PRIME TIME WARS
The CBC is battered by budget cuts, chaos at the top and a row over the 9 p.m. news
Here is the CBC news. “The place is more demoralized than I’ve ever seen it,” says the voice on the phone, “and it’s universal.” Long pause, sound of breathing. “The regions are terrified, and I don’t know of any regional producer who’s counting on having a job in three or four years. In fact, anybody I know is assuming that the CBC as we know it won’t exist in five years.” Sound of a lighter flicking, long indrawn breath. “There is no moral centre any more—but you didn’t hear it from me.” The words are not those of an obscure office sorehead but of a former CBC senior executive. And because Ottawa keeps whacking away at the corporation’s funding, because moving the nightly network news to 9 p.m. from 10 has caused bitter internal divisions and because no one knows how the CBC can even compete within an impending galaxy of hundreds of TV channels—that individual has plenty of company. In an ego-driven, competitive organization where job descriptions, loyalties and lines of authority are constantly shifting, most will only speak anonymously. Most, but not all. “Is there the political will for the CBC to survive?” wonders former anchorman Knowlton Nash. “I don’t know—but that’s the real question.”
For the publicly owned broadcasting system, 57 years old on Nov. 2, late middle age has become a nightmare in which there is more talk of dismemberment and sudden death than of the golden years that are supposed to follow. The federal government’s relentless recession-driven search for savings, and eight years of Tory hostility have strapped a tourniquet on the money supply and pretty well wiped out the goodwill on Parliament Hill. In the unglamorous outback of the CBC’s nine regions, where three stations have been closed and eight pared down, there is the glum conviction that further cuts of $150 million in the next three years will probably obliterate the survivors. The prospects are similarly bleak for the English TV network’s more than $300-million-a-year commercial revenues: some ad agencies say the redesigned prime-time schedule is losing viewers while CTV has become a better window for sponsors. On top of all that, Gérard Veilleux, the CBC’s 51-year-old, often-wrathful president, suddenly announced on July 29 that he was quitting, effective Nov. 1. There are widespread rumors that he will join the Quebec-based Power Corp., with which the CBC has negotiated a satellite deal to beam Canadian TV programs into the United States.
Peter Mansbridge is on vacation. “I’ve got three acres here on a lake in the Gatineau Hills, a log cabin, a dock and a canoe. All the people on the lake have agreed not to have motorboats, which is nice.”
“Lake so-and-so but don’t tell anybody.” The 45-year-old co-host of Prime Time News (PTN) wants privacy, not secrecy. But, given the siege mentality within the corporation, the request is somehow fitting.
"There’s no doubt that the jury is still out on the 9 o’clock time-slot,” says Mansbridge. “I really go back and forth on the question of returning to 10
o’clock. The danger is that we’ve alienated the audience that was there and we wouldn’t be able to get it back.”
He does not conceal his frustration over the ratings—a 1992-1993 average of 882,000 viewers compared with the 1,312,000 who tuned in to the C7Y News at 11 p.m. “The hardest thing for those of us who have worked a hell of a long time for the corporation,” he says, “is that after being number 1, we suddenly find we’re number 2. That’s really difficult to accept.”
While Mansbridge has been the most visible face in the CBC for the past four years, it is Veilleux— among a cast of thousands—who has been the central figure in the network’s ongoing drama. The son of an Asbestos, Que., miner, he was secretary to the federal Treasury Board when then-Prime Minister Brian Mulroney appointed him president and chief executive offieer of the CBC in October, 1989. At the same time, Mulroney divided the leadership, naming veteran TV journalist Patrick Watson to the new post of chairman of the CBC board of directors. But the Broadcasting Act did not provide for a chairman, and Watson had to cool his heels for more than a year until Parliament amended the law. By then, Veilleux had become the real boss and Watson found himself relegated to making speeches and hosting private dinner parties where he preached the gospel of public broadcasting.
