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CBC Gem pulled off its biggest programming coup this spring, snagging the Canadian streaming rights to the BBC/Hulu sensation Normal People, which is adapted from Irish author Sally Rooney’s bestselling novel.Courtesy of CBC Gem

As most anyone who reads this publication knows, there is a lot wrong with the CBC. And a good deal of the CBC’s management and programming slip-ups have occurred during this pandemic era, while the national public broadcaster has had a clear opportunity to engage with the hearts and minds of a truly captive audience. But in a small, mostly unheralded corner of the Corp, there is hope: CBC Gem, the best streaming service that most Canadians have never heard of.

Launched at the tail end of 2018, the streamer has struggled with visibility – a quick, highly unscientific survey of my social circle suggested that most of the service’s coveted 30- to 45-year-old demographic were completely unaware of the service, its catalogue (5,000 hours of live and on-demand series and films), its mandate (Canadian productions first and foremost, but also eclectic global content), or the fact that it’s free (with ads; $4.99/month without ads). Yet the fog that clouds CBC Gem is slowly lifting, thanks to both the boredom of a locked-down country and a series of programming moves that could make the service as much a household name as Netflix, Amazon, or Disney+.

According to Comscore, this past March was CBC Gem’s best month ever, with unique visitors/viewers to the service up 43 per cent compared with February. And across this year’s January to May stretch, video views on the service increased by 57 per cent, compared to the same period in 2019. Part of this jump can be attributed to changing viewership patterns owing to the pandemic. But CBC Gem also this spring pulled off its biggest programming coup: snagging the Canadian streaming rights to the BBC/Hulu sensation Normal People, which is adapted from Irish author Sally Rooney’s bestselling novel.

“While we don’t reveal actual viewing numbers, I can say that the launch of that series was bigger than any other series we have ever launched on the service. In fact, it’s been more successful than certain series that have had their season premieres on [broadcast television],” says Gave Lindo, executive director of OTT (Over the Top) Programming at CBC. “It’s shined in terms of both reach, which is the number of people watching, but also engagement. A very high percentage of people finish the series.”

Acquiring Normal People was no easy feat for a relatively small player such as Gem.

“The competitive landscape that we’re in for acquisitions, with the number of American streamers, we sometimes have to take a step back and remind ourselves that [CBC Gem] is a relatively small player, compared to the Netflixes and Disney+s and Amazons of the world,” Lindo says, crediting Jenna Bourdeau, senior director of acquisitions, as being instrumental in the process.

Because Normal People is not available on CBC’s linear (broadcast television) service, anyone curious about the massive buzz trailing the series – which debuted in April in Europe and the U.S. – must sign up for Gem. This has presumably increased the discoverability of the service’s other titles, which range from the expected (popular CBC staples such as Kim’s Convenience, Schitt’s Creek and Murdoch Mysteries) to highly desired catalogue titles (the complete series of Kids in the Hall) to acclaimed U.S. productions that most Canadian audiences likely assume just aren’t legally available here (Hulu’s Pen15 and IFC’s Portlandia).

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Hulu’s Pen15 is one of CBC Gem's acclaimed U.S. productions that most Canadian audiences likely assume just isn't legally available here.CBC Gem

“Our thinking is that we can offer a window to the rest of the world for Canadians, so it’s about supplementing our own programming with a carefully curated selection of the best in world content,” Lindo says. “These are programs that Canadians can’t find anywhere else.”

Gem is also putting more resources into developing its own content, with new programs including the meta-comedy Late Night in the Studio and the mockumentary Decoys.

“We’re trying to target a younger demographic with our original commissioning strategy. The linear audience, not just on CBC but across the industry, is significantly older, so we’re focusing on titles that appeal to the 30-45 range,” Lindo says. “We also want to have a diverse slate, so we’re looking at series with strong female leads or characters of diverse backgrounds that can be representative of the country in many ways.”

On the feature-film front, Gem is hoping that recent brand and content partnerships with Telefilm and Toronto’s Hot Docs will help further develop their presence there. While their movie library cannot compete with Netflix – Gem currently has about 120 feature films, compared with Netflix’s thousands – it does have acclaimed work that is unavailable anywhere else, with the canons of David Cronenberg, Sarah Polley, Denis Villeneuve, Xavier Dolan, and Deepa Mehta well-covered.

There is still the question of marketing and awareness – both now and whenever audiences start getting up from the couch and back into normalized viewing habits. CBC Gem has momentum, but a million things can scuttle and stall growth.

“I think our awareness is growing. We’ve been around for less than three years, so it does take time to penetrate the zeitgeist,” Lindo says. “We had a large campaign when we launched, and we’re currently doing promotion through digital marketing – targeted and focused on individual titles and clusters of content. There’s always a desire to do more, and obviously budgets play a role in that. Yeah, we wish there were more people aware of Gem. But we can leverage each opportunity to create awareness. I’m confident over time we’ll get there.”

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