Hubert T. Lacroix, President and CEO of CBC/Radio-Canada, was invited by the European Association of Regional Television (CIRCOM) to speak at their 35th annual conference. The theme of the conference was: “Regional TV facing new screens.”
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Thank you for inviting me, José.
I have been in my job for close to 10 years now. The changes to the media environment over that period have been disruptive. You all know that. Everyday, at practically every meeting and in nearly every water cooler chat, we all talk about the Netflix penetration rate numbers or investment announcements ($6 billion US dollars next year!). We hear that Facebook is now close to 2 billion monthly active users, or that the 300 million monthly Snapchat users take 2.5 billion snaps per day, or that Twitter is now entering the professional sports arena. As public broadcasters, probably built on television and radio legacy assets, we ask “where do we go next?”
That’s when you are not dealing with substantial reductions in your financial support from your respective governments, not having robust conversations with those same governments on your charter conditions, mandate or conditions of licence, or not trying to reinvent your broken business models.
That is my world too. And, sorry, I don’t have all of the answers…
My intention today is to tell you about our work at CBC/Radio-Canada, how digital is helping us transform Canada’s public broadcaster, how some of the choices we have made have changed our culture, how local services have become a key pillar to our strategy, and how engaging 18-34 year-olds is woven into these choices.
Our story starts with financial pressures.
In 2012, we were faced with a second round of budget cuts (the government was taking out $115 million dollars from our budgets). Combined with other indirect government or federally-regulated cuts to our revenue line, we were facing a $200 million hit overall (about 20% of our budgets).
I had already announced and we had managed the elimination of close to 900 full-time positions (about 10% of our staff) in 2009.
Three years later, we were looking for ways to reduce costs again. One of the many decisions we took was to reshape our regional offerings by going for 90-minute TV newscasts at suppertime in every regional market (the concept was 3 x 30 minutes, from 5 to 6:30 p.m., in a “carousel” format). We would thus save on late-afternoon programming while honouring our commitment to local news.
That decision led us to discover just how diverse regional markets can be. A “one-size fits all” approach was a mistake.
I’ll give you an example: in Calgary, our third-largest city, people were avid listeners of our CBC local radio morning show (we had the number-one position), but didn’t watch the 6 o’clock news. Adding minutes of television around suppertime was doing nothing for them. Yet, in Winnipeg, our television supper news offer was number one in its market and needed to be protected and supported.
It didn’t make sense to have one single format for local TV news anymore. So, we looked at our audience numbers, and decided that regional stations would produce a 30-minute TV supper newscast to ensure a basic offering for all and, in the most-watched markets, a 60-minute newscast. We killed the 90-minute format. That meant less TV in most markets but not less coverage. But, as an alternative, we promised to provide local coverage from morning until night, from “bonjour” to “bonsoir”, using our other platforms: web, mobile and radio.
That was the start of our digital shift.
In April 2014, we launched our strategic plan, the 2020 Plan, to become more local and digital; to offer more ambitious Canadian programming; and to do it all in a way that was financially sustainable.
We also clearly announced that we were inverting our priorities: we went from TV-first, then radio-web-and-mobile to mobile-first, then web-radio and TV. For a public broadcaster known and recognized for its television and radio content for over 80 years, that was “transformational.” I wasn’t very popular…
The plan’s vision was to make CBC/Radio-Canada the public space at the heart of our conversations and experiences as Canadians. It was about accelerating the modernization of the public broadcaster, about bringing it closer to its audience.
But the plan also needed us to develop long-term, sustainable ways to manage our finances. I told everyone that up to another 1,500 jobs would be eliminated. Again, not a very popular announcement…
I also told them that the most painful and frustrating task for me had been to implement one round after another of reductions to respond to a changing environment and balance our budgets. I had enough of these announcements. Our 2020 Plan had to be sustainable.
So, three years later, where are we?
Well, the number of visits on our digital platforms has gone from 9 million per month to 16.3 million per month; we’re well on our way to passing our objective of 18 million per month by 2020.
Our regional websites went from 8 to 12 refreshes per day, to 8 to 12 per hour; we’re providing continuous news.
To illustrate this shift, I would like to take the next minutes to show you how we work on multiple platforms and consider them as one offering to make ourselves more relevant to our audiences, younger audiences included.
