The CEO of Canada's third-largest public broadcaster was drawn to public law when she was at school, but never imagined it would launch her career in media.
As a law student, Lisa de Wilde figured she'd practise in the corporate or real estate sectors, as "most kids coming out of law school did," until a former head of the country's broadcast regulator changed her career trajectory with a single question.
John Meisel was chairman of the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission, and a professor at Queen's University, where Ms. de Wilde studied for a year. "He said to me in his sort of wonderfully quizzical way, 'Have you ever thought of articling in Ottawa?'" Ms. de Wilde remembers. Before long, she was the CRTC's first articling student. "That's kind of how I backed into my interest in media. I worked as a young lawyer on lots of different hearings."
After seven years at the CRTC, Ms. de Wilde moved to the private sector and rose to the rank of president and CEO at Astral Television Networks Inc., once an influential player in specialty television. She has since spent more than a decade as chief executive officer of TVO, Ontario's publicly-funded and education-focused media organization. Last June, the provincial broadcaster reappointed her to a further four-year term.
Like all outlets built on traditional broadcasting, TVO finds itself managing a legacy in TV broadcasting as it navigates a landscape of digital disruption. And like most public institutions, TVO's resources are constrained. In response, Ms. de Wilde has doubled down on the institution's educational mandate. It can't afford to be all things to all people.
On a rainy Tuesday, she has chosen Luma, the upstairs and more upscale of two restaurants at the TIFF Bell Lightbox on Toronto's King Street West, to meet for our lunch. She is chairperson of the Toronto International Film Festival's board of directors, where as a long-serving director, she helped shape the project to build the Lightbox.
She knows the waiter by name, and comes often enough to be grateful "they change up the menu." She chooses the Fogo Island Cod Rice Bowl, which garnishes smoked cod in curried cream with a hen's egg. I opt for spicy veal and pork meatballs. When the dishes arrive, she quips, "I think yours looks prettier."
Ms. de Wilde's roots are about 3,000 kilometres west of Fogo Island, in Winnipeg. "I'm a Prairie person," says the 59-year-old, calling her connection to the city a "core part of my identity." She admires what she describes as the West's spirit of common sense, tolerance, and community ambition. But at age 10, Ms. de Wilde moved to Montreal, where she was exposed to a combustible political climate, and became bilingual – a key skill required to work at the CRTC.
By the time she finished high school, she had attended five schools in almost as many cities and three provinces. Her father moved the family around to advance his career at General Electric. Neither of Ms. de Wilde's parents went to university, but "there was a lot of impetus from home" for Ms. de Wilde to go. As the eldest of four siblings, "university was a big dream," she says, and she delivered, attending McGill University to study history and political science, then law.
After all the moves, even after adjusting again and again to different teachers and new friends, she looks back at her school days with something approaching wonder.
"Whenever I got to a new school, I liked what happened there," she says. "I will confess, I enjoyed law school. I liked the puzzle of figuring things out."
That should serve her well in the current broadcasting landscape, which has been fragmented by the arrival of new online streaming options, leaving TV executives to figure out how their companies fit into the picture.
TVO is sheltered from some of the upheaval by a special status that requires it to be included in any TV package offered in the province. At the same time, it is trying to carve out a "digital public space" with a revamped TVO.org website, which offers free documentaries and has experimented with live-streaming events. Recent regulatory changes stemming from the CRTC's Let's Talk TV hearing, which will allow viewers to unbundle large cable and satellite packages, shouldn't upset TVO. "We do things that the market doesn't do," Ms. de Wilde says.
Through the 1980s she had her first front-row seat as the Canadian media industry endeavoured to remake itself. Canadian content rules were up for debate, pay-TV services like First Choice (now The Movie Network) were being launched, and the now ubiquitous specialty channels were taking shape, with TSN and MuchMusic joining the cable lineup. "It was a pretty exciting time," she remembers.
At Astral, she picked up a fascination with technology. "In my next life, I'm coming back as an engineer, I'm convinced," she says. Through the 1990s, she was also one of several women who rose through the broadcasting ranks to take top jobs that helped shape the industry – and once again, a CRTC chairperson may have played a key role.
Phyllis Yaffe, a former CEO of Alliance Atlantis Communications Inc., who launched the Showcase network in the mid-1990s, was one of Ms. de Wilde's industry colleagues, and remembers a change in tone at the federal regulator in the latter half of the decade.
