“Oh, God!” yelps Catherine Tait, upon being told that her watery cellphone connection makes it sound as if she’s standing on the deck of the Titanic. “Don’t even use that term! I’m trying to avoid all metaphors!” She laughs: an explosive, nervous trill echoing down the line.
It is, for a president of the Canadian Broadcasting Corp., a rather unpresidential reaction. But then, in many ways, Tait is unlike her predecessors. And besides, you could understand her skittishness: A couple of weeks earlier, she had been onstage at a Canadian television-industry conference in Ottawa when she had her own metaphorical iceberg moment. Like the more famous nautical one, Tait’s misadventure was both unexpected and wholly avoidable, and it turned a jaunty maiden voyage into a scramble for the lifeboats.
At the moment, she’s calling in from a kids’ TV summit in Miami, where she’s been striking deals with other public broadcasters in order to beef up the programming for grade-school viewers on CBC’s streaming app, Gem. Kids’ content and digital delivery are two of her strategic priorities, which she’d like to discuss on this call. Something she calls News and Democracy is another. And there’s her new hire, the English-language programming boss, Barbara Williams, who came over from the commercial broadcaster that owns the Global Television Network, Corus Entertainment.
But first, we need to revisit what happened on that stage in Ottawa, because Tait’s performance there, and the convulsive response it provoked across the country, outline both the bold promise and the ugly challenges she faces as she tries to remake the national public broadcaster on the fly. Tait, 61, sees CBC/Radio-Canada – and she insists on always referring by name to both the English and French operations, unless she is speaking about one of them in particular – as a beacon of hope in a world of toxic disinformation and cynicism. She has an earnestness about public broadcasting that seemed to elude her predecessor, Hubert Lacroix. And, for the moment at least, CBC’s federal government funding is at its most secure in years. But every misstep is magnified; and with competing – and often irreconcilable – priorities, there will always be missteps. On the night of the Ontario municipal elections last fall, CBC-TV chose to air an episode of its top-rated drama Murdoch Mysteries in its usual Monday night slot, relegating live coverage of the election to digital platforms over the heated objections of staff in the province’s newsrooms. That kind of choice may make financial sense, but it also makes for supremely bad optics, especially with Tait framing CBC as a key player in the democratic life of this country.
Still, Tait’s appearance on the opening panel of the annual Prime Time in Ottawa conference should have been a triumphant homecoming. In years past, she had been a regular there, a famously orange-haired producer and policy consultant who authored white papers with such beige titles as Content Everywhere: Mapping the Digital Future for the Canadian Production Industry.
Now here she was, seven months into the job as president of the CBC – the first woman to hold the position – literally at centrestage between four male media executives.
Tait began on a gracious note, name-checking her programming lieutenants in attendance. Then she casually reminded the room that, early in her career, she had been a junior member of the team of bureaucrats that crafted the 1991 Broadcasting Act (a.k.a. the Old Testament of this country’s TV regulations).
Within minutes, sparks began to fly between her and Stephane Cardin, the newly hired director of public policy for Netflix Canada. It felt like a family squabble: He had previously been at the government- and cable-backed Canada Media Fund, which sponsored some of Tait’s white papers over the years; Canadian TV is a small world. And then, during her closing remarks, Tait announced to the room that she was going off-script: Responding to a comment Cardin had just made about Netflix’s commitment to Canada, she mused about the global streaming service being the cultural equivalent of the British Empire in India or the French in Africa, colonial projects underpinned by a belief in the benevolence of their so-called civilizing efforts.
As video of her comments echoed out online, outrage poured in. If one of the CBC’s main roles is to bring Canadians together, Tait had achieved that: From Indigenous creators upset at her invocation of colonialism to the reflexive anti-CBC crowd, there was a little something in there for everyone to hate. As a producer, Tait is not used to losing control of the narrative. It was a painful moment.
“I’m a human being,” she says now, over the phone, by way of explaining how it felt to be caught in that storm. She regrets the inelegance of her comments, sure. “But I’m a storyteller and a creative producer by nature, so I will always reach for metaphor to make my point, and I do feel my point remains the same: I was trying to communicate a general concern that digital global players may not have Canadians’ interest as their first priority, and I don’t stand down from that comment.”
“I actually think the debate is an important one, so I’m happy to have launched the conversation. But of course I was surprised at some of the – what I would call ‘misinterpretation’ – of my remarks, which is certainly not to take Netflix away from Canadians.”
