The public broadcaster is going to hell in a hand mike.

by Colleen McEdwards, CNN International Atlanta-based anchor
Globe & Mail: Comment
July 28, 2000

Cutting the CBC used to be like taking a knife to your neighbour. When there was a lot of blood, people on the street got quite annoyed. But when I scan the coverage of this latest round, I'm struck by an almost ethereal detachment, like this little gem from one of the papers:
"Of the 212 positions designated for elimination yesterday, about 107 are television journalists and another 98 are technicians; the remainder are in other categories. Most of the affected journalists are attached to supper-hour regional newscasts..."

So will anyone really hear about what happened to the people at CBLT, the Toronto local station I used to work for, and just one of the regions essentially eliminated in this round of cuts. The solid Ron Izawa, with some 15 years of service; Robin Smythe, who left another network because she believed the CBC would be a better place; the hard-working Simon Dingley; the hugely talented Bob Hilscher and the quiet, dignified Mike Sakura, who've both spent decades working in the technical department. And, of course, so many others.
The budget cuts and the decisions made by the CBC board and management have at last succeeded in making regional television irrelevant.

You might, quite rightly, not care about that, or the people who may lose their jobs. But you might care about the way all the dithering about regional television has wasted your money. And I must admit that, three years ago, I voluntarily left the CBC, after eight years of service, for a rather large American television network. So I'm writing from the possibly smug position of someone who made a good decision, well-timed -- but here's what I remember happening.

After a round of small cuts in the mid-1990s, we were told to change our format: do more in-depth current affairs stories and less hard news. Committees with big names such as "integration" were struck. Meetings were held. The staff was consulted. Pilot programs were made and thrown out. Put more news back in your show, we were told, in an astonishing about-face. Our producers wrote reports that gathered layers of dust on layers of shelves.

Taxpayers paid for a lot of this. And the employees paid with their emotion and their hard work, on absurd little projects we were led to believe would save us, would "redefine" local news. One could fairly ask why the tougher decision wasn't made years ago: eliminate regional television rather than bleeding it to death at the expense of the lives of great people and public funds.

But this is a company that, from the outside now, looks like it doesn't learn well from its mistakes. So is it any wonder why CBC regional television finds itself where it is today?

The latest fix is to design a 30-minute local program with a national newscast made in Vancouver. It's a decentralized approach that was abandoned in the early days of Newsworld. Certain programs were brought back to Toronto from Halifax and Calgary, partly because it was more efficient to produce them under one roof.

About six years ago, the CBC eliminated the 11 p.m. local news, only to bring it back a year later, in large measure because it was a cheaper program to produce than anything else the corporation could find to air in that time slot.

I'm sad about all of this, strangely, as one who flew the coop. I'm remembering back to 1990, December. More than a thousand people were laid off. The story led every national newscast (and not just the CBC's) for days. It was front-page news, for this was before the CBC's demise by a thousand nicks and bruises. The Windsor station was closed and Toronto's local station was told it would become an "Ontario show." That decision was also abandoned several months later. The Windsor station was reopened, and Toronto went back to doing the same local news with far fewer people -- and less than half the viewers tuning in.

The head of the Toronto station back then was Slawko Klymkiw. A man of considerable genius, he went on to become one of the network's most senior programming directors. He had made Toronto's station No. 1 among viewers in the early part of the last decade. It was a great place to work. And some great journalism came out of there.

When the cuts were announced that December, he walked into the newsroom and wept. He must have sensed something the rest of us just couldn't see then: that in a few agonizing years, a substantial and historic part of the CBC would essentially be gone.

I wonder who's crying now.

Colleen McEdwards is an Atlanta-based anchor with CNN International. Between 1988 and 1997, she reported for CBC-TV in Windsor, then Toronto, where she covered the Ontario Legislature and later anchored the CBC's 11 p.m. local news.