CBC’s Upfront: Executives not afraid of risk

The message from the CBC executives conducting its 2014-15 season preview was clear: we’re taking risks and trying new things with programming throughout the schedule. So while that schedule will include several returning shows – including hits such as Dragons’ Den, Mr. D and Murdoch Mysteries – there are also a substantial dose of new […]

The message from the CBC executives conducting its 2014-15 season preview was clear: we’re taking risks and trying new things with programming throughout the schedule. So while that schedule will include several returning shows – including hits such as Dragons’ Den, Mr. D and Murdoch Mysteries – there are also a substantial dose of new offerings in the mix.

These include primetime drama Strange Empire, a Western set at the Alberta-Montana border in 1869; Pirate’s Passage an animated film based in Nova Scotia that Donald Sutherland produced an co-wrote; and international co-production The Book of Negroes, based on the Lawrence Hill novel.

For a full list of the 12 new primetime offerings and the returning programs, click here.

Thursday’s presentation at the broadcaster’s Toronto headquarters kicked off with laughs.

“As you know, there’s not really much going on at CBC,” quipped Heather Conway, executive vice-president of CBC English Services. “We thought we’d just have you over for coffee.” It was a good way to acknowledge the elephant in the room – reduced budgets and layoffs, as well as the upcoming loss of NHL revenue—before moving on to sharing programming highlights that will see CBC into the future.

Conway, who stepped into her role in December, told the crowd she’s optimistic about where CBC is headed and that it will be taking “a few risks” moving forward. One of the upcoming programming shifts, for instance, is an increased focus on comedy and serialized dramas.

Speaking with Marketing after the on-stage presentation, Conway said CBC’s dramas have historically been episodic – pointing to Murdoch Mysteries and Heartland as the most successful among them, noting that they’re “really nice bookends on our schedule.”

At a time when audiences are following serialized dramas, she said the CBC has to respond to that in a way that’s uniquely Canadian. “I can’t have a show that looks like it could be on any network. If it looks like it could be on any network, then it’s not differentiating and it’s not in support of our brand,” said Conway.

Strange Empire

“Either ‘Canada Lives Here’ or Canada doesn’t,” she said, referencing CBC’s brand positioning. “If Canada lives here, then let’s make something that looks like it is distinctively Canadian and touches people,” she said.

To that end, new dramas for the season include Strange Empire and Camp X, a WWII character drama set in North America’s first spy school (which happened to be in Canada).

On the unscripted programming front, executive director of studio and unscripted content Jennifer Dettman said there’s always a gamble (again, the “risk” message) involved in doing an original format, but she said CBC is keen to work with the independent production community to bring ideas to life and – when possible – get them onto the international stage.

Its newest such project is Canada’s Smartest Person, an original format that will launch in the fall. The one-hour series will be hosted by Jessi Cruickshank and Jeff Douglas, and see Canadians compete in various intelligence challenges. The unique spin – in keeping with CBC’s efforts to infuse digital offerings whenever possible and relevant – is an app that viewers can use track their braininess and compare their own results to that of friends and family.

“New technology, the social media space and digital doesn’t scare us at all,” said Dettman. “In fact, as a public broadcaster our key is to really engage with audiences and these tools allow us to do that, so we’re always looking to innovate in that space.”

CBC Sports Weekend host Scott Russell touted upcoming big-ticket events such as the Glasgow 2014 Commonwealth Games, 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil and ISU Figure Skating. The crowd cheered when he said, “Everything we do on CBC Sports… is free of charge to any Canadian at any time they want to see it.”

Russell also promoted the coverage surrounding the Rio 2016 Olympics, which will mark the 60th anniversary of the CBC broadcasting the Games. His message: CBC Sports tells the stories of athletes as they pursue their dreams leading up to major sporting events. “[Viewers will] never meet a champion for the first time on the podium,” said Russell.

Jonny Harris

Beyond its sport stories, CBC will also be sharing the tales of everyday Canadians in a new show called Of All Places, set to premiere in winter 2015. Hosted by Jonny Harris (you may recognize him from CBC shows such as Murdoch Mysteries), it’s part adventure, part travel and follows Harris as he visits small Canadian towns—many of which are down-on-their-luck economically. He spends time with the locals, discovering why they stay and what makes each town special. He then puts on a lighthearted, customized comedy routine for the residents at the end of his trip.

Dettman said her team has been looking for a show that reveals the struggles of Canada’s loyal small town residents for a long time. It’s a prime example of the shows on CBC’s schedule next year that are an evolution towards content that’s very distinct from the corporation’s competitors.

“We always have an eye to what our place is as a Canadian public broadcaster and what are we doing that you can’t get anywhere else,” said Dettman.

Conway said even though the public perception of the CBC today is that it’s facing significant challenges in “the post-hockey announcement world,” it stems from people’s sense of ownership and their passion about the organization. “I certainly think people want the CBC to succeed,” she said. “So I think the perception that the CBC might be in trouble has wakened people’s consciousness about the CBC’s mattering to them and its relevance.”

Its relevance to advertisers is based in large part on the amount of Canadian content it offers. “The sheer volume of content we have that’s Canadian provides opportunities for advertisers to say, ‘If I want to reach Canadians in a very differentiated, distinctive way, the CBC is a great place for me to partner.’ You’re not going to get that with a lot of American content… then you’re taking someone else’s integrations,” said Conway.

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