The interview has been condensed and edited for space and clarity.
Your appointment as the first female CEO of the CBC in its 82-year history was a historic breakthrough. What took so long and what message does that send?
You can’t have worked in media in this industry for as long as I have and not experienced the glass ceiling as a woman. Anyone who says otherwise is not telling the truth. It’s a struggle and it continues to be a struggle. I take my role very seriously. I will do whatever I can to advance the cause.
But really, I’m the thin edge of the wedge. This is not just good news for women. The reality is I know what it’s like to look in the window and wanting to get in. For vast numbers of Canadians from all communities I understand what that feels like. So the idea is to advance the cause of diversity and inclusion. That means more women, more minorities and more Indigenous people in front of and behind the camera.
You are the first creator and producer to head the CBC. How important is that skill set moving forward in the digital age?
I’ve always been interested in telling stories and that’s essentially what we do at the CBC. In particular, I’ve always loved comedy. As a child of a diplomat I was always from the outside looking in; I was always the new kid. I was born in Greece but grew up in Ottawa. Comedians always have that experience of being an outsider. And I think I can help to foster those stories, because right now we’re living in one of the most exciting times in the history of television. How does that position us? We have a population of the most diverse, interesting people. If we can tap into the comedy and the drama of their lives, we have stories we can tell the world.
You’ve said that you want the CBC to be bold and adventurous in programming. That doesn’t sound like the CBC most people know. What are you looking for and what are you watching right now? And it doesn’t have to be on the CBC.
I love the Baronesses (Baroness von Sketch). I love Schitt’s Creek. I used to work with Margaret Cho, she’s one of the greats. I tend to focus on shows that have a different point of view. Is someone casting a new eye on the familiar? I loved Killing Eve with Sandra Oh. I wish the CBC had made that show. It’s a thriller, but it also has humour. They murder someone and you wonder why you’re laughing.
But do you know what the key to creating a hit is? Authenticity. One unique voice. I’ve been watching HBO’s My Brilliant Friend. It’s unbelievably beautiful. You can have an Italian language series with two actresses you’ve never heard of and with subtitles. So I ask my colleagues at Radio Canada why can’t we have a global hit that’s in the French language?
It’s not impossible. That’s the great service that Netflix has done. It has shown that people will watch shows with subtitles. When I was young in this industry, the idea was that nobody would watch foreign-language programming. And not too long ago the thinking was that nobody would watch a film with an all-Asian cast and look at Kim’s Convenience. It’s doing great on the CBC and Netflix.
It will take some time before we see your own impact on programming choices as you green light shows. But what are you doing right now?
When they were doling out specialty channels, the kids’ channels went to the private broadcasters. The CBC never had a robust offering for young people. I think there is a market opportunity right now. That has traditionally been our most successful sector in Canada. We have incredible companies like Nelvana, like DHX or Sinking Ship. We can’t waste that brain trust. Right out of the gate I said we should be looking at what we’re doing for kids aged 6 right through to 20. You want teens to see themselves on their public broadcaster.
The CBC already has several co-productions, including Anne With an E with Netflix. Is this the future?
Absolutely. The reality is if you have $10 and you spend it on one show you have one show. If you spend a dollar on 10 shows you have 10 shows. We want to leverage our limited resources. When you look at everything we do we don’t have a lot for entertainment programming. How do we produce shows that Canadians will like and have a life beyond Canada? Part of our role is to tell the world about Canada. As a public broadcaster, I believe the CBC has an international role. It has been downplayed over past years because of limited resources. We should be thinking of not just Canadians as our audience but as part of the global market.
You’ve said that the CBC newsrooms are our most precious asset. But there has been controversy over use of four anchors at The National. The criticism is that it’s disjointed and not working. Do you see a day we go back to one anchor?
The most thrilling thing for me in the first few weeks I was here was to go into newsrooms. I’ve always been in scripted programming and I really have no journalism background. But news is definitely the beating heart of the CBC. I can really sense the pressure and the responsibility.
But first of all, they made a very audacious choice. They said let’s try and reinvent the form, let’s experiment; take some of our most talented on air hosts and see what they do. I would say it’s a work in progress. We’re getting great traction on the digital uptake for The National. There are definitely challenges for some people who are looking for that one trusted host. There are issues. But I think we will have a post-mortem and dig into it at some point. What I think is really important is that they dared to do something different.
On the subject of CBC news, during the Ontario municipal elections you didn’t pre-empt your regular programming such as Murdoch Mysteries to show live results. But other broadcasters did. Do you think that fulfilled the mandate of the CBC?
We can get election results in a real-time way. And digital provides that service and sometimes better than conventional television. Should every single election be covered on TV? I would say no. Our research shows that a great number go to the web to get the results. Obviously there were people who were disappointed and we would love to serve everyone to the maximum. But it’s a question of resources.
Still, just the next month, the CBC covered a foreign election: the U.S. mid-terms live. And I know in the past you have said covering Canada and going local would be the wave of the future for the CBC.
