CBC/Radio Canada will axe at least 657 employees over the next two years, reduce regional programming and dramatically scale back its sports coverage as it tries to stay out of the red.
The jobs will be eliminated as part of $130 million in cuts needed to balance the 2014-15 budget and reshape the broadcaster’s future, CBC President Hubert Lacroix told employees Thursday.
They amount to about 8 per cent of the CBC’s workforce, which currently includes 6,994 permanent employees, 859 contract employees and 329 temporary staff.
Fans of the public broadcaster reacted to the news with anger and dismay.
“That’s a really big reduction in the capacity of the public broadcaster,” said Ian Morrison, the spokesperson of lobby group Friends of Canadian Broadcasting.
While CBC critics point to the taxpayer-funded broadcaster’s low viewership in certain markets and question its relevance in a country with numerous private alternatives, Morrison said the CBC has a crucial role to play as a national institution delivering homegrown content.
“A public broadcaster makes programs for citizens. A private broadcaster is delivering audiences to advertisers,” Morrison said.
For example, Murdoch Mysteries routinely draws more than a million viewers. But, like much of CBC’s prime-time lineup, many of those viewers are not in the sought-after 25- to 54-year-old demographic — one of the reasons the CBC is struggling to attract advertising dollars.
Lacroix also blamed the fiscal shortfall on the loss of flagship sports program Hockey Night in Canada, the failure of new commercials on Radio 2 and Espace Musique to meet revenue targets, and higher fixed costs.
At the same time, CBC is absorbing the full brunt of a $115-million funding cut introduced in the 2012 federal budget.
To stay afloat, CBC will dramatically scale back its sports coverage, devoting fewer resources to amateur sports and no longer bidding for the rights to broadcast professional sports like the NHL.
The axe is also falling on jobs in the CBC’s news, music, technology, sales and marketing departments.
The broadcaster will lose the equivalent of 334 full-time jobs in English services, with 234 of those coming from Toronto and Montreal.
In the CBC’s newsrooms, 115 English positions are being eliminated, and another 12 in the radio and music department.
The broadcaster’s news programs have struggled to compete with Canada’s private networks. CTV’s Evening News at 6 p.m. draws 1.7 million viewers nationally, handily beating the CBC’s 6 p.m. national news coverage, which attracts fewer than 500,000.
The layoffs will only exacerbate the problem, according to the union which represents CBC journalists.
“You get cut, cut, cut, cut, and there’s little ways to do anything new or innovative or interesting because you’re so cut down. The corporation is able to put out programming, but no one knows what it could have been,” said Lise Lareau, the vice-president of the Canadian Media Guild.
What it won’t be is big-budget reality television.
Heather Conway, the CBC’s executive vice-president of English services, said the network is scrapping expensive reality shows such as Battle of the Blades in favour of cheaper fare.
“The big, shiny elimination shows are probably not going to be for us, because when you’re going to take some risks with this stuff, you can’t blow your brains out with these hugely expensive shows,” Conway said. “If they fail, you’ve bet the farm.”
Conway rhymed off a list of popular shows that will return this fall: The Rick Mercer Report, Dragons’ Den, Heartland and This Hour Has 22 Minutes. This homegrown content draws strong ratings compared to made-in-Canada shows on other networks. For example, among comedies, CBC’s Mr. D trumps City’s Seed and competes with Global’s Working the Engels.
To attract more advertisers, the CBC is bolstering its fall TV lineup with new shows specifically targeting the crucial 25- to 54-year-old demographic, Conway said, including the comedy Schitt’s Creek and the serialized drama Strange Empire.
But to balance next year’s budget, regional programming will be cut, Conway said. This includes cancelling a late-night news program in the Far North and the consolidation of shows in Alberta and northern Ontario. Lacroix said planned expansions into new regions such as London, Ont., have also been halted.
While these measures aim to right the CBC’s finances in the coming year, in the long-term it needs to reshape itself to serve Canadians with fewer resources, Lacroix said — a CBC that is “smaller, more focused, more agile.”
“Our financial challenges go way beyond balancing yearly budgets,” Lacroix said.
The clawbacks come as a Senate committee calls on the public broadcaster to do more to deliver francophone programming across Canada.
“In many parts of the country, it’s the only French presence, whether radio or television,” said Senator Claudette Tardif, the chair of the Senate Committee on Official Languages.
The committee says the CBC must ensure that both English and French speakers “have access to programming of equivalent quality in all regions of Canada.”
“No matter what financial constraints that the broadcaster is faced with . . . they cannot escape from their responsibilities in regards to their obligations under the Official Languages Act,” Tardif said.
Thursday’s announcement is the third round of job cuts at the CBC in the last five years.
In 2009, the broadcaster eliminated 800 jobs in an effort to save $171 million. Another 650 positions were axed in 2012 after the federal budget
reduced CBC’s parliamentary appropriation from $1.03 billion in 2011-12 to $913 million in 2014-15.
In the wake of the loss of Hockey Night in Canada
to rival Rogers, the CBC will no longer bid for the rights to professional sports
, Lacroix said Thursday.
“We remain committed to signature events of national significance such as the Olympics,” Lacroix said.
The broadcaster will incur one-time severance costs of $33.5 million as a result of the layoffs, Lacroix said, and there will be no voluntary retirement program.
“We know that there will be no additional funds available to us from government to cover these costs,” Lacroix said.
The layoffs will begin this summer.
“For employees at the CBC this is 30 years of cuts now,” the union’s Lareau said.
“This is a trajectory that no one wants to be on.”