Amid internal protest, CBC weighs docs unit closure

Canadian pubcaster the CBC is weighing the future of its in-house documentaries unit, as a host of notable on-air presenters - including David Suzuki (pictured), Peter Mansbridge and Wendy Mesley - join news and current affairs staff in signing a letter protesting its potential closure.
June 23, 2014

On-air presenters David Suzuki (pictured), Peter Mansbridge and Wendy Mesley are among a host of CBC staff who have signed a letter protesting proposals to shutter the Canadian public broadcaster’s in-house documentary production unit.

The letter, seen by realscreen and signed by at least 17 CBC journalists, along with a number of news and current affairs staff, was sent to CBC/Radio-Canada president and CEO Hubert Lacroix and to head of English programming Heather Conway earlier this month.

It expresses alarm “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 several years.”

Other signatories of the letter include Terence McKenna, Linden MacIntyre, Anna Maria Tremonti, Mark Kelley, Michael Claydon, Carol Off and Bob Mckeown.

The note specifically takes aim at plans being considered to shut down the in-house production unit responsible for programming such as Canada: A People’s HistoryThe Canadian Experience and 8th Fire.

“Strands like ‘The Nature of Things’ and ‘Doc Zone’ and ‘Fifth Estate’ have continued,” the letter states, “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.”

Rather than shutting down the in-house unit, the signatories propose that it be merged with the broadcaster’s news and current affairs department.

“There is already a considerable sharing of staff and resources between [the two departments], on which we can build; the documentary unit would use existing News infrastructure and facilities,” the letter states. “This would preserve our legacy production, and give wider opportunities to our journalists, as well as develop our younger staff.

“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.”

The letter, and the sentiment behind it, has elicited a mixed response from documentary makers in Canada.

While concern for the CBC’s commitment and dedication to documentary programming is near unanimous among the non-fiction filmmaking community in Canada, not everyone is against plans to close the in-house docs unit.

Some filmmakers realscreen has spoken to in recent months have stated that they would tentatively welcome such a measure if it meant the CBC then commissioned more programming from independent filmmakers and production companies.

The protest letter takes note of the contribution of independent producers, but argues that “some productions, such as 8th Fire, which combined efforts of TV, radio, French and English and Aboriginal CBC staff, can only be done internally.”

Responding to the signatories with a letter of her own, the CBC’s Conway replied that the public broadcaster was weighing all options for the future of its in-house units.

“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,” Conway wrote back.

She rebuffed claims that the CBC was waning in its commitment to the documentary form, arguing “that docs is a genre we not only favor, but also recognize the resurgence they’re having creatively with audiences, especially younger audiences.

“To be fair, we have clearly signaled our support for the form,” she added, “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.”

Conway also rebuffed the initial letter’s merger proposal, countering that a merger between the in-house docs unit and the news and current affairs department would not necessarily cover all the genres of unscripted that the CBC is engaged with.

“First, documentaries such as Wild Canada are neither news nor current affairs, but rather nature documentaries,” she wrote. “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.”

She went on to explain that the CBC had held meetings with organizations such as Vice and the Documentary Organization of Canada (DOC) to explore a range of options and possibilities for the future.

Conway also pointed out that the CBC has an existing digital documentary channel (which is called Documentary) dedicated to acquiring and commissioning Canadian 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,” she wrote.

“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.”

Conway closed her response by stating that the CBC is continuing to review the “necessity of producing our own docs for both financial and creative reasons,” and affirmed that the broadcaster was “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,” she added. “Regrettably, time is not on our side.”

About The Author
Andrew Tracy joined Realscreen as associate editor in 2021, following 17 years as managing editor of the award-winning international film magazine Cinema Scope. From 2010 to 2020 he also held the position of senior editor at the Toronto International Film Festival, where he oversaw the flagship publication for the organization’s year-round Cinematheque programming and edited its first original monograph in a decade, Steve Gravestock’s A History of Icelandic Film. He was a scriptwriter and consultant on the first season of the Vice TV series The Vice Guide to Film, and his writing and reporting have been featured in such outlets as Cinema Scope, Reverse Shot, Sight & Sound, Cineaste, Film Comment, MUBI Notebook, POV, and Montage.