Bad weather is usually the worst enemy of Canadian workers out on the picket line - after the boss, that is. If management can wait out a strike or lockout until the deep freeze sets in, the likelihood of a settlement to its satisfaction is much greater. On a beautiful late summer afternoon on the picket line outside CBC headquarters, members of the Mother Corp's locked out staff bask in the sun reflecting off the glass towers. No one, including me, is thinking about winter. In fact, I start my set I'm here, guitar in hand,to play some tunes for the folks by observing that at least it's a beautiful day and that's something to be thankful for.
But I'm wrong. If you care about public broadcasting, this is the deadliest season. As my voice reverberates against the office tower walls (I love it when that happens), I watch uninterested passersby barely notice the picketers. I wonder who outside of the people I'm playing for and supporters like me actually cares?
The fact that the lockout was orchestrated during the laziest part of the summer is one though not the only reason why reaction to the effective shutdown of Canada's public broadcaster has been underwhelming. It's hugely in CBC's favour that Parliament hasn't been in session, and after years of wage rollbacks, many Canadians trapped in race-to-the-bottom jobs unfortunately see their higher-paid bretheren at the CBC less as working-class heroes than as whiners.
But it's not just that. The whole story has been getting precious little time on the private airwaves. But tell me, why would they cover this story? They've been handed the CBC's audience on a silver platter.
"This is a great opportunity for us," says an affable Steve Kowch, program director at CFRB. "We've told all our on-air people to welcome CBC listeners. We're finally on their radar."
Indeed, the dogfight in Toronto between Standard Broadcasting's flagship radio station and CBC's Metro Morning for top spot in the market during the morning drive has just rolled over and played dead. Hell, even I've tuned in to 1010, something I swore I'd never do after being force-fed the station as a youth by my parents.
"We've definitely felt a bump in listeners," says Kowch. "The trick now is to keep them." Other bumps have been felt, too. CTV pushed up its launch of a revamped CTV Newsnet to the week after the lockout began, and as the CBC's audience for The National finally flees, both Global and CTV have seen their nightly news broadcast numbers rise.
The fact that CBC brass appear to be whiling away the time (six weeks now and counting), content to see their market share slip, has left many CBC watchers scratching their heads. "It seems incomprehensible that [the lockout] has been going on for this long," says David Tucker, chair of the school of radio and television arts at Ryerson University. "It's doing serious damage to the corporation and to Canadian culture."
He says it takes months, sometimes years, if ever, to win back an audience. And worse, the lockout opens up a flank in the debate over whether we even need the CBC. "The average person sees the CBC as costing money out of their pocket," he says. "It is not an essential service in anyone's life."
Tucker says he's surprised at CBC management's strategy. "The silence there is deafening, as it is within the government," he says. "Where is the political leadership?" The feds, he points out, have always had a love-hate relationship with the CBC, "but wait until the next referendum in Quebec. The CBC is crucial to them then."
Tucker wonders whether the union PR campaign has been all that effective so far. "The leadership seems unable to to garner support. However, it's also a question of how interested the public is. Because of New Orleans, the lockout gets lost in the noise."
Karen Wirsig, Canadian Media Guild communications coordinator, relates an anecdote that underlines her frustration. "An Italian friend told me that in Europe, if management of a public broadcaster locked out its employees, people would be out in the street." Ah, to live in Europe. Still, she says, "we are actually getting more press than most strikes."
And that could increase soon. The union is sending 100 buses from Toronto to greet their silent government on the occasion of the opening of the fall session of Parliament. The NDP has already fired the first shot in what should be a very stormy round. The party's Heritage critic, Charlie Angus, earlier this week called for CBC head Bob Rabinovitch's resignation.
"The CBC is part of a very fragile cultural puzzle that is vital in facing the U.S. cultural juggernaut," says Angus. "This strategy seems completely reckless. You don't allow a public service to gamble with its audience like this. If [Rabinovitch] were in the private sector he'd be long gone.'
It looks like the CBC is doing a bit of gambling with its... I mean our money, too. Since advertisers purchase ad time several months to a year in advance, the audience size they thought they were getting 8 to 9 per cent of Canadian TV viewers before the lockout isn't what they're getting now.
"The long and short of it is that advertisers will get value for their money,' says Ron Lund, president of the Association of Canadian Advertisers.
"You can be sure discussions are happening right now between ad agencies and the CBC.' Since advertisers pay based on audience size, the CBC will have to "make good' with its clients by adding already paid-for commercials into other programming. Since commercial space on TV is finite, those other programs, rather than generating income, will now be paying the strike bill.
There's more. Friends of Canadian Broadcasting's Ian Morrison tells me he keeps hearing a story from people he trusts that the amount of money the CBC lost during the NHL lockout $20 to $30 million is being made up by the labour cost savings, even when the lost ad revenue is accounted for. "If it's true," he says, "they've paid for one lockout by engineering another."
At the CBC, spokesperson Jason MacDonald says any extra cash saved during the lockout is going toward programming and promotions to try to get the audience back. The story about the NHL, he says, is "completely untrue. We take our audience and its needs very seriously. When shows like The National come back on, we think it will be programming people will want to come back to."
Over at CFRB, although I can't see him, I'm guessing Steve Kowch is smiling like a Cheshire cat. "It's very easy to turn off a listener. It takes a while to win one back. Every day this lockout continues, more people come and check us out."