Below is the letter signed by 40 journalists protesting reported plans to close down the in-house documentary team at the CBC. There’s a broad concern that this is just the tip of the iceberg, and signals a broader intent to privatize more and more portions of the CBC, and weaken it.
The presence of original documentary programming, independent and in-house is at its lowest point in over 20 years on the CBC. The issue should be increasing in-depth journalism, not cutting it even further.
The initial letter is followed by a response by Heather Conway, Executive Vice-President, English Services. The journalists’ subsequent response is also posted
Hubert Lacroix (President and CEO)
Heather Conway (Executive Vice-President, English Services)
Dear Hubert and Heather,
The undersigned journalists have become alarmed at the precipitous decline of documentaries in the CBC-TV schedule, which has occurred not just for financial reasons, but because of programming priorities over many years.
Now there are plans to shut down in-house production of feature documentaries, including the Unit which has produced “The People’s History of Canada”, “The Canadian Experience”, “Eighth Fire” as well as topical quick-response documentaries such as the award-winning “Syria: Behind Rebel Lines”.
CBC Television, to be true to its core mandate, needs more long-form journalism and legacy programming –not less.
We have observed the steady erosion of long-form documentary production within the CBC in the past few years. Strands like Nature of Things and Doc Zone and fifth estate have continued, but any documentary mini-series or Sunday night specials outside those strands have virtually disappeared from the CBC TV Network. In fact, the overall production of documentaries –independent or in-house– has fallen dramatically over recent years.
We stress that we continue to believe it is important to support and nurture and expand independent documentary production, which has always been an important component of series such “Life and Times”, “Witness” and “Doc Zone”. But some productions, such as Eighth Fire, which combined efforts of TV, radio, French and English and aboriginal CBC staff, can only be done internally. On the immediate news fronts, it often takes CBC News and documentary teams to produce quick-turnaround long-form documentaries to provide context and depth to immediate events.
The remedy, we suggest, is not to compound the documentary deficiency of the CBC by eliminating the in-house unit, but strengthen our commitment by embedding that unit as part of the CBC News and Current Affairs department. There is already a considerable sharing of staff and resources between them, on which we can build; the documentary unit would use existing News infrastructure and facilities. This would preserve our legacy production, and give wider opportunities to our journalists, as well as develop our younger staff. Harmonizing our structure with SRC, where documentaries come under the news umbrella, would increase our ability to co-ordinate major bi-cultural projects.
Shutting down the in-house documentary unit would be a negative message to send to core supporters of the CBC, as well as a dispiriting message to our journalists that the management does not value their long-form journalism, and there will be no room for it in the future.
Aligning the strengths of in-house documentaries and CBC News, on the other hand, achieves efficiencies and strengthens the brand of CBC journalism, of which we’re all proud.
Nahlah Ayed (Foreign Correspondent: London)
Lynn Burgess (Producer: “Marketplace”)
Tony Burman (Former Editor-in-Chief: CBC News and Current Affairs)
Patrick Brown (Former Correspondent: China)
Harvey Cashore (Senior Producer: CBC News)
David Common (Host: “World Report”)
Michael Claydon (Executive Producer: “DocZone”)
Sue Dando (Executive Producer: “The Nature of Things”)
Neil Docherty (Senior Producer: “the fifth estate”)
Margaret Evans (European Correspondent: London)
Gillian Findlay (Host: “the fifth estate”)
Matt Galloway (Host: “Metro Morning”)
Erica Johnson (Host: “Marketplace”)
Michelle Gagnon (Producer: “The National”)
Sylvene Gilchrist (Producer: “The National”)
Chris Hall (National Affairs Editor: Ottawa)
David Halton (Former Senior National Affairs Correspondent: Ottawa)
Tom Harrington (Host: “Marketplace”)
Mark Kelley (Host: ‘the fifth estate”)
Neil Macdonald (Senior Correspondent: Washington)
Linden MacIntyre (Host: “the fifth estate”)
Peter Mansbridge (Chief Correspondent/Anchor “The National”)
Duncan McCue (Correspondent: “The National”)
Terence McKenna (Correspondent: “The National”)
Bob Mckeown (Host: “the fifth estate)
Carmen Merrifield (Producer: “The National”)
Wendy Mesley (Host: “The National”)
Terry Milewski (Senior Correspondent: Ottawa)
Don Murray (Former Correspondent: London)
Carol Off (Host: “As It Happens”)
Catherine Olsen (Executive Producer/Documentaries: CBC News Network)
Sasa Petricic (Middle East Correspondent: Jerusalem)
Julian Sher (Senior Producer: “the fifth estate”)
Alex Shprintsen (Producer: “The National”)
Don Spandier (Senior Producer: “The World at Six”)
David Suzuki (Host: “The Nature of Things”)
Anna Maria Tremonti (Host: “The Current”)
Connie Walker (Lead Reporter: CBC Aboriginal)
Tamar Weinstein (Producer: “the fifth estate”)
First, thanks for taking the time to sign your names to the email; your views and thoughts are both welcomed and appreciated.
