told Maclean’s, “is ensure that the new fall programming will have the human resources to back it up and carry it out.” He added: “If remaking prime time was Phase 1 of repositioning, this is Phase 2.”

The changes, said the 50year-old president, are specifically intended to bring what he called “a much stronger sense of programming” into the CBC’s Ottawa head office, as well as encouraging a closer relationship between English and French departments. The former structure included five vice-presidents—one for English radio and two sharing English television, located in Toronto—and their counterparts in the French services in Montreal. Each of them reported to the executive vice-president, located in Ottawa, who in turn reported to Veilleux.

Under the new structure, the job of executive vice-president, which critics have said is an unnecessary layer between Veilleux and his programmers, is gone. In its place, Veilleux has created two senior vice-presidential positions, one responsible for all Englishand Frenchlanguage television services, and one overseeing both languages’ radio services. Located in Ottawa, those directors, he said, will be expected to take an active role in both programming and corporate planning, “acting,” he added,

“as my eyes and my ears—and my most important sources of strategic advice.”

Along with that shift of corporate positions, Veilleux announced that he was also reshuffling the duties of several high-profile managers. Among the most significant changes was the move of Trina McQueen, formerly the highpowered vice-president of news, current affairs and the all-news channel, Newsworld, to what one insider called “the essentially administrative” post of vice-president of regional broadcast operations with special responsibilities including international relations and foreign bureaus. As well, Veilleux hired a prominent figure from the private broadcasting community, CTV vice-president of news, features and information programming Tim Kotcheff, to take over McQueen’s former duties this fall.

Ivan Fecan, meanwhile, who as vice-president of arts and entertainment was McQueen’s non-news counterpart, was given a clear, if perhaps temporary, promotion, taking over responsibility for all English-language television—both news and dramatic programming—until Veilleux hires a senior vice-president for television. Former executive vice-president Michael McEwen, whose job was eliminated, becomes senior vice-president of radio services. And in what many observers agreed was a clear demotion, Donna Logan, former vice-president of English radio, takes on the job of special adviser to Veilleux for “media accountability ”—a watchdog role over the network’s ethical conduct and impartiality.

While Veilleux’s May unveiling of the changes in programming had been the object of wide speculation, last week’s announcement took the general broadcasting community and even senior CBC hands by surprise. And there were evident differences in the way those affected responded when contacted by Maclean’s. Many declined to comment or spoke only on condition of anonymity. And, in stark contrast to the overwhelming enthusiasm that had surrounded the earlier announcement, there were sharp divisions of opinion over precisely what the latest moves mean for the

future direction of the network and the people whose jobs had changed—as well as for the power of their president.

Much of that speculation centred around McQueen's loss of the formidable news portfolio. A 25-year CBC veteran, McQueen, 48, became the first female on-camera reporter for the national news in 1967. By April, 1989, she had become the director of news and current affairs and, only 10 months ago, was promoted to the position that she lost last week (she and Fecan split the duties of the departed vicepresident Denis Harvey). McQueen herself was unavailable for comment, but Veilleux said that last week’s announcement represented a promotion for his top female executive. “What it really means is a chance for her to broaden her experience,” said Veilleux, pointing to the fact that she would now oversee the administration of all domestic bureaus, both Englishand French-language, in the CBC Radio and TV dynasty, as well as the CBC field offices in London and Paris.

Others were more dubious about the significance of McQueen’s new posting. “It’s a thankless job,” said Paul Audley, a Toronto consultant and executive director of the 1986 CaplanSauvageau task force on broadcasting policy. “They have been stripping the resources out of the regions for a decade,” he added, “and my guess is that they are going to be asking Trina to keep up the trimming.”

Some insiders speculated that it was specific decisions on the part of McQueen that appeared to have taken the lustre off her rising star. Several of those sources pointed to the controversy surrounding recent programs produced by McQueen’s departments, including the documentary series The Valour and the

Horror, about Canada’s role in the Second World War. Last week, a Senate subcommittee hearing launched a controversial investigation of the show’s historical accuracy (page 106), with McQueen in the audience. Others suggested that McQueen’s reputation was damaged by the dismal response to the nightly halfhour current affairs show Newsmagazine, which is scheduled for cancellation in September after just one year on the air. Still others noted that her position as the chief defender of CBC journalists against outside attacks brought her into conflict with Veilleux on issues in which journalistic integrity and political pressure contended.

