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TVO’s longest-serving chief executive signs off
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TVO’s longest-serving chief executive signs off

Written by
Steve Paikin
Published by
TVO
on
October 31st, 2019

Lisa de Wilde never made any bones about it. She wanted to make big changes at TVO — and that’s what she did.

When I started at what was then called TVOntario, back in 1992, I enthusiastically marched into a place that was run by a legendary figure in media circles. Peter Herrndorf had been a superstar at the CBC, responsible for creating some of the network’s signature programs. Then he ran Toronto Life magazine. In other words, we all knew him.

Same for his successor Isabel Bassett, who’d worked as a journalist, hosted her own current-affairs programs, and served as a cabinet minister in the Mike Harris government. Her solid reputation preceded her.

But, in the fall of 2005, the Ontario government announced it was appointing the president and CEO of Astral Television, who’d also been legal counsel for the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission, to be TVO’s next chief executive.

Her name was Lisa de Wilde, and all of us at the provincial broadcaster asked, “Who?”

Lisa may have been well known to the power brokers in the upper echelons of the broadcasting business, but those of us who actually made the shows had never heard of her. And we naturally wondered what she had in mind.

We didn’t have to wait long to find out.

Lisa took me out to lunch in late 2005 — a kind of “let’s get to know each other” thing, since we’d never met. By the time that lunch was over, I knew our new boss was not interested in going along to get along. She intended to make big changes, changes she thought TVO should embrace as its next mission, and she essentially urged me to buckle up and watch things unfold.

“I want to make an impact, Steve,” she said.

She made good on her word.

Fifty years ago, education minister Bill Davis opened the doors at TVO, a landmark experiment in educational television. It made its name with ground-breaking children’s shows and current affairs, aired feature films uncut and uninterrupted by commercials (Saturday Night at the Movies with Elwy Yost), and provided pedagogical programs for teachers. Before long, teachers across the province had set their VCRs to record content overnight for use as teaching aids in the classroom the next day.

Herrndorf introduced the next mission in the organization’s development, transforming the network from a pedagogical tool into more of a public broadcaster. TVO got its first daily current-affairs program — Studio 2 — along with several other well-known weekly shows, such as Fourth Reading, Diplomatic Immunity, Gregg & Company, and Journeys, on his watch.

Lisa inherited this legacy but certainly did not feel bound by it. The world had changed a great deal since the 1990s, and she felt the organization needed to continue to transform itself to reflect those new realities.

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The biggest change was that TVO could no longer simply be a single analog channel on the dial. The world of digital online services was exploding, and the organization needed to be in that space to remain relevant. When I started here, we could barely send one another emails. We made television programs that essentially aired once, and, if you missed them, well, tough luck for you.

Now, all our wares are available on air and online. There’s a treasure trove of current affairs and documentaries available for free any time viewers want them: on your desktop computers, laptops, or smartphones; live-streamed on Twitter and Facebook; or downloadable as podcasts for your listening pleasure at your convenience. There’s been a revolution in how viewers engage with their favourite shows, and TVO, under Lisa, eagerly joined that revolution.

At the risk of sounding self-focused, I’d say that Lisa had her biggest impact just a few months after she took over as CEO. She announced that TVO would be cancelling Studio 2 after 12 years and replacing it with something else, still to be determined. Studio 2 wasn’t as distinctive in year 12 as it had been when it debuted in 1994. Not only that, but with field pieces, musical segments, a large-ish technical crew, two co-hosts, and regular recurring panelists who got paid weekly stipends, the cost per episode was now too high given squeezed budgets.

Lisa had to confront a tough question: How could we expand our current-affairs offerings and be fiscally responsible at the same time?

Studio 2 was still relatively popular, and the outcry from viewers (and from within TVO) at its cancellation was harsh. During an all-staff meeting shortly after she introduced the changes, Lisa subjected herself to a Q&A from employees. Someone asked her, “How large an audience will the new show have to attain to determine whether it’s a success?”

