Being a broadcast executive is like doing comedy: It's all in the timing. So it was either funny or tragic that the CBC rolled out a long-awaited new vision for itself on Thursday that aims to fundamentally disrupt much of what the public broadcaster does: Titled A Space for Us All, the new strategy will see CBC shift from making content primarily for TV and radio, to focus instead on the mobile and digital platforms where viewers and readers are spending more of their time.
This came, alas, only one week after The New Yorker published a bracing take-down by Jill Lepore of the cult of disruptive innovation that has taken hold of so many of the world's boardrooms.
And at the company-wide town hall where CBC staff received the news, some sounded as if they wanted to permanently disrupt their own bosses.
These days, all the cool kids are disrupting themselves: If you don't do it, goes the mantra, somebody else will. Like a disaster movie, the media landscape is full of disruption and upheaval: On Monday, Bell Media, which owns the CTV network and dozens of specialty TV channels, announced it will cut 120 jobs in its Toronto television operations this summer because of "financial pressure" in its advertising- and subscription-based services. (Its parent company owns 15 per cent of the Globe.)
And earlier this month, Rogers Media, which has lost tens of millions on its City TV network in recent years, hinted that the reason it is going all-in on live hockey is that the old prime-time broadcast model – of trying to sell ads against expensive, imported American shows – was broken, and beyond its ability to repair.
CBC says it will "privilege content" by getting out of the activities it believes aren't at the core of its mandate: It will, for example, try to sell a chunk of its real estate, so it can be a fleet-footed tenant instead of a lumbering landlord. And it will cut other administrative costs. Many media companies have made similar moves, shedding heavy functions like so many winter sweaters: Some newspapers I could mention, for example, now contract out their printing and delivery. (Heck, some even contract out copy editing and the layout of their pages.)
CBC will also, most contentiously, get out of the business of producing its own content, except for news, current affairs and radio.
It's all part of what executives kept referring to, during both the town hall and during a follow-up conference call with reporters, as a shift from being "the public producer to the public multiplatform broadcaster." (This tag was used so often on Thursday, it seems to be a replacement for the old "modern public broadcaster.")
Still, disrupting yourself is tough, and the CBC's staff, who have watched 657 of their colleagues get pink-slipped because of a $130-million cut announced in April, were noticeably tetchy during the town hall.
More than one staff member challenged their president and CEO, Hubert Lacroix, to quit in protest of what they believe is the federal government's willful neglect. (He refused.) Another hammered on Heather Conway, who has been the head of CBC's English-language services for less than seven months, for seeming gleeful in telling a reporter a few weeks ago that more job cuts were coming. (Conway disputed the characterization.)
The cuts embedded in the new strategy will mean up to 1,500 jobs – 20 per cent of the current staff – disappearing by 2020. About 500 will go over the next 12 to 15 months. Within five years, Lacroix pledged, "We're going to be focused, smaller, mobile – and more relevant." He spoke of making the CBC more agile and scalable – the idea being that it can expand and contract as needs arise.
Clearly, CBC needs to shake things up. On the one hand, it doesn't get nearly enough credit for what it does well: Its Radio One service is not just acclaimed but also popular; Radio-Canada remains central to the discussion in Quebec; the Northern services are essential; and in the East, local CBC-TV stations are pillars of their communities. (For that matter, in New Brunswick, they are the only real competition to the Irving family's Brunswick News operations.)
Yet, it has been years since the English-language CBC-TV played a central role in the Canadian conversation (even if, yes, many of us did dance around the human maypole that is Don Cherry). The need to produce more content for mobile devices is a no-brainer – but smartphones and tablets are currently used for snacking on media amuse-bouches rather than the rich meals that a public broadcaster should be providing. And in chucking functions like its in-house documentary capabilities, CBC risks losing its DNA.
Can an organization disrupt itself too much? We're about to find out.