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Watching the Watchdog: Who Will Restore the CBC to its Former Glory?

11/18/2013 05:34 EST | Updated 01/23/2014 06:58 EST

Tim Knight writes the regular media column, Watching the Watchdog, for HuffPost Canada.

"Big news. We've concluded the recruitment process for the new Executive Vice-President of English Services. Please join me in welcoming Heather Conway, who will be starting her new role in early December." - Hubert T. Lacroix, President and CEO, CBC/Radio-Canada, September 26, 2013

Dear Ms. Conway,

In less than two weeks you will be taking over one of the toughest jobs in Canadian broadcasting. Actually, one of the toughest jobs in Canada.

My sincere congratulations and even more sincere condolences.

We've never met. But I worked at CBC for some 15 years (producer The National, executive producer, CBC TV news Ottawa, executive producer and lead trainer CBC TV journalism training) so like to think I have some standing when it comes to offering advice about the peoples' network.

I'm not alone, of course. Everyone in this country delights in offering advice about what's right and wrong with CBC. In fact, someone once wrote that all Canadians have two jobs -- one is their daytime job, the other is running the CBC.

I don't see why I should be left out of this national pastime.

Now, I know you've been consulting all sorts of people with strong views about the Corporation. My guess is that during those discussions you've been struck by how much so many of us love what the CBC was and how much we fear what it's becoming.

It's like looking back on a former lover who once promised the world -- including unendurable pleasure infinitely prolonged -- but in time turned frigid, faithless, and boring.

Not a pretty thought.

You already know, of course, about the CBC's manifold and manifest problems. So I won't bore you with yet another recitation of ever-dwindling ratings and budget, historically lousy top management and visceral conservative hostility fanned by poisonous, self-serving, anti-CBC propaganda, misinformation and disinformation, from the private broadcasters.

The Canadian people, the Canadian government and the CBC staff all know that the Corporation is badly managed and if it doesn't get major surgery soon will die the death of a thousand cuts.

What might surprise you, though, is the quality of the CBC troops. The people who make the programs.

Once upon a time they were all a proud lot. Believed the CBC was up there with the best broadcasters in the whole damn world. Now, for far too many of them, the CBC is just a job. A way to pay the rent while waiting for the inevitable pink slip.

Even so, CBC still has some of the very best broadcast program-makers in North America.

And some still have hope. Not much, but possibly just enough to be a critical mass, the basis of a new CBC.

They still believe -- even if all the odds are against it -- that the Corporation can return to its glory days. To the time when Canadians cherished it, believed it existed to serve them, inform them, enlighten and entertain them in a way no for-profit broadcaster ever would or ever could. A time when the CBC was -- and was seen to be -- in public service.

It's possible, Ms. Conway, that you can guide them back there.

It's likely that your greatest strength in their eyes will be that you're not one of them. You're clean. Your experience is in marketing and public relations, the selling side, far away from making programs.

So you're not going to tell them how to make their programs. Which leaves you free to lead English Services. To restore pride. To throw open the windows to sunlight, finest of all disinfectants. To dramatically return the CBC's culture back to public service.

To strive, to seek, to find and not to yield.

Some fairly unscientific research indicates you might be exactly the right person to do all this.

People tell me you're gutsy, tough-minded, passionate, progressive, very bright, team-oriented, have no tolerance for sycophants or incompetence, possess a fine sense of humour and are loaded to the gunwales with integrity. Michael MacMillan who was your boss at Alliance Atlantis and has a history of telling truth, says you're "totally suited" to your new job, "a very mature thinker and very sophisticated at balancing competing challenges."

Wow! Seems you have every qualification necessary to restore the CBC to its former glory as the people's network -- the epitome, the embodiment, of public service.

Even so, you may not have a full appreciation of the swamp that is the CBC. It's a place where savage warlords struggle mightily for power and actual programming is too often an afterthought. It has a history of breaking some of the very best.

My inclination would be to go along with the warlords for a while and concentrate on getting the attention of the production staff.

After the necessary orientation period, and finding out who does what and why, do something dramatic. Something that foreshadows the rebirth I hope desperately you plan for the Corporation.

Like, for a start, redesigning and rejuvenating the CBC's flagship, The National.

It's old and tired and patronizing and devoted to cheap, easy stories about weather, crime and disasters. lf you drag it (no doubt, kicking and screaming) into the twenty-first century every CBC department will get the message and take note.

It will signal to both staff members and Canadians generally that the CBC finally has a tough leader who's prepared to act boldly against one of the Corporation's most entrenched and isolated establishments.

It will be the start of proving that when you demand excellence, you really mean it.

If all else fails, there's always my born-again Armageddon plan.

Plan for six months. Then close down the entire CBC at midnight one Friday evening, spend the weekend in black, and open up again the following Monday morning with a new mandate, a new look, a new purpose and a new energy.

It will be an outward and visible, dramatic and powerful signal to the nation that CBC, one of Canada's cultural icons, recognizes that it's in serious trouble and is determined to fix its problems.

You will be redesigning the CBC while reaffirming its role as Canada's premier public service institution.

Oh yes, Ms. Conway, one final piece of advice: Carry an undated letter of resignation with you at all times.

You might need it.