CBC Challenges CRTC Directive

What a difference a word or two of jargon makes. When the top federal broadcast regulator, Françoise Bertrand, was asked last week how she expected the CBC to pay for the raft of new programming demands she is trying to impose, she lapsed into bloated bureaucratese.

What a difference a word or two of jargon makes. When the top federal broadcast regulator, Françoise Bertrand, was asked last week how she expected the CBC to pay for the raft of new programming demands she is trying to impose, she lapsed into bloated bureaucratese. "I think with re- allocation and re-engineering," Bertrand intoned, "certainly there is the possibility of adding sufficient funds there." Even some of the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission chairwoman's allies later admitted that they winced as she spoke. Contrast Bertrand's verbiage with the no-nonsense message the CBC's new president, Bob Rabinovitch, fired back in reply. "There is no way the CBC can implement these decisions," Rabinovitch said. "Period. Unless somebody wants to buy the Toronto broadcast centre from me."

Actually, selling off the downtown Toronto facility might sound like a fine idea to many of those who helped shape Bertrand's thinking. In preparing to set the terms for renewing the CBC's licence for seven years, the CRTC held public meetings in 11 cities from St. John's, Nfld., to Vancouver last March - but bypassed the broadcasting capitals of Toronto and Montreal. Not surprisingly, those consultations elicited a steady drumbeat of support for regional programming. Bertrand dutifully echoed what she heard. Her main demands for the English-TV service: air more drama and variety produced outside Toronto and restore regional weekend newscasts axed during past rounds of budget cuts, while scaling back on professional sports and banishing non-Canadian movies in prime time. "The CBC should present on its national services substantially more programming originating from across the country," said the CRTC's directive. Rabinovitch tallied up the added production costs and foregone commercial revenues at $50 million a year. "The money just isn't there," he said, "and that's why we have real problems with the decision."

Rabinovitch's objections, though, go deeper than the bottom line. His written response put at least as much emphasis on slamming Bertrand for "unacceptable intrusions into CBC's managerial and programming independence" as it did on indicting the CRTC for alleged "fiscal irresponsibility." The clear message: Rabinovitch, who took over the CBC on Nov. 15, wants time to put his stamp on the country's biggest cultural institution with a minimum of regulatory meddling. Some observers pointed out that while $50 million is no small sum, it is only about four per cent of the CBC's $1.2-billion annual budget. "In his previous role, a four-per-cent reallocation is something he would have been capable of doing to some company," said Ian Morrison, spokesman for the Friends of Canadian Broadcasting lobby group, referring to Rabinovitch's last job as chief operating officer of Charles Bronfman's Claridge Inc.

Morrison, who praised the CRTC's regional thrust, speculated that Rabinovitch's real aim might have been to set a combative tone early, with an eye to a future plea to boost the CBC's $750-million-a-year allowance from Ottawa. "The net effect of his response is to put how much the CBC is funded back on the public agenda," Morrison said. "He's certainly capable of that kind of machiavellian activity. I'm not saying that was his goal, but if it was, he has succeeded." Senior CBC sources told Maclean's that while asking the government for more cash this year is out of the question, Rabinovitch has not ruled out going to the Liberals for a hike after he establishes his credibility at the helm of the broadcaster.

Still, his assault on the CRTC was more than an opening move in a bigger chess game. At the core of the clash is a difference of perspective on the CBC's place in Canadian public life. Bertrand stressed that her critique was shaped by those public consultations. The licence-renewal document she produced was peppered with quotations from participants like Bill Hooff, 71, a retired banker from Malpeque, P.E.I., who turned out for the session in Charlottetown, mainly to laud CBC Radio and voice support for local television news. In an interview last week, Hooff said what he liked best about the CRTC's licence-renewal decision was its rejection of the CBC's request for limited commercial sponsorship on radio. "Advertising would have killed the whole thing," he declared.

Back in the big broadcasting capitals that were ignored by the CRTC road show, the notion of mapping out a CBC strategy based on gatherings in the hinterland was viewed as quaint. "Public hearings like that would tap a reservoir of CBC enthusiasts," said Peter Lyman, a partner at PricewaterhouseCoopers in Toronto. "But when you get down to figures on who's tuning in, it's another story." Lyman worked on a major report on the state of Canadian television for private broadcasters in 1998, which found viewers scattering among the new specialty channels, making it tougher than ever for networks to hold audiences - especially with the sort of regionally flavoured fare the CRTC is pushing the CBC to emphasize. "It's harder to get advertising for so-so shows than in the past," Lyman said, "because they draw nothing in the way of viewers because of audience fragmentation."

But Rabinovitch and his top executives were cautious not to sound disrespectful of voices like Hooff's. "I do believe there are legitimate regional aspirations that have to be reflected in our programming," said Harold Redekopp, vice-president of English-language television. "But what the CBC has been called first and foremost to do is provide programming that people from coast to coast to coast can identify with." Making a costly push into beefing up local news does not fit with that national vision. Yet the CRTC is demanding a restoration of regional weekend newscasts - even though the CBC's existing weeknight local news shows are getting pummelled by private stations in most cities. Audience figures released to Maclean's by the CBC showed its Vancouver station, to cite a dismal example, attracting just seven per cent of early evening news viewers, compared with 64 per cent for market-leading CTV's affiliate.

With numbers like those to ponder, no wonder Rabinovitch seems determined to resist the CRTC. And there may be little Bertrand can do to push back. While she has the power to revoke the licence of a private broadcaster who refuses to follow orders, the CRTC holds no such hammer over the CBC. All Bertrand can do is complain to the government. Similarly, Rabinovitch has the option of appealing the CRTC's decision to Heritage Minister Sheila Copps within 90 days. Or he can try to just standpat, a tactic that has worked before. Back in the early 1970s, CBC president Laurent Picard defied a CRTC order to reduce TV advertising - and the government did nothing. Rabinovitch beat Bertrand hands down in an opening skirmish of sound bites. But, to repeat his predecessor Picard's victory, he must now turn that pithy public performance into a persuasive private message to the politicians who will decide the ultimate winner.

Maclean's January 17, 2000