We live in tribal times, when even television networks are declaring allegiances and taking sides.
Every spring, the commercial broadcasters unveil their fall programming, making their annual promises to ad buyers – they're going to deliver buzzy hits! massive audiences! – at the industry's so-called Upfront presentations. In a couple of weeks' time, Bell, Corus and Rogers will stage flashy presentations at places such as Toronto's Sony Centre, where beaming executives will introduce a parade of U.S. stars flown in for the day, and boast of all the great American programs they've scooped up in Los Angeles. It's the same game they've been playing for decades, even if the executives' smiles mask increasing desperation.
But others have sniffed the winds of change and are using their Upfront platforms to deliver sales pitches wrapped in mission statements. They're defining themselves in tribal terms: inclusive and exclusive.
On Wednesday morning, Studio 42 on the 10th floor of the CBC Broadcast Centre was all dolled up, a makeshift stage framed by floor-to-ceiling curtains bathed in gold lighting.
As the lights went down, a clip reel kicked off with the Kim's Convenience actor Paul Sun-Hyung Lee's teary acceptance speech from this year's Canadian Screen Awards, the one in which he declared, to swelling and self-congratulatory applause: "I am an immigrant, and I am a Canadian," and he went on to talk about how having a show on a national broadcaster featuring an immigrant family doing "what all families do … [was] so much more important now than ever before."
If it was a lovely TV moment, it was also a canny clip that let CBC signal its desire to be seen as the standard-bearer of Canadian inclusivity.
Heather Conway, the vice-president of CBC's English services, came onstage to tell the crowd – about 300 CBC staff, ad buyers and reporters – that the media landscape had become "a kind of beautiful chaos" of peak TV and streaming in which viewers are their own programmers. "As times change and habits evolve, we have a clear plan to compete and thrive in this exciting new era," she insisted.
Then her speech took a hard left turn and began to sound as if it had been approved by a Canada 150 planning committee. The CBC was "increasing our diversity and inclusion within our work force and on our screens. And changing our leadership culture, to ensure the whole of Canada is reflected in our priorities and our productions," she said, outlining all of the corporation's programs designed to bring marginal voices to the fore.
"We've invested $450,000 over three years with the National Screen Institute in Winnipeg, specifically targeted to training Indigenous creators. We're showcasing the work of diverse documentarians. We created the Breaking Barriers Film Fund, which is only available to traditionally underrepresented filmmakers – women, Indigenous and Inuit people, people with disabilities and visible minorities. We've required that our top shows have 50 per cent of their directors be women."
She added: "The work of building Canada continues, and so does the work of reflecting our values, connecting our people and telling our story."
Peter Mansbridge, in the midst of his farewell tour, came out and offered a few words. Scott Russell and the sprinter-turned-reporter Anson Henry jawed about the 2018 Olympics. Radio host Tom Power did a brief bit with a pair of local musicians who said they were excited for the Juno Awards, and then he introduced A Tribe Called Red, who performed a gut-shaking number that brought things to a close.
If you were to take the Queen streetcar west a few hours later, you might have seen a millennial in a grey felt baseball cap – on backward, natch – sporting a courier bag with a classic CBC logo. The tattoo quotient intensifies as you head toward the Great Hall, a late 19th-century three-storey Victorian pile that once served as the headquarters for the prohibitionist Royal Templars of Temperance and now hosts well-lubricated concerts and luxe events such as the Newfront – an Upfront dedicated to digital content – staged by the Canadian outpost of Vice Media.
By 6 p.m. on Wednesday, thunking music cranked to 11, the Great Hall bar staff in front of a neon VICE logo were busy slinging cocktails for young ad-agency reps and Vice staff. Waiters circulated with trays of hors d'oeuvres courtesy of the hip downtown resto Parts & Labour (whose chef, Matty Matheson, is a Vice personality): morsels of sweet-and-sour boneless chicken, and charred octopus in black sauce served on a tortilla chip. On one side of the room, a couple of people were trying a Vice VR experience. Off in the corner, in front of another neon VICE logo, a group of friends struck a series of poses which would be transformed into a GIF they were encouraged to post on their social-media accounts: An ephemeral token of exclusivity.
The lights dimmed and a three-minute reel began to roll of Vice staff talking about their brand's "authenticity." Meaning what? "Authenticity is just a lack of bullshit," a bearded fellow in a plaid shirt drawled. Someone else added: "If you want to reach a younger audience, hire a younger audience." Amid quick clips of gonzo Vice content, one young staffer, speaking for the Vice tribe, said "We're not going to be controlled by any sponsorship or corporation – sorry, ad executives who are watching this – but that's what makes us great, that's why our brand's valuable, that's why people watch us."
Julie Arbit, the New York-based president of insight for Vice Media Global, came onstage to say that, "in a time of fake news … trust is more important than ever. Sixty-four per cent of Canadian millennials say they don't trust the media. But seven in 10 members of our audience say they trust Vice." (She didn't flinch at the implication that 30 per cent of the Vice audience doesn't trust it.)
If you listened closely, you could hear Arbit echoing the CBC pitch about the need for media outlets to reflect their audience (albeit in far less earnest terms).
Younger audiences, acclimated to the warts-and-all aesthetic of social media, "know that no one, or no brand is perfect – that's just not reality," she said. "So this generation's role models are more likely to be their peers than Hollywood celebrities. Sixty-seven per cent say they don't see themselves represented in today's media, so they look to those around them: Those that are accessible, those that are real, those that are truly relatable."
It's a tribal thing. But it's generational, rather than national.