The Future Is Public
An interview with Catherine Tait, President and CEO of the CBC/Radio-Canada
The waters may still be choppy, but the CBC/Radio-Canada ship has a new captain at the helm. Catherine Tait, both the first woman and the first producer to lead the public broadcaster, began her five-year term as president and chief executive in July 2018. She shares with us how her professional experiences will shape her vision for the CBC in these turbulent times, how she plans to navigate the tension between commercial interests and a country’s core values—and the Canadian comedies she can’t wait to watch in 2019.
Do you have an early memory of CBC/Radio-Canada that impacted your view of Canada?
I learned early on that we are among the funniest people on the planet! When I first saw The Kids in the Hall, and later CODCO, I recognized my own worldview in the irreverent and often wacky take of these comedians. They made me laugh—and at the same time made me appreciate our very unique Canadian perspective on the craziness that whirls around us.
Not only are you the first female president and CEO of CBC/Radio-Canada, but you are also the very first producer in the role. How does your professional experience impact your vision for the organization?
I worked in the film and TV business in Canada and the United States for more than 30 years, including time at Telefilm Canada and as a former president of Salter Street Films, which produced This Hour Has 22 Minutes and Bowling for Columbine. I’ve also worked alongside other Canadian cultural organizations and media companies, like the Canada Media Fund, CHUM, eONE and DHX Media.
At heart, I’m a creator. I love the process of creating and telling engaging stories. I’m also an entrepreneur. I know the challenges of making great content and the need to be always looking for new ways to do it.
And as a digital content producer—I love it when CBC/Radio-Canada takes risks and is creative and audacious in its approach to telling stories. This is our strength, and it is what Canadians value in their public broadcaster.
With the federal review of our broadcasting and telecommunications legislation on the horizon, it’s clear that Canada’s broadcasting system is at a turning point. How do you believe independently produced Canadian content can support the CBC/Radio-Canada’s mandate?
We’re committed to making CBC/Radio-Canada a place where Canadians see their interests, voices, values and their country come alive. And independent producers are critical to this. I believe that independent producers ensure that diversity thrives in our cultural ecosystem and, for this reason, CBC/Radio- Canada will always be committed to this community.
I have three key priorities for CBC/Radio-Canada: building trust in our public space; strengthening a lifelong connection with all Canadians; and collaborating with industry partners to strengthen Canadian culture. Independent producers have an important role to play in this strategy going forward.
Canadian consumers have never had so many choices. What do you see as CBC/Radio-Canada’s role in ensuring homegrown content can be found, whether on traditional TV or on a smartphone?
Canadians are now flooded in an endless wave of content and information from all over the world. Yes, it may be the renaissance of great television programming, but—we want to make sure Canadians have a place in this new world of globalized television.
Today, values like tolerance, respect and support for democracy are being tested around the world. I think Canada is proof that people, no matter where they come from, have more that unites than divides them. That’s the Canadian story. And we want the world to hear it.
And we want people to be able to find it. We want our digital streaming services ICI TOU.TV and CBC Gem to be the place to go for the best in Canadian content; our own news, sports and original programs as well as the best Canadian content from the National Film Board of Canada, Telefilm Canada, Bell Media, TV5 and others. Canadian destinations.
CBC/Radio-Canada is not only competing with the traditional broadcasters, but also over-the-top services like Netflix, Google and Amazon. In this new world order, what do you believe is the primary role of a public broadcaster?
Partnerships with the likes of Netflix, Google and Amazon are vital to tell Canadian stories on the scope and scale you saw with our Netflix collaborations Anne with an E and Alias Grace. Through the storytelling of Anne with an E—at one point the fourth most-binge-watched program on Netflix—the classic Canadian tale has transcended borders and found fans across Netflix’s global membership.
But as someone who has lived and worked in the US where market forces dominate, I know firsthand that leaving culture to commercial interests can weaken or even threaten core values like diversity and inclusion. Which brings me to my “collaboration” priority.
Today, our competition is not each other here in Canada; our real competition is powerful digital companies with deep pockets and global market share as their priority. I believe the solution resides in the approach that the UK regulator has called “collaborate to compete.” This means working together, here in Canada, to find nationwide solutions. We want to partner with the private broadcasters, other cultural agencies and creators to ensure a place for Canadian culture here and around the world.
Can you tell us more about CBC Gem, your English-language streaming program?
Our CBC OTT service launched just last December. It’s already the most-visited Canadian streaming service. It’s remarkable what we’ve accomplished in such a short period of time.
This winter, we’ll be launching the next phase in our OTT strategy: CBC Gem—the showcase of Canada’s crown jewels! A streaming service offering not just CBC programs but the best Canadian programs from anywhere. Telefilm Canada will sponsor the feature film section. The National Film Board of Canada will bring their diverse selection of award-winning film titles, including Indigenous works. Additional partnerships are in the works.
Our objective: to be the destination for the best in Canadian stories. Best-in-class Canadian kids’ programming, documentaries, lifestyle programming, music, sports, short-form series and more. And, looking forward, we are exploring how we can provide some version of our OTT offering to global audiences.
CBC/Radio-Canada has plenty of great new and returning series lined up for 2019. What are you watching these days?
That’s like asking me to pick a favourite child! But I would like to spotlight some of Canada’s amazing women in comedy. We recently held an event in Ottawa, with the Canada Media Fund, where CBC and Radio-Canada comedic talent discussed their work, their careers and their challenges. Thank you to Édith Cochrane (Les enfants de la télé), Marie-Andrée Labbé (Trop), Chantal Lamarre (Infoman), Sharron Matthews (Frankie Drake Mysteries), Catherine Reitman (Workin’ Moms), Carolyn Taylor (Baroness von Sketch Show) and Jean Yoon (Kim’s Convenience) for inspiring us!