She’s not a lawyer or a bureaucrat, and for several years Catherine Tait has been living in New York.
But that – and the fact that she’s a woman – is what makes the Canadian television and film executive different from her predecessors as she takes on her new role: president and chief executive of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.
“At heart, she’s a creator,” said Michael Donovan, a television producer who has known Ms. Tait for 20 years. “That’s what she, in my opinion, can bring to the CBC today. And that’s what the CBC needs.”
Ms. Tait, 60, was appointed by the Trudeau government on Tuesday as the first woman to head CBC/Radio-Canada, a position the 30-year veteran of film and television called her “dream job.”
Her experience in both the United States and Canada includes roles at Telefilm Canada and as former president and CEO of Halifax-based Salter Street Films, which produced the CBC-TV hit This Hour Has 22 Minutes. She is married to sculptor Roger Loft, with whom she has one daughter, and most recently served as president of Duopoly, a New York-based independent film, television and digital-content company.
Ms. Tait, who was born in Athens but grew up in Ottawa to a diplomat father, plans to move from New York back to her childhood home, where her mother and two sisters still live. In 1952, her mother worked as a secretary at the CBC for then-director of programming, Stuart Griffiths.
Ms. Tait’s five-year term at CBC, which starts in July, comes as the public broadcaster faces increasing questions about its relevance and purpose in an ever-changing media landscape.
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“Her challenge will be to find a role for the public broadcaster in a tsunami of media offerings, that makes the CBC both important and interesting,” said Jeffrey Dvorkin, a former CBC journalist who is now director of the journalism program at the University of Toronto Scarborough campus, where he is on leave until June. “She’s going to have to figure out a way in which the CBC can differentiate itself from everything else, and certainly from commercial broadcasters.”
Facing reporters on Tuesday, the flame-haired Ms. Tait spoke about the power of digital and local news, as well as the CBC being an inclusive voice for Indigenous peoples, new Canadians, women and the LGBTQ community.
She also alluded to challenges facing media companies in the era of U.S. President Donald Trump.
“Never before has fake news been a household term,” said Ms. Tait, who is bilingual.
“In this extraordinary climate of change, CBC/Radio-Canada, along with public broadcasters around the world, are under significant competitive pressure. In order for public broadcasters to survive and to flourish, we must focus on the services, news and programming that most connect with our public, not just as one audience, but as many audiences. This is, after all, the power of digital.”
She didn’t provide specifics about her plans for the CBC, telling reporters she wanted to talk to outgoing president Hubert Lacroix and other executives before making announcements. “I have ideas about the direction and the future of broadcasting in Canada,” she said.
Ms. Tait is not only the first woman to head CBC; she is also the first person in almost 30 years to come to the job with direct experience in the trenches of media production. The current incumbent, Mr. Lacroix, was a mergers and acquisitions lawyer (albeit one who specialized in media); there was also an engineer (Tony Manera) and a string of tenured bureaucrats or politicians (Robert Rabinovitch, Gérard Veilleux, Perrin Beatty).
Following Harper-era cuts, the Liberal government promised to give the CBC $675-million in new funding over five years. Private broadcasters have decried the investments, saying the public money has contributed to creating an unfair competitive landscape, while a government-commissioned report last year called for the CBC to stop selling advertising on its digital platforms.
Heritage Minister Mélanie Joly defended the investments, telling reporters on Tuesday they have led to more reporters in smaller regions covering local stories.
“In the context of this sea of change and great disruption that is happening in our broadcasting and digital sector … we need to have a strong public broadcaster more than ever,” she told reporters.
Ms. Tait’s appointment was the first made by a new independent advisory committee, chaired by veteran journalist Tom Clark. Mr. Clark said the committee recommended a shortlist of candidates to the federal government, which made the final choice. Michael Goldbloom, former publisher of the Montreal Gazette and Toronto Star, was named the chair of the board of directors on Tuesday, along with three other appointments.
Mr. Clark said the committee recruited a number of competent candidates but Ms. Tait represents a bold change for the corporation.
“The audacious choice was Catherine,” Mr. Clark said.
He said Ms. Tait’s appointment represents a cultural shift inside the organization.
“Change, innovation of an aggressive nature is not a choice any more,” he said. “It’s a requirement if you’re going to survive.”
- With a report from Chris Hannay and Simon Houpt in Toronto