There is, as you point out, a long and storied history of documentary programming at the CBC, many of which were produced by some of you. I am sure you are all equally proud that many more, who having been trained here, have gone on to make extraordinary docs themselves.
There does seem to be some confusion and an apparent perception we have an intention to reduce docs on the network(s). This is especially problematic given that I have stated publicly, as has Sally Catto, most recently at our Upfronts and repeated at Banff last week that we are of the view that docs is a genre we not only favour but also recognize the resurgence they’re having creatively with audiences, especially younger audiences.
To be fair, we have clearly signalled our support for the form and we agree there are many journalists in News and Current Affairs who are capable and interested in making short and long form docs. That said, there is also a thriving independent documentary community, many of whom were and are mentored by our own teams.
It is true we are reviewing every area of our business to determine whether or not there are opportunities to meet our desired programming needs differently and more cost effectively and, as you know, we are not the only people who can produce documentaries. Our appetite for docs has not changed or diminished in this context but our willingness to consider options for producing them is open. There is a real opportunity for docs to be created by some of the talent in News and Current Affairs as well as the option to acquire docs from talented Canadian documentary producers.
The fact that we have documentary capable talent in News and Current Affairs does not support the suggestion to move the current documentary area into that division. First, documentaries such as “Wild Canada” are neither news nor current affairs but rather nature documentaries. The Nature of Things is also not a news program. Part of the power of many documentaries is their very strong and personal point of view approach – a posture difficult to maintain in an environment very much subject to journalistic standards and practices. I believe the editorial and artistic freedom of the documentary area is better served outside of News and Current Affairs.
There are fresh and compelling approaches to documentaries and many documentary producers who would love an opportunity to see their work on the public broadcaster. Some of you have talked about Vice as one example of a contemporary approach to the form. I can tell you having met with them, as no doubt a number of you have, that they cite the CBC documentary tradition as inspiring their approach.
But the Vice team is only one of many Canadian producers of docs. There are 114 Canadian independent documentary producers listed in the Canadian Media Production Association’s guide and, at their request, I met with the Documentary Organization of Canada as they feel there should be more opportunities for their members to produce for the CBC. We have an obligation to listen to that constituency as they too produce high quality, compelling, relevant content. Many young producers say docs are the new feature films for them and a journalistic form they find more engaging than headline news.
We also have a documentary channel that privileges acquiring and commissioning Canadian documentaries.
So, we are reviewing the absolute necessity of producing our own docs for both financial and creative reasons and are open to engaging with other points of view about how we best achieve those goals of providing great documentary content on CBC’s schedules.
I am genuinely sorry that the speed with which our financial challenges have to be dealt with has short- circuited a more comprehensive consultation with you as individuals. Regrettably, time is not on our side.
I hope I’ve provided some further context for the thinking behind this review. Please know that the genre and the individuals, especially Mark, have my utmost respect and that our deliberations in the current context do not single out the genre precipitously or on a cost only basis.
Thank you again for bringing your concerns to the fore.
Thank you again for your response to our original note. We have a few points we would like to make in return.
