‘We totally understand the frustration’: CBC president defends local TV news suspension amid pandemic

CBC/Radio-Canada President and CEO Catherine Tait says Canadians will be seeing more of their local television news hosts during the supper-hour starting Tuesday.

The public broadcaster came under fire last week after announcing evening and late-night TV newscasts would be temporarily suspended in favour of consolidated news coverage from CBC News Network during the COVID-19 pandemic. Local radio and digital news were unaffected by the change.

“We were basically managing an unbelievable volume of incoming news feeds from across the country and central control, as it were, was overloaded. So we took a decision in real time in order to preserve our core service,” Tait told The Current’s Matt Galloway.

“We had to do it to stabilize the systems, and since that date [March 17] … we have been restoring more and more local news each day.”

CBC News’ editor-in-chief Brodie Fenlon said in a note published on CBCNews.ca Friday that on March 16, the broadcaster carried 37 live press briefings from across the country.

“A typical day would see us broadcast about eight of these ‘lives,'” he wrote.

On the same day, CBC also faced a staffing shortage with employees out sick and isolating or working from home due to the coronavirus pandemic, he added.

Tait spoke with Galloway about the decision to suspend local supper-hour TV newscasts, how it affects Canadians and what changes are now being implemented. Here is part of that conversation.

Do you understand the anger that people felt across the country when this decision was made?

Oh, absolutely. There is nothing more important than the services we provide to local communities. It is raison d’etre of the public broadcaster, Matt, and we totally understand the frustration.

You can imagine the strain that we were feeling as we took that decision. We didn’t take it lightly. We were really trying to preserve the core service so that we would really be able to continue to operate.

This has been an unprecedented time not just for the CBC, but for all Canadians, and we’re all dealing and adjusting to the pressures as they come in.

The unprecedented nature of it, though, would lead some people to expect that their public broadcaster would be able to give us comprehensive coverage to this as possible.

The Premier of P.E.I. Dennis King said that CBC News Compass is the only local daily TV news program in P.E.I. Our mandate is to inform people.

How can we inform people if, for example, folks on P.E.I. don’t have local news to be able to digest — to be able to learn about what’s happening in their own community?

Well, I should just say … since you mention it, we do provide news on a whole lot of other platforms — as you well know, radio being number one, but also on digital platforms. So we’ve supplemented local information and local news on those platforms. And as I said, we are restoring local television supper hours as I speak to you now.

You have said, and this has been pointed out by a number of people, that local is in many ways at the heart of the organization. These are your words: “There is nothing more important than local stories and local news. If Canadians aren’t reflected in where they are, wherever they are, we aren’t doing our job.”

We’ve heard that MPs from across the country have apparently been receiving feedback on this, have been facing incoming pressure from their constituents of all parties. We’ve heard, as well [from] viewers, also listeners who say that we as a public broadcaster aren’t doing our job. Have you been surprised at the outpouring of support for these programs?

Well, I have to say, of course we understand the frustration and we understand the disappointment. But I think we’ve been very clear we did not take this decision lightly. It was taken as we our systems were possibly failing us.

And so, again, they were not designed for managing the volume of news that we were trying to to manage.

So, of course, we’re back. Local news is absolutely at the core of what we do. 

Do CBC News Network and The National really have the resources to cover local news about COVID-19 in the kind of detail that that families and communities and individuals would need in those communities to stay safe.

Well, as I said, we have — I’m not sure I can fully understand your question, Matt — we have these amazing CBC journalists and technicians on the ground in those communities.

And even though many have gone home — we follow the directives of the government; about 40 per cent of our workforce is at home right now — but they’re filing stories remotely on radio and online. So just to be clear, we still have our people in the communities covering those stories and reporting back to to their communities and reflecting their community.

The lobby group Friends of Canadian Broadcasting is saying that the real problem here isn’t an individual issue. It’s not about what’s happening during this pandemic. It’s that technical resources are centralized in Toronto because of chronic underfunding and generations of CBC management teams that regard local news as expendable. What would you say in that?

Well, I’m sorry, I just simply think that’s not a correct interpretation. We as a broadcaster, like many broadcasters, I would say probably like most broadcasters, have automated our systems not because of cutbacks but because it’s more efficient to do so.

We have an amazing system and it’s worked impeccably for the last 10 years. Nobody — and I have to say to friends — nobody could plan for an unprecedented event like this coronavirus crisis.

So as I said earlier, we’ve adjusted, we’ve stabilized the system and we’re back.

CBC/Radio-Canada are making both English and French 24-hour news services available for free online and via TV distributors during the coronavirus pandemic. (Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press)

We’ve seen other public broadcasters — you take a look at what the BBC is doing in the midst of this, and they’re in some ways expanding programming.

They have coronavirus podcasts, they have science programming, they have a programming about how to speak to kids and how to answer the questions that kids might have.

How does what we are doing here compare to what other public broadcasters are doing in the midst of this crisis?

I should say we’ve been talking to our colleagues across the planet, and we’ve done many of the same things. So we’ve mobilized our units on all platforms.

We’ve got dedicated COVID-19 information. We’ve also made our services free and accessible. So working with our amazing cable companies: Bell, Shaw, Cogego and others. CBC News Network and RDI are available free to all Canadians.

We’ve opened up our educational platforms — you might not know, it’s called Curio.ca, which normally just delivers programming to educational institutions and libraries. We’ve opened that up so all Canadians with kids at home can be looking at that more educational content.

We’ve turned around our morning schedule from 7:00 a.m. to noon [with] ad-free kids programming to help families deal with a lot of kids at home.

Some really great local initiative, speaking about the importance of local. Our Ottawa station here has invited kids to report from home. So we’ve got a whole lot of kids that are now training as correspondents. We’ve also added about 250 hours of new kids content on [CBC] Gem.

Also importantly, we’re helping our creators. You know, this has been a huge impact on the cultural community coast to coast to coast, so we’ve turned our radio weekday shows to 100 per cent Canadian music to support Canadian artists and musicians. We’re looking at replacing hours and hours of hockey programming with more Canadian cultural programming.

So, you know, we’re responding, as our colleagues are, to not just to bring the most important news and information on the virus and on what’s happening and how our government is responding, but also helping to provide much needed entertainment and, you know, hopefully some relief the stress of this this event.

Just before I go, journalists don’t want to be the story, they want to tell the story. We’re now the story in some ways. And you have people, again, of all political stripes who are criticizing the CBC for this decision. Do you worry that this adds fuel to the fire of those who want to do away with the CBC entirely?

I am convinced — and I think the numbers show it — Canadians are coming to the CBC in numbers like we’ve never seen before. Whether it’s The National, whether it’s our .ca digital news, whether it’s your show, Matt. We can see Canadians using our services like they never have before. And I count on that, and we stay focused on that. That’s the most important thing we can do is to continue serving Canadians.


Q&A edited for length and clarity. Written by Jason Vermes. Produced by Julie Crysler.



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