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Heritage committee grills CBC bosses on reality TV, hockey
CBC management was on the hot seat in Ottawa Wednesday, as the committee on Canadian Heritage questioned senior managers about programming decisions and rumours the network could lose hockey.
CBC president Robert Rabinovitch, English television executive vice president Richard Stursberg, English radio vice president Jane Chalmers and Sylvain Lafrance, executive vice president of French services, appeared before the all-party standing committee Wednesday afternoon.
Two high profile CBC-TV projects that made national headlines this year were discussed: the decision to simulcast U.S. reality singing contest The One, and the furor over inaccuracies in the miniseries Prairie Giant: The Tommy Douglas Story.
NDP heritage critic Charlie Angus had been a vocal opponent of the reality show simulcast, which bumped flagship evening newscast The National out of its slot. The One was ultimately cancelled by U.S. broadcaster ABC.
On Wednesday, Angus reminded Rabinovitch that just a year ago, he had told the committee that CBC would not do reality television.
“Did something change dramatically in the six or seven months between deciding on that show and when you told us you wouldn’t have reality TV?” Angus demanded.
Reality, but no bug-eating: CBC president
Rabinovitch said that he had been ambiguous last year and stressed that the network would not do “shows that stress plastic surgery, sex and humiliation [and the] eating of insects.”
The committee also grilled the managers about Prairie Giant. A re-broadcast of the two-part miniseries was pulled and DVD sales stopped after the family of Jimmy Gardiner bristled at the artistic license taken in depicting the former Saskatchewan premier and Douglas rival.
Aside from the Gardiner family’s outrage, the move drew ire from the miniseries creators and several production unions.
Concern about local news, hockey
However, the CBC management team focused on outlining its current and future challenges.
Rabinovitch said English television’s local supper-hour newscast pilot project had proved disappointing and is going back to the drawing board for re-evaluation.
“The numbers, quite frankly, are unacceptable. They’re too low by a long-shot,” he said. “We have to ask ourselves some very fundamental questions about what it is we want to do.”
The senior managers also were frank about reports that core CBC show Hockey Night in Canada ó which the network has broadcast for more than 70 years on radio and then television ó is at risk. Rumours have arisen that CBC could lose its broadcasting deal with the National Hockey League to private sector competitors CTV and TSN.
Hockey loss would mean complete TV re-evaluation
Rabinovitch said it was “distinctly possible” that the NHL could go to CTV and if it were to happen, “we will have to seriously re-evaluate almost everything about English television.”
An absence of the hockey broadcasts would create several enormous challenges: the need to fill a 400-hour programming hole on Saturday nights from October through April and a significant loss of revenue.
According to Stursberg, professional sports broadcasts contribute about $100 million a year to the CBC.
“If this piece were to move out in a significant way, then the economics of English television are challenged at the most fundamental kind of level,” he said.
Urge for stable funding
Faced with this unstable situation, the senior managers are calling for a long-term funding commitment from the federal government, for instance a 10-year funding plan versus the current system of year-to-year approval.
Other suggestions they made to the Canadian Heritage committee include regular mandate reviews and the ability to collect fees from cable and satellite subscribers.