Broadcasting

Remaking the CBC

The public broadcaster faces more job losses

Andrew Clark February 14 2000
Broadcasting

Remaking the CBC

The public broadcaster faces more job losses

Andrew Clark February 14 2000

Remaking the CBC

Broadcasting

The public broadcaster faces more job losses

CBC supporters often compare the layoffs that have plagued the broadcaster for the past decade to death by a thousand cuts. Those working for Canada's national public broadcaster may soon be thinking they have reached number 999. Although CBC executives declined interview requests, in a Jan. 25 memo, CBC-TV vice-president Harold Redekopp told his staff that “in order for CBC television to balance its budget and to undertake a fundamental transformation, there will have to be layoffs.” Union representatives say that by Feb. 11, anywhere from 300 to 700 jobs will be cut from the 4,082 positions now held in both radio and television. Since 1990, 1,740 CBC employees have received pink slips. “The corporation has been through so many of these layoffs that they have become routine,” says Mike Sullivan, national representative of the Communications Energy and Paperworkers Union of Canada, which represents 2,100 CBC technicians. “To CBC management, it’s like eating candy. They think, ‘It’s so easy, why would we look at other ways of saving money?’ ”

The cuts are part of CBC president Robert Rabinovitch’s plan to reshape Canada’s English-language broadcaster. The CBC now has an annual budget of $1.2 billion, $750 million of it from the federal government, and the rest from commercial revenue. Since 1995, the Chrétien government has cut $250 million from its budget. Last month, just three months after he was appointed head of the broadcaster, Rabinovitch launched a “transformation” committee to review the CBC’s structure and programming. The books must be balanced by April to accommodate changes sparked by the fall release of the committee’s findings. Job cuts are the fastest means available, although some shows will die (last week, the litde-watched prime-time

soap opera Riverdale was cancelled).

Most of this week’s layoffs are expected to occur in Toronto, says Lise Lareau, president of the Canadian Media Guild, which represents 4,000 CBC journalists and administrators. CBC Radio began the purge last month, laying off 25 CEPrepresented technicians and editorial assistants at its Toronto office. The union is grieving those cuts, claiming that the CBC broke its collective bargaining agreement. The layoffs were the first step in the $3to $4-million worth of cuts necessary to balance CBC Radio’s 19992000 budget. CBC television must eliminate a $40-million deficit. By law, the CBC must break even every year. Previously, however, the CBC sometimes corrected deficits by carrying them over into the following fiscal year. “In the past,

Broadcasting

there was more flexibility,” says Lareau. “None of that is happening now.”

Most employees believe CBC management plans to follow up layoffs with the integration of its news services. Beginning some time in 2001, television and radio news (both regional and national), along with Newsworld and the main network, will all fall under one managerial body. As a result, entire departments, such as CBC Radio news, may be eliminated. A truncated version of The National may be broadcast at 6:30 p.m. in an attempt to boost the poor ratings of local suppertime newscasts, and many insiders predict that The Magazine will be cancelled or turned into an occasional broadcast.

The cuts will exacerbate the depression gripping many CBC employees. Yet these cuts come at a time when the CBC has a popular president who has a clear, passionate vision. CBC staff cheered when Rabinovitch was appointed in November, and morale rose when he opposed new licence conditions imposed by the Canadian Radiotelevision and Telecommunications Commission. The CRTC told the CBC to eliminate foreign blockbuster films from its schedule, bulk up its regional programming and reduce professional sports coverage. Rabinovitch railed against the measures, saying “there’s no way the CBC can implement these decisions,” adding that they would cost $50 million in revenue. If Rabinovitch can convince his staff that layoffs will allow the CBC to rejuvenate itself, he may raise morale among those remaining, the argument being that once the CBC has its house in order, it can lobby for an increase in funding.

If he fails, this week’s layoffs will simply be one more step towards ineffectuality and, ultimately, irrelevance. “None of the cuts are death blows until the public stops caring,” says Sullivan. “But it is a slow march to death. Eventually, there won’t be anyone left but one vice-president and he can turn out the lights when he leaves.”

Andrew Clark