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Top Canadian Broadcasting Corp. programmer Barbara Williams didn’t flinch from touching Canada’s third rail — acceptance of the country’s increasing cultural diversity and inclusivity — when she pitched local advertisers at her Winter Upfront presentation on a “reset” so the public broadcaster can remain relevant to audiences.
“We need to re-introduce ourselves to those who already know us and then to make an introduction to those who currently don’t have a relationship with us. We want you to see CBC as your thing … as a Canada thing. Because it’s not how Canadian you are or aren’t. It’s who you are in Canada,” Williams, CBC’s executive vp of English services, told media agencies and marketers in Toronto on Nov. 30.
Williams, who oversees the CBC’s English language TV, radio and digital services, later told The Hollywood Reporter that embracing inclusive storytelling isn’t about ticking boxes or virtue signaling, but stating the obvious.
“Our key responsibility here is to reflect contemporary Canada, in that we really recognize that contemporary Canada is different. We are a country of people from all over the world, from all walks of life, from all ethnicities and cultures and backgrounds,” Williams said.
That effort to have its programming reflect Canada’s diverse population means the CBC is putting at least 30 percent of its programming budget into content by people of color as well as Indigenous, disabled, bilingual and LGBTQ creators. The result is a slate of new, inclusive series like Bollywed and Bones of Crow to follow the success at home and abroad for homegrown shows like Kim’s Convenience, Sort Of and The Porter.
Elsewhere, Simu Liu, the actor known for his roles in Marvel Studios’ Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings and Kim’s Convenience, will host Canada’s music trophyfest, the Juno Awards, on the CBC for the second year running in 2023.
Speaking to THR along with Sally Catto, the CBC’s general manager, entertainment, factual and sports, Williams argued all Canadians “should feel that the public broadcaster belongs to them. So it’s very purposeful. And we are seeing the dividends of that.”
With the CBC’s winter programming slate, you’ve put a focus on greater diversity and inclusion in your storytelling to reflect a changing Canada. Why this strategy?
Williams: We have had a commitment for a long time here at the CBC, to be more diverse in all ways, inside and outside, in the stories we tell, with the people that tell them, with the way we tell them and with the places those stories are being told from. And we have to double down on that, if you will. And in the last couple of years that I’ve been here, we have really rallied around a phrase that I think people on my team would recognize, which is our key responsibility here is to reflect contemporary Canada, in that we really recognize that contemporary Canada is different. We are a country of people from all over the world, from all walks of life, from all ethnicities and cultures and backgrounds. We have Indigenous peoples whose lives we want to respect and whose stories we want to share. And we want very much for the public broadcaster to be that conduit, that vessel, that opportunity for everyone who lives in this country to see themselves, hear themselves, to be reflected somewhere in the great, great, great amount of content that we do at the CBC. And we are really committed to that and we wanted to showcase that today.
How can you be certain the doubling down on inclusive storytelling will pay off?
Williams: I think there’s a few things. Certainly we did a lot of research in this last year and a half, where we talked to younger audiences. We talked to people from racialized communities. We talked to the Black community. We talked to Indigenous communities, and they told us very clearly the CBC doesn’t mean a lot to them right now. They don’t see themselves reflected. They don’t hear their stories. They don’t feel necessarily the CBC belongs to them. So, partly, they told us. And second, we know when we do respectfully reach into other communities help find and develop the new voices and new storytelling, that we really do connect with people, and we become more meaningful and more valuable as their public broadcaster than we were before. And that ultimately is our measure of success. We need to be distinctive and we need to be valuable. We are not just one of a whole list of media companies. We’re the only one that carries this particular responsibility as a public broadcaster. That responsibility comes with reflecting everyone in this country, that they should feel that the public broadcaster belongs to them. So it’s very purposeful. And we are seeing the dividends of that.
You’re also breaking down walls among all viewers by taking chances on ground-breaking series like Sort Of, which has a trans Muslim character played by Bilal Baig and is standing out in the U.S. on HBO Max. How did you know that series would hit in a business where most TV series fail?
Williams: I’m going to let Sally talk about the show. But I will only intro to say that when this script came in, and this idea came in, Sally knew instantly she had something there. And that’s the magic of being a great commissioning editor, because it’s really hard to do those things.
Catto: What’s striking a chord with Sort Of is — and I know Bilal has talked about this — this idea that we are always in transition, And I think what’s so beautiful about Sort Of, and authentic and real, is we might be seeing a character that we haven’t seen before on our screens. It’s also telling a story and delivering a message about the fact that our lives are always in motion. And I think that at this time in the world, especially, that kind of truth in these stories that really do resonate with people is kind of undeniable, that idea of always being in transition. Maybe people don’t think about that, but it’s happening to all of us. So I think that’s kind of the beauty of it. It kind of creeps up on you in a very funny, obviously well written and beautifully performed way. But I think that’s kind of what’s there that is making it a hit. That is fantastic. It’s kind of that that there is that intangible thing that somehow really emerges through all that talent.
Barb, when talking to Canadian advertisers at your Winter Upfront presentation, you said “we want you to see CBC as your thing … as a Canada thing. Because it’s not how Canadian you are or aren’t. It’s who you are in Canada.” Talk about that.
