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Watchdog group questions CBC's planning amid expected cuts at the broadcaster by Cassandra Szklarski

Apr 16, 2014

Source: Canadian Press

TORONTO - With fears mounting of sharp staff cuts and a hefty budget shortfall at the CBC, at least one critic is questioning whether the public broadcaster could have done more to avert its financial woes.

Arms-length watchdog group Friends of Canadian Broadcasting made the charge in advance of a townhall meeting set for Thursday, where CBC president Hubert Lacroix was to brief employees on "financial pressures" that lie ahead.

Watchdog spokesman Ian Morrison grumbled Wednesday that the public broadcaster has long known reduced federal funds, a softening advertising market, the expense of the Sochi Olympics and the potential loss of hockey broadcast rights could put them in a tough spot for the 2014-2015 budget.

"All of those things together have given them a big problem and in our view if they had planned more effectively it would not be such a serious problem," said Morrison, who cited confidential sources in predicting 600 job cuts and a $130 million to $150 million shortfall.

"They never did start planning for a Plan B — 'What do we do if we lose those hockey rights?' — and I believe that what we're seeing tomorrow is evidence that they didn't plan effectively to deal with the government cuts, either."

Those government cuts being a $115-million drop in appropriation funding from Ottawa — amounting to roughly 10 per cent of the CBC's budget.

Morrison notes the reduction was introduced in 2012 and phased in over three years, giving the broadcaster at least some time to prepare for the full brunt of a $115-million blow to the 2014-2015 budget.

A CBC spokesman wouldn't comment on speculation about possible job cuts, saying only that Lacroix's talk will address "the financial pressures that CBC/Radio-Canada is facing and how we're going to move forward."

Chuck Thompson also shot down any notions that paying for the Sochi Winter Games hurt the bottom line, noting it made a "small profit."

Union leader Carmel Smyth, a former CBC reporter and producer in Newfoundland and Toronto, said she anticipates "a significant number of cuts," but laid blame on falling government support and the loss of NHL broadcast rights to Rogers Media last November.

"Having hockey makes the CBC a premiere destination and the fallout benefits from that were significant," Smyth said, adding there was no way the public broadcaster could have anticipated being shut out by Rogers' staggering $5.2-billion bid for 12 years of broadcast rights.

"Companies buy more advertising on other shows because they're buying on hockey anyway — the package deal kind of thing — so the impact is still significant."

Morrison downplayed the impact of losing hockey, pointing to figures he's gathered that suggest hockey draws about $130-million in yearly ad revenue but also cost the CBC about $120 million in rights payments — plus production costs.

Morrison took greater issue with Lacroix, who he considers "a patronage appointment" who failed to come up with a clear vision for CBC's future.

Criticism elsewhere has focused more on the programming side, with Globe and Mail columnist John Doyle urging the public broadcaster to use the challenges ahead to be "more separate, distinctive" than its commercially driven private rivals.

But unless the CBC can get long-term government support, Smyth said the CBC will continue chasing its tail.

"If it had stable long-term funding it could attract fresh talent and have better programming because it would know that in five years it has the money for X and not in a fight every two years because it's just cuts and cuts and cuts," she said.

"You can't have great programming when you can't commit to anything."

© Canadian Press