"Françoise Bertrand was the chair of the CRTC, and there were several women on the commission. She was outspoken and supportive of women in broadcasting," Ms. Yaffe said. The CRTC at that time "would certainly lean to respecting the role of women in broadcasting. And I think that gave rise to a lot of careers, including mine."
She points to Ms. de Wilde as one of the earlier female executives to reach the top ranks of broadcasting, noting that Bell Media, Shaw Media (recently acquired by Corus Entertainment Inc.) and the CBC's English services are all now led by women.
When TVO came calling in 2005, it offered an alluring mix for someone of Ms. de Wilde's mindset: a public institution with an education mandate and a huge technological challenge ahead. Forged in 1970, it had been envisioned as a way to extend public education through broadcasting. By the time Ms. de Wilde arrived, it had an aging analog infrastructure in desperate need of renewal.
Fortunately, the Ontario government stepped in a year later with a one-time $10-million grant to help rebuild TVO's production capabilities. Ms. de Wilde also had a hand in launching The Agenda, hosted by Steve Paikin, which has become the anchor of TVO's adult programming.
These days, there's no expectation of another cash injection from the province. TVO's $62-million annual budget has dwindled from nearly $80-million when Ms. de Wilde took over, and its provincial grant is $10-million less than in 2005-06. The license fee of $3.75 TVO gets for each taxpayer hasn't changed much over time.
That means TVO has had to stop doing some things, too, like airing movies – a decision Ms. de Wilde, known to be a film buff, took "regrettably."
"At the beginning, it was bold – no one was offering uninterrupted films on Saturday night. Well, by a couple of years ago, you could basically get a movie anywhere," she says. So in 2013, TVO scrapped Saturday Night at the Movies, one of the longest-running shows on Canadian TV.
Ms. de Wilde calls Premier Kathleen Wynne, whom she reported to when Ms. Wynne was education minister, "an amazing champion of TVO." But Ms. de Wilde expects that new revenue will need to be "self-generated," at least for now.
One part of TVO's growth plan, still in its infancy, involves exporting Ontario's education curriculum. TVO runs the Independent Learning Centre – effectively the province's largest high school, with nearly 20,000 students – offering credit courses to adult learners looking to further their education. "There's nothing to stop us selling them outside the province, selling them around the globe," she says, pointing to a recent deal struck with China's Wuxi province.
TVO is also experimenting with gamified learning, which draws on aspects of video game design to get students interested. It has a pilot product focused on math, built for kindergarten students and called mPower, and hopes to roll out games for kids up to Grade 6 later this year.
"We do what we do here for the mandate, and then if we can repurpose content and sell it outside of Ontario, that's the sort of silver bullet," she says.
After more than a decade at TVO's helm, Ms. de Wilde shows no signs of restlessness. In the past, her name has surfaced as a possible candidate to lead the CRTC, but even if that job should come open – current chairman Jean-Pierre Blais's five-year term expires in June, 2017 – she shows little interest in leading the regulator.
"For me, it's a lot more interesting today to figure out how to build an organization that still has a public mandate, but has almost a more direct impact," she says.
She also wields considerable influence on corporate and non-profit boards. TIFF is a natural fit – she and her husband Jim de Wilde, a venture capitalist and university lecturer, have been going to the movies regularly "since our first dates." When the film festival rolls around in Toronto each September, she takes a week off and sees 15 to 20 films.
She also sits on the board of wireless giant Telus Corp., which she admires for its "obsession with the customer experience." Asked how the company's much-publicized leadership change has gone – last August, Telus announced CEO Joe Natale would step down and long-time boss Darren Entwistle would return to the CEO's job from his post as executive chairman – she replies, "seamless." (A company spokesperson used the same word the day the change was announced.) With the practised diplomacy of a public servant, she then deftly deflects a follow-up question.
But Ms. de Wilde has answered so many of my questions that as lunch draws to a close, her smoked cod sits largely neglected. When I point this out, apologetically, she laughs: "I think the theory of this thing is, nobody eats," she says of The Globe's lunch interviews.
And she won't stay away from TIFF's cinemas for long. As our waiter clears her bowl, she assures him, "I'm going to come back another time and check it out."