Williams: It was a very deliberate line, with a very deliberate thought. There are a lot of people that live in this country that don’t necessarily identify as Canadian, that are not sure they want to identify as Canadian. There are a lot of newcomers to this country that one day would like to be Canadian, maybe, but aren’t right now. There are so many different ways to be living a life in this country, on this land. And not everybody’s history and experience and background is the same. And yet their public broadcaster needs to hear all that and embrace all that and hold all of that for everyone. That’s huge. And it’s hard. But it’s what we’re striving for, to be so respectful of the individuality of the people that live in this land, and yet somehow find a way to connect and engage with them in a way that’s meaningful to them, both on the entertainment side for sure, and on the news side — frankly, in the stories we tell and news and how we tell them and how we cover all those communities and those people.
It’s one thing to make inclusive shows, but in Canada it’s another matter to measure them ratings-wise, so you can sell commercials on those shows, so under-represented filmmakers can tap subsidies to make more of them. Broadcasters here are working to better measure under-represented audiences. Where is the industry with that?
Williams: It’s a great question. Our industry is really struggling with finding reliable ways to measure across all these platforms and bring those numbers together in a meaningful way to truly grasp what the size of audiences are. It was so simple, back in the old days: one overnight, and that was it. But now content lives on all these platforms for a long time. Sort Of sits on [streaming platform CBC] Gem as an opportunity for people over a year or two. We have to sort of guess some ideas around the size of audience. But it’s a challenge. It’s a problem; the industry hasn’t nailed it. We continue to need to find ways to be more clear about the size of audiences. And that game is not won or lost for us on the size of audience. I’ve spent a lot of my career in places where size of audience was the only measure of success. It is an incredibly meaningful opportunity for me to be at the CBC and work in a place that can measure success by other means than just the size of audience. I’m the first to say you have to have an audience. If no one’s watching or listening, then what’s the point? But it doesn’t have to be about biggest is best and biggest is all that counts. There is real value in telling stories that may be smaller in size, but have never been told before, by letting people who’ve never had access to this industry, for whom this industry has been way beyond their reach, to finally have a way in, to be supported and have developed a story they’ve been carrying around and needs to be told. So we measure success in a lot of different ways. And we try to keep an eye on it all, to balance it out. It makes for a fascinating puzzle.
You’ve spoken of under-served audiences wanting to see themselves on CBC screens. How are you dealing with emerging creative talent from under-represented communities skeptical that the CBC is really serious about working with them and is just ticking boxes?
Williams: Sally and her team work away at that all the time. Because it takes time. You have to build trust with communities; you have to be reliable and you have to be there, not only today, but tomorrow. And you have to be there not only when it goes well and when it doesn’t, and that takes time. So this is a long game we’re playing. And we are slowly but surely building trust in a lot of communities and with a lot of creators that we didn’t work with before. They’re new to us, too. And part of the commitment we made was to change the team that’s inside. That is the commissioning team, the development team, so that we have a much more diverse team inside the CBC, reaching into those communities, that’s taking the pitches, that is developing projects, that’s bringing them forward for a green light. So it’s all those pieces together. It takes time and patience and persistence, frankly, because you have to prove that you mean it.
You also mentioned more inclusive storytelling by your news and current affairs divisions, which isn’t easy because, surprise, Canada is a divided country, with clashing politics from both sides. How do you tackle that?
Williams: Oh, just that little question. Let me start with, CBC News is an incredibly important organization in Canada. And time after time after time, what news events break, and there’s been a lot of them in this last few years, people come to the CBC for our trusted journalism and for our complete journalism. We are in more places than any of the other news organizations in Canada. We’re in more communities around Canada. We are coming to the North. We are far more present throughout Canada, and we are far more present around the world. So we are strong, we are big and we’re committed. And we’re now realizing there’s opportunities for us to be sharing our news and information content across more platforms so we can reach more people. The announcement about launching CBC News Explorer, that’s about recognizing that there’s a full, younger audience out there that doesn’t turn to a six o’clock newscast and that is really interested in learning more and understanding more about the context, about the story behind the news and to have it explained to them differently, in a format and on a platform that they’re comfortable accessing. That’s what this new streaming service is all about. It’s a big mandate for the CBC. And it’s really important we uphold and maintain the power and the importance of that CBC News brand.
Sally, I hear emerging creators saying they can take risks because their series were greenlit for CBC Gem. How do you ensure creators can be authentic and real on the main CBC network as well?
Catto: We are really serving more of a younger audience on Gem and we have more of a traditional audience on linear, and we have one budget that really has to serve both platforms. I would say increasingly much of our content lives comfortably on both platforms. And I do think when we look at our digital originals, like our shorts, whether they’re scripted and unscripted, we do say be experimental, take some risks, take some chances here. But today, it really is more of a holistic look. Take Sort Of as an example. We launch it first on Gem. We thought that’s probably where the strongest audience is, but we’re still going to put it on linear. So I think with time there’s been a bit less of a division in the kinds of content. And as we progress, there’s a bit more fluidity back and forth, in part by necessity, really.
You also welcome your inclusive series like Sort Of and Kim’s Convenience traveling widely beyond Canada?
Williams: We do love to see our content travel successfully around the world. A strategic priority at the CBC is to take Canada to the world, and we do that with a lot of our news content that travels around the world, and we do that with some of our scripted and unscripted shows, and we do it a lot with our podcasts. So a lot of our content does travel outside of Canada successfully and find those audiences around the world that are open-minded and interested in the kind of content we’re creating. Our first responsibility though, is to Canada and to people who live here. And we want to reflect their reality, reflect where their interests really are and to share their stories where they’re concerned about sharing their stories, while being respectful. And Sort Of has been successful in the United States, just the way Schitt’s Creek was so successful in the United States.
Interview edited and condensed for clarity.
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