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'Father of TFO' bids adieu Add to ...

Jacques Bensimon's resignation, announced earlier this month, as managing director of TFO, the French network of TVOntario, represents the first significant indictment of Isabel Bassett's leadership of the provincial corporation, Canada's second-largest public broadcaster.

"What she represents is a major departure for the organization in a different way, a different perception, a different philosophy, and that's why it was time for me to leave," says Bensimon, 55, who will join the Banff Television Festival as executive vice-president in October. (His resignation from TFO, after 14 years, is effective at the end of June.)

Bensimon, who was born in Morocco, is an elegant man with a sophisticated European appearance. He wears well-cut clothes and is easily imagined in the corner of a darkly-lit café, intensely discussing the power of film and video as tools of democracy. Yet he is not arrogant. Edges of a large creative ego are evident but it is his passionate appreciation of public broadcasting that governs his decision to speak publicly about the split.

His greatest fear for TFO, of which he was a founding member, is that it will become "a TV network that's basically a rebroadcast of other people's images."

TFO is a vital service for the province's 500,000 francophones and 300,000 francophiles, and has won hundreds of Canadian and international awards for its innovative programming under Bensimon's stewardship.

His decision to leave began fermenting in April of this year. That's when Bensimon found out "late in the game" that he would have to cut $1.5-million from his programming budget of $10.5-million. During presentations he made to her in February and March, he was told "everything was okay." Once informed of the new budget, he made the cuts, taking money from programming and firing some people on TFO's permanent staff, which now totals 52 people.

A "philosophical" blow occurred soon after when it was announced -- without his input, he says -- that TFO's pedagogical unit, a handful of educational liaison officers who fanned out across the province to help teachers apply the channel's programming to the classroom, would join the broadcaster's bilingual New Media department. "When that occurred, we knew the soul of TFO and the basic philosophy was gone," Bensimon says.

Bassett insists he was consulted about the shift of the pedagogical staff. However, she has since had to reconsider her decision. Members of the francophone community have expressed concern, she admits.

A former minister in the Mike Harris cabinet, Bassett was appointed head of TVOntario last year, setting off a wave of anxiety in the television industry about her politically Conservative vision for the 30-year-old public broadcaster. Up until now, reports from inside the organization have been cautiously positive. Tough and pragmatic, she has won respect for her work ethic and even for her fearless decision to fire some top-level people many thought needed to go. Changes clearly had to be made -- the provincial government has cut TVO's budget by almost $20-million in the past four years. To operate both channels, it now gets approximately $48-million in government funding and adds another $19-million in revenue from corporate sponsorships, memberships, sales and licensing deals.

But Bensimon's departure is different. It is both a political and creative loss. No replacement has yet been named.

At a packed farewell party, held at Toronto's l'Alliance Française on Monday night, there was a palpable sense of loss -- and anxiety -- as TFO staff and colleagues with whom Bensimon has worked over the years gathered to honour his accomplishments.

"He is the father of TFO," says Alexandre de Courville Nicol, a 10-year veteran at TFO and executive producer of Panorama, its public-affairs program. "He built it with the programming, his direction, his vision and he fulfilled the educational and cultural mandate. We're afraid of losing it."

Bassett was not invited to the party, which was purposefully held outside the TVO premises, a staffer said.

According to Bensimon and other staff members, Bassett's vision has been difficult to determine. "I came to the conclusion that it was basically the Sampson Report [a review of TVO by Rob Sampson, Minister without portfolio with responsibility for privatization, in June 1998] dusted off and put back on the table," Bensimon says.

The report concluded that TVO would be retained, but that "the knowledge, creativity, energy and enthusiasm being devoted to technology initiatives is not being leveraged to advantage."

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