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Television CBC staff push back as broadcaster opts not to air live coverage of Ontario’s municipal elections

Newsroom staff at CBC Ottawa criticized the public broadcaster’s decision to not air live coverage of Ontario’s municipal election on television, penning a letter to management saying the move will do “long-term damage to the CBC and will inevitably erode our standing with our audience and Canadians at large.”

Signed by more than three dozen staff, including on-air hosts and producers from both television and radio, the letter asks management to reverse its decision, which will see the broadcaster provide live coverage of election returns only on radio and its internet platforms, including streams on Facebook, Twitter and the CBC app and website.

CBC-TV will be airing a new episode of Murdoch Mysteries Monday at 8 p.m. (ET) as election results roll in. Its first dedicated election coverage is slated for the individual local news shows airing in Toronto, Ottawa and Windsor at 11 p.m.

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Saying the decision leaves them “gutted” and “baffled,” the staff wrote that “many of our viewers in the Ottawa region, who either cannot afford internet access, don’t have ready access to it, or who are not inclined to watch election newscasts online, will not be able to watch live coverage of the local election results provided by their public broadcaster.”

Noting that local coverage is CBC’s “raison d'être,” the letter, written last week, asks, “What does it say about our priorities as a public television broadcaster that on the one night where local politics takes centre stage, we are missing in action? How can it be that we would fail to show up for the most important moment of the four-year election cycle and surrender the space to Rogers and CTV?”

Local CTV stations will be carrying live election coverage, but Rogers’s CITY station will air a two-hour episode of Dancing With the Stars. Global-TV stations are airing a pair of U.S. sitcoms at 8 p.m.

CBC has been focusing more on digital production and distribution in recent years, moving to what it calls a “digital-first” strategy, in recognition of shifting audience habits. But the Ottawa staff noted that TV still pulls in the lion’s share of audiences for events such as an election.

“We still need to be where people are, not just where we predict or hope they will eventually be. Could we fathom not airing a federal or provincial election live on TV in 2019? If not, then why is it acceptable to jettison our local TV coverage in 2018? Now that the precedent has been set, will this become the new normal for local television? The decision smacks of a kind of egregious elitism.”

The broadcaster’s senior managing director for Ontario, Marissa Nelson, responded with a letter arguing CBC “will lose relevance if we don’t change to meet our audience’s needs and we know digital is where we can reach the most Canadians. Local Services, across the country, has had to weigh how to serve audiences the best way we can, with the resources we have. We have been working under a digital-first strategy for nearly five years and that’s the lens we use when we’re making difficult decisions.”

Ms. Nelson added that “CBC Ottawa is uniquely positioned to own the digital audience ... The CBC Ottawa digital platforms have a significant reach and impact − a wonderful reflection of the hard work you’ve all done for the last five years.”

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Observers have noted that CBC is already producing local election broadcasts for digital distribution that could air on its TV signals, if not for commitments made to advertisers that have bought time on Murdoch Mysteries. The show is one of the few remaining hits on CBC’s English-language TV schedule. On the week of Sept. 24-30, data provided by the national ratings service Numeris indicate the show pulled in 997,000 viewers. Ranked No. 28, it was the only CBC show in that week’s Top 30.

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