Cherry was an icon at “pinko” CBC. At Rogers? Not so much.

by Stephen LaRose

mediaDon Cherry is to Ford Nation what Jian Ghomeshi once was once to Canada’s arts, music and culture sect: a representative of All That Is Good, Pure And True In Our Nation. But even the man whose suits would’ve driven Mr. Blackwell mad is having a rough time in this brave new broadcasting world.

In a Nov. 11 Globe and Mail story, David Shoalts reported that Cherry and Hockey Night In Canada’s new owners, Rogers Media, were at loggerheads. At issue: when the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation had HNIC, Cherry’s Coach’s Corner segment often ran “long”, in TV production parlance. Cherry would often ramble over the segment’s allotted six minutes, forcing producers to re-edit any unlucky first-intermission segment following the ex-Boston Bruins coach’s rants.

Now, according to the Globe, Coach’s Corner gets five minutes, and Cherry is under orders to stay on topic and on time. More than once, Cherry has chafed at those rules on air.

On a less serious scale, it begs the same question as Ghomeshi’s conduct before his firing: if Don Cherry is a prima donna, why would CBC accept his behaviour when other businesses and broadcasters wouldn’t?

Trouble At The Mothercorp

Financially, administratively and maybe morally, the CBC is in a lot of trouble — some being of its own making, some of it not. On the surface, and for a few metres beneath, Stephen Harper’s Conservative government is the architect of the mess Mothercorp finds itself in today. Harper’s government has cut hundreds of millions from the CBC’s funding. Also not good: 10 of the 12 members of the CBC’s board of directors — including president Hubert Lacroix — are or have been donors to the Conservative Party.

Thanks to Harper and his pals, CBC has been forced to search for an audience (and advertisers) the way a private broadcaster does, at a time when the financial model for private broadcasters and news-gathering organizations has been shattered by the Internet.

Between the desires of the private broadcasters (Rogers, Bell Media, Shaw) to pick over the CBC’s talent and programming the way greedy kids pick over their deceased parents’ estate; the Prime Minister’s Office’s near-dictatorial control over all government and Crown corporations; and the PMO’s incredible talent for picking spectacularly unqualified people for positions of power and influence (Atomic Energy Canada Limited, Canadian Security Intelligence Service, the current Conservative caucus, even the PMO), the CBC is weathering a perfect storm of idiotic incompetence.

But did CBC management only run with people such as Cherry and, far more seriously, Ghomeshi, because big personalities need less investment — both monetarily and emotionally — to promote than, say, quality programming?

Seems unlikely.

For one thing, the CBC has been in the star-promoting business since newsreader Lorne “The Voice Of Doom” Greene broadcast Allied woes during the Second World War. Foster Hewitt, The Happy Gang, Mr. Dressup and Peter Gzowski all stoked the CBC’s star-making machinery. In their own ways, Cherry and Ghomeshi were just the latest examples of the Mothercorp’s fixation on stars.

Secondly, the blame-the-Conservatives analysis absolves the real villains of this piece — CBC’s middle- and upper-level management,  that apparently sacrifices its staff to appease these stars. The CBC’s official position on Ghomeshi — they had no idea he was sexually or physically harassing Q’s staff until after he showed them a horrible video! — beggars belief. It looks more like a case of CBC management not knowing because it didn’t want to know.

And they didn’t want to know, because of the ratings and the notoriety. Q was the most popular radio show on the CBC — even earning better ratings than Gzowski’s Morningside, according to a 2010 Toronto Star story. It was also heard on Public Radio International in the United States. The show’s video feed was also sold to American television stations and ran on one of the CBC’s cable-only channels. Much like Coach’s Corner, Q was a success.

And when an organization is fighting for its life, it needs all the success it can get.

Up To Its Eyeballs

In private broadcasting, shows and news aren’t about informing citizens or building nations. They’re nothing but vehicles delivering eyeballs to advertisers. Jian and Don were doing just that for a cash-starved public broadcaster that, increasingly, was being forced to think more like a private broadcaster. It didn’t matter that Ghomeshi treated his staff like crap or that Cherry’s on-air conduct forced already-overworked producers to redo their segments on the fly — at least to the CBC. They were cashing cheques.

As long as people such as those two brought in the money (or promise of it), CBC’s management’s inferred message to staff was one word: tough. Combine that with a tough market for finding jobs in journalism, and it’s no wonder CBC staff’s collective morale is about the same as those left on the Titanic as the last of the lifeboats pull away.

Under these circumstances, it’s hard to imagine CBC employees summoning the energy to get out of bed in the morning.

People don’t do their best work in a toxic workplace. If the CBC revelled in the successes of Q and Coach’s Corner as they were constituted, how much better work would have been done in a better atmosphere? Where the work of reporters, assistant producers, technicians, and others who make such shows possible was recognized, and not just in a “seeing-their-names-crawl-across-the-screen-as-the-credits-roll” way? Putting out a daily radio show or a television segment is tough enough at the best of times. The real story of the Ghomeshi mess is that the staff continued to put out a top-rated and popular show, 60 to 90 minutes a day, despite the problems.

Cherry’s image and supposed popularity, like Ghomeshi’s, masked a multitude of sins in a network that had lost its way and was mimicking the way its executives thought a broadcaster would run. Nobody at Rogers or Hockey Night In Canada would have spoken to the Globe, even off the record, if they thought Cherry was an asset worth keeping. So it’s obvious that it’s only a question of whether The Strangely Suited One will jump or be pushed from the show.

And when that finally happens, the irony will be thicker than goalie pads. Don Cherry’s job was protected by the network that represented all those pinkos, peacenicks, treehuggers and commies that he so hates — and yet sooner or later, his ass is going to get shit-canned by the private sector.

When Don finally gets the boot, maybe he could talk about how awful the CBC was to him with a sympathetic associate.

I hear Ghomeshi’s calendar is free.