Veilleux, accustomed to the fastidious discipline of the federal bureaucracy, was soon appalled by the extroverted nuttiness of the CBC and vowed to rein it in. He was primarily motivated, associates say, by two beliefs: that only by drastically slimming it down could he preserve the CBC in the face of successive cutbacks, and that the ranks had to be purged of people who, in his view, had become entrenched and were likely hostile.
Like most Ottawa mandarins, Veilleux looked upon the CBC’s often
pointed political news coverage with distaste and suspicion (and was not enamored of journalists generally; he agreed to an interview with Maclean’s last week and then backed out at the last minute). Between June, 1991, and August, 1992, he cleaned house. First, he fired English TV network boss Denis Harvey and delegated an intermediary to break the news. Then he shifted news and current affairs vice-president Trina McQueen to a lesser position from which she resigned last July. With the board’s endorsement, Veilleux next terminated The National and The Journal—made memorable by the late Barbara Frum—to clear the way for a redesigned prime-time schedule (“repositioning” was the buzzword) and hired longtime CTV news and information vice-president Tim Kotcheff to succeed McQueen. Mark Starowicz, The Journal’s mercurial but respected executive producer for 12 years, was given a new documentary unit to keep him from defecting to CTV. Finally, Elly Alboim, the 46-year-old chief of the CBC’s parliamentary news bureau, resigned to join a consulting firm.
The waiter dropped off the mineral water and a basket of bread and disappeared into the lunch-hour throng. ‘You didn’t hear it from me, but Veilleux didn’t like discussion and argument. Three years ago somebody leaked the news about cutbacks before they could be announced, and he was incensed beyond words. When CBC Radio ran a story last year about the new television schedule before the formal announcement, he was just full of rage. In fairness to him, I don’t think his career prepared him for controversy and criticism and I think he came to hate the job. But his reign made the CBC a very, very unhappy place and a very uncomfortable one for journalists. ”
Both inside and outside the CBC, critics recite a litany of complaints about the switch to 9 o’clock—not the least of which is that the time is inconvenient for many viewers. And, said one broadcasting analyst, “what they didn’t understand was that The National was a Canadian institution—in marketing terms, it was a trademark and represented a sense of occasion. Now, people are switching to Newsworld at 10 or they’re switching to CTV and Lloyd Robertson at 11.”
Pamela Wallin, the other co-host of Prime Time News, was lured away from CTV’s early-morning Canada AM a year ago. Now 40, she has just
bought a house off Yonge Street in midtown Toronto and is fussing with new curtains. “A lot of people say they love the news at 9 o’clock,” she notes, “but there has been a lot of resistance from viewers because old habits die hard. I’m not wedded to 9 o’clock, but in a thousand-channel universe it makes sense to me that people have an alternative.”
“Who hired you?”
“I’m really not sure,” she laughs. At various times, she says, she talked with John Owen, who headed the task force that designed Prime Time News, English TV networks vice-president Ivan Fecan and Kotcheff, “but I don’t know who made the decision.” However, says Wallin, “I came because I did and I do believe in the CBC’s mission and vision and I wanted to be at a place where they still practise journalism.”
Another Toronto restaurant, this one with old 1950s-style booths, vinyl-covered seats, plastic-covered tables. Trina McQueen, a trim 50 in white slacks and multicolored top, the new vice-president and general manager of the proposed Discovery Channel Canada, orders rice pudding and a Diet Coke.
“I left the corporation because of the diminishing budget. I had come to the end of my ability to put people out of work, to shut down programs, to overload the people who were left. If the corporation takes another hit of $150 to $200 million, it will be the end of the CBC as we know it.” Spoonful of pudding. “But that’s not the central issue anyway. What we need to do is rethink the role of public broadcasting in Canada.”
“What about shifting the news to 9 o’clock?”
