How Canada's CBC is Shaping Its Digital Future With Mobile Content

AP Photo/Graham Hughes, The Canadian Press
Hubert Lacroix

The struggling public broadcaster will bypass older viewers for younger ones.

TORONTO — Hubert Lacroix, Canada's top public broadcaster, has been meeting recently with international colleagues facing the same broadcast woes as his strugglingCBC: navigating a new digital world amid accusations of elitism and bias.

"Everyone is talking to us. An Australian broadcaster was in our shop a few days ago, and we talked about the legacy infrastructure that we have and are limiting the choices we make everyday," the CBC president told a media conference call Thursday after the CBC released it's latest five-year plan.

But missing from Lacroix's dance card is Fox News Channel, which is curious because Rupert Murdoch's 24-hour cable network and the CBC face the same existential threat: too many older viewers and younger ones going elsewhere for their news.

That has seen the CBC in recent years increasingly pander to the over-60 crowd with bland dramas and comedies and angry, ageing pundits such as Don Cherry, Rex Murphy and Kevin O'Leary that rail against downtown elitists and Occupy Wall Street with as much populist zeal as Fox News.

The good news for the CBC is the public broadcaster is now doing something to chase younger, hipper viewers raised online and on their smartphones.

Lacroix on Thursday unveiled a root-and-branch shift by the Canadian network from TV and radio to a mobile-first content strategy.

"You're going to see us lead with mobility and digital," Lacroix told reporters.

"The distinction is going to be with the content, with the way that we connect with people in the regions," he added.

Older viewers is less of a problem for U.S. networks than the CBC because Americans watch their own dramas and comedies.

That Canadians greatly favor those same U.S. network dramas and comedies over their own homegrown shows leaves Canadian broadcasters like the CBC investing heavily into news and current affair programming to build and sustain local audience and ad dollars.

The good news for the CBC is, unlike Fox News, it will now increasingly ignore ageing viewers to chase younger viewers with new digital and mobile content before they disappear down the road.

"We will start to stay, let's start producing for mobile first, then digital, then radio, then television," Heather Conway, executive vp of English services at the CBC, told reporters Thursday.

Riding a digital wave into the future will mean shedding 20 percent of its workforce over five years, selling real estate and outsourcing production while airing shorter local newscasts.

What that might do is assure the CBC a sustainable and cost-effective future by targeting Internet and mobile users in an increasingly multiplatform world.

"We realize where the industry is going. We are going to shift our resources over time to mobility and the net," Lacroix argued.

That pursuit of Canada's networked generation also follows the CBC looking to balance its books amid a round of job and programming cuts earlier this year to close a $130 million budgetary shortfall.

On the TV side, the CBC is looking to brand integration and other coin-raising partnerships to mount future reality series, creating fewer and cheaper TV shows due to reduced government subsidies and the loss of NHL revenue from next season.