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Remarks by Hubert T. Lacroix, President and CEO, at the UBC Robson Square (Master Mind Master Class) in Vancouver on May 24, 2016.
Thank you for joining me this evening. And many thanks to the University of British Columbia for the invitation to speak with you about CBC/Radio-Canada.
I noticed we have something in common. At UBC you have something you call the “West Coast spirit”; your commitment “to embrace innovation and challenge the status quo”. That kind of spirit is dear to us too at CBC/Radio-Canada.
I must confess it is a little intimidating to be speaking at an event called a “Master Mind Master Class”. I don’t really feel like a “mastermind” but I do feel quite fortunate to be leading an institution that touches the lives of Canadians like CBC/Radio-Canada does, most often in ways that are deep, very personal and long-lasting. My first "adult" connection to it goes back 32 years, 1984, when I was hired by Radio-Canada to cover basketball at the Olympic Games in Los Angeles.
They gave me a blue jacket, an awful blue jacket, with our logo extremely evident on the breast pocket. This jacket still hangs in my closet. When I look at it, it brings back memories of the pride I felt in being part of that broadcasting team; and of showing off my Radio-Canada credentials when entering or exiting Olympic venues.
I feel the same pride today, as I lead our organization through a time when the way we cover events, share information and promote culture is undergoing a radical transformation.
We’ve never seen anything like it; an age of worldwide, constant connectivity through digital devices.
With barely a swipe on your phone, you can instantly be better-informed about your world than at any other time in human history. And we are just beginning to understand the "internet of things" and how that connectivity will transform our lives.
This is changing everything.
It’s certainly changing every aspect of the broadcasting industry; and, it's transforming the way the public broadcaster serves Canadians.
This evening, I would like to talk about what CBC/Radio-Canada is doing to become more connected, and more relevant to Canadians.
And share some of what we’ve learned about the challenges – and the successes – of transforming a large public institution.
You don’t have to work at CBC/Radio-Canada to know that the past few years have been a period of incredible change. It hasn't been easy. Some have questioned whether public broadcasting can survive in the Internet age, or even whether it should. I believe it has to.
And here’s why: In this “always on,” global, digital space, what Canadians need more than ever is a Canadian public space. A space that serves the public interest; that informs Canadians about their country; that encourages them to connect with each other; that elevates our stories and our values; that builds social cohesion. This is what public broadcasting is uniquely qualified to do.
Our plan towards 2020 is built around this concept. But in order to strengthen this connection with Canadians, we have had to change how we connect with them; and change faster than anyone expected.
70 per cent of Canadians already have a smartphone. In less than a decade, the devices have penetrated every aspect of our lives. More than a billion people are now active users of Facebook; 400 million use Instagram each month; 100 million use Snapchat every day.
That’s no surprise to you. It’s how most of you are already getting your news and information; from your customized feeds on Apple, Facebook, Twitter and REDDIT. Increasingly, it’s where you also go for entertainment.
If we were starting over, the smart money would invest EVERYTHING into digital.
But we didn’t start with a blank canvass. We are an institution rooted in this country’s history, with powerful legacy assets, and a feeling of fierce pride and ownership by Canadians.
That connection is one of our greatest strengths and it is a great privilege. But it also means that each change to a program or service can be very difficult to manage. Everyone has an opinion about what our "transformation" should look like.
Public institutions like ours are expected to be at the forefront of change. We have to see it coming and lead it. We have to be connected and relevant to a digital generation. And, at the same time, at CBC/Radio-Canada, we have to ensure that we don't leave other Canadians behind.
Canadians are still watching more than 27 hours of live television each week, most of it in prime time. They love our Radio services: just on the CBC side, our morning programs are 1, 2 or 3 in 25 of the 26 communities we serve, and number ONE in 15 of them. So, we need to nurture those connections as we move to digital; all in an environment of limited financial resources, where advertising revenue (anywhere between 20% to 30% of our total budget) is moving more and more away from television.
It’s been two years since we launched our 2020 Plan; our plan to retool the public broadcaster; to become more local, to double our digital reach, and to be more relevant to Canadians.
Two years ago, a lot of it seemed like too much change.
Frankly, it didn’t help that, as we were launching our Plan, our parliamentary appropriation was reduced by $115 million dollars, on top of the advertising pressures facing all broadcasting companies.
We had to cut back. We lost a lot of talented people. For many who kept their jobs, it was the 3rd or 4th round of cuts they had lived through.
The initial public response wasn’t much better. Many feared we were dressing-up cost cutting; they simply didn't believe that the 2020 Plan was a bona fide strategic shift.
I have to admit, it was a very difficult time. A discouraging time...
Where are we today? Well, we have all been witnessing this transformation and it's really incredible to see.
Today, we are Canada’s biggest online media destination for news and information. Every month, almost 15 million Canadians use our digital sites. That number has increased by 3 million in the past year alone, and more than half of those people are reaching us through their smartphones.
You are engaging with us and with one another; posting comments, sharing our content on Twitter and Facebook. You are holding digital conversations from one end of the country to the other.
This is exactly what our strategy was and is about and what CBC/Radio-Canada’s role is today:
To be the public space for Canadian conversations.
