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CBC is going all-out for Sochi, but can’t ignore ‘dark clouds on the horizon’

This is how quickly things are changing at the CBC.

Eighteen months ago, staff across the country broke into spontaneous applause when the public broadcaster announced it had won the rights to the 2014 and 2016 Olympic Games. After standing on the sidelines in 2010 and 2012 while a private consortium snatched the rights to the Games with a blockbuster bid, the CBC got back a bit of swagger. "We've promised Canadians signature events on all our platforms that create opportunities to connect with each other and the country," said CBC/Radio-Canada president Hubert Lacroix at the time. "I can't think of a greater opportunity to create those connections and generate pride than showcasing the Olympic Games and the performances of our own Canadian athletes."

Lacroix was clearly still trying to be inspirational when he sent out an internal memo to all employees last week. "Whenever I walk down the hall, wherever I happen to be, the energy is palpable," he wrote. But, he added, "I also see dark clouds on the horizon," citing the poor advertising market across the industry, low ratings for the main CBC-TV network this season, disappointing ad sales on its Radio 2 and Espace Musique services, and the impending loss of NHL hockey rights. He spoke of "tough and more fundamental decisions" that must soon be made.

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All of which helps explain why the next two weeks may feel both like a celebration of the country's most talented amateur athletes and a last hurrah for the CBC as we know it.

The Games are certainly giving CBC staff a rare cause to rally around – not to mention gainful employment for the 532 people directly assigned to broadcast production. The effort won't likely make any money for the corporation – NBC lost an estimated $223-million (U.S.) on the 2010 Vancouver Games – but they will bring in new viewers, exposing millions of Canadians to ads for Murdoch Mysteries, George Stroumboulopoulos Tonight and this summer's FIFA World Cup broadcasts on CBC.

"The Olympic Games are extraordinarily high-profile, and sport helps continue to make this network relevant to our constituents," said Jeffrey Orridge, executive director of CBC Sports and general manager of Olympics for CBC/Radio-Canada, in an interview. "People across Canada recognize this is programming of national significance. It's a cultural event for Canadians."

CBC is not just airing the Games on its own TV networks. It has struck deals for its Olympics programming to air on six privately owned channels as well, including Bell Media's TSN, Rogers Media's Sportsnet, and Vidéotron's TVA. In producing 1,524 hours of coverage (788 hours in English, 736 hours in French) that will be seen online and across eight TV channels, the CBC is also demonstrating an impressive ability to toggle seamlessly between the numerous new platforms on which broadcasters increasingly operate.

And its on-air talent will bask in the reflected glory of the athletes' wondrous feats. On the English-language side alone, almost five dozen radio and TV on-air personalities are on the ground in Sochi, from the CBC's full-time hockey hosts Ron MacLean and Don Cherry to Jian Ghomeshi, who is conducting interviews for his show, Q, and filing stories for the main TV network. Toronto morning-radio host Matt Galloway is host of the hourly Olympic Report.

And – unique to CBC, whose mandate insists on representation of "the regions" – talent has been drafted from across the country. Karin Larsen, a CBC Vancouver reporter, is covering Nordic combined and cross-country skiing; Mark Connolly, host of CBC Edmonton's morning radio show, will be a sliding commentator; Bruce Rainnie, host of the CBC-TV supper-hour newscast in Prince Edward Island, will be a curling commentator.

The hope is that viewers who may not have been exposed to those CBC personalities will seek them out after Sochi. But it also helps build viewers' personal connection to the Games. "Hopefully, in certain circumstances, it helps give [CBC] people more profile and make a deeper connection with their community, with their audiences," says Trevor Pilling, head of programming for CBC Sports and Hockey Night in Canada. "Ultimately, that's what this whole thing is about, making connections with the audience."

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In the corridors of CBC these days, posters proudly declare: "This is our moment." But after the closing ceremonies wind down and the gear comes home from Sochi to sit in a warehouse, awaiting the next big event, the public broadcaster will have to wake up from its two-week honeymoon to face a grim existential reality: Moments don't last forever.

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About the Author
Senior Media Writer

Simon Houpt is the Globe and Mail's senior media writer, charged with covering the industry's transformation. He began his career with The Globe in 1999 as the paper's New York arts correspondent, covering the cultural life of that city through Canadian eyes. More


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