Is CBC profiting from lockout?

With talks broken off and negotiators leaving town, early signs are that the lockout at CBC will not be a short one - likely, say sources, to be measured in weeks if not months.
Sniping has already begun, ranging from accusations of inflexibility to allegations that the public broadcaster actually stands to profit over the short-term by locking out employees.

With talks broken off and negotiators leaving town, early signs are that the lockout at CBC will not be a short one – likely, say sources, to be measured in weeks if not months.

Sniping has already begun, ranging from accusations of inflexibility to allegations that the public broadcaster actually stands to profit over the short-term by locking out employees.

Both sides say they are ready to talk, but neither seems prepared to budge on the key issue of contract workers, despite efforts by federal mediators to restart talks.

The network says it needs the flexibility to hire more contract workers to stay competitive. Network exec Richard Stursberg complained recently to reporters that he’s stuck with a ‘business model from the 1970s.’ The union says management is trying to squeeze out its permanent employees.

Representatives of the Canadian Media Guild, whose 5,500 members were locked out on Aug. 15 after 15 months of talks, and CBC management remain camped out at Toronto’s Royal York hotel. The guild recently sent some of its out-of-town reps home, but chief negotiator Dan Oldfield is reportedly still in regular contact with his network counterpart, Stephen Satchel.

‘Things do change, and they change hourly, but there are no talks now,’ said CMG president Lise Lareau, shortly before Playback went to press, a week into the work stoppage.

The lockout has left a skeleton crew of a few hundred managers struggling to run CBC’s radio, television and Internet services – filling air with reruns and newscasts borrowed from the BBC.

Meanwhile, union members continue to circle the block outside the net’s Toronto headquarters, brandishing ‘Locked out’ signs. Smaller picket lines have also formed at regional offices in B.C., Newfoundland, Saskatchewan, Rankin Inlet in Nunavut and elsewhere. CBC has closed all its offices except those in Toronto, Ottawa and Iqaluit.

The lockout is the largest in the net’s history and the latest bump in what has been a very rocky year. The Ceeb is still recovering from last year’s canceled NHL season and millions in lost revenue. The stoppage sunk its coverage of the Rogers Cup tennis tournament, and, if it stretches into the fall, it is sure to play havoc with the launch of the 2005/06 season, due to be unveiled Sept. 6, and the return of Hockey Night in Canada in October.

The lack of news is also a problem. CBC spokesperson Jason MacDonald says the network is working to restore news coverage if the lockout goes on ‘for an extended period of time,’ but could not offer details. ‘We’re looking at how can we get back to more Canadian-focused news programming. We’re working on that right now. There’s some technical issues that have to be worked out because Newsworld is live pretty much constantly.’

Ian Morrison, spokesperson for the Friends of Canadian Broadcasting, notes that, historically, CBC viewers are quick to flip to other channels when the news is off the air, and are slow to come back. ‘They get very comfortable to Lloyd Robertson,’ on CTV, he says. ‘The evidence suggests that CBC will have a hard time recovering its audience after a long walkout.

‘Clearly management was clever to bring about this lockout in August, in the cottage season. But after Labor Day it will get more serious,’ he says.

News and sports are a source of major ad revenue for the Ceeb, but, for now, advertisers are taking a ‘wait and see’ attitude, says Hugh Dow of the media buying firm M2 Universal. He admits, however, that ‘one or two’ of his news-heavy clients are getting jittery.

No advertisers have pulled out, says MacDonald. ‘Our partners have been very supportive and very understanding of the situation.’ CBC recently sweetened its deals by offering extra ad time to clients to make up for lost ratings.

The union has also complained that the lockout has left some journalists stranded in the field ­­- suggesting in a recent statement that Adrienne Arsenault, in the Gaza strip, and radio correspondent Margaret Evans, in Jerusalem, are in danger.

MacDonald insists the network is taking care of its people, offering to fly them home on CBC’s dime. ‘Or, if they chose to stay, that we’d cover their living expenses throughout the duration of the work stoppage.

‘We’re in contact with all our correspondents,’ he says, ‘and if they are concerned about their safety or need to get back to Canada we’ve made it clear they just have to say the word.’

There has also been talk on the picket line, and among observers, that a short lockout could actually help CBC. The network gets roughly two-thirds of its budget from the federal government and the remainder, from ad revenue, is not expected to dip for at least a few weeks. With all or most of its usual funds coming in and no payroll going out, the network is making money by doing nothing.

Perhaps as much as $1 million a day, according to the rough math of Arthur Lewis, head of the lobby group Our Public Airwaves, which has launched an online ‘Save Our CBC’ campaign at www.ourcbc.ca.

Lareau agrees. ‘I think they have banked on making money in this period before Hockey Night in Canada,’ she says, going on to claim that Stursberg has said as much to CBC insiders.

‘He’s assuming that parliamentary appropriation will keep on flowing… We don’t think that’s a given and we’re making sure that people in Ottawa don’t think it’s a given,’ she says. For its part, CMG has started a letter-writing campaign aimed at MPs.

A spokesperson for the Ministry of Heritage, however, says CBC is not likely to lose its funding. There is no precedent for Crown corporations to be cut off because of labor trouble.

MacDonald, meanwhile, flatly denies the suggestion. ‘We’re a broadcaster, let no one forget that. We did this [lockout] because it was absolutely necessary. Unfortunate, but necessary. It’s not a way to make money, and to suggest so is absolutely false.’

www.cbc.ca