Seeking a Canadian audience, but not at all costs: A distinctively Canadian context
Thank you for inviting me to the prestigious Prix Italia awards. Although I’ll be speaking mostly in English, I’d like to start off by greeting all the French-speaking attendees, including the delegates from Radio-Canada.
As national public broadcaster, CBC/Radio-Canada provides services in English and French not just throughout Canada, but also abroad on RCI. It’s this reality I’d like to discuss today.
The challenges that public broadcasters must deal with in the 21st Century, particularly in television, are as many as they are momentous. As much in Canada as anywhere else.
Ten years ago, for example, Canada didn’t have 100 digital specialty channels, 100 more foreign satellite channels, including RAI, or close to 20 pay-per-view and video-on-demand services. Canadians watched television and listened to radio – but it wasn’t on their laptops, their Blackberries, their cell phones and iPods. In 2004, there was no satellite radio in Canada. In 2005, there was no YouTube; in 2006, no iPhone.
As the national public broadcaster, CBC/Radio-Canada believes that Canadians must have access to distinctive content created by, for and about them – and Canadians want their programs when, where and how it suits them.
Our role is to connect Canadians to each other, to their country and to the world. It is to allow Canadians to share the diversity of stories, of voices and of origins that reflect who we are as a country. To do this right, it is no longer enough to be just a television or radio company with some Internet activity. Today we think of ourselves not as a television company, or a radio company, or even an Internet company. We are a content company, a provider of content on all platforms.
While I will talk primarily about television today, I’d like to say a few words about our radio services. CBC Radio and Radio de Radio-Canada are both highly successful and meet all the measures of quality, success and public value. They are also providers of content on other platforms.
In sharing content across platforms, we have discovered some interesting things. For example, our radio services have attracted new, younger audiences via podcasts. And with serious, thoughtful programs – there is no need to dumb-down to attract a younger audience. The younger audience is smart, media-savvy and won’t tolerate being talked down to. Reaching them is how we measure success in this multi-platform world.
However, despite the growth of new types of media and the fragmentation of audiences, television remains the most pervasive mass medium in the Western world – it is the principal disseminator of popular culture and a powerful vehicle for sharing identity. It is also the cornerstone of a successful multi-platform content strategy.
In large part, our challenge has to do with the singular reality that sets the Canadian context apart from the rest of the world. That is our proximity to the United States. Canada has the single most competitive broadcasting environment in the world, bordering on the most dominant and successful exporter of popular culture, especially when it comes to television and film.
Now, that’s not to knock the US. Americans create some of the best quality content in the world. The production values and the amount of money invested in the creation and publicising of television programs are overwhelming by any standards. So it is much harder for Canadian content to enjoy high visibility and pride of place in a saturated media space. The competition is very strong.
And, while companies are integrating, audiences are disintegrating. Not only does the visibility of existing and new services lessen as a result of fragmentation, but revenues also diminish as audience size shrinks, leaving less money to fund programming.
It’s the cumulative influence of these factors that has led us to focus on content instead of platform. So, while I’m here to talk about how to measure quality in television, I also recognise that our video programming is a central component of our multi-media content strategy.
As the national public television broadcaster, we have a cultural mandate to tell compelling, original, audacious, and entertaining Canadian stories in a way that citizens want to watch in large numbers. We have to appeal to them and deliver public value.
While it's true that audience size isn't everything for us as it is for a private broadcaster, it’s equally true that one can't be a public broadcaster without a public. If too few people are watching, we're irrelevant. And, if we're irrelevant, why should Canadians continue to invest in public television?
Audience size also affects our commercial revenue. When we lose ground in audience, we lose the means to produce content. And if we grow our audiences, the extra revenue gets put right back into developing more top-notch programming.
Audience size and ratings are one dimension of measuring success and quality. Public value is the other measure. For CBC/Radio-Canada, the question of public value is rooted in a number of guiding principles that are interrelated. They include:
In our demographic, geographic and economic circumstances, the core values of democracy and culture will not be advanced if left strictly to the laws of the market. Free markets will not alone satisfactorily deliver cultural autonomy or national identity. Only a mixed public-private television system can make the achievement of Canadian public policy feasible.
A diversity of program genres and types is also a hallmark of a quality public television offering. To ensure compelling content, we believe that our schedules must be comprised of programs that embody the following attributes:
Of course, no matter how compelling the programs, we’re not succeeding if audiences don’t watch them. While critical acclaim and awards each have their place in determining quality, it comes back to achieving a balance between the popular and the meaningful.
Striking the right balance in public television is not an easy thing to do.
While nothing would please me more than to say that both CBC Television and Télévision de Radio-Canada are equally successful, the reality is that the performance of our television services is starkly different in the English and French markets, and varies over time.
Over the past few years, Télévision de Radio-Canada has adopted a highly focused strategy, which has paid off remarkably well. It called for a significant investment in new programming, guided by a few clearly defined attributes that spoke equally to audience and public value:
We took risks, as public television must, and launched successive seasons of new dramatic and entertainment series. Some shows failed and were canceled. Others drew close to two million viewers a week in a market of just seven million.
Over three years, our prime-time audience shot up from 16.5 to 22 per cent. In tandem with ratings, revenues shot up, and creativity shot way up. In my view, we succeeded in creating a quality television offering. And the trend continues today, despite increasing fragmentation in the French-language television market.
Turn now to our English network. In the last 20 years, other industrialised countries have used their national broadcasters as the anchors in repatriating their cultural identity. Everywhere else but English Canada, homegrown drama is the most popular option during prime time. English-Canadian television is dominated by US programming.
In the last couple of years, we have recognised that our comparative advantage in the marketplace is our distinctive, Canadian programming. We went back to our roots and developed an indigenous content offering in drama, entertainment and children’s programming.
CBC Television has undertaken this while increasing its emphasis on audiences without losing sight of public value. And, as important, we upped our tolerance for risk.
Entertainment programming must be the place where big risks are taken, where there is occasional failure to pave the way to success. Little Mosque on the Prairie, which has garnered international attention and acclaim – even right here in Italy, taking best series and best writing awards at this year’s Roma Fiction Fest – is proof that success is attainable by a public broadcaster that takes risks and audaciously reflects its society.
So risk-taking is leading to success and future success will, in turn, require that we think of ourselves not as a television company but as a content company. While we need to make successful television shows, equally, we need to ensure that all of our programs, television or otherwise, are developed from their inception for all platforms. And that philosophy is now ingrained in all of our services.
In summary, public broadcasters must be nimble, willing to take risks and must never lose site of their primary objective of enhancing the democratic and cultural life of their citizens.
We must be platform agnostic, must seek broad public appeal and must speak to public value. Achieving this is the ultimate measure of quality.