CBC says it is bracing for financial hit if NHL lockout cancels season

ST. JOHN'S, N.L. - CBC president Hubert Lacroix will be as disappointed as any hockey fan if the NHL lockout drags on.

ST. JOHN’S, N.L. – CBC president Hubert Lacroix will be as disappointed as any hockey fan if the NHL lockout drags on.

An iced or delayed season would be just the latest financial hit for a public broadcaster already facing more than a $200-million shortfall over the next three years, he said Tuesday as the Crown corporation held its yearly public meeting in St. John’s, N.L.

“We have replacement programming for that, it’s not like we’re going to go to dead air,” Lacroix later told reporters.

“It’s disappointing to everybody who’s a hockey fan not to have Hockey Night in Canada.”

And for the CBC, “that’s a cash flow challenge for us,” he said.

It would be just more bad news for a public broadcaster that offers more than 30 services with a shrinking workforce that produces or handles content ranging from global, national and regional news to local music and reality shows.

The federal government cut 10 per cent or $115 million from the CBC/Radio Canada budget over three years as it reduced spending across departments to lower the deficit last spring. Government funding accounts for about 64 per cent of the public broadcaster’s budget and the corporation receives just over $1.1 billion a year from taxpayers.

Lacroix says those cuts plus increasing costs mean the CBC faces a $200-million shortfall in the next three years and must also come up with another $25 million for severance payments.

About 475 of 650 planned full-time job cuts were to take effect this fiscal year.

The corporation has already closed bureaus in Africa and South America, and slashed programs such as CBC News Network’s “Connect with Mark Kelley,” and CBC Radio’s “Dispatches.”

Then in July, Canada’s broadcast regulator announced it’s phasing out a controversial fee charged to customers by many cable and satellite companies to support local television programs. The Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission said the $100-million Local Programming Improvement Fund, set up in 2008 to help small and mid-sized local stations weather the recession as they moved to digital systems, will end by Aug. 31, 2014.

The decision will cost the CBC, Lacroix said after Tuesday’s meeting. He said officials will raise the matter when the public broadcaster goes before the CRTC later this fall for licence renewal hearings.

“You can’t take $47 million more (from) our budget and think that there’s not going to be an impact.”

Lacroix said the CBC now generates $600 million to $700 million of its own revenues but must continue to trim costs and raise more money. It hopes to come up with $50 million by putting ads on Radio 2 and Espace Musique — a move that must be approved by the CRTC — and by leasing more than 74,000 square metres of real estate by 2017.

Lacroix said he’s also studying the root causes and solutions for high staff absentee rates. A report prepared for CBC’s board of directors, obtained by QMI Agency through Access to Information, indicates CBC workers were absent an average of 16.5 days in 2010-11 at a cost of almost $18 million.

That compares to public sector workers who missed almost 13 days for personal reasons in 2011, and private-sector workers who took eight days off, says Statistics Canada’s website.

“We think it’s a high number and we constantly are going to work on it,” Lacroix said. “It’s one way surely of trying to see how we can improve the cost piece of CBC/Radio-Canada. Clearly.”

The fourth annual public question-and-answer forum was held for the first time outside Ottawa as a nod to the importance of markets beyond Canada’s major city centres, Lacroix said. He said the meeting dovetailed with a board of directors gathering in St. John’s and was “marginally” more expensive than the usual cost of $60,000 to $80,000.

Lacroix told the meeting that diversity in Canadian media is at stake as most content is now controlled by just four companies: Bell, Rogers, Shaw and Quebecor.

Bell would control 36 per cent of conventional television revenues if its bid to buy Astral Media succeeds, he said, quoting a CRTC report.

“That’s more than twice the amount of its largest competitor.”

Canadians should care about “a level of concentration never seen before,” Lacroix said in his speech.

“Despite the almost unlimited quantity and choice of content available, very little of it is Canadian when it comes to English television, and very little of the rest is free from a small number of commercial agendas.”

Lacroix also said he envisions a media future that is “more about people’s active experience than just the passive consumption of content.”

“The public broadcaster will need to devise new ways that will allow it to be the first place that Canadians think of when it comes to the Canadian experience, Canadian culture and Canadian democratic life. Anything short of that isn’t good enough.”