Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Another layoff day at CBC: so sad and so inconclusive

It all seems so familiar. Waiting for the CBC job cut announcement that’s been looming for weeks, and then hearing it, for yet another time, another year. But this year's version somehow seems so ... hollow.

We know that taking 800 jobs out of the CBC will have immense consequences, yet we have no faces or programs to attach to those job losses. In most cases, people are going home tonight not knowing how or if their own show or their own workplace will be affected. At Radio-Canada, we did learn that weekend news shows are being scrapped except for the one in Ottawa, the TV noon shows in Ottawa, Quebec and Moncton are gone, and the morning radio show in Windsor is being cancelled. But the details are coming out painfully, one piece at a time.

We don’t who will leave or even whether it will be by their choice or by layoff. Will the CBC be permitted to offer voluntary incentive packages to people who have the so-called 85 formula (years of service plus the years of age equaling 85 or more)? It’s up to the Heritage Minister to grant permission for that, according to CBC CEO Hubert Lacroix. And we don’t know when that permission may or may not come.

It was a day all about numbers; the $171 million needed to balance the budget, the $125 million that may come from a sale of assets, TV’s share of the cut (83%), radio’s share of the cut (17%). A lot of numbers, dissected many ways.

Yet at the end of the day, we know very little except the CBC is once again not being supported by the government, for no reason other than straight politics being played by Harper’s PMO. Stephen Harper mused about privatizing English TV as far back as 2004 and we all know about last year’s culture cuts. He’s been able to defend not providing the bridge financing by calling the base $1.1B allocation “record financing”, when even his Heritage Minister James Moore has acknowledged it’s not actually the most ever. On Friday, Moore more properly used the word “straight financing”. (As far back as 1990-91, the CBC was getting just under $1.1B which in today’s dollars would be $1.5B. So much for record financing.)

The numbers obfuscate so much. Tomorrow, we will learn details about program cuts. We are sad tonight, but I know we'll get mad tomorrow.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Harper government game-playing and the media crisis

So let’s get this straight. Seems CanWest hired a former senior advisor to Stephen Harper to help with its lobbying efforts to stave off bankruptcy.

This is only reported after Heritage Minister James Moore says he’s considering ways to help private broadcasters weather the economic storm.

Meanwhile, CBC management dutifully meets with Moore to look for what little help a crown corporation can seek, since it can’t get loans or other financial breaks. Let’s remember the government and parliament are directly responsible for the CBC and as Heritage Minister, this job falls to Moore. But what happens?

Somebody leaks the fact and content of the CBC-Moore meetings to a SunMedia columnist, part of the Quebecor chain which takes every opportunity to slam what it considers to be a media rival, especially in Quebec. The Sun piece ridicules the idea that the CBC should be seeking help from the government.

Greg Weston’s most recent column uses indirect quotes to provide unsubstantiated information about the CBC, its budget crisis, the potential number of layoffs and the minister’s support for the Corporation.

Someone’s playing games here and they should stop.

Now the minister would be wise to move on to the real business of funding the CBC appropriately according to recommendations of the all-party Heritage committee of a year ago, before completely violating the arm's length relationship between the government and the public broadcaster. See our open letter to the minister about this.

More on the government’s plans for looser regulations for the private broadcasters once we have the details. Should have lots to say.

Monday, March 9, 2009

A troubled employer and the Conservatives are laughing????

Word in just now that when Liberal Culture Critic Pablo Rodriguez asked a question in today’s Question Period about CBC funding, government MPs applauded and laughed in sync.

Hey, this is an employer that is about to make cuts and announce layoffs because the government of the day has decided not to find a relatively small sum to loan it. And that’s funny??? In today’s economy?

This is political partisanship at its very lowest. This government, through the actions of its MPs in the House, is openly mocking our public broadcaster, and dismissing the importance of more Canadians potentially losing their jobs.

Every Canadian should be outraged at this infantile display, whether or not they support the CBC getting a few million dollars of bridge financing.

Friday, March 6, 2009

CRTC fund gives hope to distressed local TV

The CRTC's proposed fund to improve local TV programming in small markets is the key to saving local news. The Local Programming Improvement Fund (LPIF), announced last year and still under development, could be devoted to supporting initiatives to save local TV stations that are being abandoned by the big media conglomerates, such as the one at CHCH in Hamilton.

It is exactly the right thing at the right time. And it is more important than ever that the fund maintain those original principles of helping small market stations – both publicly- and privately-owned – improve local programming, and especially news.

The money for the fund will come from a percentage of cable and satellite revenues and is expected to amount to $60 million in the first year. Of the total, $40 million will be devoted to English-language markets and $20 million to French-language markets of less than one million.

In proposing the fund, the CRTC denied the TV networks access to cable and satellite fees with no strings attached. We note that Canwest’s most recent submission to the CRTC, made public this week, now asks that the fund simply be handed over to the conventional stations in all markets “to help subsidize local news” at a diminished level, which would negate the purpose of the fund. Canwest announced in February that it is trying to sell the E! network stations, including CHCH, and will shut them if new owners can’t be found.

The structure of the big media companies has not been friendly to local programming and there's no good reason that new money from cable and satellite should continue to prop up a model that hasn’t worked for local TV.

I urge other communities with stations at risk develop action plans that involve the use of this fund.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

The fight to save local news is on

People are fighting back to save their local news.

First, the employees and community of Hamilton got together in a move to buy CHCH in the Canwest firesale and return it to local ownership. It's a wonderful effort I'll write much more about later.

Now at least one city council is stepping up to sound the alarm. Not surprisingly, it's Windsor, which knows what it's like to lose a station (CBC in 1991 -- it returned in 1994). Now it's losing CTV's A Channel at the end of August. And because of the government-CBC budget dispute, there’s concern about the future of the CBC in Windsor too.

