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CBC to cut back ‘general’ TV programming as it shifts priorities by Daniel LeBlanc

Jun 26, 2014

Source: Globe and Mail

Deep in red ink despite recent budget cuts, the CBC will unveil a long-term plan to scale back its conventional television programming as part of a five-year shift toward more Web and mobile broadcasting, sources said.

CBC president Hubert Lacroix will lay out on Thursday the public broadcaster’s strategy to be on a stronger footing by 2020, with insiders forecasting a “culture shift” that will leave winners and losers in the organization.

Recent cutbacks were largely spread out across the board, but sources said future reductions will be more focused, with the television sector’s “general programming” facing the greatest upheaval. The CBC’s news section is expected to be largely spared, leaving other elements of the broadcaster’s television schedule facing cutbacks and changes.

“Last time, everyone contributed to the war effort,” a CBC official said. “This time, the initiatives are more targeted.”

Details remained sparse ahead of the announcements, but some television programming could be forced to migrate to new platforms on the Web and mobile devices. In the past, the CBC has also replaced some of its television content with more repeats and U.S. productions.

One area that has already triggered alarm among some of CBC’s most prominent on-air personalities is a proposal to halt all in-house production of documentaries. Peter Mansbridge, Adrienne Arsenault, David Suzuki, Anna Maria Tremonti and more than 30 other news and current affairs staff signed a letter this week expressing dismay at the proposal, which comes amid what‎ they call “a precipitous decline of documentaries in the CBC-TV schedule.”

On the other hand, CBC’s broadcasting efforts on mobile devices, such as tablets and cellphones, will become a “high priority,” while radio services “will not really be touched,” the CBC official added. It is also expected that the broadcaster’s “regional footprint will not diminish.”

CBC has already started to prepare its staff and the public for the coming changes, releasing a video that outlined the “transformation.”

“Our biggest challenge is the business is not sustainable as it is currently structured. We have lower revenues than we do costs, so a transformation is necessary from a financial sustainability point of view,” said Heather Conway, executive vice-president of English services.

“Even more importantly, a transformation is necessary from the perspective of preparing the public broadcaster for the future,” Ms. Conway added.

CBC announced $130-million in budget cuts last April, laying off the equivalent of 657 full-time employees to balance its 2014-15 budget. The corporation receives $1-billion a year in public funding, with $500-million in ads and other revenues.

However, CBC has failed to find major new sources of funding in recent years despite adding advertising on radio, leaving the corporation struggling to deal with sagging revenues. The federal government has resisted calls from the opposition to boost funding for the CBC, which has lost its role as the main broadcaster for NHL games in Canada.

CBC spokeswoman France Belisle refused to comment on media reports about looming budget cuts, which were put at $45-million by Montreal newspaper Le Devoir.

“As you know, CBC/Radio-Canada needs to make choices for the future. Our strategic plan that will bring us to 2020 and beyond will provide details on how we are going to achieve this,” she said in an e-mail.

Still, the situation has left managers at CBC fearing that any new cutbacks will not be the end of their troubles.

“The problem isn’t saying that there might be a $45-million cut this year. It is whether there will be further cuts in the future?” a senior CBC official said. “In the current context, there is no guarantee that the financial hemorrhage has been stopped.”

As part of the coming changes, the CBC will continue to try to offload its real-estate holdings across the country and move its stations into commercial buildings to save money.

“The organization must realize and accept that we can’t be surrounded by infrastructure that drags us down,” Mr. Lacroix said in the CBC video. “We can’t invest our dollars in bricks and mortar; we have to invest in our content.”

Mr. Lacroix called on his employees to accept that the CBC has to move from being a “television-led broadcaster into a digitally, mobility-led broadcaster.”

“We can’t look back,” the CBC president said.

© Globe and Mail