Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Petty media games in the hallways of power

There’s a lot going on in the broadcast industry these days: a crisis in local news, fights between broadcasters and cable and satellite providers about who’s going to pay to make sure local programming survives, the 800 job losses at the CBC and hundreds of other job losses at other media organizations.

So you have to wonder why the Quebecor-owned SunMedia chain ran a piece yesterday rehashing a month-old story. On March 25, CBC president Hubert Lacroix said Corporation managers are going to get their performance bonuses slashed by 20% to 50%, for a saving of $4 million, as part of his speech to staff about the 800 layoffs. All the information in the top three paragraphs of the SunMedia article was in Lacroix’s speech to staff that day; a speech that was heavily covered in the media.

The only new element is that two Conservative MPs, (Shelley Glover and Rod Bruinooge) used their time in a parliamentary committee meeting on the crisis in local television on Monday to grill Lacroix about the bonuses. And though nothing new was revealed by Lacroix that wasn’t known a month ago, the story ran today with a prominent headline (“CBC to give perks and pink slips” ) in the Edmonton Sun and under a variety of other headlines throughout the chain.

It goes without saying that I’m not a fan of every executive decision made at the CBC in the past few years. And I know that reading about money spent on hotels and dinners has a deflating effect on Guild members. But it’s no coincidence the story about expenses just happened to be filed days before Lacroix’s scheduled appearance before the committee and just as the government is weighing whether any program to help the broadcasters cope with the crisis in the industry will include the public broadcaster.

One thing is for sure: rehashing old bonus news, and celebrating expenses filed three years ago just doesn’t seem too relevant when people are talking about the very survival of the news business and the future of conventional television.

You’d think Glover and Bruinooge would be concerned about the bigger-picture stuff. Both happen to come from the Winnipeg area, home of Canwest, which is spending these days teetering on the edge of bankruptcy and in desperate need of government help.

Monday, April 27, 2009

CBC's Real Estate King has left the building

It was a classic Friday announcement – unnoticed until late in the day. But it was a big one. The head of CBC’s real estate division, Michel St-Cyr is leaving. He’s “accepted an offer in the private sector,” according to CBC CEO Hubert Lacroix, who implies this is part of a new direction. Let's hope so.

“Michel’s departure gives me the chance to push forward with my review of the structure, roles and responsibilities of the Senior Executive Team,” according to Lacroix’s note.

St-Cyr was a creation of former CBC CEO Robert Rabinovitch. And what a creation he was! Within months of his arrival, a whole real estate division at CBC sprouted (needless to say, the public broadcaster had never had a real estate division) and grew until it had a staff of 50 and its own communications director.

St-Cyr reported directly to Rabinovitch as “president” of the Real Estate division, bypassing the VPs of the media divisions. Real Estate was the Power!!!

The impact of the Real Estate grip on CBC decision-making and the mantra of “monetizing” the public broadcaster’s space cannot be underestimated.

Desks were measured with a view to squashing as many people as possible into some newly leased space too small for the numbers (look at CBC Ottawa, Edmonton). Real Estate staffers were shocked when we dared to suggest that media employees needed different types of space than the cookie-cutter call-centre model. The idea seemed alien to these designers and architects who no doubt had workspace appropriate for their needs.

Real Estate Power precipitated the layoff two years ago of 80 people who made sets, costumes and other elements of TV production at CBC Toronto. They happened to work in what was then considered valuable and large basement space in the heart of the city. Needless to say, the space still sits empty and producers of CBC programs have to get their sets built by outside contractors. The Real Estate folks? They're still on payroll, of course.

Further, there are many who believe Real Estate was the real catalyst for radio-TV integration because of the compression of workspace that would come with it. The idea was uttered at a corporate real estate conference several years ago. Couldn’t be true, could it???

Some people credit St-Cyr and Rabinovitch for creating a cash flow for the CBC when it needed it. But while the Real Estate empire was growing, the real crisis facing the CBC was being masked by the rush of Real Estate cash: no one was screaming about the woeful underfunding of the public broadcaster as a whole, not while the “quarter billion dollars in value” was being created. (It’s never been clear whether that value credited to St-Cyr was one-time value or ongoing money that can be counted on.)

In any case, here we are eight years after the creation of the Real Estate Power, with a $171M shortfall that Real Estate can’t fix, 800 layoffs on the horizon, and an unleased partly empty building in Toronto. There’s no word on whether St-Cyr will be replaced, but if Lacroix wants to send a real signal to his employees and to Ottawa that he's trying to renew the public broadcaster, let's hope St-Cyr's position is "monetized" in order to save a few of the jobs slated for layoff.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

CBC: Now more than ever

Canadians should be appalled at how the Harper government has handled the CBC file. It’s brought on a crisis in the media and culture industries that didn’t have to be. There’s not a lot of money at stake. In that way, it’s very similar to the furor caused by the $45M in arts cuts announced last summer.

In this case, the solutions are even there for all to see. They can be found in an all-party parliamentary committee report of last year. Let’s get Harper to listen to them.

The CMG and its allies are launching a campaign to help Canadians get the message to the leaders in Parliament that we need the CBC now more than ever.

Click here to send a letter to the Prime Minister and the leaders of the opposition parties urging them to:
§ increase CBC's annual parliamentary allocation by $7 per Canadian by the end of this year;
§ develop a 7-year contract with the CBC that sets expectations and guarantees funding indexed to inflation; and
§ provide immediate bridge financing to reduce the cuts this spring.

Click here to find out more about the campaign.

Let's consider this the Arts Cuts, Round 2.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

The CBC cuts and the $1.1B: one has real impact and the other is meaningless

It’s hard to believe it’s been nearly two weeks since the first word of the cut at the CBC…and my last post. Most days I felt so overwhelmed and saddened by the news it was hard to know where to start … so I stopped (for a while).

The more we learn, the more about this CBC cut is just wrong. The degree of impact on communities across the country is so much greater than the relatively small amount of money it would cost to prevent the cut. Take Sudbury as an example, where hundreds of people turned up at a rally Sunday. It’s about to lose half its radio staff. Less than half a million dollars would save these jobs. But without them, places such as North Bay, Sault Ste. Marie, Timmins -- not to mention the entire James Bay coast won’t get covered.

The sheer value of information and culture the CBC provides in places like Sudbury are impossible to measure and track and that applying dollar signs to this type of public service is simply impossible and meaningless.

That’s what irks me so much about the way the Harper government, through Heritage Minister James Moore, has responded to this cut. His approach has been all about placing a distorted value on a single dollar figure by suggesting the $1.1B that has been budgeted for the CBC is some crazy amount of money, that’s it’s even a mark of generosity, a financial line in the sand. It's even unprecedented, according to Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

The truth is the CBC got $1.1B as far back as 1992. The figure dipped down in the late 90s, and was up over $1B every year since 2002. The CBC’s budget has had no increase for inflation in all that time. Put another way, if the CBC was granted the budget it got in 1992 in real dollars today…that would be $1.5B (and it would mean none of these cuts would be necessary and CBC radio could move into under-served areas such as Hamilton, Red Deer and Kelowna).

To further put the $1.1B figure in context, take a look at Canwest Global’s operating budget for 2008. It’s $1.7B. That pays for newspapers, television and the Canada.com web site --in one language. Compare that to CBC’s radio, TV and internet programming of nearly all Canadian original material in both languages, the Northern radio service in 8 Aboriginal languages and the international service. Does $1.1B for all that seem as “substantial” as Moore would have you believe?