Patrick Watson faces the public through the microphones of CBC’s “Radio Noon.” It is October 12, 1989, and he has just been appointed chairman of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. The station is inundated with callers who want to know how $140 million in government cuts to the network will be administered. Watson answers-quoting policy to the Waterloo woman who wants more multicultural programming, policy to the Torontonian who wants less Americanization of Canadian content. Halfway into the show, a woman from Grand Bend, Ontario, comes on air with a warning about the veteran broadcaster’s preoccupation with policy. “Mr. Watson,” she says, “please don’t become too much of a company man.”
Her comment, which puts into question Watson’s ability to maintain journalistic integrity as one of two main spokes in CBC’s corporate wheel, is only part of the groundswell of skepticism his appointment has produced. Patrick Watson, the freewheeling, free agent producer is now the head of the CBC, a job usually given to a bureaucrat. But with the head job now split into two equal positions, many are wondering just how much Watson can accomplish as chairman of the board, with former Treasury Board member Gerard Veilleux handling the corporate purse strings as president. As the initial excitement over Watson’s appointment dies down, CBC employees are anxious to find out whether their former teammate will be able to go to bat for them. Or will Watson turn into the corporate mascot-a figurehead who mouths reform, but can’t deliver? And if Watson has real power, there is then a fundamental question: Is a producer qualified to step out from behind the cameras and run a complex corporation?
Watson himself has little doubt that he is the right man for the job-he believes that life has prepared him for the position. As a producer who has worked for the CBC and as an independent filmmaker for the last 30 years, Watson says he has had the opportunity to study the system from inside and out. During this time, he learned the importance of fostering a collaborative atmosphere from observing past CBC presidents, who drove a wedge into the corporation by excluding creative teams from all decision making.
Watson likens the chairman’s position to the job of producing television programs. Both require “team building,” he says, adding that the chairman’s job is a collaborative one, which also requires juggling and delegating responsibilities. “It involves knowing how things get done. Above all, it means constantly articulating to your staff their role or purpose,” says Watson. “This is the main task of leadership whether you’re the head of a production team, an automobile parts manufacturer, the priest of a congregation, or the chairman of the CBC. ‘Although Watson believes enormous challenges lie ahead, he is relaxed about his new role with the corporation. He is aware of the skepticism, but has spent his first few months as chairman trying to allay the fears and doubts that have surrounded his appointment. Although Watson has already charmed the federal Standing Committee on Culture and Communications and conducted a cross-country trip to visit board members and to win the favor of regional directors, he is aware the harshest criticism could still come from his peers.
Watson concedes that after his appointment, fellow producers at the CBC tended to think of him as “some kind of messiah” who was going to lead the corporation out of a crisis. But he believes expectations have now settled to more realistic levels.
“I’ve been telling people I’ve run into: I hope you’re not expecting us to be all cleared up by next Thursday because there is a lot of work to do.”
His work starts with the formidable task of administering the $l40-million budget cut. But Watson fails to see the cuts as an impassable stumbling block. The French use the word mission in place of obstacle, and so does Watson who says it is his mission “to get the corporation’s financial situation under control.”
He is quick to point out, however; that this is not a job for one person alone-nor is it meant to be.
The cuts will be administered like the CBC will be run-according to the collaborative managerial theories Watson and Veilleux have agreed upon. Watson counters debate about the powerlessness of his position by pointing out that the president, the corporation’s chief executive officer, shares his own goals for the corporation. Besides a common belief that the CBC is central to the cultural life of the country, both men have a commitment to the creative teams central to programming.
The “front lines”-a phrase Watson uses to describe CBC’s production staff-will have input in all corporate decision making. “After all,” he asks, “are they not experts who understand programming needs better than anyone else?” Information flow should filter upwards from the grassroots to management and not the other way around, he says. “We’re not going to do it like a couple of classic American managers, who look at themselves in the shaving mirror and think, ‘I know what I’ll tell them to do today.’ ”
A consulting process on the budget cuts has already begun. Before Watson officially assumed the position of chairman, he had already read the results of a survey conducted last spring that polled 1,000 CBC employees across the country on the proposed cuts. The vast majority of those polled, says Watson, didn’t reject the cuts. “They said the cuts are here to stay. We accept them and here’s how we’re willing to try to make them work.” Most of the proposals were for administering cut-backs that would not affect programming quality, which is something Watson is adamant about.
