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CBC to drop local news, cut 500 jobs by Chris Cobb

Apr 16, 2000

Source : Ottawa Citizen

Radical TV plan will pit CRTC against public broadcaster

by Chris Cobb

CBC television is headed toward a radical overhaul of its local and regional programming – changes that will mean the elimination or downsizing of stations across Canada and the loss of up to 500 jobs.

The changes, expected to be announced in May and take effect in the fall, are almost certain to set CBC on a collision course with the country's broadcast regulator, which earlier this year demanded that the public broadcaster increase its regional and local content.

A small group of CBC executives, operating in almost total secrecy, is working on a plan that would kill most existing local supper-hour news shows across Canada and replace them with a national news program with local and regional inserts.

The new Toronto-produced show would "roll" across the country from east to west to meet the supper-hour time slot in each time zone. It would pick up regional content on the way and either have one main host out of Toronto or a succession of hosts in Halifax, Ottawa, Winnipeg and Vancouver.

CBC supper-hour shows are money losers, costing about $70 million to produce and generating only about $25 million in revenue. But the future of regional programming on CBC-TV has become an emotional and touchy issue among viewers.

Federal politicians, who ultimately control CBC's fate, are acutely aware that CBC often plays a vital role in getting their messages out – especially in smaller communities where CBC is often the only broadcast outlet with local news reporters.

CBC is also legally bound under the Broadcast Act to serve the special needs of all regions. Since a Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission decision in January, expanded regional coverage is now also a condition of CBC-TV's licence.

The CRTC decision in January angered Robert Rabinovitch, the newly appointed CBC president, who accused the regulator of micromanaging CBC and loading it down with a series of unreasonable demands.

Under the planned changes, some supper-hour shows would remain distinct, although probably shortened. The exceptions would include St. John's, which boasts the most popular regional news show on CBC, and Charlottetown, which is Prince Edward Island's only locally based broadcaster. Vancouver's show might also be saved in some form. The time allotted to regional content from other centres is still being worked out.

Ian Morrison, spokesman for the pro-CBC lobby group Friends of Canadian Broadcasting, said his organization will oppose the changes.

"What they are planning violates the Broadcasting Act and the CBC's commitment to Canadians," he said. "It's a question of priorities. If they want to save money, perhaps they should look at the Broadcast Centre in Toronto, which is a $50-million-a-year sink hole."

Mr. Morrison predicts that the federal government will dislike the changes.

"If that's the case," he said, "then Mr. Rabinovitch should ask for more funding so the CBC can do its job properly."

CBC unions, already dealing with 173 recently announced layoffs, are expecting more.

"We don't know where the layoffs will be," said Mike Sullivan of the Communications, Energy and Paperworkers Union, "but we expect to know by June. Frankly, the new plan sounds very much like the old one that failed so miserably in 1991 when the CBC closed stations across the country. I guess the people running the place now weren't around then."

© Ottawa Citizen