Explaining Canada to Canadians is as important as ever, the president argues

Robert Rabinovitch July 1 2002


Explaining Canada to Canadians is as important as ever, the president argues

Robert Rabinovitch July 1 2002


Explaining Canada to Canadians is as important as ever, the president argues


Robert Rabinovitch

AS JOBS GO, it isn’t an easy one. Since Robert Rabinovitch became president and CEO of the CBC in November, 1999, he has fought with the Canadian Radiotelevision and Telecommunications Commission over programming, presided over continuing staff layoffs, and endured strikes at both the English and French arms of the national broadcaster. Then there’s the increasingly fragmented media universe, and the ongoing challenge of defining the CBC’s role in it at a time when some private broadcasters are calling for the plug to be pulled on funding. But the Montreal-born Rabinovitch has been up to the challenge. A respected veteran of both the private and public sectors—he was deputy minister of communications from 1982 to 1985, and executive vice-president and chief operating officer at the Montreal-based private investment company Claridge Inc.—Rabinovitch recently spoke to Maclean’s Editor Anthony Wilson-Smith about the CBC and its future.

Everyone loves to either love the CBC or hate the CBC.

Or both at the same time.

In the wake of Sept. 11, there was a stream of criticism over a televised Town Hall in which participants were very critical of the U.S. It led to renewed suggestions that CBC coverage is too politicized.

Canadians came to us after the events of Sept. 11 and stayed with us both in English and in French because we gave the Canadian perspective. I think that Town Hall was a classic case of a blind program where sometimes you lose certain aspects of control. Some of the audience didn’t play by the rules. They were told, ‘There is an opportunity for your different opinions—we’re not going to censor you, but please don’t jeer or hiss.’ Some people did. Overall, I’m very proud of the CBC—I feel it did a superb job.

How much should popularity ratings matter for CBC television and radio?

You look at ratings, no question—it’s an indication of how you reach people. But my philosophy is that we’re not out to win the nine o’clock slot. We’re out to do quality programs, distinctive from what you get on other channels.

Some changes under discussion at CBC Radio seem aimed at abandoning a segment of Canadian society not well-served by the private sector-an older, often rural audience-and replacing current fare with new programming aimed at a younger urban audience that already has lots of choice. Is that the plan?

No. Right now we’re in a position of strength in radio, both English and French. We’re worried about the demographic we have, but that doesn’t mean we want to abandon it. We have to build from that demographic and reach out to more people in the 35to 49-year-old age group, and freshen up our programs.

Is your commitment to sports coverage as strong as ever?

Not as strong, but it will be a very significant part of our programming. Professional sport has been reduced, but I don’t think it will be reduced any more. And we are going to keep pushing on amateur sports—we are the only ones who do amateur sports 52 weeks of the year.

What do you think of Don Cherry?

There are times when I’m not happy, because I’m not sure he is consistent with what a public broadcaster should be doing. There are times when I’m astounded by the depth of his knowledge. And I wish he would stick to that. He is very knowledgeable. He’s also outrageous.

There are always rumours that politicians phone you to say the CBC must keep certain shows. How often does that happen?

Never. A lot of people around Ottawa like CBC Radio’s The House, but never do I get instructions saying, ‘Keep it.’ It just doesn’t work that way. Never have I had anyone call and say, T was very upset with your report last night on The National.’ There is a respect in Ottawa for independent public broadcasting.

What happens when you don’t like a show or hear that there may be plans to get rid of something you like?

I don’t do programming. But you wouldn’t believe me if I said I don’t have any influence. I talk about things, about programs or people on the air, but it’s just an opinion.

At the outset, you expressed enthusiasm for getting rid of the six o’clock local news. That hasn’t happened. Is that a change of philosophy or defeat for you?

Our objective was to find a different form of programming and to look objectively at our performance and what we could do that was different. We came up with a new package, a national newscast at 6 o’clock out of Vancouver that is unique in terms of structure. We have a lot more regional news on that national newscast than ever before—it’s a different type of program. We’ll have to keep working and testing and building our model. But we are committed to making that newscast work. We think there is a public out there that wants it.

How much of the private sector do you watch?

I got into trouble when I first took this job. Somebody asked me what was my favourite program and I said Law & Order. I travel so much that I find my watching is quite limited. But you have to know what’s working on the other side and get a feel for it. So I watch Law & Order and other programs when I get a chance.

Moses Znaimer of Citytv says that if private broadcasters had access to the huge

V¿OtM I J»

pool of public money the CBC gets for Canadian programming, they’d do just as well, or better.

You have to consider the economics of broadcasting. Americans dump a significant amount of product into Canada—and it is dumped, because it costs $3 million to produce an hour-long program in the U.S., while Canadian broadcasters can buy it for, say, $150,000. Now if you are going to replace that program, it may cost you $1 million to produce a Canadian program, instead of the $150,000 it could cost to buy that American program, and you may get only $60,000 or $100,000 in ads, whereas the American program would get you $350,000 in ads. So the economics say you’re crazy to do Canadian programming. We at the CBC do it because it’s our mandate.

There are often suggestions from private broadcasters that the CBC’s funding model should be changed to be more like that of PBS or Ontario’s TVO. Is that a possibility?

We’ve talked about the PBS model and it doesn’t work. Advocates of the PBS model think the money all comes from fundraising, but they forget or don’t know how much money comes from government: a very significant amount of PBS funding comes from the federal government, and from state and local government. Then they have a foundation structure underpinning it. I heard from people at PBS that they raise a total of $350 million annually. Put that into a Canadian context, a population of onetenth the American population, and we’ll be lucky to see $35 million. And remember, PBS has no news coverage other than the Lehrer report. Basically they are not in that business.

Would you say that, as the media universe becomes more fragmented, the CBC becomes more important?

In a fragmented universe, it’s the only entity that seizes the responsibility of explaining one region to another. That is the design, not the accident—and we work at it. The number of people watching Canadian shows has gone down in the last couple of years, in terms of percentage— but our numbers have not.

Can you foresee a model in which the CBC

would remain a public broadcaster with some private sector financial involvement?

No, I can’t. Once you get into a shared model, a joint equity model, you have an obligation to drive return for the private sector. Once you are driving return, you begin to change your programming. At that point, you might as well privatize the whole thing.

How important is the Internet for the CBC’s future?

It will be an integral part. You can see it more and more, especially with children’s programming. We build the Internet component from the beginning, not something you just add on. When I came here the Internet was its own silo, and had its own budget. That was wrong—it had to be integrated with the programs. The Internet is a delivery system—that’s all it is. It gives you certain flexibilities, certain abilities.

How much do you expect the broadcast environment to change?

I’m quite sure ownership patterns will change. I won’t be surprised to see more U.S. ownership of the private sector. There will be a real decision the government will have to make when it ultimately opens up telecom. And it will—it’s only a matter of time. But when it opens up telecom, does it open up the whole group, including cable? Does it say to cable, ‘no, you’ve got to split off your programming part, and have a separate set of rules for that?’ Or will they grab the whole group and have for the private sector regulations on Canadian content, and then move on from there? I don’t know—but it’s gonna be fun [laughs].

How long do you want to keep doing this job?

It’s too early to say. It will depend on my health, on my family. It’s not an easy job but I do love it. I believe that is the most important thing. It takes longer than five years to change a company this large.

Does everyone you meet think they would be a better president ?

There are 30 million people in Canada with at least 35 million ideas [laughs]. And that’s what makes it fun. It’s like a Jewish synagogue, you know. fl'il