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The CBC logo is seen outside the CBC building in Toronto on Wednesday, April 4, 2012. (Nathan Denette/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
The CBC logo is seen outside the CBC building in Toronto on Wednesday, April 4, 2012. (Nathan Denette/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

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CBC looks towards digital future with budget money Add to ...

The CBC’s president says the public broadcaster will not use its $675-million windfall from Tuesday’s federal budget to restore what it lost through years of cutbacks, and will instead spend on current priorities such as digital platforms, local news bureaus and original programs.

Hubert Lacroix called the new funding promised in the Liberal spending plan a “vote of confidence” in public broadcasting and the corporation’s vision, and a source of much-needed stability. The plan provides the CBC with $75-million this fiscal year and $150-million annually through 2021.

But while the promise reverses a $115-million funding cut imposed by the previous Conservative government in 2012, and breaks the 12-month funding cycle that bred uncertainty about the CBC’s fortunes year to year, the broadcaster that predated that austerity – which owned valuable broadcast rights to NHL hockey, produced in-house documentaries and reached its audiences mostly over traditional airwaves – will not be restored to its former state.

“We can’t, and we will not, reset the clock back to 2012. Canadians, right now, are using our services in a completely different way,” Mr. Lacroix, who is also CBC’s chief executive officer, said in an interview.

Since the release of a five-year plan in June of 2014, the CBC has been promoting a “digital shift” for the corporation, and it is clear that the new dollars are, in some large part, earmarked for digital needs. “These dollars are going to go there and they’re going to help us transform … CBC into a very different broadcaster,” he said.

Key areas that stand to benefit from new funding include original programming, to curb the overuse of reruns on CBC schedules; more resources to “the regions,” and in particular the addition of staff to communities that are underserved or not served at all, likely including Northern Alberta and parts of British Columbia; and spending on international news coverage.

But the CBC alone may not get to decide all priorities. The government has promised to hammer out a five-year “accountability plan” with the broadcaster. Mr. Lacroix said he has “no details on that,” but he expects to sit down with Mélanie Joly, the Minister of Canadian Heritage, to discuss it before long.

A spokesperson for Ms. Joly was not immediately able to give details about the accountability plan.

The CBC has faced calls from some quarters to appoint a new board and management through an independent process, so that appointees could no longer be drawn from a pool of political party supporters. Asked whether the government’s accountability plan could include structural changes to CBC’s management or the way it reports to government, Mr. Lacroix said he has “no idea. We’ve not spoken about that at all.”

But he believes that the government’s new spending validates the CBC’s direction under his watch, and that he expects to serve out his term, which expires at the end of 2017.

Some at the CBC are also concerned that the focus on digital delivery could be used as a disguise for continued cost-cutting, particularly to traditional broadcasting. Mr. Lacroix noted that while the CBC will expand to new communities, “it’s going to be, most probably, a digital presence like what we have in Hamilton, which is a completely different model than what we had before.”

The Canadian Media Guild, a union representing thousands of CBC staff, supports the corporation’s digital ambitions as long as they sustain local news and original programming, and are not simply “less labour intensive and cheaper,” national president Carmel Smyth said.

“And to us, that doesn’t just mean having a Web presence. That means having a radio, a television and an online presence,” she said.

The CBC has been retraining more than 1,000 staff with new skills, and has hired 150 new staff in recent months to support the broadcaster’s digital plans, Mr. Lacroix said. But he would not commit to scaling back the 1,000 to 1,500 job cuts the CBC promised as part of its five-year plan.

“This is not a static world. Everything is changing. And we need to be able to adjust to that environment,” he said. “And this flexibility and, finally, multiyear funding that we’ve been asking for for a long time allows us to do that.”

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