Broadcasting

Crisis at the CBC

DIANE TURBIDE May 13 1996
Broadcasting

Crisis at the CBC

DIANE TURBIDE May 13 1996

Crisis at the CBC

Broadcasting

In the controversial Juneau report on the future of the CBC, a six-page section focused on the need for dramatic change within the organization. Citing a radically altered broadcasting environment characterized by severe funding cutbacks, new technology and a multi-channel universe, the report, released in January, warned that “the CBC and its unions will simply have to find a new way of working together to reduce costs and to guarantee the corporation’s long-term survival.” Those words took on a new urgency last week as federal mediators, CBC negotiators and representatives from three unions comprising nearly 7,000 CBC employees worked to avert a potentially devastating strike or lockout. Either scenario would disrupt CBC radio and television operations across the country—except for French-language services in Quebec and Moncton, N.B., where unions have separate contracts—as on-air hosts, reporters, cameramen, clerks and security guards walked off the job. The network would be left to air reruns and shows, such as Hockey Night in Canada, that can be produced by management. Just as importantly, it would cast a dark shadow over the future of public broadcasting in Canada.

Both sides declared a news blackout on the complex negotiations in midweek. But spokesmen confirmed that the main sticking point was not wages but a practice known as contracting-out—in which the CBC purchases programming and services from private sources rather than producing those shows with its own, unionized, personnel. The CBC was negotiating to remove existing limits on contracting-out in order to give it a free hand in deciding what is to be produced in-house and what is to be farmed out. That, according to union leaders, would mean layoffs for its members and a diminishment of the CBC’s role as a public broadcaster. “The CBC wants an unfettered right to contract out everything, and we can’t give them that,” said Arnold Amber, vice-president of the Canadian Media Guild, representing 3,500 journalists, producers, editors and other workers. “There is more at stake here than our jobs. If the CBC’s role as a public broadcaster is changing, then that should be discussed in Parliament.”

For its part, the CBC maintains that while it has no intention of contracting out all production, it needs more flexibility to deal with declining revenues from government that have left the corporation antici-

pating a shortfall of $380 million by 1998-1999. “We are not trying to privatize the CBC through the back door,” said spokesman Tom Curzon. “There will still be in-house production—we would not contract out The National, for example. All we are saying is we’re going to continue to contract out when it is efficient to do so. It does not mean we are shipping everything out the door holus-bolus.”

Contracting-out is mainly a television issue as most radio fare is produced in-

mg

house. The popular TV comedy shows Royal Canadian Air Farce and This Hour Has 22 Minutes, as well as Newsworld’s Pamela Wallin Live, are examples of co-productions involving both the corporation and independents (with the CBC providing crews or studios or both) and fall into the contractedout category. North of 60 and Road to Avonlea are produced entirely by private companies and sold to the network. Certain in-house shows, such as the documentary series Witness, have core CBC staff who acquire most of the contents from independent film-makers while retaining editorial control.

Labor strife threatens the public network

Union proposals initially included setting a 25-per-cent cap on the amount of programming that could be contracted-out— a formula observed at the publicly owned British Broadcasting Corp.—but so far CBC negotiators were unwilling to commit to a specific limit.

According to some insiders, the contracting-out dispute reflects fundamental concerns about the role and direction of the CBC itself. Linden MacIntyre, co-host of the CBC’s flagship current affairs show, the 5th estate, called contracting-out “a code phrase for the big question: What kind of CBC are we going to have?’ ” In the absence of a newly defined mandate from the government, he argues, CBC and union negotiators have been left to work out philosophical issues in a collective bargaining process. He said that management, hamstrung by cuts and unsure of the future, is saying to its employees, “Look, we can’t tell you what kind of CBC we’re going to be able to afford. You’re going to have to give us a free hand to cut the cloth according to the available resources.” Meanwhile, MacIntyre says, “The unions are saying, ‘Is the

CBC going to consist of a shop front that hires and buys services and programs from non-CBC people?’ The staff need to know the extent to which this is going to happen.” Catherine Murray, one of the three authors of the Juneau report, notes that contracting-out is only one aspect of the CBC’s collective agreements that requires an overhaul. “There is a need to develop a culture of innovation that can respond quickly and cost-effectively to the competition outside, to declining parliamentary grants and to diminishing ad revenues,” she says. “And there is no question that, in the past, collective agreements have represented a significant barrier to innovation.” While the unions have indicated a willingness to loosen jurisdictional restrictions over who can do which job where and when, she argues that “there is still a long way to go.” As the mediation continued, both sides knew that resolving their differences would be only a first step in ensuring the survival of the 60-year-old institution.

DIANE TURBIDE