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Report on Business Staying tuned in: After 40 years, Corus COO Barb Williams retires from private broadcasting, but eyes a public-service role in the industry

The TV industry that Barb Williams joined almost 40 years ago does not exist any more.

That’s not just because videotape libraries, like the one where she landed her first television job, have all gone digital. And it’s not just because widespread consolidation has made small independently run channels a relative rarity. (The one where she got her start, CFMT, is now known as OMNI and is owned by Rogers Communications Inc.)

It’s because the entire concept of what television is – how viewers see it, how it makes its money and the entire regulatory infrastructure that has underpinned the industry for decades – is in flux.

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Ms. Williams’s career in private television has now come to a close. She left her post as chief operating officer of Corus Entertainment Inc. in October, after two years of "supporting the integration of the two companies” following the acquisition of Shaw Media, she said.

Barb Williams poses for a photo on Dec. 1, 2018, after leaving her position with Corus in October.

And as the government undergoes a review of the Broadcasting Act, which regulates the entire industry and forms the basis for Canadian content rules, she believes it’s time to have a hard conversation about the future of the business.

“It’s really important that, as Canadians, we really decide what matters to us,” Ms. Williams, 60, said. “I’m not sure we have all agreed, yet, what matters there. … You need to protect your culture and to protect this industry. But exactly how we protect it is a challenging question.”

Traditional television is under pressure, both from streaming services that lure subscribers away from their cable packages and from digital giants that have steadily siphoned off advertising dollars. Streaming revenues in Canada grew by 29 per cent to $872-million this year, according to a new report from media-buying firm GroupM. While that’s still just a fraction of the $8.74-billion in cable and satellite revenue in this country, only streaming subscriptions are growing, the report said.

Last year, viewership during the crucial fall TV season fell 10 per cent and initial data suggest the trends have continued this year. TV advertising revenue fell 2.1 per cent to $3.1-billion in Canada this year and is expected to fall 1.7 per cent in 2019. TV now accounts for one-fifth of the $13.6-billion Canadian advertising market, while digital ads account for 55 per cent of all spending, according to GroupM. Digital spending is expected to increase another 14 per cent next year, to $8.3-billion.

Ms. Williams is retiring from private broadcasting, she said, but she’s not done. She’d like to explore possibilities to do something “more public-service oriented … maybe on the periphery of the industry." Few people have the kind of perspective on the scope of change in the sector that she does.

After an early career in network TV, she joined Atlantis Communications to work at the newly launched Life Network. She was a big player in the proliferation of specialty channels, helping to launch HGTV Canada, Food Network Canada and the Discovery Health Channel among others. As subscribers erode, that cable boom is over.

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“Back when we launched HGTV, people said, that’s crazy. A whole channel about decorating? But actually, those lifestyle channels, I think, have a very strong future,” she said. “The challenge is around the very small ones."

Ms. Williams was also there for the rise of digital viewing – and for Shomi, the short-lived experiment by Rogers and Shaw to launch a streaming service. It suffered because the owners had other priorities, she said, including Shaw’s move into the wireless business.

“That meant not putting their capital into Shomi, or Shaw Media, frankly,” she said. Streaming requires heavy investment to offer enough content to convince viewers to sign up.

That makes it hard to compete with the likes of Netflix, which is burning through cash to produce glossy shows and woo more subscribers.

But she also thinks there’s a limit to how much people will pay – a lesson that TV has learned the hard way thanks to cord-cutters, but that streaming services may learn too as they face more competition and steadily raise their prices, just as Netflix announced last week that it would for Canadian subscribers.

“We should not be naive about the value equation of content,” she said. “The day Netflix is $50 a month – because that’s the only way to pay for $10-billion in programming every year – that will make a big difference to a lot of people. … And there are still a lot of people who will watch commercials to get The Good Place for free.”

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Advertising has to evolve, however. People want more control over how many commercials they watch, in what form and when – and are more aware that there should be a value exchange for their time and attention.

“The ad revenue model is really shifting on us," she said.

Part of holding on to viewers, she believes, means showing them stories that reflect their reality. When she was still at Shaw, Ms. Williams mandated that Canadian shows they commissioned have at least one woman and one person of colour in the writer’s room.

“When Canadians look and sound different than maybe we thought Canadians did 30, 40 years ago, we have to evolve and change, too,” she said.

The same goes for executive leadership. Ms. Williams was particularly active in pushing for more female leadership in media during her time in the business.

“I’m not satisfied,” she said, pointing to C-Suite positions not just in Canadian media but across the corporate landscape. “Women still do not have enough of those top positions.”

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