She adds: “The promise of companies like Facebook or Google or Netflix or Amazon – or any of them – the promise is enormous, but we already have seen the unintended consequences. I was really trying to wave the harbinger of possible concern, with respect to Canadian culture.”
But if that soothes the critics, her follow-up comments may prove equally divisive: CBC/Radio-Canada, she explains, is “one of the custodians of Canadian values.” She will also at one point refer to CBC/Radio-Canada as “one of the custodians of democracy.”
Laugh if you will – or, if you’re offended by CBC’s earnestness, sputter in disgust – but Tait means it. And she comes by that sense of public service honestly: Her father, Richard, was a career diplomat for Canada, she a ‘diplobrat.’ Born in Athens in 1958, she lived in Switzerland, Ottawa and Toronto (where she went to boarding school for a spell while her father served as High Commissioner in wartime Vietnam), then spent most of her high-school years in London. She speaks with teenaged enthusiasm about that latter, heady time: about an Emerson, Lake & Palmer concert (with Peter Gabriel-era Genesis as the opening act); about the music of the Velvet Underground; about seeing David Bowie during his 1972-73 Ziggy Stardust tour.
But if she was rarely in Canada during those years, “my parents were extremely cognizant of keeping us Canadian. So, for example, when all my girlfriends in London were going to St. Tropez and sunbathing topless, I was sent to the John Ridgway School of Adventure in Scotland,” named after and run by a man who, in 1966, had rowed across the Atlantic Ocean with another sailor. The school “was kind of like Outward Bound – without any of the safety considerations,” she laughs. “It felt Canadian to my parents.”
Tait is in her Toronto office, at the end of last summer, when she says this. The place feels provisional: she spends most of her time at HQ in Ottawa, where her office, she says, is “very groovy,” filled with sculptures by her artist husband, a New Yorker named Roger Loft. (Together since the late 1980s, they have a 26-year-old daughter, and two sons from his first marriage. Tait, too, had a starter marriage, a brief, youthful excursion with a Greek student she met while studying philosophy and English literature at the University of Toronto.)
She had agreed to sit for an interview to give Canadians a better understanding of what drives her. In person, she is alternately personable and steely: She laughs easily and infectiously, and admits that, when she spoke last spring in the foyer of the House of Commons, at the announcement of her appointment, “I was nervous. Really nervous!” Later during this conversation, she will do a convincing impersonation of an early-1980s computer at a government employment agency, spitting out a job recommendation that set her on her path: policy analyst for the Department of Communications.
Growing up outside of Canada means that Tait has no nostalgic tether to the broadcaster formed in childhood. (Hubert Lacroix kept the costume of Bobino, a Mr. Dressup-type Radio-Canada character he watched growing up, in his Montreal office.) But it also gave her an outsider’s analytical, ironic posture. So, when asked about her earliest connection to CBC, she cites The Kids in the Hall and other iconic comedy efforts. Those shows, she says, are “what made me go, ‘Wow, I want to be a part of that.’”
Her “wow” show on the English TV side right now – although she prefaces this by saying “this will get into my personal taste,” and she seems wary of coming off like a parent picking a favourite child – is the sometimes-surreal Baroness von Sketch Show. “I go to comedy. That’s where I live,” she says. “What happens for me in that show is that kind of – when do you really feel you’re seeing something you haven’t seen before? And when you are laughing in a way that you haven’t laughed?”
“Comedy speaks to the ‘other,’” she explains. “To be a great comedian, you have to be on the outside looking in. That’s why you have this amazing tradition of comedians out of Newfoundland. They’re outside looking in, to the rest of the country.”
She adds: “I want to make things that crack people up. And not just crack them up laughing.” Crack them open? “Crack them open! There you go! There’s a soundbite!” she replies. “But you said it. It’s yours. I nodded vigorously.”
Most of Tait’s noteworthy comedy bona fides come as an executive, when she was president and chief operating officer of Salter Street Films from 1997-2001, the Halifax-based company behind such CBC series as This Hour Has 22 Minutes and Michael Moore’s raucous anti-gun documentary, Bowling for Columbine. From there, she went on to work in the scrappy upstart world of web series with her New York-based company, Duopoly.
