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."
"What Bassett was confronted with," says Bensimon, "is how she could instantly create, out of budgets that existed, a new unit around new media and new technology. The only way was by siphoning it off the two programming areas. What you have is a phenomenon of mutation for transformation." Content is crucial, he says, and communities in outlying parts of the province can't be expected to have up-to-date computer access or computer-literate students in place. The emphasis on new media should be an evolutionary process, built on the strengths of the channel, not an overnight decision, he adds.
For Bensimon, working on the development of what he calls "the TFO branding of equilibrium between hard education and soft education and culture" was like "a religious belief." His belief in the "democratizing power" of moving images and their power to give people a sense of identity stems from his teenage years. At 14, he arrived in Montreal with his Jewish French-speaking Moroccan parents and three sisters. For a contest sponsored by CBC's Radio-Canada, he was given a camera and told to document his community. "It was an incredible relief to be able to express what I felt as an immigrant," he says. After graduating in 1967 from New York University in film, he worked for the National Film Board, "during its golden era" (1967-1985). Through collaboration with influential filmmakers such as Norman McLaren, Tom Daly, Colin Low and Jacques Bobet, he cemented his conviction that "filmmaking and social change are imbedded into one another."
When he was hired by TVO in 1986, French-language programming aired only on Sunday. He quickly reinvented existing programs and developed new ones that were designed, he says, to turn the francophone experience "into something positive, not in terms of ghetto, not in terms of protection, but in terms of assertion and affirmation." It was important to "bring local French-language values to programming" rather than let "the big universal francophone culture come from on top and squash them." One example is how he transformed a former educational program, Lys et le Trilium. Instead of having academic guests, who spoke perfect French, he invited locals who would speak about their own experience.
He went on to make connections with international organizations, such as Unicef, and other broadcasters, including France 2, France 3, BBC and Channel 4 in Britain, among others, and created about 250 hours of co-produced programming a year. Being an international player, he says, gave the channel the clout to access money from Telefilm and the Cable Fund.
The list of his accomplishments is both long and noteworthy. To build cost-efficiencies, he brought together isolated independent francophone production companies across Canada to co-produce a variety of children's shows, documentaries and entertainment shows -- an initiative that led to the formation of the l'Alliance des Producteurs Canadiens. Four years ago, when France decided to build its own educational public network, La Cinquième, officials asked for TFO's advice. He exported the TFO signal to New Brunswick three years ago and into parts of Quebec. Negotiations to make the signal available through Quebec's major cable firms, Videotron and Cogeco, stalled last year when the Quebec government complained to the CRTC, alleging that the Ontario government was trying to wipe out TFO's debt (then $3-million) by making Quebec viewers pay for the service. Bensimon says he planned to retable the deal with a new proposition that built in different "business revenues" for TVO. Studies show Quebeckers want access to the signal, he says.
"Jacques created TFO into a combination of the cerebral and the populist," says Peter Herrndorf, Bassett's predecessor as chief executive of TVOntario and currently director of the National Arts Centre in Ottawa. "It's a mainstream notion of public-service television combined with an over-the-back-fence, bulletin-board style in which neighbours in the francophone communities could speak to one another," he says.
Asked her feelings about Bensimon's departure, Bassett says she is sorry to see him go but that "his interest is international and we just can't afford to travel around. We're not the CBC. The focus of TVO and TFO is on Ontario and education and new media. Jacques wasn't particularly interested in new media," she adds.
That perception irks Bensimon. Three and a half years ago, he realized the importance of the Internet and established an on-line unit, camPuce, a virtual classroom, from his own budget, he bristles. In 1998, TFO won an international award, the MILIA d'Or, at an annual trade fair for Internet programming in Cannes, France, for a program entitled Perdu dans les Etoiles. He is not opposed to new media, but he warns that, in his experience, "bringing forces together to make a bilingual unit results in mushy programming, in Canada-pudding." As for the suggestion that he is international in focus, he says "international has become the norm, and I hope that she [Bassett]realizes that for the sake of TVO."