Some of the CBC’s most prominent on-air personalities are calling on the public broadcaster to overturn a contentious proposal to halt all in-house production of documentaries, a plan that would effectively close the department that produces award-winning programming such as Canada: A People’s HistoryThe Canadian Experience and the acclaimed aboriginal miniseries 8th Fire.

Peter Mansbridge, Adrienne Arsenault, David Suzuki, Anna Maria Tremonti and more than 30 other news and current affairs staff have signed a letter expressing alarm at the proposal, which comes amid what‎ they call “a precipitous decline of documentaries in the CBC-TV schedule.”

The broadcaster will hold a town hall on Thursday to reveal its new five-year strategic plan to employees. It is expected to confirm its intentions at that point about documentary programming, and other in-house production that staff said may be contracted out.

The unprecedented letter, which prompted an exchange with CBC’s management, calls on the broadcaster to increase its programming in that genre and put it under the protective umbrella of its News and Current Affairs division.

“CBC Television, to be true to its core mandate, needs more long-form journalism and legacy programming – not less,” the staff said in the letter, sent to CBC/Radio-Canada president Hubert Lacroix and the head of English programming, Heather Conway.

Ms. Conway expressed disappointment at the belief that CBC’s interest in documentaries has fallen. “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,” she said in a letter to the petitioners sent last week.

“Our appetite for docs has not changed or diminished in this context but our willingness to consider options for producing them is open,” she added. “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.”

Ms. Conway’s reply drew another letter pointing out that the bulk of CBC’s documentary programming is already produced by independents. “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.”

Restrictions on funding, which can take months or years to assemble, may make independents less likely to work on documentaries such as Syria: Behind Rebel Lines, a piece of long-form journalism that aired on Doc Zonelast February, only six weeks after it had been commissioned. Last month, it won the Canadian Screen Award for best news information program.

Some of the signatories also argue that independent producers tend to be less willing to produce provocative programming.

Independents are inclined toward “market-driven stuff, and [are] sensitive to controversy and liability,” said Fifth Estate host Linden MacIntyre, who signed the letter. “Independent producers don’t really have the resources to spend a lot of money on lawyers and don’t have the wherewithal to take serious legal risks or political risks.”

He added that, because TV networks can no longer afford to pay the full cost of a program, producers often need to tailor shows to sell them into other territories. “Increasingly, they have to produce stuff for an international audience, they have to produce stuff that’s not controversial, and they have to produce stuff that’s not going to get them sued to death,” he said.

“That’s fair, that’s understandable, but it just highlights the need for a public-sector institutional resource that can take changes, that can embrace controversy, and that can afford lawyers. That’s the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.”

The Globe and Mail
Published Monday, Jun. 23 2014, 6:00 AM EDT
Last updated Monday, Jun. 23 2014, 6:05 AM EDT