Canada is a big country, second largest in the world. CBC/Radio-Canada works across six time zones, in two official languages (French and English) and eight Indigenous languages. Let’s travel!
Let’s start in Canada’s North. It’s a beautiful and sometimes harsh country. Communities are far apart. People depend on CBC North for information and news. CBC North has decades of programs, mostly radio broadcasts, on CD’s, cassettes and reel-to-reel. The importance of this collection cannot be overstated.
We collected more than 64,000 hours worth of Indigenous conversations. We set up a storage server and built workstations with digitization gear in our Yellowknife station. We’re now in the process of digitizing the content. Indigenous-language experts help catalogue stories. We’re working with Indigenous communities represented in the collection to find the best way to make the content available to them again.
This initiative is part of a mass 5- to 7-year digitization project, which we officially announced two weeks ago (May 11). This is all about preserving and showcasing our audiovisual heritage for generations to come.
You can’t claim to be a public broadcaster focused on digital if you can’t access or share your archives in the same way.
On the West Coast, you’ll find Vancouver, British Columbia’s largest city. It’s beautiful but people also live with the threat of a sudden earthquake. CBC Vancouver produced “Fault Lines,” a podcast exploring the potential aftermath if a massive earthquake struck British Columbia.
The series drew hundreds of thousands of listeners, and was the number-one podcast downloaded on iTunes in its first week. It also contributed to the provincial government taking action on an “earthquake early-warning and seismic monitoring program.” Our series had impact.
This audio initiative could also be seen as an extension of our traditional radio audiences.
Over the Rocky Mountains you arrive in Alberta and oil towns like Fort McMurray. Last May, more than 80,000 people had to leave everything behind to evacuate the city when a wildfire struck. It was two months before the fire was under control. Take a look.
During the crisis, traffic on the Radio-Canada Alberta website and on cbc.ca/edmonton got over 20 million visits; compare that to 15,000 to 20,000 people usually watching our TV suppertime news.
Twelve staff remained on the ground the day after the evacuation order and were the first to return. We were there.
The reporter you saw in this video is Briar Stewart. One Fort McMurray couple even named their newborn baby after her because they so appreciated her work during those long days.
What we learned was the power of the reach of social media, of our digital platforms, and of the combination of audio and video in this new setting.
Let’s go East. You may have heard about the terrible attack on a mosque in Quebec City. On January 29th, a gunman killed six men and wounded several others. Alexandre Duval from Radio-Canada Québec was first on site to report on this tragedy on TV and social media.
We were able to deliver this coverage because we chose to prioritize local and digital. By the way, that position had been recently funded following the reinvestment made in public broadcasting by the Trudeau government elected in October 2015. Otherwise, we wouldn’t have had a journalist working at our Quebec City station on a Sunday night.
Meanwhile, traffic on radio-canada.ca/quebec increased by 181%. Again, a focus on digital first.
At about the same time, New Brunswick, on the East Coast, was hit by a severe ice storm. It knocked down power lines and made driving impossible. It took 12 days to restore power across the province. Twelve days in freezing temperatures with no power.
At one point, our staff carried canisters of gasoline up to our radio transmitter to keep the generators going.
Still, our team in Moncton managed to provide extensive coverage of the storm to French-speaking Canadians in Atlantic Canada: 51 hours of special programming on radio; 12 hours on TV; in addition to 128 updates on our national TV networks. Their regional website saw a 24% increase of unique visitors for that period. Each platform supported the other.
This is where the mandate of the public broadcaster changes and we become the “go-to” place for vital information in times of natural disasters.
This service to communities is not unique to CBC/Radio-Canada. You do it too.
People want to know what’s going on in their community. They have constant access to national and international news and information, but local stories are getting more and more difficult to find because they are expensive to produce. And you need people on the ground.
As you know, private media is cutting back on anything that doesn’t return dollars to their shareholders. Newsrooms don’t pay back shareholders.
So, these last years have been especially difficult for newspapers and regional newsrooms in Canada. In fact, between 2008 and 2016, 169 Canadian news outlets closed or were merged with other outlets.
That’s where our 2020 Plan comes in: an unwavering commitment to local coverage, an unwavering commitment to compelling content, an unwavering commitment to digital.
