On Monday, when the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation announced that Heather Conway, its executive vice-president of English-language services, would be stepping down next month after five years on the job, it deployed the bureaucratic boilerplate that she was leaving “to pursue other opportunities.”
She may just be seeking an opportunity to regain her equilibrium.
Every media organization these days is tempest-tossed: Global TV’s chief programmer left last week and will not be replaced; the head of Rogers Media’s sports division left the week before, and that company is in the midst of shedding its magazine division. But even though CBC is sheltered from most of the economic effects of the industry upheaval, Ms. Conway’s term has been an especially turbulent one, characterized by falling TV audiences, staffing cuts and an avalanche of human resources crises triggered by the Jian Ghomeshi scandal four years ago.
As she leaves, Ms. Conway will be able to point to some successes: Impressive digital growth, solid local radio audiences, and distinctive TV programming that is beginning to score with critics and audiences in Canada and around the world. But those are obscured by the noise from its high-profile failures, including its remodelled flagship newscast, The National, which is still searching for a strong TV audience as it marks its one-year anniversary on Tuesday.
Ms. Conway hadn’t even started her new job when CBC suffered the first major body blow with which she would have to contend, as Rogers stole away the rights to NHL hockey in an eye-popping $5.2-billion/12-year deal in November, 2013.
The following spring, CBC slashed hundreds of jobs.
And then in the fall of 2014, the broadcaster was thrown into crisis when Mr. Ghomeshi, one of its brightest faces, was fired amid allegations of sexual assault. Questioned by Peter Mansbridge during an interview about the scandal, Ms. Conway defended the actions of her department, insisting that Mr. Ghomeshi had been dishonest with them.
But a report issued the following spring by a third-party human resources lawyer revealed sharp lapses in oversight and a permissive “host culture” in which management enabled bad behaviour among network stars. Ms. Conway and then-CBC president Hubert Lacroix apologized, and pledged to be better stewards of their employees.
In the meantime, CBC has been confronting the changes roiling the entire industry, as audiences can access on-demand news and entertainment online from around the world.
The broadcaster continues to have a strong place in many local radio markets, and its online audiences are growing, as it moves more resources into digital production and distribution: Some of its podcasts have been downloaded millions of times. In a recent interview with The Globe and Mail, Catherine Tait, the new CBC/Radio-Canada president, boasted that almost 20 million Canadians accessed content on cbc.ca last July.
But some moves to boost digital activity have been highly contentious, such as the decision last month to produce TV-style coverage of local elections in Ontario for online-only audiences, and to use the main CBC-TV channel for a regularly scheduled episode of Murdoch Mysteries.
If Ms. Conway rarely seemed at ease in the public elements of her job – a self-confessed “low talker,” she was not one for rousing speeches – employees credited her with giving them the power to make their own decisions. Its TV production now includes distinctive successes such as Schitt’s Creek, Kim’s Convenience and the miniseries Alias Grace, which was made possible in part by money from Netflix.
Under her direction, CBC also moved to increase diversity within its talent ranks, to pursue gender parity, and to use its platform to influence others producing content to do the same. CBC says women now direct at least half of the episodes of 15 of its shows, including Anne With An E, Murdoch Mysteries, Frankie Drake Mysteries, Heartland, Little Dog and its rebooted Street Legal.
Within the Broadcast Centre in downtown Toronto, the news of Ms. Conway’s resignation registered little shock: there had been rumours over the past few months that she would likely leave soon to allow Ms. Tait, who took the reins in July, to name her own English-language lieutenant.
Asked if Ms. Conway was encouraged to leave, CBC spokesperson Chuck Thompson replied: “Not that I’m aware of. She came to the conclusion, as she looked back over the past five years, that it was time for a change. She’s never stayed anywhere more than six years, and she felt that she and the team had done so much that she is ready for whatever’s next.”