Cuts to CBC funding expected in the upcoming federal budget could have dramatic implications, touching everything from popular television programming to foreign news bureaus and eliminating hundreds of jobs, observers predict.
Though the CBC declined The Huffington Post’s request for comment in advance of the budget, it is widely anticipated that Mother Corp.’s federal funding could be trimmed by upwards of 10 per cent — or some $110 million of the $1.1 billion in direct federal funding it receives.
First reported by The Huffington Post in September, the prospect of a 10 per cent cut has over the last month become “a very consistent rumour” at Canada's public broadcaster, says Mary Darling, executive producer of the network’s hit TV show, Little Mosque of the Prairie.
In addition to stoking concern among CBC employees, Darling says the possibility of significant belt-tightening is contributing to widespread uncertainty among the legions of independent producers, such as herself, who create the network’s English language dramatic programming.
“People are beyond tense. This is our livelihood. This is how we make our living and send our kids to school,” said Darling, who alongside husband Clark Donnelly runs Toronto-based Westwind Pictures, the company behind Little Mosque.
Currently in its final season, the sitcom won’t be affected by looming cuts. But if the rumours are true, Donnelly predicts the network won’t pick up similar programs in the future, putting several programs Westwind is currently developing in peril.
“Ten per cent is enormous,” he said, adding that if he had to pitch the show under those circumstances, “I don’t think Little Mosque would have been made.”
Former CBC president Robert Rabinovitch, who was at the helm when the network took on what he calls “a soap opera with a message,” concurs.
“That’s exactly the type of show that a public broadcaster should be doing, but it’s risky, and they won’t be able to take that risk if the money’s taken out of their system,” he told HuffPost.
Rabinovitch and others say it’s possible the 10 per cent figure is a deliberate exaggeration on the part of the government to “make a five per cent [cut] more palatable.”
But as he points out, it’s also possible that the axe could cut even deeper if there are trims to the Canada Media Fund, of which the CBC is the primary beneficiary, or the $60-million annual programming grant the network has received for the last decade.
“They could get hit through the front door and the back door,” he said.
All of which could have serious implications for the public broadcaster.
In addition to prime-time programming, sources familiar with the file told HuffPost the upcoming cuts may lead to the closing of some foreign bureaus and will necessitate employee layoffs.
Barry Kiefl, head of the independent Ottawa-based firm Canadian Media Research Inc. (CMRI), cautions against “taking it for granted that there’s going to be a 10 per cent cut,” before details of the budget are revealed on Thursday. But he maintains a trim of that magnitude could result in the elimination of 1,000 jobs.
According to Kiefl, who was the CBC’s research director throughout the ’80s and ’90s, about $1 billion of the CBC’s estimated $1.7 billion operating budget is tied up in salaries.
“You can’t cut things like the payment to the NHL for Hockey Night In Canada, and you can’t cut payments to some of the long-term programming contracts that they’ve got, so you’re going to have to cut staff,” he said.
And because of hefty severance obligations to senior managers within the organization, those reductions would be felt most acutely among more junior employees, says Ian Morrison, spokesman for the non-profit group Friends of Canadian Broadcasting.
“Ninety per cent of the cuts are going to come out of people [...] who are actually making programs that Canadians love,” Morrison said. “It will be very visible and audible.”
There would also be broader implications.
In a 2011 report, Deloitte estimated the CBC adds $3.7 billion to the economy annually, noting that the network’s “regional and local activities contribute to [...] local economies and creative clusters.”
“CBC/Radio-Canada creates additional economic value for other broadcasters and [the] wider creative sector in Canada through its role in implementing new technologies, promoting digital content and third-party distribution by its support to Canadian artists,” the report added.
For its part, the CBC told HuffPost that when the budget is announced, it will “communicate the impact to our employees as soon as possible.”
But as management grapples with where to find cost-savings, former CBC executive Jeffrey Dvorkin urges the network to move away from its tendency to spread cuts across the entire organization in the face of belt-tightening.
“In order for any media organization to go through this procedure, you have to figure out what’s important to you and to your audience,” he said. “That causes management to be really focused on the priorities of the organization.”