Rabinovitch's CBC Plans
Facing yet another imminent round of spending cuts and employee layoffs, the CBC's new president, Robert Rabinovitch, is looking to raise revenues - by selling off buildings and transmission towers (the CBC owns more than 800 towers across the country) - and refocusing the public broadcaster on things it can do well. Rabinovitch, 57, talked to Maclean's editors in Toronto last week about his plans to restore the lustre to CBC Radio, reduce the commercial clutter on television, use the Internet to reach young audiences and strengthen the CBC as a vehicle for national understanding.
Maclean's: You've talked about reducing commercials on TV. How can you do that when you're trying to show the government that you're fiscally responsible?
Rabinovitch: The reality is that we are going to lose commercial numbers no matter what because of audience fragmentation. I also think the clutter in television is so high now that a lot of advertisers are beginning to ask questions. One of the reasons I'm pushing for de-commercialization is I think it will change the look of the channel. We have to recognize that we are different from the private sector. And I think our only way to survive in the long run is to be distinctive, to stress quality. We will hopefully get out of commercials in one area, the news, and we will experiment with different ways of presenting commercials. We may bunch them, we may put on fewer per hour. We will limit the hit, but it will be at least $6 million.
Maclean's: Do you see the national news budget increasing?
Rabinovitch: Absolutely - through reallocation and putting the focus on what we do well and getting out of other things. We're looking very seriously at [getting out of] local news.
Maclean's: The CBC went this route before, to outrage from communities like Windsor and Calgary.
Rabinovitch: There is a small but very loyal audience, but the CBC version of local news is not a very good newscast. Even my son says, 'I'll watch Pulse News in Montreal before I'll watch your newscast; it's got a better balance and it gives me more local news. Then I turn on at 6:30 to CBS because I want a national newscast.' Well maybe we can give you a mixed national-regional newscast which will capture a particular audience. And maybe if we get out of bricks and mortar, we'll be able to have more bureaus and pick up news from more areas in the country.
Maclean's: In television, what do you see as your core priorities?
Rabinovitch: I would say news, documentaries, investigative journalism. We have to do a lot more on regional and Canadian stories. I think we have to do the PBS thing in terms of quality arts and entertainment programming. We may not win the audience war in any one hour, but I hope we will produce products that will last.
Maclean's: There is a sense that the CBC is not doing as good a job as it once did as a national institution, holding the country together and telling Canadians what's happening in other regions.
Rabinovitch: The national institutions are Maclean's and us in terms of seeing this as a priority. I think you underestimate the role of Newsworld. Having said that, I think you're right. Our national coverage is not regionally sensitive. I don't believe it's a case of having a station in every provincial capital. It's much more important to have a bureau, to have reports coming from those capitals, and making sure that they make it onto the national news. And, if we do a combination-type newscast at 6 o'clock, making sure that it's available not only within the region but between regions.
Maclean's: Are you still going to go after the elusive youth market?
Rabinovitch: We're going to go after the youth market through the Internet. We're developing a service which will be up and running within the next month or two, which we call, for lack of a better term, Radio 3 or R3. It is a youth-oriented service, based on music, on bands and on storytelling, and it's very interactive.
Maclean's: What are your thoughts about the mood of the country? There seems to be a lot less commitment these days to national institutions. Is there still a role for the CBC?
Rabinovitch: I'm concerned. I'm concerned about the very survival of the CBC. It's not written in stone that it will survive. With the choice of channels that we now have, a lot of people believe the CBC is redundant, it's done its job and it's history. I personally don't believe that.
Maclean's May 8, 2000