She gave an answer I will never forget — because no other executive in the television business would have had the guts to give it — saying, “We will not judge the new show by the size of its audience. We will judge it by whether it fulfills its mission to engage viewers as citizens on the key issues of our time with a level of depth you don’t see elsewhere on television.”

Wow! As Renée Zellweger said to Tom Cruise in Jerry Maguire, “You had me at ‘Hello.’” That new show became The Agenda With Steve Paikin. It’s now in its 14th season, which is a pretty darned good run for a Canadian current-affairs program. It’s been a huge part of Lisa’s legacy.

“I was betting that the concept for the new program would ultimately capture an even higher quality of debate and analysis and deliver it across all our TVO platforms,” Lisa tells me. “And I’m so proud of The Agenda and our people who have turned it into a signature program.”

Every TVO CEO’s job involves two things: managing the operations at 2180 Yonge Street, in midtown Toronto, and managing the organization’s prime funder. TVO is owned by the people of Ontario through their sole shareholder, the provincial government. For years, successive governments at Queen’s Park have cut back on funding. When Davis opened TVO in 1970, the government covered 100 per cent of the channel’s budget. Today, after years of cutbacks by governments of all stripes, that number is closer to three-quarters. I never hear people at the organization complain about this. It’s the reality of politics today that there are endless demands on the public purse.

I suspect the conventional wisdom among the public has been that the toughest belt-tightening has happened when conservatives have been in power. Actually, not so. While it was Harris’s Progressive Conservative government that looked into privatizing TVO, it was actually Dalton McGuinty’s Liberal government that considered the harshest budget cuts. As Ontario was coming out of the Great Recession a decade ago, McGuinty became focused on cutting government spending and urged his ministers to find savings wherever they could. As a result, his education minister, Lauren Broten, brought Lisa in for a meeting and told her that a 40 per cent cut to the organization’s allocation would be coming.

What was Lisa’s response? To this day, she’s tight-lipped about it.

“As you know, I don’t discuss publicly the conversations and policy options governments of various stripes have talked about privately in meetings with officials from TVO,” she tells me.

And that’s on the level. Despite my occasional mischievous prods, Lisa never has spilled the beans to me about any of her political behind-closed-doors conversations.

Others, however, have told me that Lisa told the minister: if you’re going to cut 40 per cent out of our budget, you might as well shut the place down, since production of any kind would be impossible.

Lisa then went over the minister’s head, got a meeting with McGuinty, and made her case directly to the premier.

“Lisa made a strong case for backing off the 40% cut,” McGuinty confirmed in an email to me. “She informed me of what exactly TVO did, how many Ontarians it reached, and how it was spending its money. She was forceful but not over the top. She wore an easy smile that belied her intensity, like an iron fist in a velvet glove. She made clear the consequences of a 40% funding cut and she did so coolly. It was all light and no heat.”

McGuinty considered Lisa’s case and told his people to reduce the funding cut to just 10 per cent instead.

“Needless to say, Lisa did her job well,” McGuinty writes. “Not only in terms of what she presented, but how she presented.”

Having said that, you can’t preside over an organization with ever-dwindling resources and not make some hard decisions, and Lisa has made her share. More than four decades ago, showing movies uncut and uninterrupted was unique on television, and Saturday Night at the Movies (with its accompanying conversations, contextualizing what we’d seen) was a signature property.

Lisa cancelled it.

“After presenting more than 1,500 films and more than 1,000 interviews, TVO’s offering was simply no longer unique,” she says. “By that time, we had video rentals, pay TV, and streaming services like Netflix, all offering a plethora of options for viewers. As a movie lover, I admitted it was hard to let TVO’s beautiful Saturday Night legacy go. But we were very disciplined about the fact that TVO’s path forward required us to focus.”

