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CBC personalities sign petition opposing planned cuts to documentaries

A man leaves the CBC building in Toronto, April 4, 2012.A CBC proposal to shut down in-house production of documentaries has sparked an outcry, with top personalities like Peter Mansbridge and David Suzuki speaking out against the plan. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette

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A man leaves the CBC building in Toronto, April 4, 2012.A CBC proposal to shut down in-house production of documentaries has sparked an outcry, with top personalities like Peter Mansbridge and David Suzuki speaking out against the plan. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette

TORONTO - CBC personalities including Peter Mansbridge, David Suzuki and Linden MacIntyre are speaking out against a CBC proposal to shut down in-house production of documentaries at the public broadcaster.

Anna Maria Tremonti, Carol Off and Nahlah Ayed have also signed the petition calling on the CBC to protect its documentary department by placing it under its News and Current Affairs division.

"CBC Television, to be true to its core mandate, needs more long-form journalism and legacy programming — not less," states the letter, sent to president Hubert Lacroix and head of English services Heather Conway.

At a town hall Thursday, the broadcaster is set to reveal its five-year strategic plan to employees. The CBC is battling a budget shortfall of $130 million due to federal cuts, flagging advertising revenues and the loss of hockey rights to Rogers Media.

Those who signed the letter fear the plan would mean laying off the majority of CBC's documentary department, which has created a number of award-winning productions including "Canada: A People's History" and the aboriginal miniseries "8th Fire."

Embedding the department within News and Current Affairs would preserve original CBC documentary production, while allowing for sharing of resources, facilities and infrastructure, the letter states.

Some 75 per cent of CBC documentaries are already produced by independent filmmakers. According to the petition, overall production of documentaries has already fallen dramatically in recent years.

In a response letter, Conway wrote that CBC is not planning to reduce the number of documentaries it airs but is looking at ways to produce them more cheaply.

"Our appetite for docs has not changed or diminished in this context but our willingness to consider options for producing them is open," she wrote. "There is a real opportunity for docs to be created by some of the talent in News and Current Affairs as well as the option to acquire docs from talented Canadian documentary producers."

Conway met with the Documentary Organization of Canada, who feel there should be more opportunities for their members to produce for the CBC, she wrote. The broadcaster has also met with documentary producers for VICE, which produces edgy films aimed at millennials.

MacIntyre, a veteran host of "The Fifth Estate," said independent producers cannot take as many risks because of legal liability and financial pressures. An institution like the CBC has more power to do "fearless journalism," he said.

"The DNA of Canadian documentary production has to be preserved in an institutional setting, because that's where chances get taken, that's where innovation happens, that's where controversy is embraced — and if we lose that we'll never get it back."

The acclaimed journalist recently announced his plans to leave the CBC at the end of the summer, in part to save younger producers on "The Fifth Estate" from job cuts. He said CBC employees are not being consulted on decisions crucial to the future of the broadcaster.

"There are serious decisions being made about what the CBC is going to deliver to the people who own it, i.e. the Canadian taxpayer, without a whole lot of consultation with the people who know how the place works," he said.

In April, the CBC announced it would cut 657 jobs over the next two years to meet its budget shortfall. The union representing most CBC workers held a rally in Ottawa last week to coincide with a meeting of the board and executives.

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