Heather Conway doesn’t want to force Canadians to eat their vegetables, but the new programming boss at the CBC does plan to ensure there are some on their plate.
As the newly appointed executive vice-president of English-language services, Ms. Conway will shape the broadcaster’s future at a transformative time. The CBC’s budget is shrinking and audiences are fragmenting because of services such as Netflix that are stealing viewers from traditional broadcasters, and the CBC is under increasing pressure to generate more revenue and reduce its reliance on government funding.
She will need to strike a balance between reality shows such as Dragons’ Den and Battle of the Blades that draw large audiences, and the type of documentary and scripted shows that advance the public broadcaster’s mission of informing and enlightening Canadians about their country and their place in the world.
“What I know is that eat-your-vegetables television doesn’t work,” Ms. Conway said in an interview. “If you try to give people what you think they need, you will fail … but I do think we need to be able to have the luxury at a public broadcaster to sometimes take risks that others can’t.”
In conversations with acquaintances, Ms. Conway, 51, is often described as a “Red Tory” – a fiscal conservative who’s progressive on social issues. In her late 20s, she worked as an aide to then-federal finance minister Michael Wilson, and was hailed in the media as a “troubleshooter” to sell tough fiscal measures to the public.
She served as a communications adviser on the introduction of the goods and services tax as well as the 1989 budget, which introduced deep cuts and announced the forthcoming GST. She later worked in government relations for the famous Mulroney-era lobbyist Bill Neville between 1990 and 1994.
She also worked as a strategist on Jean Charest’s federal leadership campaign and backed John Tory’s 2003 campaign for the Toronto mayor’s job, serving as one of the co-chairs in the race.
“I haven’t really been engaged in party politics of any kind other than the most peripheral of things,” she said. “I’m passionate about public policy. I really care about that. But I don’t think I actually know anyone who works in any political office today. I couldn’t name anyone.”
The stakes couldn’t be higher for Ms. Conway, who will leave her position as chief business officer at the Art Gallery of Ontario to take over the high-profile CBC job in about two months. She is stepping into the job in the second year of a $115-million cut to its federal subsidy that has reduced the amount of original programming it can produce and slashed hundreds of positions.
Ensuring the broadcaster continues to produce relevant content despite the cuts is an incredible challenge for a marketing and public relations expert who hasn’t worked in the news industry and whose experience in broadcasting came from the marketing of content rather than the selection of content.
“My priority has to be the same as it is in every media company these days,” said Ms. Conway, who spent six years at the TV production and broadcasting company Alliance Atlantis in marketing and communications.
“We are faced with audience fragmentation, challenges around the cost of content and the ability to monetize our content across multiple channels and get paid for it.”
She’ll be looking to use her years of management and leadership experience to get the most out of her staff – she spent six years at TD Bank Financial Group and eventually became the executive vice-president of corporate and public affairs and ran the Canadian operations of public relations giant Edelman – to strike partnerships with other broadcasters and help the CBC deal with the cultural challenges that come with large cuts.
“We need to make sure we talk about things viewers care about,” she said. “And we all care about the same things – I don’t care how fancy-pants you are – I cried at E.T. and you cried at E.T. Great content will move people.”
Michael MacMillan, former head of Alliance Atlantis and currently CEO of Blue Ant Media, said Ms. Conway is “totally suited to the job,” because “she is a very mature thinker and very sophisticated at balancing competing challenges.”
John Capobianco, a senior partner at Fleishman-Hillard in Toronto, worked with Ms. Conway when she was chief executive of PR giant Edelman Canada. He called Ms. Conway a “strong leader” with a great sense of humour and a “no-nonsense approach” to management who can effectively draw on a huge list of contacts she’s amassed over the years.
With a report from Richard Blackwell