All Business


The network never solved its identity crisis: is it offering a service or selling a product?

STEVE MAICH September 5 2005
All Business


The network never solved its identity crisis: is it offering a service or selling a product?

STEVE MAICH September 5 2005


All Business

The network never solved its identity crisis: is it offering a service or selling a product?


IT WAS THE SECOND DAY of the CBC lockout when the network’s most recognizable face was asked to put it all in perspective. Just back from his cottage, and still with a couple of days’ stubble on his face, news anchor Peter Mansbridge stepped up to explain the forces that had brought the public broadcaster to a virtual standstill.

“What’s at stake is the future of public broadcasting,” he told reporters. “We have a vision, people walking around this building, and they have a

vision inside, and somehow those two visions have to meet.” It was vintage analysis from a man who’s made a career presenting measured commentary on major crises around the world. The flashpoint is the proliferation of contract workers, with few benefits and no job security, that the CBC is increasingly relying upon to keep the sprawling network on the air. But the dispute, he explained, is philosophical, not technical.

Mansbridge’s balanced appraisal was only half right. The future of public broadcasting may well be at stake, and nobody doubts that the positions on each side are based on ideology. But the dispute at the heart of the CBC’s work stoppage is not based on the collision of two competing visions. It’s the product of a single, fundamentally contradictory vision, ingrained in the CBC’s culture: a mission statement shared by all, grasped by none.

Management and union are almost indistinguishable when they talk about the value of public broadcasting, and CBC’s need to “reflect Canada to Canadians.” But beneath those words there is a basic inconsistency that has never been resolved: is the CBC a public service, or is it a competitive media outlet? This awkward split personality—between the values of business and ideals of public service—has created three distinct worlds under the CBC banner. First, there’s the stable news and current affairs operation.

Then there’s the highly profitable but culturally irrelevant programming like pro sports and imported serials. Those are maintained largely to subsidize CBC’s Third World —its perennially money-losing mass entertainment shows. This uneasy coexistence has held for a generation. But now that the CBC’s audience is being torn away by an ever-expanding range of choices on the dial, the cracks in the corporation are widening.

You can blame this, in part, on Brian Mulroney. After slashing the CBC’s budget in the 1980s, the Mulroney Conservatives passed a new Broadcasting Act in 1991. But rather than clearly spelling out the goals and parameters of the national broadcaster,

RATHER than clearly spelling out the goals of the CBC, the government opted for a mushy catchall mission statement

the government opted for a mushy catch-all mission statement, built on the omnibus mandate of providing “a wide range of programming that informs, enlightens and entertains.” The specifics included the need to “actively contribute to the flow and exchange of cultural expression.” It was a mandate that could mean anything,

and so, it ended up meaning nothing.

Under successive presidents—Gérard Veilleux, Tony Manera and Perrin Beatty— the CBC was a mix of top-notch news, current affairs and documentary showcases, supplemented by an ever-revolving lineup of prime time dramas and comedies. And, of course, there were the lucrative sports franchises like Hockey Night in Canada to help pay the bills. But by the late 1990s, when faced with licence renewal hearings before the CRTC, the CBC’s masters came under pressure again to define what the CBC offered that the private sector could not.

Beatty, the ex-Mulroney cabinet minister and then-president of the network, responded with a staunch defence of the CBC’s “anything and everything” approach. He pounded on the theme of cultural sovereignty, and repeatedly presented his network as the lone bulwark against an onslaught of mindless American slop infecting the Canadian airwaves. To those who urged the CBC to narrow its focus, and to shun commercial fluff

in favour of programs more central to its public service roots, Beatty was defiant.

“We reject the argument that we should become an elitist service that forsakes general programming and concentrates only on what the commercial sector does not want,” he told an audience of journalists and politicians in June 1999, near the end of his tenure. “That is not only a shortsighted but also potentially perilous venture. Nothing should be beyond the CBC’s scope or interest.” And so, nothing was.