The organization could no longer be all things to all people. It would specialize in children’s, current-affairs, and documentary programming. And that’s it. Lisa insisted that smaller budgets simply demanded that we do fewer things really well, rather than more things not as well.

As a result, Lisa has demanded a more entrepreneurial spirit. If the government wouldn’t give TVO more money, the organization would find other sources itself. The results were some gifts of astonishing generosity. Donald Pounder was a man who enjoyed watching The Agenda. After his death, his estate donated $2.4 million to TVO to help redesign the William G. Davis studio (where The Agenda is shot), create mPower (a digital offering that helps students improve their math skills), and make improvements to our online content on TVO.org.

Then came Barry and Laurie Green (and Barry’s mom, Goldie Feldman) with gifts totalling $4.3 million to create TVO’s Ontario Hubs in five cities across the province. As local newspapers have begun to shrink or close up shop entirely, the Hubs have moved in to create other journalistic voices. It’s helped make TVO.org perhaps the best way for people in all parts of Ontario to find out about the big stories happening throughout the province. This year, we introduced a Hub focused on Indigenous issues.

If you’re aware only of TVO’s on-air or online content, you may not know it also runs what is essentially the largest high school in the province. The Independent Learning Centre offers courses to those who need help finishing high school (or never finished it back in the day). More than 20,000 students get their General Educational Development certificates this way, through the ILC’s online offerings. Lisa has been able to convince successive governments that letting TVO do this work is good for the province, good for students, and good for TVO. And it’s been a huge success.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the organization has received the Top 100 Employers of the Year award.

Finally, while I’m loath to raise an issue that represented the worst time in my professional life, I do so anyway because, as it turns out, it also represented Lisa at her best. In February 2018, a former candidate for political office made some awful and untrue accusations against me. It happened around the same time that some of America’s most famous men (Harvey Weinstein, Matt Lauer, Charlie Rose, and Les Moonves, among others) were finally facing some consequences for their egregious conduct with women.

Lisa was faced with a hugely challenging decision, not only as an executive, but also as a female executive during the height of the #MeToo movement. After I revealed the accusations to management, she called me in on a Sunday afternoon and, along with a half a dozen other TVO executives, interrogated the hell out of me. After two hours of that, she made her decision.

“I wanted to question you and look you in the eye and see whether I believed you,” she said to me. “And I do. But we’re going to have a formal, independent investigation. In the meantime, there will be no firing or suspension. Stay in your chair. Do your job. And let’s see where the chips fall.”

I couldn’t have asked for a more Solomonic decision. The investigator took four months to interview two dozen people and ultimately gave me about as good an exoneration as one can get in these cases. Lisa insisted that the entire report be made public, and it was. It was all about the need for a public agency to be totally transparent.

When she shared the final report with me, I don’t mind admitting that I wept like a baby right in front of her. (I guess that’s what happens when you hold your breath for four straight months.)

It was only weeks later, at a TVO function, that I found myself able to have a private moment with Lisa, during which time I told her I’d never forget the fact that she didn’t immediately throw me under the bus, as other executives in her position surely would have done.

“You actually don’t know me and my management style very well,” she explained. “I wasn’t about to be bullied by whatever the prevailing winds of the day suggested.”

Appropriately, many in the media covering our circumstances commended Lisa for her thoughtful and professional commitment to due process.

Lisa de Wilde leaves TVO after 14 years at the helm — the longest tenure of any CEO in the organization’s history, although she’s not overly impressed by the number.

“I was entrusted with the future of an organization that is massively important to Ontarians,” she says. “Those who came before me, whom I deeply respect, left their own legacies. But they also counted on me and the current TVO team to continue to dream the art of the possible, even in the face of fiscal challenges. What I will always remember about my time at TVO is that we did dream big, and we achieved big things.”

Lisa is 63 years old, and, if I know her at all, I’ll bet she’s already planning her next mission. After all, as she told me the first time we met, she’s always looking to make an impact.

© TVO

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