“I approved of the move, but Prime Time News went on the air with none of the development that any billion-dollar corporation would have put into a new product,” she says. “It’s easily possible that PTN can evolve to the point where it surpasses the accomplishments of The National and The Journal—if the people running it are given the time to make that happen. My big worry is that they won’t be given the time.”
“It was Veilleux’s decision hut there was nobody standing there saying, ‘This is nuts, let’s not go to 9 o’clock,’ ” says the voice on the phone, muted and far away. “None of the people who are being lionized now for their stands in the past year said 9 p.m. was a bad decision. I never saw anybody stand up, including myself, to say, Jesus this is f-—ing crazy. ’ ”
Tim Kotcheff does not think that the move was crazy. At 55, like a recently traded major-league pitcher, he is trying to marshal the CBC’s news and current affairs resources to beat his old teammates at CTV. He is undisturbed by reports that he has found the new dugout a lonely place with few supporters.
“It has been a turbulent year,” he concedes. “Veilleux shook the place up and it needed to be shaken up because every place, from time to time, needs renewal. All I can do is what I do best, and I am
certainly determined to make it work. And I don’t think you can measure your success by your friends and enemies. I’m excited by this challenge and I hope that rubs off on the people around me.”
While it is too early to say that moving the news to 9 o’clock has worked, says Kotcheff, PTN is doing better than did The National and The Journal at this time last year. “Well take a look at it in November.”
The place is more demoralized than I’ve ever seen it, and it’s universal’
Some of the people who buy TV commercial time have already looked, and their verdict is a cheerless one for the CBC. “I think the whole prime-time schedule has suffered from this move, because they lost the
chance to get a higher audience at 9 o’clock with a better show,” says Brian Fitzpatrick, group media director for the Ogilvy Mather Canada advertising agency. “They dropped the numbers watching news and that even hurt the shows that follow it.”
Now for the really bad news. “It has clearly eroded the amount they can charge for ads,” says Fitzpatrick, “so there is no doubt that they should rethink this move. The audience keeps getting worse. The proof is in the pudding, and the pudding tastes pretty bad.” Says Brian Philcox, chairman of the Canadian Advertising Foundation: “CBC has lost a sizable chunk of its audience. Advertisers really don’t care that much about content, they are looking for the right audience. If you are a true mass marketer, like a beer or soft drink company, you want to reach as many people as possible. That would make CTV the best buy.” Adds Philcox: “Maybe they have to stop competing head-to-head with other networks and carve out a different role.”
The network is a competitive place where the chain of command is always shifting
After four years at the helm, the president calls it quits
Picked as a policy-maker, he now finds himself in the background
The English TV network chief says change has upset many employees
Thad come to the end of my ability to put people out of work'
MACLEAN'S/AUGUST 30, 1993
Another voice on the phone. “I don’t want to be identified with this but Veilleux was trying to stave off further cuts by showing how efficient he was being within the CBC. He’d cut his regions, he’d laid offa significant number of people, he was sending out news releases about repositioning this and that. Everybody got into a lather about repositioning for the 1990s. Veilleux moved the news to 9 o’clock to save money, but in fact it’s cost money because The National and The Journal were making a hell of a lot more money commercially. ”
‘Veilleux shook the place up and it needed to be—-every place needs renewal’
Ivan Fecan was producing newscasts on Toronto’s rowdy CITY-TV when most people his age were still in college. He bounded over to CBLT, the CBC’s regional Toronto station, whirled off to Los Angeles, where he spent two years with the entertainment side of NBC, and then rejoined the CBC in 1987.
Last Feb. 26, Veilleux put the hard-driving Fecan in Denis Harvey’s old job as head of the English TV networks. Just turned 40, Fecan is still furiously in motion, walking while he talks and gesturing and running his fingers—back and forth, back and forth—through greying, receding hair. His office in the CBC’s new Broadcast Centre is 40 feet long, has a six-seater white leather chesterfield, a lot of smoked glass and stainless steel and 32 feet of windows that look like the bridge on the QE2.
