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CBC actively preparing for budget cuts, says head of English Services by Marsha Lederman

Dec 1, 2011

Source: Globe and Mail

Kirstine Stewart describes herself as an optimistic person, but even she – CBC’s executive vice-president of English Services – is finding the public broadcaster’s current challenges “very stressful.”

Looming government funding cuts. Persistent in-your-face criticism from Sun Media and its parent company Quebecor. Battles in court and the House of Commons over whether the CBC must turn over what it considers sensitive information requested under the Access to Information Act.

“I have to say it isn’t easy,” said Stewart Tuesday of Quebecor’s CBC campaign. “But ... when we do reach out to Canadians directly and there isn’t a filter of someone else’s opinion on top, we do know that we’re incredibly supported. ... And you need to remind yourself of that when a lot of the noise is happening, because it can be distracting. And I think the one thing we need to make sure: It’s our responsibility to keep the engine running.”

On less fuel, however. Ottawa has made it known that cuts are coming in the next budget, and the CBC is preparing.

“We have to look at everything,” said Stewart. “Because we’re not sure at this point what the level of the funding cuts could possibly be, we’ve had to come up with all different kinds of scenarios to satisfy different kinds of cuts, different levels of cuts.”

Stewart made the comments during an interview on the British Columbia set of the new CBC-TV show Arctic Air. The Yellowknife-set dramatic series launches in January and is getting a big publicity push. While back at the office the cost-cutting exercise is under way, on-set it’s all smiles for the busload of entertainment journalists who have been shuttled out from the city for interviews with CBC stars, including Arctic Air’s Adam Beach.

“I think CBC is the one forum for Canadians to tell each other great Canadian stories,” Stewart told reporters. “And that’s what we’ve been doing for the past 75 years and that’s what we [plan] to continue to do for many more.”

This is a “pretty important” message, she later told The Globe and Mail, at this point in the public broadcaster’s history.

The CBC receives $1.1-billion in federal funding and has been getting a $60-million top-up annually since 2001. But like other government departments, agencies and Crown corporations, it has been told to expect funding cuts in the next budget.

The corporation is preparing for three scenarios: a 5 per cent cut, a 10 per cent cut, or a 10 per cent cut plus the elimination of the top-up funding.

“We are looking at our programming, our overhead, all different areas within the business to see what we can do,” Stewart said. “So that activity is going on right now.”

When asked whether non-revenue-generating properties, such as radio, would be more vulnerable, she said no.

“We have main priorities and still we stand by them as a public broadcaster and those things are to be regional, to be digital – because we know that we need to move forward as a broadcaster ... and to be Canadian first.”

Stewart says public support is strong; she cites a survey released this week (conducted by Angus Reid/Vision Critical for Friends of Canadian Broadcasting) that shows 46 per cent of respondents would advise their MP to vote to maintain CBC funding at current levels.

The pro-public-broadcasting advocacy group also released a satirical video in support of the CBC on Tuesday. Called Stop the CBC Smackdown, it imagines a scenario where the corporation is purchased by a former U.S. wrestling champ. “As an American,” says the new CBC owner, “I know what Canadians want.”

Since its launch earlier this year, the Quebecor-owned Sun News Network has been aggressively targeting the CBC, to which it refers as “the state broadcaster.” TV host and conservative columnist Ezra Levant is leading the charge, referring to the CBC’s government funding as a “bailout” and calling for its privatization. Quebecor has filed hundreds of access to information requests, looking for information such as CBC salaries and travel expenses.

(Levant would have had a field day at the private promotional dinner the CBC held for journalists – which The Globe and Mail attended – on Monday night at a swanky Vancouver restaurant, with its free-flowing wine and towering seafood platters.)

The CBC had refused to turn over some requested documents, citing a provision in the Access to Information Act that allows it to protect information that relates to journalistic, creative or programming activities. This sparked both an examination by the Access to Information and Ethics Committee, and a court case.

Last week, the Federal Court of Appeal ruled that the CBC must turn over the documents to the federal information commissioner, who is to decide their fate.

With this as a backdrop, a group of CBC executives headed west this week to offer a good news story to Western Canadian media. Arctic Air is shooting outside of Vancouver (there’s also been some production in Yellowknife); there are plans to launch a new national CBC News Network show from Vancouver in the new year; and a national radio show is in development in Calgary.

But promised regional expansion – a key objective of the CBC’s strategic plan is to better serve markets such as Kamloops, B.C., and Kitchener-Waterloo, Ont. – may be affected by the coming cuts. The plan called for new or expanded service in large population centres that were identified as being under-served, potentially affecting about seven million Canadians by 2015.

“Once the word comes down in March what level [of funding] we’re at, we’ll have to take a realistic look at how much of that we can afford,” said Stewart.

If it’s a lot to deal with – and it is, she admits – Stewart points out that media is an industry that’s always in flux. And she, the optimist, sees an opportunity in that.

“What are we learning from this experience and what can we do better and how can we then become that modern public broadcaster that people are expecting of us? Because in the end, it’s the people we answer to.”

© Globe and Mail