At the core of this issue is the alarming decline in documentary production at the CBC, and, beyond documentary, the network’s declining commitment to in-depth programming, whether produced by us or by independents. The stark fact is that CBC Television has dramatically drifted from one of the core mandates of public broadcasting.
In the past ten years, the number of original documentaries on the network has been cut by 52 per cent, to the lowest documentary level in over 20 years. The budget of the documentary department has been cut to a quarter of its size. Network documentary series and original feature-length Canadian documentaries have largely disappeared from the landscape. The problem, it seems clear to us, is not just money but policy.
You raise the importance of being open to other voices and independent producers across the country. We agree.
Seventy five per cent of the output of the CBC Documentary Department is independent. Only 25 per cent is in-house. That means The Nature of Things and Doc Zone are overwhelmingly produced by independent companies. In the past four years alone, figures show these strands have commissioned documentaries from over 60 different companies, from every region in the country.
We are broadly comfortable with the principle that that which can be produced by independents, in most cases, should be. But we are not comfortable with the inverse idea that what can’t be produced by contracting out should not get done – which is essentially the result of the strategy we seem to be embarking on. And that comes to the core of this disagreement:
The public broadcaster should undertake enterprises that are legacy projects of national scale and importance, like 8th Fire, projects of record, projects that are investigative, projects that are controversial and require the protection and infrastructure support of a major institution. The CBC affords legal, moral and institutional protection that is not always available to an isolated independent company. The public broadcaster should also undertake projects that bring depth and eyewitness to the breaking news stories of the day.
We have a wealth of talent and experience in our News and Current Affairs department that has virtually no access to producing in-depth documentary journalism. Stories of global crises like Iraq and Ukraine are precisely when we need insight, eyewitness and depth. Breaking and quick-response documentaries are largely un-financeable through independent production. It takes months to finance an independent production through a maze of CMF funding, Rogers or Bell funds, provincial tax credits, etc.
These documentaries –quick response, legacy, risky or controversial—will become scarcer and scarcer unless the CBC determines they WILL be done and has purpose-built units to assure that.
Then there is the issue of associating Documentaries with News and Current Affairs, which our initial letter endorses.
First there is the immediate practical issue that the network seems intent on getting out of all in-house production and plant infrastructure except for News, and so in-house Documentaries would be swept out for the sake of symmetry and lack of plant support and facilities. In-house documentaries can easily use CBC News facilities. Second, it is important to give creative space to the talent and resources contained within the News service, which adds up to an efficient use of resources.
There is no contradiction implicit in associating Documentaries with the News and Current Affairs family.
You base your argument on what we feel is a rather narrow definition of News and Current Affairs. You say documentaries such as “Wild Canada” are neither news nor current affairs but rather nature documentaries, and that The Nature of Things is not a news program, and therefore should not reside under a News and Current Affairs Department umbrella. In fact, science programming (Découverte) resides within News and Current Affairs in Radio-Canada, and has for over 25 years, without creating any apparent confusion or restriction. It’s also important to understand that The Nature of Things is far more than nature programming; it is science, technology, environment, ecology, medicine, and the whole spectrum of the human condition from psychology to brain science, genetics to social sciences, all of which also falls under current affairs.
You say that part of the power of many documentaries lies in their strong personal point of view approach, and we agree. But you add that this is “a posture difficult to maintain in an environment very much subject to journalistic standards and practice.” We should point out that it is a long-standing corporate policy, passed by the Board, that all information programming on the CBC, including all independent documentaries, must be governed by the Journalistic Standards and Practices. We do not have two standards for ethical conduct –such as chequebook journalism, hidden cameras, entrapment, or misrepresentation– on the same network, nor should we.
Neither has the fact that we are all governed by the same ethical standards proved to be an impediment to editorial and artistic freedom of the documentary form. In fact the Journalistic Standards and Practices policy explicitly recognizes the POV genre and that documentaries often need to be provocative, and we air them where “There is a compelling argument, well-presented, for a single point of view that provides insight into a controversial subject and may provoke public debate.”
The CBC has a very strong tradition of documentary programing generated by its own staff. We don’t want to lose it.