But by then the winds were shifting, and with a new man at the helm, there was hope for fundamental change. In May 2000, new CEO Robert Rabinovitch finally acknowledged the CBC was broken. “We have two fundamental problems: a financial crisis in the short term and an identity crisis in the long term,” he told the Commons standing committee on Canadian heritage. “If the

CBC were a private sector company I would say it was structurally flawed and unless it addressed those structural problems it would be on its way to bankruptcy.” With that, Rabinovitch unveiled a new strategy that emphasized distinctiveness over competition, and public service over commercial rivalry. The CBC had for too long been a mishmash of light entertainment and service-oriented programs without a unifying vision. He promised to build the CBC into a distinctive “public service brand” and one of his first innovations was to trim the amount of advertising on The National newscast.

Suddenly it was safe for CBC managers to admit their beloved network had deep and systemic problems. In October of that year, Guylaine Saucier, who was nearing the end of her term as chair of the CBC’s board of directors, told a management conference in Montreal that CBC’s attempt at private-

style management of a public service institution had created “an intrinsic difficulty, which we have not yet solved.”

“How,” she asked, “do we check whether results have been achieved if we are not even unanimous in our definition of success?” In the private sector, success means rising profits, market expansion and return on investments. But how should a public broadcaster be judged? On ratings? Awards? “Should an upscale production that wins several international prizes but turns out not to be cost-effective be regarded as a success or a failure?” Whether she realized it or not, Saucier had put her finger on the issue that plagued the CBC for decades, eroding morale and fuelling public cynicism. Unfortunately, the CBC would never get any closer to solving the problem.

By 2002, the steam was out of Rabinovitch’s reform movement. He was still promising to focus the network on programming that the private networks couldn’t or wouldn’t provide. But the dizzying contradictions

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Richard Stursberg, executive vice president of CBC Television, is the network’s point man in its ongoing dispute with unionized staff. Last week, he spoke with Maclean’s Senior Editor Steve Maich about what’s at the heart of the unrest, and what’s at stake for the broadcaster.

Why is this issue of contract labour so critical to the CBC?

This is the most Important cultural Institution in the country. We’ve been working very hard over the course of the last little while to try to show that the CBC is in a position to be successful in the most difficult broadcasting environment in the world. If you’re making a show, you hire the producers and directors and put them under contract for the life of the show. If the show doesn’t work, then the contracts are over at the same time as the show and you can move on to the next thing. It is to ensure that we get the best possible talent and the best possible fit between talent and program requirements.

How long can the CBC go on as it is?

Well, CBC Radio is obviously a completely unique offering. And the audiences are enormously loyal, so they are going to come back, I think, as soon as radio is back up again. As far as television is concerned, it is a slightly more difficult business because there is a level of competition in television

that is much more severe. But, while it is obviously difficult and while it is not doing anybody any good, I think that when people see what’s available when we finally get back on the air, they’ll be enormously attracted and we will be able to recover significant share.

Even if this stretches on for months?

I don’t think it is going to stretch on. That would seem to me most unfortunate and most unlikely. I hope it is going to be concluded in the next two or three weeks.

It seems to me there’s a contradiction underlying this dispute that has to do with mandate. Is CBC a public service or a competitive media outlet?

It’s a public service, but let me put it to you this way: you can’t have a public service without a public. The one area where Canadians have not done well is in entertainment programming. One of the things we’re working on is to see if it’s possible to create great entertainment that will really deeply resonate with Canadians. We think that’s a profoundly important cultural objective. Some people will say there’s a contradiction between being a public broadcaster and looking for an audience, but I don’t think so. I think they’re the same. What about just focusing on public service: news, current affairs, documentaries and niche arts programming?

Well, we just disagree with that. This is the most important medium in the world, and what people watch most on that medium is entertainment programming. We would be sacrificing an enormous part of our cultural life by simply saying “we can’t do it.” It has been done, it can be done.

Why not go to the CBC Radio model and remove commercial advertising?

