You want drama? With budget cuts and the loss of NHL hockey, these are dramatic times at the CBC. But to hear CBC-TV’s new general manager of programming tell it, there is opportunity in the challenge. Sally Catto was named to the position this week, promoted from executive director, commissioned and scripted programming. The announcement was made at the Banff World Television Festival, where The Globe and Mail’s Western Arts Correspondent Marsha Lederman sat down with Catto (who will return to Toronto from her current base in Vancouver) on her first day on the job, to discuss CBC-TV’s future. Catto promises smart, sophisticated dramas and comedies, a commitment to documentaries and children’s programming, the end of flashy factual entertainment, and a return of arts programming – so ballet, rather than Battle of the Blades.
You’re going into this at a time of flux at the CBC – with huge budget concerns. How do you do this job under these conditions?
It actually is interesting because at one of the most challenging financial times, we’re being pushed to be the most creative. With the loss of hockey, with the challenges we have, we’re really seeing it as an opportunity to reinvent ourselves. It may mean we do fewer dramas, but we’re not going to compromise the calibre of them. We’re not going to do cheap dramas to fill our schedule. We would probably do fewer dramas and then more international acquisitions, which is in keeping with the strategy we’re looking at going forward – kind of a best of the world acquisition strategy. It means partnering with greater frequency. We’re already partnering with Rogers on a couple projects. We’re looking to partner with other Canadian and international partners. Our miniseries The Book of Negroes was done with BET in the U.S. As we’re looking to do in drama, for example, more serialized programming, we see a lot of opportunities with U.S. cable.
What is the strategy, going forward?
In its simplest form, it is to distinguish ourselves from what the privates have been doing. I think in the past our offer would be very broadly appealing, more episodic programming. I think now we’re saying we want to be distinct. We want to deliver high calibre, distinct dramas and comedies. We’re looking to push the envelope, to provide programming you are not going to find on other Canadian networks, and distinct from U.S. cable in the sense that they’re stories that I think will inherently appeal to Canadian audiences.
It sounds expensive. How do you make this work in the current financial environment?
It’s expensive but it might be fewer episodes, it might be fewer dramas. I think in comedy we see opportunity to do less expensive, unscripted comedies. Our factual programming – we’re not doing those bouncy, bright, very expensive, flashy shows. We’re looking for more grassroots programming that has a much better price point for us. So, yes, our dramas may be more expensive, but our factual programming will be less expensive. It’s a balancing act.
What would less expensive factual programming look like?
Battle of the Blades was a very expensive show for us. We’re just out of doing that kind of programming, going forward. We’re looking very closely now at evolving an arts strategy; we think that’s something that really needs to be present on the CBC as a public broadcaster. So how can we best reflect all kinds of performing arts – whether it’s dance, music, theatre, visual arts? That’s not something I’m ready to announce as it isn’t fully evolved, but that’s something we think could have a great price point [with] strong partnerships with artistic institutions across the country.
Performing arts was something the CBC moved away from. Why move back now?
I think it is part of our general shift. We’re owning the public broadcaster aspect of ourselves. We’re saying this is the place. If we’re going to be out there reaching all Canadians, it’s a crucial part of our country and part of our identity and it’s not just for the elite. We have incredible artists in our country and where else are they being showcased? We should be doing it, and that’s a decision we’ve made and we’re really committed to getting back into that kind of programming.
You’re responsible for children’s programming. There’s been some scuttlebutt about the CBC getting out of children’s programming.
Not happening. I did see those reports; it’s not the case. We have a very strong commitment to our preschool programming. It’s an educational approach, we’re very proud of it. We have no intention of getting out of that; it’s a staple on our schedule. We have a smaller school-age offering, but I think we continue to evolve our children’s programming online and with our app, because the way children are consuming content is rapidly changing, but we have no intention of moving off conventional television at this time. We have the desire to expand the platforms for all of our programming that our viewers are watching.
Losing hockey isn’t just a budgetary challenge in terms of losing those revenues, but it’s also a scheduling challenge. What are you going to do to fill all those holes?
It’s not an immediate challenge in the sense that we have content sharing with Rogers for the next few years, but it does already have an impact on the schedule in terms of playoffs. I think that it will be a matter of increased acquisitions. We’re really taking a look at our features strategy. There will be more repeats, for sure. It amortizes our costs and it’s going to be necessary.
How will documentaries fit into the strategy?
Documentaries will be crucial for us. We are the public broadcaster and there are very few places in the country where you can watch documentaries on a regular basis. And I think it’s really the golden age of documentaries. They’re hot and for a reason. I think audiences are craving that smart programming. For us that’s going to be a key part of our strategy.
I’ve spoken with documentary filmmakers who are concerned about funds drying up. It’s not just CBC they’re talking about, but CBC is part of that equation.
It is and CBC remains one of the key places that filmmakers will go for documentary funding. I can’t say it’s going to rapidly increase immediately. I mean we just do not have the funding for that. I think though that we’re absolutely committed to not just maintaining the presence but looking at new possibilities, but they’re going to have to involve new funding models and some compromises about expectations of license fees and just generally some more creative financing.
What’s CBC Television going to look like five years from now?
I see it as smart, sophisticated and distinct – the way when you turn [on] CBC Radio, you know right away. That’s where we’re moving toward, I think, with CBC Television: a very distinct presence.
This interview has been condensed and edited.