Last night, Windsor City Council adopted a resolution that calls on Council and the Mayor to petition the CRTC and the government to do a comprehensive review of the crisis in conventional TV and do what it takes to focus on policies that will guarantee Canadian media content in markets such as Windsor.

Here’s what it says:

Whereas the citizens of Windsor and Essex County want and deserve a strong local and Canadian television presence; and
Whereas Windsor-Essex is located with 1000 yards of a major American media shadow; and
Whereas Windsor-Essex is a unique region with regards to the impact of local issues and how they have profound provincial and national impact in areas such as the U.S. Canadian border, International Trade and the Auto Industry, to name a few; and
Whereas the CRTC has announced that later this year a review of the crisis in conventional television will take place;
Therefore, be it resolved that Council and the Mayor, for the City of Windsor, Ontario, petition the CRTC and the Government of Canada to undertake the following:

Without further delay, immediately commence a comprehensive review of the crisis in conventional television; and
That this review look at all policy framework with the intent of creating new, and/or enhancing existing policies in order to guarantee Canadian media content in unique markets such as Windsor-Essex, by way of special designations, recognizing the close proximity of major U.S. media; and
During this review, interim measures be immediately instituted in order to protect markets such as Windsor-Essex, and any other media markets, currently at risk of not having their broadcast license renewed by the current license holders.

Percy Hatfield, a former CBC Windsor reporter, is now a Windsor councillor and just happens to be at a meeting of the Federation of Canadian Municipalities this week. Let’s hope he spreads his Windsor zeal to every community in this country.

The CBC budget: a political show no one should have to watch

It’s budget time for the CBC --- and this year, it’s become so painful to watch that I’ve come to the conclusion that we don’t really have a public broadcaster. What we have is a broadcaster that is funded with taxpayer dollars in such a partisan and short-sighted way that the public aspect is missing entirely.

Every year we watch the same play. CBC executives are forced to make their case in serious meetings behind close doors, they wait, they are given vague promises. Then they wait some more. They want to be diplomatic and respectful of the process. Valuable planning time goes by. Decisions are delayed. As time goes by, more scenarios unfold in case the money is not granted and in some cases, the scenarios get worse as more time goes by. Then when the CBC seeks some conclusion to the whole thing – after all the new fiscal year begins in THREE weeks, it’s accused of “begging” or “whining “for money in public.

“The CBC cannot be insulated from all market realities,” said Kory Teneycke, a spokesperson for the prime minister, said last week. That was a cue things were not going well. This forced CBC CEO Hubert Lacroix to go to the public, make the case, and let it be known what’s at stake. Given what CBC does and where it spends its money, what’s at stake always comes down to programming. The made-in-Canada stuff – plus the news and information the CBC delivers in communities from coast to coast to coast. You know. The stuff the private sector is abandoning.

The truth is there’s not a lot of wiggle room in CBC budget setting, certainly not enough to justify all this hand-wringing.

It has been getting the same base parliamentary appropriation of just over $1B for the past 15 years or so. Sometimes there’s a discretionary $60M for programming that the government always calls “one-time” and dangles like a piece of red meat. And this year, the CBC is asking for bridge financing – a loan – to get it over this ad revenue freefall.

So why all the drama over a relatively small amount of money? The only answer is pure partisan politics. When Finance Minister Jim Flaherty tells reporters the CBC gets "substantial financing", he is inferring that $1B is overly generous. (It sounds like a lot until you learn that Canwest spent $1.7B last year.) He is doing this to play to his party’s base.

Last year, the parliamentary Heritage Committee recommended that the CBC and the government enter into a seven-year deal or “memorandum of understanding” so there would be more stability in decision-making and not so much room for political interference.

It’s time. The annual rerun of this show is destructive to the CBC and everything it stands for. It creates a nasty government-as-boss dynamic. Meanwhile, as employees, all we can do is watch…and wait.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Breaking news: the sky is falling

Timing is everything, and don’t the networks know it. Can it be a coincidence that Canwest and CTV have chosen the same few days to complain about losing so much money that massive job cuts are absolutely the only way out? In today’s roundup of announcements, CTV says it’s cutting 118 jobs in its A Channel newsrooms in Ottawa, London and Barrie, in addition to closing stations in Windsor and Wingham, Ontario (announced last week).

This happens to be the very day the CRTC planned to go public with the networks’ various license applications – the submissions in which they tell Canadians what they intend to do in exchange for access to our public airwaves. This is when all the pre-CRTC hearing lobbying begins. What better way to make your case that you need new relaxed rules than to eliminate service to the public and lay people off?

Only last Friday, CTV’s chief executive officer Ivan Fecan said the company would at least try to make a go of it with the A Channels. “We’re merely trying to keep the As open until regulatory restructuring for the entire sector can take place. While we welcome the new, year-long CRTC process and while we can’t guarantee the survival of the As until that time, together we will do our best.”

What changed in three days? Perhaps a peak at other broadcasters’ filings? Why do more than your competitors? A cursory read of the hundreds of pages that we all have to read in less than a month is eyeopening.

For example, we learned today that even though Canwest is abandoning at least five local markets, it wants more breaks. It wants to do fewer hours of local television on the stations it decides are profitable enough to keep. And it wants permission from the CRTC to be able to continue to do simultaneous substitution of lucrative U.S. shows (of course!) and get “priority carriage” on cable and satellite…but it doesn’t want to have to bother actually being a broadcaster. It’s asking for these privileges even if it doesn’t send out its signal free over-the-air – just directly to cable and satellite.

Not only is this an attack on local television, it’s an attack on free television. Oh, and did we remind you how horrible it is for conventional broadcasters right now? We trust the CRTC will demand to see those numbers, station by station, and release them to the public.