“What we’ve been trying to do is not duplicate what’s available from the private sector,” he says, waving. “It doesn’t make a lot of sense to compete with the private sector and use public money to do it.” Back and forth. “Up to this controversy over news, the cry was there’s not enough drama, there’s not enough arts, there’s not enough children’s.” He stares out the window at the enormous base of the CN Tower. “In the last few years, we’ve redressed many of those things. Now, we have the highestrated drama series in the country, Road to Avonlea, Street Legal and the new one we just started in Alberta, North of 60." He sits down, gets up, walks in a circle. “Ask people if they want Road to Avonlea and they say, ‘Oh, yeah, we want it.’ But they don’t reflect that if there’s no CBC, there’s no program. If the CBC goes, your favorite programs go. It’s that simple.”
On morale: “In the places where change is new, people are scared and
upset and aren’t sure what’s going to hit next.” On the megachannel universe: “We’re on the edge of another revolution that’ll see the marriage of computers and television screens and telephones and no one quite knows how anything is going to turn out. All around the world, people are asking what the purpose of the public broadcaster should be.”
In a downtown office, an insider: “Do the feds want to get rid of the CBC? They’ll never admit they want to kill it, but if they keep cutting us like they have been, that must be what they want to have happen. What they have to decide is whether they want to build it up or tear it down. If they want to build, they’ll find someone who can heal. But that’s not Watson. Watson knows journalism but he’s been missing in action. ”
But Watson is not missing—he is ordering a pile of Chinese food, halfshouting over the surrounding din and sitting awkwardly because, having lost a leg 30 years ago in a freak fall from a ladder, he has just had a hip replacement.
"There was a strong sense right up until the end of the Mulroney regime,” he says, “that there wasn’t very much public will, or political will, to give public broadcasting the kind of priority that it had always had. People were saying, Well, that’s not surprising. If it comes to an issue between public broadcasting and health care, who do you think is going to get the priority?’ ” How great was the effect of traditional Tory hostility on the government’s treatment of the CBC?
“Substantial,” replies Watson. “That’s not all-pervasive in the party. But the key guys at the centre around the Prime Minister came to believe that the public broadcaster was the enemy so why keep paying him?” The loud noontime party at the next table begins to drown out Watson, and he leans forward.
“The board of directors was very much involved in the whole repositioning thing, maybe more than a board should be. A board’s there to make policy. This board’s been very close to getting its hands on management, saying let’s do it this way and let’s do it that way. They were all appointed by a Tory government, but they’re not all Tory activists—though probably the majority were. But their commitment to public broadcasting is very strong. Still, it weakens the board when the public considers it to be composed entirely of friends of the party in power. I think the process of appointments is ripe for change.”
After running the CBC’s English television networks in the late 1970s and early 1980s and presiding over the launch of The Journal, Peter Heimdorf spent nine years as publisher of Toronto Life magazine. Since January, 1992, he has been chairman of TVOntario, the provincially funded television service. He orders in sandwiches and, for himself, a glass of milk.
“The internal battles at a broadcasting company matter so much because the consequences show up on the television screen. The differences in these battles are not just differences of personality, they are frequently differences of instinct, differences of emphasis, differences of philosophy and they are very important.” The office is large and quiet and two TV monitors flicker silently on the wall. The turmoil of the CBC is a long way off.
He finishes his sandwich and flicks a crumb off his trouser leg. “One of the things the CBC is going to have to do over the course of the next few years, particularly as they find there are 50, 60, 70 channels to compete with, is go back to being more than a network. The CBC started as a movement, a movement that rolled across the country with people demanding a broadcast service that somehow reflected their reality, and the CBC is going to have to go back to that, back to a time when it was essential in every major community in the country. It’s more than just a television program or a radio program. It is a set of ideas and a lifestyle and an involvement with the country.” That is the ideal. For Canada’s embattled, middle-aged broadcasting system, the reality is something else: declining budgets, dwindling hopes and discordant voices.