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CBC stars on public broadcaster's future, exec bonuses, spectre of cuts

The CBC's latest plans to shave costs by cutting staff and programming is raising pointed questions about what lies ahead for the beleaguered public agency.

Amid a projected shortfall and expected belt-tightening, current and former CBC stars say the public broadcaster should prioritize shows that take risks and reflect the diverse fabric of the nation.

And if money is tight, multiple stars urged executives to forgo bonuses.

“If it’s taxpayers’ money, I don't think anybody should be getting a bonus, really, for anything, unless they completely saved the day,” "Son of a Critch" star Mark Critch told The Canadian Press in late December.

“If somebody came up with a cure for COVID, give that person a bonus."

Executive bonuses were a sore point for the CBC star, who stood by his comments when reached again in mid-February after CEO Catherine Tait wouldn't rule out accepting a bonus this year. Tait told a federal heritage committee in late January that it was up to the CBC's board of directors to determine who gets bonuses.

CBC said in December it will cut 800 jobs and $40 million from its production budget because of a $125-million projected shortfall in the coming fiscal year, which begins April 1.

However, Canadian Heritage released documents on Thursday that show CBC will get a $1.4-billion budget in 2024-25 — an increase of $96.1 million, which the department says is primarily tied to salary increases.

CBC spokesman Leon Mar has said the funding announcement will “lessen, but not eliminate” the shortfall and that "significant financial pressures" remained, including rising production costs, declining television advertising revenue and competition from digital rivals.

Toronto-based actor Emmanuel Kabongo, whose credits include the CBC shows “21 Thunder” and “Frankie Drake Mysteries,” said executives should not get bonuses if they don’t deserve them.

“I'm not a believer of greed because I grew up with very little,” he said earlier this month.

“But I'm a believer of hard work, and hard work pays off. You deserve to celebrate the fruits of your labour."

The broadcaster has said budget constraints would also lead to fewer renewals and acquisitions, new television series, episodes of existing shows and digital original series.

If dollars are scarce, observers pressed CBC to focus on shows that reflect the country’s diverse population and take risks private networks wouldn’t normally take.

"The CBC should not be as beholden to advertisers, because they don't have to pursue ratings in the same way that the private networks do. They can take risks, and they should be doing something that's a little bit different,” said Gregory Taylor, a media and film professor at the University of Calgary.

He pointed to shows like "Family Feud Canada," a Canadian iteration of the U.S. game show, as an example of the broadcaster "playing it safe."

Ideally, said Taylor, the CBC should be making more "inventive" shows like "Sort Of," its recently concluded dramedy about a gender-fluid Pakistani Canadian millennial balancing various identities.

New shows this year include the CBC Kids dramedy "Gangnam Project," which follows a Korean Canadian teen who takes a job as an English tutor abroad and finds herself immersed in the world of K-pop. The series, which premieres March 6 on CBC Gem, is based partly on the experiences of creator Sarah Haasz, a first-generation Korean immigrant living in Canada.

Joseph Kay, creator of CTV's hit procedural "Transplant" and showrunner of CBC's 2015 drama "This Life," worried about what the broadcaster's cuts will mean for the future of original programming in Canada.

"You look at a show like 'Sort Of.' Would a great show like that be bought by any other network in Canada? I'm not sure.'" he said of the series, starring Bilal Baig, who CBC touted as the first queer South Asian and Muslim actor to lead a Canadian prime time television series.

CBC's winter slate includes six new original Canadian series, including the comedy "One More Time" from deaf comic DJ Demers and competition series "The Great Canadian Pottery Throw Down," hosted by Jennifer Robertson. During a promotional event in December, Demers and Robertson expressed uncertainty over the future of their shows.

"We don't know what that will mean for our show, but we know that this season will get out there and people will get to watch it," said Robertson, formerly of CBC's "Schitt's Creek."

"Obviously it makes your heart heavy to hear about people losing jobs and times are already tight enough."

“Allegiance,” a new CBC police procedural starring “Sort Of” star Supinder Wraich, centres on a Punjabi Canadian cop who struggles with a flawed justice system while serving her diverse hometown of Surrey, B.C.

Before its premiere earlier this month, showrunner Mark Ellis said they were "sad to see cuts at the CBC.”

"There is a deep need for Canadian stories to be reflected on Canadian screens. I worry that without an institution like the CBC, we just won't see ourselves and these kinds of stories reflected on our screens,” said Ellis.

Wraich praised the CBC for giving “Sort Of” a platform and said “Allegiance” could have a similar impact.

"What I loved about 'Sort Of' was that it was originated by somebody like Bilal and the authenticity of the show is palpable," said Wraich, who appeared on "Sort Of" as Sabi's sister Aqsa.

"That's a beautiful thing when you give those creators opportunities to tell their stories. I also think that a show like 'Allegiance' is reflective of a community that we haven't seen before."

Wraich said she's eager to see how an unconfirmed season 2 of "Allegiance" would play out.

Late last year, Heritage Minister Pascale St-Onge said the federal government will put together a committee to begin searching for a new head of CBC in early 2024. Tait's mandate is set to expire in January 2025.

Critch said the ideal replacement would make the CBC "a network that Canadians feel is theirs, is in their voice and feels like their home."

He said the new head should make sure the broadcaster represents the country's diverse regions and doesn't just make shows they think will get purchased by U.S. networks.

"I know of execs in the past who've really wanted to get a hit in the States and they'd be always talking about it in passing. 'We're doing the show because we think it might catch on in the States.' That's not your frickin' job. Your job has nothing to do with America.

"Your job is to make important and good TV for Canadians, comfort them when they need comfort and inform them when they need to be informed," said Critch.

"And don't take the bonus."

— With files from Mickey Djuric in Ottawa.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 3, 2024.

Alex Nino Gheciu, The Canadian Press