CBC presses pause on Tandem to review service

Unionized CBC staffers expressed concerns about the branded content unit's impact on the broadcaster's reputation.

Less than one month after it formalized the launch of Tandem, its new branded content unit, the CBC has taken a slight step back.

Chuck Thompson, head of public affairs for CBC, confirmed to MiC that it is pausing Tandem’s services in order to “dig a bit deeper” and review the project.

“We feel there are more insights to be gained on this initiative,” he wrote. The CBC did not offer any representatives for comment. In the meantime, the pubcaster stated that no jobs have been impacted as a result of the move, however it is not currently booking any new branded content campaigns while it re-examines Tandem.

The pause comes following criticism from the CBC’s union over the new unit. A statement signed by both Canadian Media Guild national president Carmel Smyth and CBC/Radio-Canada branch president Kim Trynacity alleged that the pubcaster’s union members were not advised nor consulted about the service. “In these critical times when fake news and misinformation are a global threat, we believe the national public broadcaster is uniquely placed to be a leader in safeguarding trust and reliability in our news services, on all platforms.”

The letter went on to say members were “very concerned” about Tandem and its impacts on the CBC’s work and reputation. The statement sought clarity on the service including what kind of safeguards and transparent monitoring processes would be put in place to ensure “unambiguous separation of news and commercial interests.”

For his part, Thompson tells MiC that the CBC has guidelines for its own sponsored content policies, and that it’s currently working through them internally with all relevant stakeholders during the review of Tandem.

“We know that Canadians have a high expectation of what comes out of the public broadcaster. When we launched Tandem, we made a promise to do this thoughtfully and get it right. And that’s why we’re pausing before we go any further.”

While Tandem’s launch was significant for the CBC, the broadcaster had previously engaged in branded content operations through its Media Solutions division. One of the main distinctions made with Tandem’s launch was the hiring of two managing editors – Postmedia’s Adam Owen out of Toronto and Groupe KO’s Samuel-Olivier Barrette out of Montreal. Upon the launch, Owen told MiC the aim of Tandem (which specializes in creating branded articles, video and podcasts) was to create branded content that had the CBC’s voice.

“There’s a bit of cynicism that branded content is the same wherever you get it,” he said at the time. Commenting on one of Tandem’s early branded launches was a podcast, Go the Distance, sponsored by Athabasca University. He said he was struck – in a positive way – with how similar the podcast sounded to something that CBC’s editorial team would produce. “This is something that is distinctly CBC.”

At the same time, Owen acknowledged that there are “a lot of eyes” on CBC as a public broadcaster with regards to how it should execute branded content, and that the pubcaster was “holding [itself] to the highest standards of quality and transparency.” He said that with the branded content field now more mature than it was several years ago, “the brands that we cater to and the audience that we cater to is savvy enough to know the difference [between] the right way and the wrong way to do it.”

CBC has not offered a timeline on how long it will take to conclude its work on reviewing Tandem.

Earlier this week, CBC confirmed that it will eliminate 130 positions by the end of the year. According to Thompson, more than half of those positions have been eliminated as a result of attrition through retirements and not filling open roles. The cuts have been driven by a revenue shortfall driven by lower ad revenue. In a statement regarding the cuts, the CMG cast responsibility on the federal government, which funds the CBC.