October 4, 2005

Time has run out for CBC president Robert Rabinovitch. His failure to communicate a strategic reason for the seven-week-long lockout and to paint a compelling picture of the CBC’s future have left him badly positioned. Now that the dispute appears finally to be over, Mr. Rabinovitch has some explaining to do. What was he trying to achieve by precipitating this bitter confrontation with the CBC union? What, if anything, has been gained by it? And where does he intend to take the public broadcaster now that it is over?

In Ottawa, where his shareholders reside, he is a man bereft of supporters. His relationship with the Heritage Minister isn’t great. In the Prime Minister’s Office, where they think of him as the creation of leading political aide Eddie Goldenberg, a guy who used to play defence for the Chretien Liberals, he is even more isolated. A more organized PMO would have replaced him last year rather than extending his term. Cabinet and caucus are even less fond of him. Given a choice between embracing a lockout brought on by an unknown CBC management team with impenetrable arguments and getting back Don Newman’s Politics show, on which MPs can be somebodies, it is no contest.

Even his board of directors appears less than enthusiastic about the approach of its management team. Mr. Rabinovitch has been a good steward of CBC finances, but where is he taking this once-great public corporation? Why is contracting out so crucial? He never managed to communicate that. Even the naturally empathetic have been waiting anxiously for a storyline. Now, with his political support collapsing, he has been forced to accept a deal with the union that allows the number of contract workers to rise to 9.5 per cent of the number of full-time staff employees. Seven weeks for that?

A piece of conventional wisdom has sprung up about the CBC in the wake of this lockout that is both true and false. The true part is that the CBC is not nearly as relevant as it should be in a world of endless media choice. Smugness and pomposity run rampant at the corporation, and this is not just a management issue. The CBC is impervious to new ideas and fair criticism. It would be uncomfortable with the comparison, but its puffed-up sense of certainty is not out of keeping with the guy currently running the United States.

The false part is that Canadians don’t care about the CBC. In a poll last year, 77 per cent said CBC “provides value for taxpayers’ money” and 85 per cent agreed that it is an important factor in “helping distinguish Canada from the U.S.” A significantly large number care about it quite a lot; they just want it to provide a true and intelligent alternative to commercial broadcasters.

The conventional wisdom also tells us that CBC English-language television is where all the corporation’s problems reside. That Corner Gas, the country’s most popular comedy and a regionally based one at that, resides on private CTV (which shares a corporate owner with The Globe and Mail) should prick the pomposity of CBC staffers just a bit. But CBC TV still nurtures and produces the likes of Rick Mercer and David Suzuki. In news, we are exposed to the excellent long-form reporting of Brian Stewart and Terence McKenna.

Unfortunately, those are too often the exceptions. Nearly 20 years ago, the CBC applied for an all-news licence. But when Parliament was in crisis this past spring and the Liberals pulled a fast and clever manoeuvre in the Commons late one evening, CBC Newsworld chose to stick with its rigid schedule of Fashion Files and Antiques Road Show. CTV Newsnet cut to the action, but not the CBC. It apparently didn’t want to interfere with its revenue flow.

CBC Radio is not without its problems either. It tends to be shrill and narrow. Although some local programming is doing well in the face of the relentless babble of the private alternatives, too much of CBC Radio is living off a legacy handed down by programmers a generation ago.

It comes down to this: Mr. Rabinovitch picked a fight with a stubborn union unwilling to face up to the challenges of a rapidly changing media landscape. He may be right about contracting out, but he developed no constituency for his case. The patience of his political masters wore out. The lockout has radicalized the work force.

Mr. Rabinovitch will face tough questions when he appears before the federal heritage committee, which has demanded that he explain himself once the deal with the union is sealed. The union should also put some water into its 1950s-vintage wine. But more important, the CBC, like the National Hockey League after its labour dispute, needs to come out of this with a compelling plan for how it will be more relevant, more responsive and more distinct from other media. Simply aping what others are already doing on the Internet, and increasing advertising sales, does not constitute a creative response.

Sadly, there is no indication at this point that Mr. Rabinovitch has any such plan in his back pocket.
10:41 AM :

Details of the lock-out end: The Canadian Media Guild and CBC management have reached an agreement in
principle that will form the basis for a new collective agreement.

Some highlights, as provded by the CMG:

— we have a strong commitment to permanent staff as the standard for
employment at the CBC.

— We have improved rights for contract and temporary employees.

— Wages will increase by 12.6 percent over the life of the contract to
March 31, 2009. There will be full retroactivity for all employees on
the payroll prior to the lockout, including contract and temporary
employees. There will also be a $1000 signing bonus.

— And for the first time for our members in the Northern Service, there
will be a premium of $800.00 per year for those who are required to work
in more than one language.

Parties are meeting the minister of labour tomorrow morning and will
continue the rest of the work for a tentative agreement.