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Barb Williams, the new head of English-language services at the CBC, speaks at the broadcaster's Upfront in Toronto on May 29, 2019.

Tijana Martin/The Canadian Press

A little more than six months after leaving her job as the executive vice-president and chief operating officer of Corus Entertainment Inc., Barbara Williams was back on a familiar stage this week, leading a sales presentation to Toronto ad buyers. But instead of pitching ad time on the Global Television Network and the specialty channels owned by Corus, Williams was talking up the offerings of the CBC, where she started May 1 as the executive vice-president of English-language services.

We sat down with her after the Upfront to ask the veteran of commercial broadcasting for her thoughts on public broadcasting.

What do you see as the fundamental difference between Corus and CBC?

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We were a mixed model (at Corus): of this American-network, simulcast-driven strategy – which I think plays a big and important role in the industry in Canada overall, but is only part of the programming strategy – and to also find your Canadian voice. Here at the CBC, we’re all about the Canadian voice. I think, as a programmer at heart, and someone who really believes in the Canadian creative community, the opportunity here is tenfold. To find and support those voices, and tell those Canadian stories much more strongly and regularly than the private model allows.

The way you’ve sketched that out makes it seem as if the only difference is the subsidy mechanism supporting the original Canadian programming. In the case of Corus, it’s the profits from the U.S. programming; at CBC, it’s the federal government. But is there any other fundamental difference in the mission of Corus and CBC?

There absolutely is a difference. And you feel it in the building. And I am developing the language now – I’m three weeks in, by the way – to be able to express it. It is a deep-seated belief in the value of being sure that Canada stands as a distinctive cultural place. And that the way media supports that is by ensuring that all Canadians have a hand in that. That they see themselves, that they hear themselves, that they learn about themselves and other Canadians.

I heard a lot today – more than I’ve ever heard at a CBC Upfront – about advertising opportunities. Some critics believe public broadcasters shouldn’t be chasing ad dollars.

Like almost every public broadcaster around the world, we have a hybrid model of revenue. But when we made more money in the private sector, we made more money for the benefit of the shareholder. When we make more money here, it’s to the benefit of the CBC. We don’t give that back to anybody in a margin play, we keep that money and we use it to enhance the schedule, we use it to enhance the brand on new platforms, we use it to take risks with content that we might not otherwise do.

The Globe reported this week that commissions of narrative scripted Canadian programming at the private broadcasters have plummeted over the past five years. Given that, should the CBC really be doing factual programming, such as Family Feud Canada, which you announced will launch this fall? Shouldn’t it be investing in areas the private broadcasters have abandoned?

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I think the CBC as a broad-based public broadcaster, appealing to 33 million different people, needs to provide a broad range of programming. We also know the factual fun format stuff is engaging, and it draws a big audience, and it brings people into our schedule, and from there you promote them into the other things they might not have known about – that’s how TV programming still works.

What does public-service broadcasting mean to you?

Hmm. It means the opportunity to say [The Trickster, an Indigenous-led adaptation of Eden Robinson’s novel, Son of a Trickster] is a story that should be told. This is a story that maybe doesn’t have, in its first blush, the same kind of commercial, broad-based interest that we might have thought needed to be there if we were on the private side. But it gives us the opportunity to be sure we reach into those underserved communities whose voices we don’t hear as often and as strongly, and bring them out and develop them and give them opportunity. That’s public service to me. It’s to make sure we’re not too Toronto-centric, too Ontario-centric, that we are a big, broad country coast-to-coast-to-coast, and that we have an incredible array of perspectives and ideas that we need to be constantly including.

Again, there was one KPI in the private world.

Sorry, one what?

One key performance indicator: Make me some money. That’s totally fine – that’s the game. I had a blast doing that, and we were successful at it. We have a different measure of success.

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At Corus, you were known for programming some high-profile reality shows – in the industry they’re known as factual entertainment – such as Big Brother Canada. It was certainly popular, but some consider the genre declasse. Are you concerned about the – well, frankly, the online spit-takes that your announcement of Family Feud Canada provoked?

I do have a lot of experience with bringing international formats to Canada, and as I think about all of the reasons why they have been so very, very successful in Canada, I think Feud ticks all those boxes. It’s an opportunity to really engage ourselves in a show that we know and love. And you bring together that: People have a show they really like, they’ve watched for years, they intensely understand the show and relate to it, and have been engaged with it for a long time. And then you give them the opportunity to see themselves in it. And the crowd goes wild. I’ve seen it happen over and over again.

So: No time for the skeptics?

No time for the skeptics. No time for the skeptics!

This interview has been condensed and edited.

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