Slicing bureaucratic fat, or as Watson said in a “Journal” interview shortly after his appointment, “cutting through the cotton wool” between CBC producers and Bronson Avenue administrators, will be the primary goal. And the corporate axe has already started to swing. In January, the budget cut claimed 475 (mostly midmanagement) jobs, trimming expenses by $20 million. Another $15 million was cut from the programming budget for the 1990-91 fiscal year. With three times that amount still to be cut, over the next four years, support staff positions may also be affected and Watson doesn’t rule out the possibility of cutting programming personnel (although he maintains that these will be positions that have become “obsolete”). More layoffs will undoubtedly lead to some disgruntled staff and low morale, but Watson says most CBC employees have no illusions about the situation: “Everybody knew we’d have to cut down on more than pencils and stationery.”
However, if this is the first, it certainly isn’t the last of the network’s problems. Since the word “cuts” first leaked out two years ago, producers and the public have begun to wonder whether the corporation will have to rely more on private revenue. In other words, will the need for more commercial dollars start dictating CBC programming?
Watson sees the danger of letting commercials rule the airwaves. “I really believe that the more private money you use, the less Canadian content you tend to have.” He prefers expanding production partnerships between the CBC and private industry and cited his own “Struggle For Democracy” series as an example of a project that never would have been possible without private money.
Another alternative to increasing commercials is selling more “quality shows” like “DeGrassi Junior High” or “Street Legal” to American networks-a business strategy already underway. “And I think it’s still possible to create quality Canadian programming or I wouldn’t have taken the job,” he says.
When Watson thinks of Canada, he thinks of the jack pines of the Canadian Shield, a sight he associates with childhood campouts with his family in northern Ontario. He also thinks of the CBC and its mandate, which he strongly believes is central to our sense of “a truly Canadian identity.”
In vague terms, the mandate stresses balanced French and English programming of Canadian content and character, as well as information and entertainment for all ages, interests and cultures in the various geographical regions of the land. As someone who is responsible for formulating new policies, Watson says it is also his job to interpret existing policy to make sure the CBC lives up to a mandate that encourages public programming.
The CBC mandate, according to John Haslett Cuff, television critic for The Globe and Mail, is the culprit behind the massive, expensive CBC bureaucracy-a monolith of French and English television stations, AM and FM radio stations, all of which have to be broadcast into every corner of the country.
Many others who criticize the CBC for inefficiency are mindful of systematic redundancies, like French programming in Regina, which has a negligible French population-just one example of expenditures caused by a mandate that’s often fuelled by nationalism instead of common sense.
Cuff also holds the mandate responsible for mediocre programming. He doubts Watson will be able to make any great headway toward programming excellence with a dinosaur mandate that tries to be all things to all people. Instead, he says, the CBC should try to redefine the mandate it’s operating under. Cuff does not question Watson’s sincerity, but he does question whether his appointment will succeed in shaking any foundations. Despite Watson’s liberal views, Cuff says the Conservative government wouldn’t consider him for that kind of a position unless he was already in line with the platitudes of the CBC-“He wouldn’t last otherwise.” Watson’s need to “fight the good fight” has stirred Cuff’s sympathy, but the critic counts himself among those who question how much can be accomplished by someone who is in charge of formulating long-term policy without the power to formulate long-term spending. Even if Watson had some control of the company purse, Cuff stresses that it takes more than one man to revamp an entire corporation.
Former CBC executive vicepresident Lister Sinclair sees problems arising with Watson’s own role in the corporation. While the chairman’s position is equal to the president’s on paper, Sinclair says it could easily become a middleman role with Watson caught at cross-purposes between the regional director, whom he represents, and the president holding the purse strings.
From his own experience, Sinclair recalls that many tight situations evolved when the constant pressure for money from the regions conflicted with administering the budget cuts ordered from above. “It was,” he says, “not a happy situation.”
But to Watson, the prospect of wrangling over issues with the regions will be a process of “democracy at work.” Like politicians who ride on their personality instead of a platform, Watson has not yet publicly committed himself to any course of action, but has managed to win accolades through sheer charisma. He has charm and a gift of the gab, a combination that goes a long way to converting former skeptics into new fans. And before he is dismissed as a lightweight in the corporate game, it is important to remember that Watson, as host and co-executive producer of
“This Hour Has Seven Days,” won over a whole nation.