But that’s not necessarily using straight up old-fashioned TV. You have to make those choices. You start training your audience to find things in another place. Maybe some shows that are more narrowcast may not go to a broader audience. It’s a Sophie’s Choice. Do we privilege broadcast or digital? They are two horses going at different speeds and this has huge implications on our coverage.
When you were at Salter Street as the president, your portfolio included This Hour Has 22 Minutes. The show has been hit by some controversy, including a wave of departures and firings such as host Shaun Majumder and some of the long-time writers. How do you fix this?
I always have suggestions, especially about comedy. We have an amazing programming team. Clearly Shaun is one of our most talented comedians in Canada. And we’re looking forward to developing something else with him. And hopefully that will be sooner rather than later, where we have another property we can develop.
When I was with 22 Minutes it was the original cast and was great television. It still is great television. When you ask about four hosts at The National, I always think about the four hosts of 22 Minutes. It gives you flexibility. It gives new talent a chance to shine. It’s a formula that can be very rich. If you just have one person you only have one person and you can be vulnerable. But the show itself has to evolve and I think that’s what they are doing.
You’re replacing Heather Conway, the former head of English services. What qualities are you looking for in the next candidate and what’s the timeline?
The broadcasting side of things still brings in a lot of ad revenue and still has much of the same requirements as a traditional broadcaster. So I’m looking at an executive with deep broadcasting experience but, at the same time, has an eye to the future.
But we should have someone well within the next six months. Another first for us is that we have Michel Bissonnette (executive vice-president Radio-Canada, and recently appointed interim executive vice-president CBC) as the interim head.
It’s the first time the head of Radio-Canada is the interim from the French side. He’s done an amazing job. Radio-Canada has never had better ratings. And it’s helpful to us and to him to have common on-the-ground knowledge. The French service may do some things better and the English may do things better, and it helps to break barriers between the two services.
Traditionally the CBC has been criticized by private broadcasters who complain that you’re taking away advertising revenue while doing shows that compete with commercial outlets. Now you’re being criticized by newspaper publishers, including the Toronto Star, for taking revenue away from struggling newspapers using digital properties such as CBC.ca while supported by taxpayers.
Aspirationally, we would love to be ad free. Consumers have already voted with their feet. They love Netflix not just because of the programming but because it’s ad free and they’re willing to pay for it. However, $300 million of advertising pays for a lot of the mandate. That includes services to the north, services in local communities that we couldn’t pay for if we were looking for a commercial model to pay for itself. I’m not going to walk away from that revenue. We’re going to manage it. We’re going to see over time how we move away from it. And hopefully replace it with subscription fees from the paywall or from other services that we might generate distribution fees on. We’re exploring ways we can generate revenue to bolster the services and, over time, move out over being dependent on pure ad revenue.
Talking about a paywall, you just launched the CBC’s Gem app, your first big strategic announcement. This isn’t to necessarily compete with Netflix, but more as a complement?
Netflix has achieved a very high penetration in a short period of time, so convincing Canadians to choose Gem over Netflix with their thousands of hours of programming is highly unlikely. But I think Canadians will choose Netflix or Amazon and then one or two other services that meet their needs and that’s where we fit in. Maybe they choose a kids’ service. Maybe they choose a sports service. We want them to choose Gem hopefully because they want to know what’s going on in Canada. Unlike Netflix, Gem has local news and sports. If you’re Canadian and you want to be an active participant in our society you’ll want Gem. And we’ve priced it at $4.99 a month for the commercial-free version, which we think is reasonable. But the future is digital.
You’re coming in from the private sector where, as an entrepreneur, you get to roll the dice. For some people in the CBC, being bold and taking risk, as you say, might sound a little frightening, if not unheard of.
I know, but I have to think that’s why they hired me. I wasn’t shy about it in the interview.
That piece is the part where you’re willing to take a risk. Most entrepreneurs have started a half a dozen businesses and half of them have failed. But they keep on going and keep on trying because you’re trying to do something that’s never been done before.
That’s what appealed to me. It felt like that the CBC has been in survival mode for so many years, trying to justify why we even exist. And it’s been easier to bash the CBC than to celebrate it. But entrepreneurs are fundamentally salespeople. They have an idea, a project and they go out and sell it, whether to an investor, or the public or stakeholders. So how do we sell the idea of public broadcasting that Canadians take ownership?
There is always some criticism about the CBC including, of course, from viewers like your mother. But what do you want ultimately to achieve at the end of your tenure?
Every person I met since I’ve been in this job has said they love CBC Radio. If I could expand that love to everything we do that would be great. We are the most trusted brand in Canada. Over 70 per cent of Canadians say they trust the CBC more than Google or Facebook or the New York Times. What does trust mean?
It is the most precious asset. If I can extend that feeling of trust to all Canadians so it’s a lifelong journey with the CBC then I will have been successful.
© [Toronto Star] (https://www.ourwindsor.ca/opinion-story/9102296-cbc-boss-catherine-tait-on-advertising-streaming-the-four-headed-news-show-and-more/)