Canada’s public broadcaster plans to shed up to a fifth of its staff by 2020 as part of a sweeping new vision to recalibrate the way it delivers news and programming to an increasingly mobile, on-demand audience.
At a testy town hall on Thursday, the CBC’s president and CEO, Hubert Lacroix, unveiled a new five-year plan to staff that includes shifting resources out of the TV and radio divisions to drive a wave of new mobile-friendly content, scaling back some local evening newscasts from 90 minutes to as little as 30, and cutting between 1,000 and 1,500 jobs.
Unlike recent cutbacks at the CBC, including one that axed 657 other jobs last April, the new plan is about much more than saving money. It is an effort to transform the broadcaster from a television and radio powerhouse to a leaner, more nimble organization that targets smartphones and tablets first to find readers, viewers and listeners wherever they are.
“You’re going to see us lead with mobility and digital,” Mr. Lacroix told reporters, later adding, “over five years, you are going to get a smaller broadcaster.”
While the CBC’s English-language TV network has a handful of popular hits, such as Murdoch Mysteries and Dragons’ Den, its share of the viewing audience has fallen in recent years. Its nightly newscast, The National, regularly places behind the dominant CTV National News. It has largely missed out on snagging new viewers with on-demand services, where upstarts such as Vice Media, which programs for millennial viewers, have triumphed.
Costs remain a driving force of many decisions. The CBC has had to make multiple rounds of deep cuts to balance its annual budgets, compounded by the loss of revenue-rich hockey rights, in a cycle Mr. Lacroix says can’t continue.
The corporation also aims to offload half of its real estate, or some two-million square feet, and Mr. Lacroix even told reporters if he had an offer on its flagship Toronto headquarters, “we would entertain it.”
The savings will be focused squarely on content as the strategy aims to double the CBC’s digital reach to a monthly audience of 18 million Canadians, banking heavily on the new mobile emphasis. That means substantial radio and TV resources will shift to produce news and video specifically tailored to mobile devices. More than half of CBC’s online audience now get its news from a phone or tablet, signalling a sea change in habits.
“And that means not taking a traditional television product and just having it be smaller on a smaller screen. It means actually producing content that is for that mobile device,” said Heather Conway, executive vice-president of English services.
For local news, too, the CBC plans to put much more emphasis on sending stories immediately throughout the day to mobile and digital platforms. Some regions or cities will see their early evening local TV news cut from 90 minutes to a baseline 30 minutes, though others with strong ratings or minority language communities will be “enhanced.”
The plan will also sharply reduce the CBC’s in-house production, though news, current affairs and radio are exempted. Instead, the broadcaster plans to partner more with outside creators and will make fewer of its own documentaries – a move that spurred some of its most prominent personalities from Peter Mansbridge to David Suzuki to sign a letter expressing their alarm last week.
For instance, there will be staffing for only one production studio at the CBC headquarters in Toronto, said a union official briefed on the plan. The other studios could be rented out to other producers.
The main union representing CBC workers sees this as reducing services on TV.
“A lot of Canadians consume CBC news and services over the Internet and on mobile. But for us, it’s still a reduction in services,” said Marc-Philippe Laurin, CBC branch president of the Canadian Media Guild.
“The CBC will not be offering the same services across the country, to all Canadians in every community.”
With reports from Simon Houpt and Guy Dixon
Editor's Note: A Friday story said that CBC-TV’s nightly newscast The National regularly places third behind CTV National News and Global National. In fact, if The National’s airings on CBC News Network are taken into account, the program attracts more viewers, on average, than Global National.