Heather Conway on CBC’s future and her return to media

Getting ready for tons of public scrutiny. “If people were indifferent, I’d be concerned.”

It was shortly after being introduced as head of English-language programming for CBC that someone, only half-jokingly, told Heather Conway that every Canadian has two jobs: their regular day job, and running the CBC.

Such is the intense public scrutiny – and inevitable second-guessing – that Conway will face when she formally assumes the role of executive vice-president of the public broadcaster’s English-language services on Dec. 2.

But if Conway has any misgivings about such scrutiny, she’s not saying. “If people were indifferent, I’d be concerned,” she said. “The fact that people have passionate conversations and views about the CBC is a sign of great health.”

Conway succeeds Kirstine Stewart, who left the CBC in April to become managing director of Twitter Canada, a move perceived in some corners as a key milestone in the ongoing shift of power from traditional to digital media.

Canadian broadcast media doesn’t get much more traditional than the CBC, but returning to the broadcast realm was always an option for Conway, who spent six years as EVP of marketing and communications at Alliance Atlantis from 2001 to 2007.

“I love the [broadcast] business,” said Conway, who has spent the past two years as chief business officer for the Art Gallery of Ontario and was also CEO of PR firm Edelman’s Canadian operations from 2009 to 2011. “It is, bar none, one of the most fun industries to work in of any.

“I’ve worked in banking, I’ve worked in the arts, I’ve worked in government, and broadcasting is a fun business with fun people.”

Approached by an executive recruiter shortly after Stewart’s departure, Conway interviewed several times with CBC executives over the summer before being hired. She was formally introduced as the CBC’s newest programming executive on Thursday.

She arrives at a critical juncture for both the CBC and the broadcast world in general. The CBC faces a $115 million reduction to its budget, while broadcasters of all types are adapting to audience fragmentation and changing viewing habits, in some cases awkwardly straddling the line between the traditional and digital worlds.

While noting that the CBC is “fully engaged” with its 2015 strategic plan of more Canadian content in prime time, expanding its regional coverage and bolstering its digital expertise, Conway acknowledged that the challenges beyond are significant.

“This is a sector that’s facing immense strategic challenges around audience fragmentation and content delivery and content creation, owning content, renting content, partnering on content,” she said.

Known for her collaborative approach, Conway said that will be in evidence in her new role. “There’s a series of questions that are really big and really complicated, and they’re not going to be residing in a blueprint in one person’s head.”

Conway’s goal is to make the CBC a key destination for Canadian content producers. “I would like for us to strive to be a place where people who are creating the best bring it to the CBC first because that’s the place where they get the artistic and creative support for what they are tying to do,” she said. “I think it’s more about creating the content and the environment that makes people want to work with you, and I have no reason to believe that’s not already there and can’t be enhanced.”

Conway will spend the next 60 days or so transitioning out of her current role at the AGO while getting up to speed on the inner workings of the public broadcaster. She also plans to take some crucial “breathing time” between jobs. “These are big, intense mandates that require your energy and commitment, so it’s nice to take a bit of a breather,” she said.

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