Where's the CBC vision?
by Robert Fulford

(The National Post, 3 September 2005)

The CBC has come ill-prepared to its great crisis of 2005. It has 5,500 employees locked out, managers operating something that resembles a broadcasting system, stubborn labour-management issues that sound impossible to resolve -- and no coherent story, no way to explain why a shaky, always endangered institution has placed itself in this desperate fix.

CBC management wants to change its workforce and have more employees engaged on short-term contracts and fewer with lifetime jobs. It yearns for flexibility. But it remains unable to explain what this will do for broadcasting and the public. What the CBC lacks, and not for the first time, is an imaginative plan for its own future in TV (radio is another matter entirely).

CBC-watchers have always known that its managers operate on three principles. (1) Don't hire or promote anyone smarter than you are -- in fact, go for slightly dumber, just to be sure. (2) Don't tolerate anyone who stands outside the liberal consensus that governs Canada. (3) Don't alter the structure of the TV network.

These rules together constitute the CBC management ethos. They come with the job, quickly learned even by new presidents from outside.

The first rule guarantees that the average intelligence of managers steadily declines, making each generation intellectually weaker than its predecessors. The second makes it inevitable that the CBC will always favour liberal positions (sometimes blatantly, sometimes with a sly subtlety that almost verges on fairness) and will look with alarm and disdain on anything smelling slightly of conservatism.

The third rule, the one that managers honour with special passion, is responsible for the current distress. It is clear to everyone outside the CBC that it needs to reconsider its ambitions and objectives. But no matter how weak the corporation becomes, management refuses to take the possibility of change seriously.

Every CBC president talks like every other CBC president. Robert Rabinovitch says today precisely what was said by the president 25 years ago: CBC television's purpose should remain pretty much what it was in the 1950s. It should provide a full-service TV network with something for everyone.

In a Globe and Mail piece this week Rabinovitch reaffirmed his determination to keep the CBC from being "reduced to marginal status doing only those things that commercial broadcasters choose not to do." He said it "must appeal to a broad cross-section of the population." While it carries specialized programs attracting "dedicated but smaller audiences," it must also broadcast "big-ticket drama" and crucial hockey games. There's almost nothing it shouldn't do.

That could have been said, and often was, in 1980. Even then it seemed antiquated; now it demonstrates crippling self-delusion. When Rabinovitch refers to a broad cross-section of the public, he seems unaware that the CBC stopped reaching a broad public long ago. Each CBC program gets only a tiny sliver of the TV audience. When he says the CBC must have shows directed to "dedicated but smaller audiences," he forgets that all its programs go to small audiences. The CBC has no other kind.

Now the corporation's long-running private struggle with its employees has become embarrassingly public. In theory the lockout could last several months, bring ratings down even further, and convince Parliament that the corporation has ceased to matter.

Still, the purpose behind this apparent act of self-immolation reaches beyond questions of employment. Management wants to determine the size and shape of the staff and take back much of the power that previous regimes have ceded to the workers. In fact, it wants what all managers in the public sector want but seldom get: The right to hire and fire without serious difficulty, the right to eliminate the build-up of deadwood that results from guaranteed lifetime employment, and the right to restructure a department every time some vice-president gets a bright idea. Meanwhile, the union answers management's demand for more flexibility with the argument that it has a lot now and probably should have less. One Canadian Media Guild working paper goes so far as to call for control by employees over what jobs they will do and where they will do them; it wants the union involved in approving changes in working methods.

If only CBC managers had something promising in mind, some grand plan, their desire for more control might well deserve support. Who doesn't like the idea of a lean, supple broadcaster responding quickly to the need for change? But we have no idea what the CBC will do with its new power, assuming the union surrenders.

There are questions the taxpaying employers need to ask. If CBC television didn't already exist, would we invent it? If we did, would we put hockey games on it? Would we have commercials? Instead of dealing with these issues, the CBC remains the only national corporation that refuses to adapt to the environment created by new mass media.

Rabinovitch may claim that maintaining the now ancient structure of the TV network is a way of defending the CBC's mandate. What he's actually defending is his refusal to make the serious leadership decisions that should be the centre of his job.

Return to the List of Robert Fulford's Columns

Return to Robert Fulford's Home Page