At the CBC fall launch event this afternoon that I attended by taking the green elevator and unspooling my CBC badge off its retractor, I had the opportunity for a quick chat with Kirstine Stewart, the general manger of CBC English television. This will be a big season for the CBC and for Stewart personally. CBC Television’s ratings are the least bad they’ve ever been under her watch. I wanted to ask about her vision for Life Network.
I really believe that the public broadcaster has to be as entertaining and engaging with the public as private broadcasters are. We get a lot of debate about whether we should be pandering to viewers, whether we should be trying to go out of our way to attract them, and I don’t think we do… You own us, and the dumber you are, the more of us you own. We want to reflect your interests, your passions, for home decorating and watching somebody else cook. Everything we’re curious about we want to explore with you.
That’s what I’ve tried to do – to really create a lineup that really, whether it’s sport, entertainment, comedy, gives an offering to Canadians of how interesting America and Britain are. If we can get you to watch us, it’s probably by accident, so it had better be something that you really deserve.
I’m always trying to widen the demographic to match the private broadcasters’. CBC over the years has been as good at delivering news and sports coverage as Newsnet and TSN, and largely the viewership was older and a bit male – it skewed male. And that offends me as a feminist in a tight skirt. I don’t want to abandon those viewers because they’re very important to everybody. But a 22-year-old woman out west is equally a Canadian as an 85-year-old grandfather or the widow he’ll leave behind. I like to broaden the audience to reflect people more like me and my girlfriends and Jelena Adzic.
What you see on the schedule, what I’ve tried to commission, is a real mix of programming that can engage, hopefully, a half-dozen or so irreconcilable factions that never watch each other’s shows – but always with a bit of a slant. I mean, we’re all pretty liberal here. So I think what I’m really trying to do is offer up a menu of what it is we have, but with the core basis that they’re all great authentic Canadian and American and British stories, like a Muslim girl in the prairies, a girl on a ranch, and a magical girl who thinks she’s a dragon. Not just to attract a specific demographic but also to get more sponsors to integrate into each show.
Unfortunately it’s unrealistic. I mean, we’re all Americans – North Americans. I would love to be in the position of having a 24-hour Canadian schedule; I honestly cannot afford it on the budget that we’re given. When we put on American programming we do it within the allowance of our licence. We have to be careful. We try to be respectful of the rest of the schedule when we take American programming, which sometimes means asking the newsroom to increase its airtime by 50% without upping the budget.
We know that sometimes, and quite often, that American programming brings in larger viewership that can showcase our Canadian shows right after. We did find that, after introducing Jeopardy to the schedules last year, our 8:00 time slot grew 30%. We went from a 2 share to a 2.6 share. That was in part in complement to Jeopardy as a lead-in, and part in complement to the producers who are making better shows about ambitious career women and their wacky day-to-day foibles. It’s a combination we need to take advantage of to make sure we have the most viewers possible watching Canadian shows. And if that means marginally higher ratings, then eventually I might be able to cut back on our make-goods and divert some of that ad revenue from servicing our real-estate debt to newsgathering.
And not the British ones? It was very interesting to me. Not surprising, but interesting always. Because we had Coronation Street on the schedule in the same slot that Wheel of Fortune is in now for years and years and years.
But like a lot of Canadians outside Québec, I like to think I’d be British if I could. I talk British, I think British, I write British – everything I do is British. So a show like Coronation Street is just reflecting real Canadian culture back to Canadians. It’s a culture that has worked out smashingly for the Commonwealth for years and years and years. It’s our mandate to reflect that to Canadians.
So yes, I believe we need to be more sensitive to the cultural sovereignty of Canada versus the United States. Because we share the border, that can be a trigger for people who want a show like Intelligence off the air. I made tough calls like those all the time at Alliance Atlantis and that’s why they brought me on board here.
But I’ve got to say, it’s more Canadian now that it’s ever been in years. People get a bit myopic or have a short-term memory when it comes to schedules, which were usually printed in the newspaper that you threw out the next day. It’s a bit frustrating that we don’t have the institutional memory here that the private sector does. But I have an old one sitting outside my office: Dallas was in prime time; it’s got Fresh Prince of Bel Air. It wasn’t that long ago that we had a very U.S. schedule. And I think a lot of people would agree that was really colonial.
But we’ve kept it Canadian in prime time. We’ve got the only Canadian late-night interview show for American celebrities who are in town and who just finished chatting with Jian. We do a lot of things that push the boundaries, that let people know that we make all kinds of Canadian and American and British programming.
We go into this with eyes wide open. We know that the bar is going to be very high for the CBC, in particular as a public broadcaster, when we look at integration. We know that if anybody’s got to sell out all the way, it’s us. I bleed green.
We look at other broadcasters who do this, and we know we are going to be more heavily scrutinized for not going as far as TD wanted. We are so careful that the integrations be organic and very natural to the story lines and respect the characters and the characterization – that it doesn’t make them do anything wacky or weird. I only eat organic and natural food and our partnership with TD is successful enough I can keep doing that.
When it’s done well, actually, integration ends up looking like real life. You know, like Amaar walks into the TD Canada Trust branch that was always visible in every shot of Main St. in Mercy over the last four seasons. Or, you know, you take the branded cereal box off the shelf. And that’s what people do in their homes – nobody has blank cereal boxes in their cupboards. Though at my home I have Consuela buy the organic amaranth flakes from the bulk bins at Whole Foods, and I’m all about value for money professionally and personally so I always double-check her receipts.
Hopefully, if it’s done in the right way, it will look authentic to the sponsor.
We’re doing well with it already. “Expansion” is probably not the right word as much as looking for the right fit with the right shows. We turn down a lot of things, and we only do this when we feel the sponsor has hit the limit of its contributions to the federal Conservatives. There’s a lot of matchmaking going on. It’s a lot like an episode of Sophie. Some shows and some genres – like factual entertainment, reality shows, and lifestyle shows in particular – can be really open to product integration. Other shows that are editorial, like news, are going to be less or none. And children’s. We don’t want it to be like “Pepsi Presents Arithmetic.” So we’ll take a look at the schedule and we’ll only do it where it makes sense for the advertiser.