CBC Cuts Announced

Perrin Beatty was smiling as he entered the plush Toronto hotel room. And as he concluded his speech to reporters last week, it was clear that he was trying to spin the radical changes at the CANADIAN BROADCASTING CORP. into a good news-bad news proposition.

CBC Cuts Announced

Perrin Beatty was smiling as he entered the plush Toronto hotel room. And as he concluded his speech to reporters last week, it was clear that he was trying to spin the radical changes at the CANADIAN BROADCASTING CORP. into a good news-bad news proposition. The ostensible good news: returning to the "original mandate" of the CBC by making English television all-Canadian by 1998 and decreasing the service's reliance on commercial revenues. "We now have a plan in place to take the CBC into the next century," declared the CBC president, "to get on with the business of bringing an overwhelmingly and distinctively Canadian public broadcasting service to the people of Canada." But along with that forward-looking statement, Beatty had some undeniably bad news: budget cuts of $127 million, resulting in sweeping changes to radio and TV operations and the loss of as many as 2,500 jobs by April, 1998. "This is," said Beatty, in a remarkable change of tack, "a very painful day."

It was, indeed, a day of mixed messages. Beatty's plan - approved by the CBC board of directors - proposed a rejuvenated CBC that will be all-Canadian, but much smaller. A CBC that will be steered by its public-service mandate - but which will run more commercials, and run them in programs that previously had none. A CBC that will renew its commitment to servicing the regions - while practically gutting regional budgets. Even the questions of who would lose their jobs and which radio and TV programs would be cancelled - as some inevitably will be - remained open, to be determined in the coming weeks by the CBC's division heads. Amid rampant speculation over who would live or die, the only certainty seemed to be that the CBC will never be the same. And Beatty's attempts to sound positive impressed neither the broadcaster's supporters nor its critics. "The board of directors has been a given a dirty job by the Liberal government," said Ian Morrison, spokesman for Friends of Canadian Broadcasting. "Today, the deed is done." Declared David Somerville, president of the right-wing National Citizens' Coalition: "The CBC should be privatized rather than suffer the death of 1,000 budget cuts."

Phased in over the next 18 months, the cutbacks will bring to $414 million the total CBC budget reductions, which were first imposed by the Liberal government in 1994. The cuts will affect every aspect of the national broadcaster, whose current budget, including ad revenues and parliamentary disbursements, totals about $1.4 billion and includes 9,000 employees. English-language CBC Radio will lose one in three staff positions - about 500 jobs - and budget cuts will total $34 million. Program budgets for CBC Radio will drop by 28 per cent. No regional stations will close (over half the division's budget will still be spent on those stations), but their spending will be decreased according to market size. A number of programs will be cancelled. French-language radio's budget, meanwhile, will drop by $20 million, to $62 million, with 238 jobs eliminated from the existing 952, and French-language stations in Vancouver, Regina and Edmonton will be downgraded to bureaus of the main network. The French television wing will see a budget decrease of $70 million, with staff reductions of 304 employees, or 30 per cent.

The hardest hit programming area, however, is English television. Staff there will be cut by 38 per cent over the next 18 months, with 1,225 jobs lost. By April, 1998, the total budget for English TV will have fallen $171 million from 1994-1995 - 28.4 per cent - the year the current round of cuts began. As with radio, English TV will not close any regional stations, but their budgets will be severely reduced. They will produce only local news programs, revamped to emphasize current affairs and national news rather than regional events - an acknowledgment that, in most markets, the CBC's local news shows long ago lost the ratings war to private stations. On the network, arts and entertainment programming will be produced only out of Toronto, Vancouver and Halifax.

Beatty told Maclean's the CBC is not abandoning its mandate to reflect regional concerns and issues, but "what we want to do is ensure that we protect our ability to give a national reflection of the country, that we are giving the priority to our national services." And those national services will also change dramatically. The most noticeable difference for viewers: as of September, 1998, almost all CBC programming - including daytime - will be Canadian (a few foreign shows, including Coronation Street, will still run). That, Beatty said, "brings us much closer to our mandate and makes good business sense" by creating a more distinctive identity for CBC on the dial.

The CBC strategy includes a much-vaunted determination to concentrate on the public-service value of shows rather than on their revenue potential - to treat, Beatty said, "our viewers and listeners as citizens rather than as consumers." Ironically, however, the effect of that strategy is not fewer commercials, but more, as the network will increase its advertising time by almost two per cent. As a result, ads will air in The National and other previously ad-free news and current affairs programs. The move will generate an estimated $15 million in extra income. But that will hardly be enough to compensate for an expected loss in overall advertising revenue in the tens of millions of dollars. "We understand that we're going to take a hit in the short term," Beatty told Maclean's.

The bigger question is whether, in the long term, viewers will turn back to the CBC and its all-Canadian fare. Beatty says that the corporation must make that gamble if it is going to survive. "We will live or die by our Canadian programming," he declared. And the president seems confident that Canadians will respond - pointing to the success of the comedy show the Royal Canadian Air Farce, which draws up to 1.8-million viewers weekly, as evidence that domestic television production can have a wide market. "The Air Farce is our most popular show, and it is something that appeals to average Canadians - they just love it," he said. "We have to have that sort of programming."

If it fails, the new CBC strategy may be remembered as the last gasp for the 60-year-old corporation - a national public broadcaster that tries to be all things to all Canadians. And many observers remain skeptical that it can fulfil its mandate while operating under such tight budgetary constraints. "Efforts are being made to keep everything going, but everything is being weakened," said former CBC president Tony Manera, whose book A Dream Betrayed: The Battle for the CBC, comes out this month. Manera puts the blame squarely on the federal government. "Cuts of this magnitude should not be made without Parliament changing the CBC's mandate," he says. "It's just ludicrous to suggest that you can keep the same expectations and keep cutting the funds - it's a vicious circle."

What is needed to renew the corporation, Manera adds, is political will. But in the lean, mean 1990s, that commodity might prove just about as rare as a job at the CBC.

Maclean's September 30, 1996