That would be great except, if you do that, our ability to finance news and comedy and drama would diminish in an important way. I don’t think there’s anything inconsistent about making programming that’s broadly popular and making programming that matters to Canadians. I think that’s a false dichotomy. If you make things that are beautiful and are distinctly Canadian, people will watch in large numbers. I reject the idea that there’s a choice to be made between what’s broadly popular and what matters culturally.

had slipped back into his message. He’d reverted, like Beatty, to talking in circles about providing an “essential public service” that competes in a “challenging market,” while ensuring the same “standards of efficiency” as private networks. He pledged to “squeeze maximum value out of operations and investments” without ever explaining how a public broadcaster could measure “value” when costs exceed revenues by $900 million a year. He said the CBC “needed to make our networks more distinctive and less commercial” but went on to say the network was “open for business.”

“Let me be clear here,” he said. “Advertising has a critical place on CBC schedules. Ad revenues remain vital to our success.” He bragged about an campaign on Hockey Night in Canada for Home Depot, in which viewers were invited to send in pictures of their backyard rinks—an ingenious crosspromotion exercise that any private network exec would be proud of. So much for Canada’s “public service brand.”

Despite all the talk of developing distinctive programs that reflect the neglected corners of Canadian culture, the CBC has largely stuck to its long history of copycat programming. Sure DaVinci’s Inquest may have preceded the CSI juggernaut in the U.S., but when the BBC had success with Antiques Roadshow, the CBC created its own version. Amid all the lawyer shows on American networks like Ally MacBeal and The Practice, the CBC presented This is Wonderland. When reality TV was at its peak, and with CTV pulling huge ratings with Canadian Idol, CBC came up with Making the Cut, brought to you by Bell Canada.

Some of this programming is arguably pretty good, but it’s hard to see how any of it was aimed at fostering Canadian culture. It’s even more difficult to figure how a show like Da Vinci’s Inquest fills a need that wasn’t already satisfied by CTV’s Cold Squad, or Global Television’s police serial Blue Murder. It gets even more difficult to fathom when you know that every episode of Da Vinci costs about $1 million to produce but attracts less than $100,000 in ad revenue. And perhaps it’s best not to even try justifying the daily offering of the British soap Coronation Street— in prime time, no less.

It might be defensible if the CBC’s commercial model were working, but it’s not. In 1998, the network had ad revenue of $383.3

million. In 2004, that had dwindled to $282 million—a drop of 26 per cent. And when 2005 figures are released, they’ll be even worse because the CBC lost its most lucrative ad generator when the NHL lockout killed the hockey season. The network’s government funding, meanwhile, has risen from $702 million to $933 million over the same period. But rather than encouraging the network to get more distinctive, less commercial and to break from areas of direct competition for mass audiences, the slide in revenue seems to have hardened the CBC’s resolve to cling to its few moneymakers, and its obsession with keeping costs down—by relying ever more on temporary and contract labour, for example.

The network is producing some dramatic shows that arguably fit with a public service enterprise, like the historical drama Shattered City, about the 1917 Halifax explosion. But even those projects are developed within an ill-fitting commercial mandate. Canada: A People’s History, for example, was a huge critical and ratings success. But many within the CBC questioned the wisdom of the series because of its $25-million price tag and lack of corporate sponsorship. Only after two million people tuned in did the network’s brain trust pat themselves on the back for “taking a risk” on

such a bold and important piece of work. Somehow they hold to the notion that A People’s History was a risk, but trotting out Air Farce year after year is just smart programming.

It’s time for the CBC to finally resolve the identity crisis that Rabinovitch identified five years ago. Dump the big money-makers and the biggest money-losers, and focus on the vast public service elements in-between. That’s the recipe that turned CBC Radio from a relic into the thriving operation it is today. There would still be room, and money, to produce specials like Trudeau, A People’s History and even a few topical shows like Rick Mercer’s Report. But there would be no more pouring money into faded commercial projects, and no more pre-empting the news for months to accommodate the NHL playoffs. At last, the CBC would be focused, stable and respected.

Mansbridge and many others at the CBC may think the two sides in this dispute need only find common ground and reach a truce on contract work, but that kind of thinking is what got them into this mess in the first place. One vision must win out— decisively and for good. Does the CBC offer a service or a product? Any deal that leaves that question unresolved is just an affirmation of the dysfunctional status quo. fi1]