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Arts Audience or accolades? Taking the measure of CBC’s new programming boss

A photograph of the CBC building in Toronto on April 4, 2012.

Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press

In our data-obsessed world, where we measure everything just because we can – what’s your blood pressure right now? how many steps have you taken today? how many people liked your last Instagram post? – it can be exhausting to try to slice through the noise and figure out what’s actually important.

Take the TV ratings in this country. Every week, CTV and Global dominate the list of Top 30 shows published by the ratings service Numeris: During Jan. 21-27, the most recent week for which data are available, CTV’s The Good Doctor scored the No. 1 spot, with 2.8 million viewers, and Global’s New Amsterdam landed in No. 2, with 2.3 million.

Traditionally, audience ratings are the most important measure of success in the TV industry. So it may have been what Catherine Tait, who became president of CBC/Radio-Canada last July, had in mind on Wednesday when she announced the appointment of Barbara Williams as the new executive vice-president of the public broadcaster’s English-language services. Until late last year, Ms. Williams was the executive vice-president and chief operating officer of Corus Entertainment, which comprises a handful of radio stations; the Global Television network; and more than three dozen specialty TV channels, including the popular niche services HGTV, Lifetime and YTV.

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In a press release announcing the appointment, Ms. Tait said: “This is an important time for the public broadcaster as we look to spark an even deeper connection with audiences here and around the world. Given her track record in building content strategies that consistently result in audience growth, Barbara will help us do just that.”

Global TV certainly pulls in audiences, scoring 14 spots on that Jan. 21-27 list. There’s just one hitch: All of those shows – from New Amsterdam to FBI (No. 7, 1.6 million), to Big Brother: Celebrity Edition (No. 18, 1.2 million) and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson’s sports competition series The Titan Games (No. 30, 940,000) – were made by Hollywood studios for American audiences.

CBC, meanwhile, nabbed just two spots on that list: the warhorse Murdoch Mysteries (No. 23, 1.08 million) and Coroner (No. 29, 948,000) – the latter of which the public broadcaster, in a press release last week, bragged is “the number one new Canadian drama of the 2018/19 broadcast season” – which sounds good until you wonder if in fact there are any other new Canadian dramas this season. (Let me know! My DMs are open.)

And so there must have been some measure of satisfaction on Thursday morning in the drab halls of the public broadcaster when nominations were announced for the Canadian Screen Awards – celebrating this country’s best in film, TV and digital entertainment – and CBC proved a monster. It snagged 236 nominations, which its PR department declared to be a record.

Anne with an E, CBC’s dark reboot (with Netflix money) of Anne of Green Gables, landed at the top of the heap, with 15 nods; the Allan Hawco miniseries Caught caught six; five each for Frankie Drake Mysteries, Murdoch Mysteries and Save Me. Perhaps most significantly for a broadcaster that takes its lumps for not having a sense of humour, CBC’s Schitt’s Creek took 15 nominations, Workin’ Moms scored nine, Baroness von Sketch Show got five, and Mr. D and Still Standing each landed four.

And over at Corus? Well, it landed 76 nominations, spread across all of its channels. On the specialty TV side, Corus can brag about the eight nods for History Channel’s Vikings (conceived by an Englishman and shot in Ireland); four nominations for Travelers (which began on Showcase but moved exclusively to Netflix last year), and five for Teletoon’s Wishfart (it’s for the kids; don’t ask).

Shows on Global, meanwhile, scored a grand total of 22 nominations. (That includes news programs.) Nine of those nods went to the thrilling Mary Kills People, of which Global is currently airing repeat episodes in the TV dead zone of Saturday night, partnered with repeats of various other Canadian shows. There are currently no new episodes of any Canadian scripted show airing during Global’s prime time.

By one measure, Global under Ms. Williams has been a powerhouse, but it’s been fuelled largely by the empty calories of licensed American programming, as well as fare − such as Big Brother Canada − built from imported intellectual property. She won’t be able to lean on that when she takes office on May 1.

Will she be satisfied with the other measures, the ones that the public broadcaster has traditionally preferred to emphasize: the award nominations, the acclaim for its shows when they head out into the world as cultural ambassadors of this country? Will she have the steely patience, while watching the American hits dominating the weekly TV ratings, to develop and nurture new, truly Canadian, shows – which may take years? For that matter, under Catherine Tait, will CBC?

Editor’s note: In an earlier version of this article, a reference to the Global TV network airing the Canadian show Mary Kills People on Saturday nights was referring to a repeat episode. In fact, the network usually airs new episodes of the show on weeknights. In addition, the network has other Canadian TV shows in production it is not currently airing.
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