Rabinovitch Named New CBC Boss
It was a real eye-opener of a wake-up call - but Bob Rabinovitch isn't complaining. Two weeks ago, the Montreal native and his wife, Cecil, were on vacation in Hawaii when the telephone rang in their hotel room at 3 a.m. Rabinovitch snapped awake when the caller turned out to be an operator in Jean Chrétien's office, asking him to hold for the Prime Minister. Chrétien then offered Rabinovitch, 56, currently chief operating officer at Charles Bronfman's Claridge Inc., the job of president and CEO of the CBC. When he awoke the next morning, Rabinovitch recalled last week, his first words to Cecil were, "I think I said yes."
In fact, Rabinovitch admits, he had little doubt he would take the job if it was offered. As he prepares to assume his duties on Nov. 15, he says cheerfully that he "let it be known in the proper circles I would be interested" when it became clear earlier this year that outgoing CBC president Perrin Beatty would not be reappointed. In recent months, Rabinovitch says, he had a series of talks with government officials he will not name, but adds "their tone was hypothetical, and the job was never offered as such." A highly regarded federal civil servant before joining Claridge in 1987, Rabinovitch has been rumoured for various appointments since the Liberals came to power in 1993. At that time, he was first sounded out about the CBC job - and said no. "I still had several specific unrealized goals in the private sector," he explains, "so it didn't make sense."
Some might argue it still makes no sense: Rabinovitch is leaving a self-described "dream job" at Claridge at a salary estimated to be several times the approximately $229,000 he will now receive. The new job brings constant cross-country travels, and a mandate to oversee perhaps the most beleaguered public institution in the country. The CBC's woes include sharply declining audiences, deep budget cuts, mass layoffs and an often hostile relationship with the Prime Minister's Office.
For all that, Rabinovitch declares he is "delighted" - and a wide circle of admirers say CBC employees and supporters should feel the same. "Bob is the perfect guy at the perfect time for this job," enthuses Toronto lawyer and entertainment power broker Michael Levine, a longtime friend. "He understands the way things work, whether it's politics, power, culture or straight technology." And, says Charles Bronfman, his soon-to-be former employer, "no one works harder than Bob, and no one is a quicker study of people and things."
In his first remarks after taking the job, Rabinovitch gave a clear sense of his plans for the CBC, including more emphasis on existing services - and less on adding new ones, which was a strategy Beatty advocated. "We can't be all things at all times to everyone," he said. "We must focus on the strengths we have, and enhance them." In an interview with Maclean's, Rabinovitch underscored these points:
• Sports will remain on the CBC, despite critics who want them dropped. The network's sports coverage is "essential, well-executed, and sports like hockey are part of what binds us."
• The CBC's regional news - which attracts very low ratings in many areas - may be in jeopardy: "Local news coverage is frankly one thing we have to evaluate closely."
• The CBC may farm out transmission of programs to the private sector, and concentrate on programming. "Who can do that most cost-effectively?" asks Rabinovitch rhetorically. "That will determine our answer."
• Prime-time content should be majority Canadian, but may not be exclusively so. "I know the CBC now says prime time is all Canadian, but that's disingenuous when you consider the American movies they also air," says Rabinovitch. "Quality should matter as much as origin in programming."
• The fluently bilingual Rabinovitch says he understands complaints that French-language Radio-Canada has a separatist bias, but does not go that far himself. "Radio-Canada journalists are pros," he says. "They can be nationalist at times, but not separatist." But, Rabinovitch adds, "I have sometimes become very annoyed watching their news."
If precedent is any example, Rabinovitch may spend more time worrying about internal CBC politics than programming. Beatty's reign was hobbled by battles with chairwoman Guylaine Saucier, who is well-connected with the Liberals. She lobbied Chrétien to fire Beatty, then undermined the president's remaining authority. Saucier's candidate to replace Beatty was James McCoubrey, the incumbent chief operating officer who was badly injured in an automobile accident last January.
Despite shared roots in Montreal's business community, Rabinovitch says he met Saucier for the first time after his appointment. "We have no problems," he says. He then adds with a laugh: "We may in future, but not yet." In fact, Saucier has said that after devoting full-time efforts to her CBC job, she will cut back to a part-time role. If so, that meets a recommendation by Al Johnson, a highly respected former CBC president who served from 1975-1982. Johnson, who studied the way public broadcasters in other countries function, says the chairman position should be a part-time job. "The chairman should do the political lobbying, and let the president run the network," he notes.
Rabinovitch insists he has "no political affiliations," but also has no shortage of Liberal connections. One close friend is Eddie Goldenberg, Chrétien's senior adviser and alter ego. With this appointment, "I can't say how often we'll see each other, because I don't know the answer," says Rabinovitch. And there is his long tenure in Ottawa. Rabinovitch began as an aide to secretary of state Gerard Pelletier in the mid-1960s before becoming a non-partisan civil servant in 1968. He stayed in Ottawa until 1986, rising to be, among other things, a deputy minister of communications under the Liberals, and a senior assistant secretary to the cabinet under Conservative prime minister Joe Clark in 1979.
But in 1985, less than a year after the Tories returned to power, Rabinovitch found himself out of a job because of his presumed Liberal ties. He moved back to Montreal, to oversee Claridge's variety of holdings - including some in the television and telecommunications industry. One crucial responsibility was to help groom Bronfman's son Stephen for the top job.
Those years with Claridge, friends say, helped prepare Rabinovitch well for his new duties. "Bob doesn't need the money," says one friend. "That gives great freedom to do as he wants." Adds Ted Johnson, a senior executive with Power Corp., and onetime adviser to Pierre Trudeau: "This is a man with remarkable people skills, strategic vision and understanding of technology. But no one should be fooled by the charm - he is as tough as he has to be."
Rank-and-file CBC employees appear enthusiastic about their new boss. In the early days following the appointment, said one longtime employee, "he has been saying and doing all the right things." That sentiment won't last forever, given conflicting pressures of the job. But Rabinovitch says that some elements will not change. "I believe in public, government-funded broadcasting and I will fight for that," he declares. "I am at a stage of life where I want to work full time for the public good - and for me, the CBC does that." All he has to do is convince more viewers, many critics and the PMO to feel the same.
Maclean's November 1, 1999