TORONTO - The CBC is slashing some 20 per cent of its workforce over the next five years, while cutting back evening newscasts and in-house production and raising the possibility of selling its flagship headquarters in Toronto.
During a heated town hall with employees Thursday, the broadcaster announced its five-year strategic plan. President Hubert Lacroix unveiled sweeping changes designed to shift the CBC's priorities from radio and television to digital and mobile services.
By 2020, CBC plans to cut 1,000 to 1,500 positions (the broadcaster says it currently has 7,500 employees). It says that goal will in part be fulfilled by retirements and attrition and that roughly 500 of these jobs will be eliminated over the next 12 to 15 months.
"Over five years, you are going to get a smaller broadcaster," said CBC president Hubert Lacroix in a conference call with reporters. "It's not about job cuts. It's about a vision. It's about a financial model that is sustainable."
The new job losses are in addition to the 657 the broadcaster announced in April. The CBC is grappling with a $130-million budget shortfall due to federal cuts, declining advertising revenues and the loss of hockey rights to Rogers Media.
The broadcaster will also cut its real estate presence in half by approximately two million square feet. In Montreal, there will be a reduction in square feet, while the Toronto studio will acquire new tenants, Lacroix said.
But he also suggested to reporters that the CBC was open to selling or leasing the flagship 1.4-million-square-foot studio on Front and John streets.
"Should an offer for the CBC (headquarters) come, we would entertain it. But the idea is, we are not in the real estate business," he said. "We want to transfer the risks of being an owner to the advantages of being more scalable when you're a tenant."
Lacroix faced calls to resign during the raucous town hall. He told staff that the broadcaster must transform itself from a "producer to a multi-platform broadcaster" in order to stay afloat.
The CBC is aiming to double its digital audience so that 18 million Canadians — or roughly half of the country — use its online or mobile services each month by 2020.
"As the media universe becomes more crowded, Canadians need a space they can call their own. We will be at the heart of that space," Lacroix said.
He said the broadcaster will not close any stations across the country, but 90-minute evening television newscasts will be cut to 30 or 60 minutes.
The move to "significantly" reduce in-house production will not include news, current affairs or radio. Executives said each existing in-house production — such as afternoon talk show "Steven & Chris" — would be looked at on a case-by-case basis.
Heather Conway, executive vice-president of English Services, said fewer documentaries are going to be directly produced by the CBC. She would not say whether in-house documentary production would be eliminated entirely.
"Mark (Starowicz) is the head of docs, and how that unit is going to be shaped going forward is going to be a matter of conversation between he and Sally Catto, the head of programming to whom he reports," she told reporters.
CBC personalities including Peter Mansbridge, David Suzuki and Linden MacIntyre have signed a petition to executives opposing the cuts to documentaries.
Lacroix said the challenges the CBC faces are not unique as private broadcasters are also struggling with falling television advertising revenues. At the same time, Canadians are watching more television, from 22 hours per week in 2000 to 27 in 2013, he said.
The broadcaster has given itself a mandate to produce at least three dramas meeting the standards of cable television and more "cutting edge" comedies over the next five years. It will partner more with other Canadian broadcasters and Netflix to deliver programming.
Meanwhile, the shift toward mobile and digital will begin in the next year and will include fresh content designed specifically for laptops, smartphones and tablets, said Lacroix.
Lacroix faced accusations from critics Thursday that he is a puppet of Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who appointed the CBC president. In 2012, the federal government cut $115-million from the CBC's budget over a three-year period.
Pressed about how he has challenged the government's cuts, Lacroix said he asked the Ministry of Canadian Heritage for a line of credit and one-time funding to deal with severance costs, but the government declined.
When union president Carmel Smyth suggested at the town hall that Lacroix "resign in protest" of the Conservative cuts, several cheers could be heard.
"Resign in protest," he repeated incredulously. "Let's put things in perspective. The last time CBC/Radio-Canada had an increase in budget was 1973. All the public broadcasters in the world have the same kinds of issues we have."
In an interview, Smyth said that Thursday's town hall was the most heated she had ever seen.
"Normally we're very polite and diplomatic. But at this stage, people are so disappointed," said Smyth, national president of the Canadian Media Guild, which represents most CBC workers.
"We're looking at a dramatically different CBC. I hope the board is comfortable dismantling a national institution. At the same time they're selling it as good news, a great plan for 2020."
Both the federal Liberal and NDP heritage critics released statements Thursday blaming the CBC's challenges on the Conservative budget cuts.
"These cuts are ideologically driven, pure and simple, and underscore Mr. Harper's lack of interest as to the need and value of this crucial Canadian institution," said Liberal heritage critic Stephane Dion.
Young Canadians will pay the biggest price for these massive job cuts," added NDP heritage critic Pierre Nantel. "The NDP regrets that as the CBC tries to keep pace with technological change, it no longer has the means to retain young talent at this key moment in its history."