Nobody could seriously have suspected that the 10% cut to the CBC’s budget wouldn’t result in some significant service disruptions. Nevertheless, the Mother Corp has done its best to maintain things like local programming.
Here, in point form, is what the CBC is doing:
- Reduce its workforce by 650 full-time equivalent jobs
- Apply to the CRTC to allow it to air advertising on Radio Two and Espace musique
- Shut down remaining analog television transmitters by July 31
- Radio Canada International will cease transmission on shortwave and satellite, cut Russian and Brazilian services, and shut down its news department, ending its newscasts
- Cancel nighttime programming on Première chaîne
- Produce fewer episodes (and air more repeats) of original television series
- Reduce its real estate footprint, including reducing Maison Radio-Canada in Montreal by 400,000 square feet
- Increase employee contributions to the employee pension plan
- Abandon plans for an English-language children’s specialty channel and French-language sports channel
- Sell Bold
- Produce fewer in-house documentaries, relying more on independent producers
There’s a bunch of other things that are very vague, including reductions in news gathering and in radio programming, whose details will be known soon.
On the plus side, it doesn’t look like local programming will be significantly affected. CBC Montreal will continue, for example, with its plans to launch weekend TV and radio newscasts starting May 5. The network also seems to be doing as much as it can to keep journalism jobs (except at RCI).
On the minus side, some people will complain about ads and sponsorships on the music radio stations (and it seems an odd move particularly because Radio Two and Espace musique are usually at the very bottom of the ratings charts), and there can’t be the loss of so many jobs without affecting front-line services.
But what gets me most is those cuts to actual, physical broadcasting.
The CBC’s CKCX shortwave transmission site near Sackville, New Brunswick, is a sight to behold with its giant transmission towers and seemingly chaotic spider web of long antenna wires. It’s the only station of its kind in Canada, and transmits at different times and on different frequencies toward the rest of the world on shortwave, as well as some CBC North programming toward the territories and some transmissions of foreign services as part of transmitter sharing/swap agreements.
The shortwave transmissions will be coming to an end, as will transmissions using satellite. This leaves Internet streaming as the only way for people to listen to RCI.
It’s hardly the first time RCI has felt under the knife. There’s a blog set up by those who want to protect this service from being slashed into oblivion. It points to cuts under the Mulroney government in 1990 in which RCI was almost shut down but instead lost just half its staff and half its language services.
I don’t have any numbers on how many people listen to RCI via shortwave. Maybe it’s not many. But I can’t help thinking this loss will be a blow to Canada’s reputation, and wonder why they’d bother keeping it if they’re going to make it online-only. This interview with RCI’s boss, Hélène Parent, makes it clear in its tone if not its content that this is as close to a fatal blow to RCI as one can make without killing it completely. More than 80% of its budget is being cut, going from $12.3 million to $2.3 million.
And as some have pointed out, part of the benefit of shortwave radio is to provide a western perspective to people inside third-world countries or dictatorships where their only other options are state-run television and radio stations. Many of these places restrict or block the Internet, and might do the same to RCI online. Though it is possible to jam shortwave radio transmissions, it’s a lot harder.
The analog era is over
Another big cost savings will come from shutting down more than 600 analog television transmitters across the country. In an effort to serve Canadians in even the most remote of communities, the CBC has retransmitters for its English and French television services all over the country. Many of them are low-power, transmitting just a few watts of power to cover a community of a few hundred people.
For example, here’s a list of the 40+ retransmitters just of CBC Montreal television, from Îles de la Madeleine to Blanc Sablon to
Salluit at the northern end of Quebec. All of them will be shut down, leaving only the digital transmitter on Mount Royal.
After July 31, only existing digital transmitters will remain in operation. There are 27 of them for the two networks, along with those run by privately-owned affiliates.
It’s not just tiny villages that will lose over-the-air television. Quebec City, Sherbrooke, Trois Rivières and other cities in Quebec will no longer have retransmitters of CBC Montreal, which will mean, for example, that audiences without cable or satellite television in those areas will no longer get to watch Canadiens games on Saturday nights. The CRTC gave a one-year extension on the mandatory digital transition for a bunch of transmitters in mandatory markets. Affected were transmitters for stations that did not produce any original local programming but were in markets large enough to require the transition.
When I spoke to the CBC, it said it would probably just ask for another extension once that one ran out, and that it didn’t see ever converting all or even most of its analog transmitters into digital.
With budget cuts, the hand is forced and these transmitters are going to be shut down. That will mean, for example, that APTN will be the only over-the-air television transmitters in northern Canada. It will mean that Quebec will have no over-the-air English television outside of Montreal, Gatineau and the two Global Montreal retransmitters in Quebec City and Sherbrooke. It will mean no Radio-Canada transmitter in Calgary and many other markets where you’d think they should have one.
One can hope that the CBC will mitigate the damage somewhat by providing second-language service as a subchannel in some markets where it has digital transmitters for one language but not the other. That would mean it could at least provide a standard-definition feed of CBC television in Quebec City to people with digital receivers.
Otherwise, this is really the beginning of the end of over-the-air television.
UPDATE (April 11): The Gazette has a story about the cuts to Radio Canada International.
Meanwhile, CBC has more details about the cuts to English services. They include shutting down South American and African news bureaus, eliminating drama programming from radio, and accelerating “integration” of newsrooms and other vague plans.