Public broadcasting at the crossroads–an open letter to CBC president Hubert Lacroix

This camera–and network–has seen better days

Dear Mr. Lacroix.
I’m not sure this open letter will reach you before some CBC middle manager deletes all links to TV Feeds My Family–if they haven’t already. But here goes.
It’s the day after, and CBC has taken another shot to the nuts.
The news you had to deliver Thursday in those town hall meetings was terrible. CBC will eliminate 657 jobs over two years and get out of the sports TV business in order to address a $130 million budget shortfall. Ouch.
The reality, as you know, is CBC is already out of the sports TV business. With no dedicated sports channel, it cannot compete with CTV/TSN or Rogers/Sportsnet for big events, big league coverage or, most important of all, viewers. No league nowadays wants to settle for Sunday afternoons on CBC when the other guys have openings 24/7.
The bad news for viewers is the impact this will have on CBC’s already slender schedule of regular, prime time, entertainment programming. Your new CBC programming VP Heather Conway calculated that 334 of those full time jobs would come out of her English Canada program branch. CBC News will take the biggest hit, with 115 full time jobs being cut. Another 38 jobs will be lost at Sports–about 40% of that crew. (CBC still has one more Olympic Games to cover–if Korea happens. You says future Olympic bids are still on the table.) Regional cuts will hit 100 staffers. Communications and marketing will chop another 34. Notices will start going out in a month with most employees getting word by August. Severance costs have been factored in, amounting to over $33 million.
Thursday you candidly admitted CBC worst kept secret–your shows skew old. Even good news hits like Murdoch Mysteries are not exactly pulling in the A25-54-year-old audience advertisers covet.
Then there is this current ad market. Things were supposed to bounce back this far away from the 2008 economic meltdown. The relentless tilt towards digital viewing, however, has all networks scrambling to prove their fare is being consumed across many platforms. This new game where half the country banks shows on PVRs and watches them up to seven days later is not one you want to be in with an older audience still traumatized by that flashing “12:00” on their old Batamax machines.
You are exactly right when he says the public network has to re-imagine itself in this changing media landscape. My hope is that this may finally be the time when CBC is forced to re-imagine itself with far fewer middle managers.
This army of lieutenants has been sucking the life out of the place for years. When your billion-dollar head start is almost entirely swallowed up by mangers and vice presidents, there’s not a lot left to compete with in the ruthless and expensive world of programming.
There was a decision made at CBC over the past seven or eight years to compete and behave like a regular network. I always applauded that, because, despite all the political shackles, you’re either in the TV game or you’re not. CBC, however, never should have been trying to staff up its executive suites like it was NBC. It never should have been in the business of commissioning dark cop shows or lifestyle shows.  It needed to behave like an enlightened cable network, in a lean, efficient and savvy programming way, but with fare that was unique to public broadcasting.

CBC needs its own show with an open bar. Paging Rick Mercer

On recent trips to Scotland and London I was fascinated by all the chat shows on BBC services–one is even called The Michael McIntyre Chat Show. There’s a lot of emphasis on personalities and less on over-the top production costs. There are game shows hosted by brilliant entertainers such as Stephen Fry. It’s no wonder shows like Top Gear and The Graham Norton Show are so compelling here on BBC Canada and BBC America. They feature top name stars all having way too much fun.
Hell, I’ve been saying for years–bring back Front Page Challenge and put the SCTV greats on the panel. They’re all coming back anyway to shoot comedies on the private networks. Put them in red chairs and use the old Strombo set.
CBC will have to take intermediate steps as it transitions into this “re-imagining.” In the scripted arena, one could be to provide a second window on shows currently running on Canadian premium Pay-TV stations.

Could the Mountie from When Calls the Heart come to the rescue?

There’s a new family drama coming up next week on Super Channel called When Calls the Heart. It is shot in Langley, B.C., employs a lot of Canadians and is based on novels from an Alberta author. The series is set in 1910 and even features a damn Mountie (although he’s played by an Australian).
When Calls the Heart would look right at home paired with CBC’s horsey drama Heartland on Sundays. It’s already a Hallmark co-production so CBC–desperate now for content at cheaper prices–can acquire something original and Canadian at a fraction of the cost of developing it themselves. You’re welcome.
My 21-year-old son Dan is finishing up his third year studying Radio and Television at Ryerson. He and his buddies are cooking up their own web shows and pitching them at profs and beyond. Some of their stuff is well past Just Four Laughs funny.
The future is just down the street from CBC broadcast centres in Toronto, Vancouver, Halifax and all across Canada. A regular, slotted broadcasting liaison with the university crowd would a) provide original content and a cheap price, b) help lower CBC’s median viewer age out of its codger ghetto and c) help me get back some of that damn tuition money.
This isn’t, as you are sadly  all too aware, the first time hundreds of jobs have been slashed at CBC. In 2009, 800 positions were cut. In 2012, another 650 lost their jobs.
Almost as big a shock, however it that there are still 6,994 permanent, 859 contract and 329 temporary CBC employees. That’s an army. Despite all this talk of cutting way past the bone, could there still be too many chiefs?

Needs a home: the sad, lonely, CTV lobby cam

The other week I was asked to appear on CTV News Channel to comment on David Letterman’s announcement that he was leaving The Late Show. It had been quite a while since my last trip to Agincourt.
When I got there I was shocked at how deserted this once vital broadcasting hub had become. Save for one guy on the security desk, the wide lobby area was deserted. There was on old CFTO colour camera against one wall and a new flat screen on the opposite side. Otherwise it looked like the tenants had moved out and the place was for sale.
A staffer met me and led me into the old CTV News bunker. The sterile cement walls and whitewash paint job give the place a not-so-warm bomb shelter vibe.
There was the old, multi-chaired make up room where I got powdered by the survivor on duty. I found my way to the grim green room. I thought about the hustle you’d find in the halls in the ’80s when besides the News several game shows and talk shows would be fighting for studio space.
I was led to the studio to yak with Dan Matheson. One young dude was cueing up clips behind a laptop. Then it was just me and Dan and the robotic cameras.
Matheson was his usual cool, unflappable self behind his medicinal glass desk and we zipped through the segment but I couldn’t help thinking, this is what lean and mean is really all about. A two person news operation, broadcasting nationwide. The place made the Sun News Network look like CNN.
Is this where CBC News is heading?
I hope not, Mr. Lacroix. It’s a tough business, as even your private network competitors are finding. There are, however, ways out of this mess but it’s going to take those balls you just got kicked in. You need to aim those cuts at more chiefs and less Indians–as they used to say back when CBC was the place where we all wanted to work. You need to get more of what remains of that annual appropriation into the hands of talented Canadians–the public. You need to be a public broadcaster in the best sense of the word.

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