But years of living in the United States – of experiencing, on a daily basis, the fraying social contract, the reflexive cynicism toward the government – “wore me out.” As a TV producer, she acknowledges that the country’s “romantic attachment to crime” has fuelled extraordinary entertainment, such as The Sopranos and The Wire: “It’s because they don’t trust anybody! They don’t believe in a benevolent society.” But it’s also why she’s pleased to be back home, and why she regards CBC as a vital institution, especially at this moment of creeping global cynicism.
Tait, who has no experience in journalism, seems almost giddy as she describes her early months on the job, which included visits to offices and newsrooms across the country. “Discovering the power of the news teams here has been just enormously moving for me,” she says. “I went to Iqaluit and somebody had harpooned a whale. I go to the CBC station, there’s nobody in the station because they’re all out [covering] the harpooning of the whale. The whale comes back, they’re slicing the whale, I eat the whale!”
The journalists in places such as that “are really, really close to those communities,” Tait says. “I don’t want to sound corny, but it is very, very touching. Every day, they get up and they do that good work. So, that’s magical for me. Really magical.”
When she stood in the foyer of the House of Commons last spring, Tait described her new gig as “my dream job.” And while she recognizes that sounded glib, she says, it’s true.
“It has to do with a benevolent society. That you’re safe here, that if you have other opinions, you can express them. That, like Baroness von Sketch, you can be out there and people will give you the space to do that. I’m real earnest about this. For me, it’s totally compelling, those values,” she explains. “The idea that I could be part of, I think, the most important public institution in the country? I really believe CBC/Radio-Canada, the public broadcaster, we are one of the custodians of democracy. In a world in which democracy is under siege! I really feel that very strongly.”
She has been telling anyone who will listen that she does not want CBC/Radio-Canada to be the only strong voice left, as other media outlets wither. Over the past few months, she says, the broadcaster has struck a working group with some newspapers “to come up with solutions that would allow us to share and be more effective – and take responsibility, to ensure we have a diverse media ecosystem going forward.”
"I want the print newspapers to succeed in their transition to digital. I want the private broadcasters to succeed in their business model, as they transition from what they’ve had as their past model – which has been a dependence on American programming. We want these companies to succeed, because we cannot have one single voice – the public broadcaster – in this country. That would be a great loss.”
Still, CBC/Radio-Canada itself faces a dizzying set of challenges. Yes, the federal government ponied up an extra $150-million in annual funding, to make up for previous cuts. But inflation will wipe out the effect of that increase in a few more years. Tait notes that CBC/Radio-Canada’s specialty channel subscription revenue is declining, as is its ad revenue. Meanwhile, “we are delivering both linear and digital services, we’re running two separate businesses to a whole bunch of different demographics, in different markets in English and French, and in some cases in eight Indigenous languages. So we have a very, very complicated mandate and a very complicated business to operate, with a declining topline budget.”
She is focusing, then on three strategic areas, as she puts together her first budget for the end of March. News and Democracy is the first, which will call for a greater investment in local programming, and a relocation of some national radio shows out of the big cities, "to build talent outside the centres of Toronto and Montreal.” The potential partnerships with other outlets also falls under this rubric. The Broadcasting Act, she notes, calls for a diversity of voices – in both representation and ownership. That diversity “ensures that you have a place in society to comment and to criticize, and to report on, and to express yourself. Because if you don’t, then democracy is under threat.”
The second priority is children’s programming. Decades ago, CBC forfeited school-age viewers to commercial broadcasters, which are now hitting some rough seas. And, as Tait notes, it makes strategic sense to build a lifelong relationship with an audience. “We’re looking at podcasts for kids, Snapchat shows, digital shows. Trying to really be strategic about how we re-engage with Canadian youth.”
The final priority is what Tait calls “taking Canada to the world.” Once upon a time, of course, her father did the same thing, using soft power to influence other countries. So did she, in fact, working as a cultural attaché at both the New York consulate and in Paris, helping Canadian artists, musicians and other creators make their way onto the international stage and speak for this country.
To non-believers, this move may feel like a ghost limb of the Sunny Ways-era Trudeau government. It involves launching some of CBC/Radio-Canada’s news and current affairs offerings internationally, on digital distribution platforms such as Gem. Tait says the move is “so that we can make it clear again that we are a democracy and a country that still stands up and values tolerance and civic social interaction, in a world where we see these values of trust being undermined.”
“When I read the Broadcasting Act, to the question of the CBC as one of the custodians of Canadian values, that automatically gets me to think, ‘Well why does that matter?’ It matters for Canadians, but it also matters for the rest of the world, because we become a beacon of light.”