Because citizens not only want content that relates to them personally; they want content that speaks to them intelligently, on the platform of their choice.
And, we have realized that we are wrong to be targeting 18-34 year-olds per se. We have started changing our vocabulary, even when we want to target younger generations. We’re now talking about Gen C, for Generation Content, and about “digital citizens.” We talk much less about “millennials.” We are much more inclusive in our vocabulary.
Our transformation also changed the way we cover signature events because, sometimes, it’s just better to watch a sports event on a bigger screen, in a living room or in a bar, with friends, family or other sports fans. People like to get together to cheer on their favourite athletes. But, they also expect getting updates on their mobile devices in a timely fashion.
Our Olympic coverage is an example of how our digital-first approach supports more traditional platforms.
During the Rio 2016 Olympics, we reached 32.1 million Canadians – more viewers in Canada than for any previous Summer Games.
And we led with our digital coverage. We streamed just about every sports competition, Canadians performing or not. Yes, the TV audiences were solid (on CBC Television only, average full-day audience increased by 11% over London; primetime increased by 23%). But the digital numbers were unheard of: CBC/Radio-Canada’s English- and French-language websites and apps generated more than 229 million total page views and nearly 37 million video views over the course of the Games.
Let me remind you that only 36 million people live in Canada.
As I told you, our goal is to reach 18 million monthly Canadian users by 2020.
That’s why we’re in digital: to be at the heart of conversations and experiences.
Here is one of these very important stories that needed to be told.
In the Northwest of Canada, there’s a stretch of Highway 16 called “The Highway of Tears.” Close to 50 Indigenous women have gone missing while hitchhiking on that road. It’s a local tragedy and a national shame.
CBC decided all Canadians needed to know what was happening out there. So our national affairs radio show, The Current, produced a virtual reality documentary about The Highway of Tears. VR allowed us to put Canadians at the side of that highway, to sit in the living room of a mother struggling to find out what happened to her daughter. We also took the technology to communities across the country where we invited people to watch it and to talk about it together.
Because The Current is a trusted radio program, and also because of the compelling storytelling that virtual reality makes possible, people experienced the story in a way that they had not before. More than 1.8 million Canadians tuned in to the town halls that aired on CBC Radio One, and almost half a million people followed the story on Facebook. The podcast was downloaded a total of 37,000 times.
Again, something that started out of our television investigative unit in Winnipeg became an interactive website, which elevated the conversation to a national level, and then morphed into a radio program and was supported by a virtual reality initiative.
As public media services, we have to engage younger citizens, without abandoning the older generations. We all have the same challenge.
But, we can’t be relevant to all in the same way, even when we are covering the same event or broadcasting a regular program.
La soirée est (encore) jeune resonates with a younger demographic. It’s a live radio show (in a bar/restaurant type setting) with a strong social media presence on Facebook, which has also become a TV show, a podcast and a public outreach event as we take it directly into communities for its broadcast. Each platform allows us to connect with different, often new, audiences.
Here’s also something we have recently launched (May 3rd). RAD, that is short for Radio-Canada, is a lab where we aim to reinvent the way we deliver news and current affairs on social media. And our constant conversations through Facebook, YouTube, Instagram and Snapchat shape the way we tell stories. Here’s a clip: it’s in French but I hope that you’ll get a flavour of how different these news formats are, even though they are subject to the same rigorous Journalistic Standards and Practices that we impose on our more traditional news programs.
Our last example on how digital is allowing our younger reporters to get closer to their communities also comes from the North, where we started our cross-Canada tour.
Claudiane Samson is a video journalist based in Whitehorse, in the North. She is a one-person operation, although she collaborates regularly with her colleagues from CBC Yukon. She covers a vast territory. Please look at this.
Again, another way for us to test how we can reach new audiences within the limits of our financial resources.
So, in closing, I hope that I was able to show you how we have changed the way we do things by committing to being multi-platform.
Yet, at the same time, it’s not about the platform. It’s about the content, compelling content, prepared and delivered differently for each platform.
It’s about telling stories and not only targeting specific age groups, but understanding that the story needs to be told differently to get the attention of digital citizens no matter how old they are.
I would be happy to take questions and learn about your experiences.