CBC leans hard on helmsmen as it shifts course to mobile media

OTTAWA—Suffering the death of a thousand cuts from a less than friendly Conservative federal government and the same sinking revenue figures facing other large traditional media, the CBC has announced a new and more severe round of job cuts at the crown corporation, axing another 1,000 to 1,500 positions on top of the 657 announced in April.

These cuts and the revisioning of the CBC in general follow hard on the heels of the National Hockey League’s winter announcement that Rogers had been awarded the exclusive bid to broadcast NHL hockey, a cost to the CBC of more than one-third of its annual advertising revenues.

But unlike the spring bloodletting, this round of cuts is about much more than simply keeping red ink out of the bottom line. This time, the cuts signal a paradigm shift in direction for the public broadcaster.

Although the CBC’s mandate has been to provide television and radio broadcasts to Canadians, harkening back to the days before private media became ubiquitous across the nation and a key element in the rationale behind its taxpayer-fueled funding, the new cuts are to programs within its core mandate—leaving the new media streaming and Internet services which also compete with private interests unscathed, and even enhanced.

The aim, according to the public broadcaster, is to create a leaner, meaner and more nimble business model that can compete in the race for market share among the growing share of mobile device users. Plans forecast ditching as much as 20 percent of the workforce by 2020.

CBC president and CEO Hubert Lacroix, unveiled the new five-year plan to staff at a town hall meeting on June 26, telling a less than receptive audience that the public broadcaster will be shifting resources out of its television and radio divisions to focus on new mobile-friendly content.

“You’re going to see us lead with mobility and digital,” Mr. Lacroix said in a media scrum following the meeting, “over five years, you are going to get a smaller broadcaster.”

The cuts to programming will hit the news division hard, with many newscasts being scaled back to 30 minutes from 90 minutes.

The CBC intends to divest as much as half of its real estate holdings, estimated at about two million square feet, and, according to the president, if an offer came in on CBC’s Toronto headquarters, “we would entertain it.”

The changes are not arbitrary and not even a diabolical Tory machination aimed at the long-vilified public broadcaster’s demise, despite the immediate clamour from the CBC’s supporters. Like the telegraph, the pony express and, dare it be said, the post office, there are information services whose day passed and which have found themselves tossed into the dustbin of history. The argument made by proponents of the changes is that traditional television and radio broadcasting may well number among those services.

Information dissemination has undergone a revolution. More than half of the CBC’s audience now accesses the corporation’s services through mobile devices—a trend that is being replicated across the globe and which is shaking media empires like a horde of invading barbarians. The Canadian media elite and intelligentsia are, not unsurprisingly, greeting the coming changes with a reception much like that shown Attila at the gates of Constantinople.

The money saved by the cuts is aimed squarely at doubling the current monthly online audience share of the CBC to 18 million viewers. Key to that strategy will be creating content specifically designed for the smaller screens of mobile devices.

“That means not taking a traditional television product and just having it be smaller on a smaller screen. It means actually producing content that is for that mobile device,” said Heather Conway, executive vice-president of English services.

The immediacy of the Internet is having an impact as well, with an emphasis on sending stories out immediately rather than saving them up for the evening newscasts.

The CBC will be enhancing its market agility even further by slashing its in-house productions, depending far more on outside contractors for documentaries. The CBC’s studio facilities will be reduced to one, with the rest being rented out to other content producers.

The unions representing the production staff are clearly not happy with the plans, as are longtime CBC stalwarts such as Peter Mansbridge and David Suzuki who have placed their signatures on a letter decrying the moves.

An online petition against the cuts has been established by the Friends of Canadian Broadcasting at www.friends.ca/ilovecbc.