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CBC's new five-year plan to emphasize local and regional coverage

CBC's management unveiled a broad five-year plan on Tuesday to increase its local and regional news, make its prime-time TV lineup more Canadian and enlarge its digital presence with new services and websites.

This isn't a move to change the services CBC currently provides or the feel of its shows, emphasized Hubert Lacroix, president and chief executive of CBC/Radio-Canada, but an effort to expand local programming. "This is really the CBC of the future [and]a challenge to itself and to Canadians to rekindle the relationship we have with them," he said.

The estimated $33-million cost of the plan over five years - which includes doubling the percentage of the CBC's budget going toward digital services - is expected to come through further cost-cutting and streamlining efficiencies. The broadcaster won't be asking Ottawa for extra funding, CBC executives said.

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Dubbed 2015: Everyone, Every Way, the new plan aims at closer ties with under-served areas across Canada and to make the CBC "more Canadian," Kirstine Stewart, head of the CBC's English-language services, told staff on Tuesday.

"We'll start to transform a lot of our television schedule to provide more Canadian programming, instead of the American programming that we have been having on the air," she said.

It's a change already in progress, she noted. For instance, CBC-TV has been moving away from some of the American movies and holiday specials it used to air. In a recent interview with The Globe and Mail, Stewart also said that the U.S. game shows Wheel of Fortune and Jeopardy! will be dropped from the schedule. Instead, the broadcaster has been gaining audiences with homegrown reality shows such as Battle of the Blades and Dragons' Den and new series such as Republic of Doyle.

Sports will remain central to CBC's programming, and management will continue to look at bidding rights to cover future Olympic Games and other major events, Lacroix said. However, he noted that given the plethora of conventional and digital media platforms, the days in which one network wins all rights to the Olympics are long over; the CBC will look to form partnerships with other networks.

More specialty channels are also in the works, including the possibility of new English-language kids, sports and arts and entertainment channels.

Meanwhile, CBC management stressed its new regional expansion. Over the past several months, there has already been an increase in local news and programming across Canada, including pilots for new morning and weekend news shows. But around seven million Canadians, even those in relatively large towns and cities, currently don't have local or regional fare, a particular problem in the West.

Upcoming expansions will entail giving some CBC regional offices new equipment to deliver radio, TV and digital programming. The CBC will also create "micro" news websites for large communities, for example the large Montreal suburb of Longueuil. Hamilton is another city under consideration for local coverage on the Internet.

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"This is possibly the biggest, [most]exciting news we've had in a long time. We haven't been increasing the footprint of the CBC for around, I think, 20 years," Stewart said. "This is our opportunity to get out there …and actually make sure that we can reach more Canadians, because there are a lot that don't get us right now, in terms of local service."

The CBC's digital strategy means spending more on its services. Digital services currently receive around 2.5 per cent of the overall media budget. That will rise to "at least 5 per cent" over the next five years.

To pay for the anticipated cost, management said it will continue to streamline its offices and operations. It also anticipates revenue from advertising, which has been rising, to increase by 2.8 per cent over five years, compared with industry forecasts of 2.4 per cent.

Word of the five-year plan was detailed in a non-confrontational presentation and conference call to staff. Since the CBC's two-month lockout of workers in 2005, corporate strategy presentations have often been tense. The comments and questions from the staff during the announcement were more approving, as Lacroix emphasized the need for decision making to happen among employees and not merely handed top-down.

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Guy Dixon is a feature writer for The Globe and Mail. More

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