McQueen’s departure also generated speculation that Veilleux and other network officials are making conciliatory motions to the federal Conservative government, many of whose members have criticized the CBC as antigovemment in its approach to the news. “That pressure has been real,” said Howard Aster, a political scientist at McMaster University in Hamilton who served on the CBC’s board of directors from 1984 to 1989. He added: “Trina is seen, if not behind the left-wing slant, then certainly that the buck has stopped with her.” Noted one senior CBC current affairs staff member: “Tim will play Ottawa much better. Trina has just been too open in her opposition.”

Explaining his choice of Kotcheff, 55, to replace McQueen, Veilleux pointed to the CTV executive’s extensive news and management experience, as well as his understanding of the inner workings of the private network. A CBC reporter and producer for 12 years, beginning in 1964, Kotcheff joined CTV in 1976, moving in

1987 to his current job, in which he oversees all the private network’s news shows as well as such current affairs programs as W5 and Question Period. In March, Kotcheff took part in the launch of a syndicated cross-Canada radio service and, in recent months, he has been prepar-

ing for coming hearings with the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission, in which CTV will request a licence for a speciality news service.

According to Veilleux, one important aspect of repositioning is to continue the development of co-operative undertakings, including the sharing of equipment and technical staff with

CTV and other broadcasters, and he added that he hopes Kotcheffs presence will ease that process. CTV president John Cassaday echoed that sentiment in an internal memo announcing Kotcheffs departure. “We can look forward to strengthening our relationship with CBC when Tim is in place,” he wrote. Kotcheff, as well, expressed enthusiasm for such collaboration. “It’s time,” he said, “we start working more to pool resources so that there are more left over to invest in good journalism.”

Kotcheffs network crossover, meanwhile, was creating anxiety at both CTV and the CBC. As CTV’s eight affiliate owners continue to haggle over the network’s direction, rumors have been circulating that it may disintegrate. Kotcheff, many insiders say, has been a staunch advocate of the continued strength of CTV news services. Said one CTV staff member: “He was considered the last bastion in the perpetual tug of war the network wages with its affiliates.” He added: “Quite frankly, as a news service, we are in bad shape, and this is a real blow to us.”

Among Kotcheffs potential replacements, say insiders, is the CBC’s Mark Starowicz, now executive producer of The Journal. Whether or not Starowicz is a serious contender, Kotcheffs CBC appointment has already introduced another element of uncertainty to life at The Journal, where the death in March of anchor Barbara Frum, and a recent decision by CBC officials to allow The National to exceed its 22minute time slot when events warrant it, has caused some staff members to question The Journals future.

Kotcheff will be reporting, at least initially, to Toronto-born Fecan, 39, whose illustrious career includes a stint as vice-president of creative development at NBC TV. Although many CBC veterans say that he is a strong contender for the new senior vice-president's post, Veilleux himself expressed doubts. Speaking to Maclean’s, he said that, despite the wording of his initial news release, he had decided to keep the job vacant for now, leaving Fecan and French-language TV vice-president Guy Gougeon to report directly to his office. Said Veilleux: “I want to hang loose for the time being.”

Despite that posture, it seemed clear last week that one of Veilleux’s major goals was to gain a firmer grip on the CBC. “One of the biggest problems with head office is that it is too far removed from the programming decisions being made in Montreal and Toronto,” said McMaster’s Aster. “By putting programmers at his elbow, he is clearly showing that he does not want a head office that is an empty shell—that he wants to take genuine control.”

At week’s end, Veilleux noted that several other changes will occur in the months ahead, and one CBC insider predicted that the president will soon direct his attention to a reshuffling of regional producers and other mid-level managers. With Veilleux’s determination to reinvent the CBC, it seems likely that there will soon be more shock waves at Canada’s national public network.

VICTOR DWYER with correspondents’ reports