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No Money Left For Digital Transition: CBC President

OTTAWA – More than 300,000 Canadians in remote and rural areas could be cut off from CBC TV in two years, because the broadcaster doesn’t have the money to convert its signals to digital from analog.

August 2011 is the deadline for the switch to digital broadcast technology, but the CBC doesn’t have the cash to continue the conversion process, corporation President Hubert Lacroix told the company’s annual general meeting Wednesday.

It has managed to switch over only eight of its 600 transmission towers, covering about half its potential audience.

Lacroix and the corporation’s chief financial officer, Suzanne Morris, told Canadians who tuned to the live webcast of their meeting that the company is struggling with a $171 million budget gap this year.

“It’s a concern, it’s a concern for everybody,” Lacroix said in an interview later. “It’s going to be about making some really hard choices.”

All broadcasters have been loudly complaining about the staggering costs of switching to digital, which comes at the worst possible moment economically. The federal government has not offered any assistance for the switch, despite the fact it’s making money from selling the old analog spectrum.

Unlike the United States, the federal government has no program to help Canadians who do not have cable or satellite to pay for digital converters.

An industry working group had proposed a possible “hybrid” solution that would help Canadians in more remote areas get their TV signals through a low-cost cable or satellite option. But Lacroix said even that is not feasible for the CBC at the moment.

“There has to be either from government a realization that the broadcasters can’t afford this, or there has to be some help given through some fund if government thinks this is a priority for the broadcasting of Canadian TV signals,” Lacroix said.

The corporation has chopped 700 jobs and is in the midst of selling off assets, although even there the federal government has not approved all the proposed sales. One such sale, of its Galaxie operations, brought in $20.1 million this week.

“Now we’re looking to try and make up the difference between now and the end of our tax year, which is March 31,” Lacroix said.

At the same time, the CBC’s annual parliamentary appropriation has remained fixed at around $1 billion since the 1990s, meaning the corporation loses real budgetary dollars every year to inflation.

The federal government’s strategic review process compounds the financial difficulties.

Every four years, departments and agencies must submit a report outlining the five per cent of operations with the lowest priority. That five per cent can end up on the cutting block.

Heritage Minister James Moore’s office has said that in the CBC’s case, that five per cent would simply be reinvested in areas of higher priority within the corporation.

But Lacroix said the exercise has still created anxiety.

“It means that we have to . . . have conversations with the government about what they want us to do, whether they would choose to take the dollars away, reinvest them, or simply say you just went through $171 million cut, you’ve identified all of these, and they can walk away.”