CBC cutting back evening news, in-house production in shift towards digital

The CBC is slashing 25 per cent of its workforce over the next five years, while cutting back evening newscasts and in-house production in a bid to shift its focus from radio and television to digital and mobile services.

TORONTO — The CBC is slashing 25 per cent of its workforce over the next five years, while cutting back evening newscasts and in-house production in a bid to shift its focus from radio and television to digital and mobile services.

The public broadcaster announced its five-year strategic plan Thursday as it grapples with a $130-million budget shortfall due to federal cuts, flagging advertising revenues and the loss of hockey rights to Rogers Media.

By 2020, the broadcaster plans to slash 1,000 to 1,500 jobs, although it says that goal will in part be fulfilled by retirements and attrition. These staff reductions are in addition to the 657 job cuts it announced in April.

In a heated town hall with employees, CBC president Hubert Lacroix faced calls to resign. He said the broadcaster must transform itself from a “producer to a multi-platform broadcaster” in order to stay afloat.

He said that advertising revenues have shifted to global players like Facebook and Google and financial support for public broadcasters has decreased. Even conventional private broadcasters are not profitable, he said.

“The system is broken,” he said. “Meantime, as these shifts are happening, large numbers continue to watch television and listen to radio in traditional ways. In fact, Canadians on average are watching more television, not less.

“So these services will continue to be relevant and essential in this new media universe. We’re actually moving from a conventional world whose model is declining towards a new world that cannot yet pay its own way.”

The CBC is aiming to double its digital audience so that 18 million Canadians — or roughly half of the country — use its online or mobile services each month by 2020.

“As the media universe becomes more crowded, Canadians need a space they can call their own. We will be at the heart of that space,” Lacroix said.

He said the broadcaster will not close any stations across the country, but 90-minute evening television newscasts will be cut to 30 or 60 minutes.

The move to “significantly” reduce in-house production will not include news, current affairs or radio. The CBC says fewer documentaries will be directly produced by the broadcaster but it did not say whether it would contract out all documentary production.

Heather Conway, executive vice-president of English Services, said the documentary unit would “change” but that it would not reduce the number of documentaries on air.

“The issue around docs is not an isolated decision. If you look at the strategy, what we’ve said is we’re going to exit in-house production,” she said. “Transforming ourselves from Canada’s public producer into Canada’s multi-platform public broadcaster requires that we make that kind of a shift.”

CBC personalities including Peter Mansbridge, David Suzuki and Linden MacIntyre have signed a petition to CBC executives opposing the cuts to documentaries.

The broadcaster also plans to cut its real estate presence in half by approximately two million square feet. In Montreal, there will be a reduction in square feet, while the Toronto studio will acquire new tenants.

After programming cuts in April hit small communities hard, the CBC promised Thursday to preserve its geographical presence to be “even more local, but at reduced cost.”

During the raucous town hall, Lacroix was grilled by employees. When union president Carmel Smyth suggested he “resign in protest” of the Conservative government’s budget cuts, several cheers could be heard.

“Resign in protest,” he repeated incredulously. “Let’s put things in perspective. The last time CBC/Radio-Canada had an increase in budget was 1973. All the public broadcasters in the world have the same kinds of issues we have.”

Lacroix said that he asked Minister of Canadian Heritage Shelly Glover for a line of credit and one-time funding to deal with severance costs, but the government declined.

In an interview, Smyth said that Thursday’s town hall was the most heated she had ever seen.

“Normally we’re very polite and diplomatic. But at this stage, people are so disappointed,” said Smyth, national president of the Canadian Media Guild, which represents most CBC workers.

“We’re looking at a dramatically different CBC. I hope the board is comfortable dismantling a national institution. At the same time they’re selling it as good news, a great plan for 2020.”

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