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Hubert Lacroix must fight for CBC — or resign by Barry Kiefl

Jul 21, 2014

There's some good in the CBC's five-year plan, but also a lot of bad, including the defeatism that has marked network president Hubert Lacroix's tenure.

Source: Toronto Star

There has been near universal criticism of the new five-year strategy announced recently by CBC. The Star called the strategy foolish. The Globe and Mail poked fun at its bureaucratic jargon and underlying philosophy. The Friends of Canadian Broadcasting, among others, called for the resignation of CBC President Hubert Lacroix.

So is the plan really so bad?

First, the good points:

No one knows how technology will evolve over the next 5 years, just as we had little knowledge of the potential power of iPads and iPhones five years ago. CBC is right to say it will react to change as it occurs.

The strategy confirms that in-house staff will continue to produce the core services of TV news and current affairs and radio. This is the one program area that private networks will hesitate to pour money into and where CBC can and should compete.

It would appear CBC is rightly going to protect radio services from further cuts.

The plan calls for the retention of all existing radio and TV transmitters, the only sensible way to reach TV/radio audiences for the foreseeable future.

The strategy calls for a reduction of full-time staff, which might bring the staff/budget ratio more into line with that of the BBC, which has a budget five times that of CBC but only about twice as many staff. Cuts to CBC management are overdue and wouldn't affect programming.

Finally, the strategy reiterates that CBC should devote fewer financial resources to the real estate it owns. This may be the solution to a problem that has been around for at least 15 years.

But, as critics have pointed out, the strategy has plenty of weaknesses, too:

Foremost is the insensitive treatment of staff.

Lacroix said that announcing staff cuts three previous times was the most painful thing he has ever done. And yet he announced more cuts over the next six years, but with no commitment to downsize through a logical, transparent process.

The strategy failed to show leadership and the president has even been asked to resign by his own staff.

The strategy calls for TV to be the last priority and “mobile” services to be the first and predicts that by 2020 twice as many people, 18 million per month, will use CBC digital/mobile services. This seems to indicate a misunderstanding of the reach/frequency models used by advertisers.

All web services, like cbc.ca, use monthly audience reach to tout their success, but advertising revenues of most websites are small because advertisers don't buy monthly reach. They understand that, on almost any website, the number of people likely to see their ads is relatively paltry. No wonder cbc.ca has never in its 20-year history revealed its ad revenue; in fact, it once went commercial free.

If CBC really were to invert its priorities and concentrate on smartphone and tablet services, the audience would certainly be tiny. Moreover, to get these new services you would need a smartphone or tablet and would have to pay a telecom company to receive them in your home.

CBC claimed that advertisers are migrating from TV to online services. Except the CBC document doesn't reveal that TV as a whole still has the largest audience or that it is newspapers, not TV, that have truly lost ground to the Internet.

The strategy is resigned to the diminished fate of CBC, especially cuts in government funding. There is no call for a review of CBC's mandate, no campaign proposed to challenge the cuts and, especially, no plan to develop alternative sources of revenue.

So where does CBC, especially its president, go from here? Hubert Lacroix could follow the advice of his staff and others and resign. His record is dismal. In constant dollars funding from government has declined steadily since he was appointed in 2008.

Or, Lacroix could develop a human resources plan and offer buyouts to induce older employees to retire. He could recant the mobile-first strategy, which will only disenfranchise many Canadians and marginalize CBC. He could reinforce that radio/TV will remain the primary means of serving Canadians. Lacroix could very publicly champion the need for CBC and the need for a new way to fund CBC.

Hubert Lacroix has an opportunity to be considered CBC’s greatest president, or its worst.

© Toronto Star