On CBC News, our first priority now is to deliver content through mobile devices, then the Web, then radio, then television. We’ve completely inversed our model. It’s the right thing to do, but it has meant shifting resources. Cities that once got 90 minutes of television news at dinner time now get either 60 or 30 minutes. Now we’re reaching people on mobile 18 hours a day, 7 days a week.
That mobility is convenient for most of us. But, it was vital for residents fleeing Fort McMurray. As the fire advanced, we made sure crucial information was getting to those who needed it, wherever they were.
And when media were escorted into Fort McMurray for the first look at the damage, CBC News live-streamed video from the moving bus in real time, to the thousands of people desperate to know what had happened to their homes, their neighbourhoods. We put it on our News Network, on our website, on Facebook, on our News apps, on Apple TV, on Android TV, and YouTube.
That's how we must serve Canadians today.
We invest in traditional radio but also, and substantially, in podcasting. This spring CBC developed a new podcast series Someone Knows Something, a true-crime investigation into the disappearance of a five-year-old Ontario boy in 1972. It became the top downloaded podcast on iTunes in Canada the very first day it was available. Within weeks, it became one of the top podcasts downloaded in the U.S., only recently bumped out of the top ten by something called Game of Thrones.
WHAT WE’VE LEARNED
So, what have we learned?
Transformation is relentless. To make it work, every decision, every conversation, has to have this direction as a filter and a focus.
And, you have to be ready to change.
More than 1,260 of our employees have retrained for new digital skills. Another 630 have trained for new business skills to support this new direction at all levels. We are also hiring the next generation of digital creators: 150 new positions have been filled and we look to hire about 300 more in the coming years, again to support our Plan.
We’ve also learned that momentum is key.
People don’t expect to see homeruns every day but they need to see that you are scoring runs. Because when people don’t see what they’re gaining, they will tend to focus only on what they’re losing.
They need to see that our transformation is allowing us to do things we simply couldn’t do before.
Let me tell you about one example that I am particularly proud of: The Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women project, created, in Winnipeg, by our Aboriginal Digital Unit together with our investigative I-Team. Over six months, they met with each woman’s family and friends. They looked at every single case. They created an interactive site to really tell each of their stories; the first site of its kind. It’s incredibly powerful. And it’s producing results. It got Canadians talking about what’s been happening in their backyard. Because of their work, the RCMP reopened two cold cases and were able to successfully close another.
THIS is the power of public broadcasting in the digital age. This is our transformation in action.
WHERE ARE WE NOW
I truly believe that this time can be golden for public broadcasting and for Canadians. But only if we can seize the opportunity.
Unfortunately, at a time when Canadian culture is facing global challenges, some believe the solution is to make public broadcasting smaller. That if CBC was somehow prevented from having local websites or a digital-first strategy, that newspapers would be more profitable. Some private broadcasters have suggested that the solution to their declining revenue is to limit what CBC does for Canadians to some sort of "status quo" or to make us "gap fillers". This view is as short-sighted as it is mistaken.
There is no such thing as "status quo" anymore. If there's anything we've learned, it's just how fast things are changing. All of us must change.
Let me be clear about this point. Undermining public broadcasting will not help private companies make more money. It won’t help Canadians find out more about what is happening in their communities. It won’t create more great Canadian programs.
CBC/Radio-Canada is not the problem.
But we are part of the solution.
Global media conglomerates have little interest in a public space for Canadians. That is not their mission, that's not their business model, and that's okay.
A strong public broadcaster exists to ensure that Canadian space; it strengthens Canadian identity; and it raises the bar for all Canadian media organizations, to do more for Canadians.
I think government understands this. You’ve heard that for the first time in a decade, government is reinvesting in public broadcasting, starting with $75 million dollars this year.
That support gives us some breathing room after years of cuts. It will ensure we can continue with our transformation.
We want Canadians to be amazed with what a re-investment in public broadcasting can do.
And, it’s more than the money. It’s what this reinvestment represents. It’s a vote of confidence in the value of our programs and in our vision for the future.
And when government says that culture is important, something else happens. People start to think about what is possible again.
I notice it when I speak with my colleagues at Telefilm or the National Film Board. We are optimistic about the future; we have new ideas for partnerships and projects to support Canadian culture, Canadian artists, Canadian filmmakers, Canadian producers etc…. It's an exciting time.
Yes, there will continue to be challenges. The decline in advertising undermines the ability of all broadcasters to create good Canadian programs. A modern broadcasting business model needs to reflect modern business realities in our eco-system. The current one is still broken.
I think that the Government's consultation on the future of Canadian Content in a Digital World is a very important step in addressing this challenge. We look forward to providing whatever support we can.
We have learned a lot about transformation over the past few years. And we will continue to learn, innovate, and adapt. We’ll do that by engaging with Canadians.
I’d like to finish with one more example, right here in Vancouver.
Last January, 350 high school students spent a Saturday in our broadcast centre here for our second annual Junior J-School; a hands-on program created by our top journalists and producers. We talked with them about reporting on the front lines, about the changing nature of journalism. Like you here at UBC, their ideas, their optimism is going to define this country.
You are already shaping social media. You have a role in shaping your Canadian public space as well.
THAT’S why we’re building this public space, for you, for Canadians.