Nothing focuses the mind like a crisis.
That is how Heather Conway, the executive vice-president of English-language services at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, was sounding Friday morning, less than 24 hours after helping break the news to employees that 657 of them will be laid off to deal with a $130-million budgetary shortfall.
“Obviously, it’s sobering,” she said in an interview. “At the same time, inasmuch as I’m very aware of the size of the challenge, I’m not daunted by it, because I think that, now that I’ve had a chance to get to know the team a little bit, and the capabilities here, I think we can figure out and reimagine a future for the CBC that can be engaging and compelling for Canadians.”
Ms. Conway is an unconventional choice to be the face of the new CBC, a newcomer who has little time to not only reimagine but reinvent. On Thursday afternoon, Ms. Conway’s boss, Hubert Lacroix, the president and CEO of CBC/Radio-Canada, told staff that the new round of cuts – the third since 2009 – will be noticed by viewers and listeners. The twin pillars of news and sports will be hit especially hard, along with music programming.
If loyal audiences become disenchanted and wander away now, the public broadcaster could be stuck in a dangerous downward spiral. Even Ms. Conway can’t tell you what the future holds. But she knows how the CBC is going to get there.
“If you said to me five years ago, ‘What is your vision?’ I wouldn’t have mentioned an iPad, because they didn’t exist. So it’s very, very difficult for me to tell you, in five years we will have an iPad version of this, or an app that does this or that,” she said. “But what I do know is, you have to create an infrastructure of an organization that can adapt to whatever it is. And that’s a challenge around how do we think about ourselves, and our role, and how do we make ourselves as agile as we can?” In big-picture terms, she said, the CBC “is going to be smaller, it’s going to be faster, it’s going to be engaging.”
And for those who feel the CBC’s TV programming has been too conservative, Ms. Conway promised this: “I think we need to start taking some risks and being bolder.”
Strong words from someone who has never been a programmer. Although she is the effective head of English-language programming, her sole experience in the industry was at the TV production and broadcasting company Alliance Atlantis, where she oversaw marketing and communications. She was also an executive vice-president of corporate and public affairs at TD Bank Financial Group. Most recently, she served for two years as the Art Gallery of Ontario’s chief business officer.
She joined the CBC in December. As an outsider, critics say she is not beholden to the special interests inside the CBC that could prevent it from being as daring as it needs to be.
Under Ms. Conway, the CBC will strike more partnerships with private Canadian broadcasters and its foreign counterparts. It will also work more with marketers to create so-called branded entertainment (a.k.a. product placement) shows. Some of those will find their way onto the daytime schedule. During a town hall on Thursday, Jennifer Dettman, the CBC’s executive director of studio and unscripted content, told staff that programs airing outside of primetime needed to produce “a positive margin. Bluntly, if it isn’t generating revenue for the CBC, it’s not going to be part of the daytime schedule.”
Other partnerships will provide programming but no revenue. In November, after Rogers Communications Inc. nabbed the NHL rights away from the CBC in a 12-year/$5.2-billion deal, the CBC struck an unprecedented arrangement that will allow it to continue carrying Saturday night hockey games. While the CBC will not pay Rogers a licence fee, it will provide technical expertise, staff and other in-kind contributions to the broadcasts. Rogers, meanwhile, will keep all the advertising revenue.
Ms. Conway said there might be other, even less traditional partnerships. She cited Vice, the notorious Canadian-born, New York-based media organization that grew from a small music magazine distributed free on the streets of Montreal to a high-energy globe-straddling news and lifestyle brand, favoured by millennials, whose investors include Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation. Vice makes programming for HBO as well as its own online sites. “I think we would be open to partnering with them,” she said.
“Organizations like Vice seem to be resonating with a lot of young people around a lot of news content,” Ms. Conway added. “Part of what they’re doing is shorter pieces, they’re doing a lot of digital pieces. They’re doing it not as: Let’s create a linear product and then make it digital. They’re saying, Let’s create a digital product, and then let’s partner with – as they recently have – a giant global media organization to disseminate that.”
But even as she promised change, she pleaded for patience, especially among TV viewers.
She would like to see more comedy shows, and “high-impact, low-cost reality shows” along the lines of Dragons’ Den. But she knows the odds are slim of creating a buzzworthy water-cooler TV show right out of the gate. “There are 750 ideas for shows that are put up every year for the American market, and only about 75 or 80 make it to a pilot,” she noted. “Of those, maybe 20 to 25 shows get on the air. And then, you know, a lot of those don’t make it back for a second season. You’re actually talking about failure on a staggering level to get the success that you get.”
Canadian TV, she says, can’t afford that level of failure. “It’s not just a CBC issue,” she said. “I hope in the Canadian industry we can give people a little bit of tolerance and a little bit of ability to be experimental in an industry that’s changing at a staggering pace.”