Be prepared for more cuts at the CBC, says the head of the public broadcaster’s English-language services.
“Are there more cuts to come? Absolutely. We have to deal with a really significant challenge in front of us. That means there will be more cuts and a smaller CBC,” says Heather Conway in an interview with the Toronto Star.
However, Conway, who is in charge of CBC’s television, radio and online properties, said her goal was to protect programming content, while trying to make the public broadcaster more cost-efficient.
“How do we privilege the programming and try and do things with less? is the idea. It won’t be about cutting the schedule,” she says.
That’s going to be a tricky proposition. How Conway will be able to do more with less while protecting Canadian programs is the most challenging job in television. But she is clear that there will be more pain to come for employees at the broadcaster.
The new boss of English services has been on the job for barely six months, but she has already been thrust into one of the most turbulent periods at the broadcaster, with the recent loss of hockey rights to Rogers and a significant downsizing in the workforce.
The CBC recently cancelled underperforming shows such as Arctic Air, The Ron James Show and Best Recipes Ever. And Republic of Doyle star Allan Hawco said this week he was signing off after the upcoming season.
On the news side, there have been a series of retirements by veterans who say they are leaving to make room for the next generation.
This week the broadcaster unveiled its fall programming, including 12 new primetime shows that hold promise.
Conway has greenlighted darker and more artistic fare, including the serialized drama Strange Empire, about a western town that has few men, and The Book of Negroes, based on the Giller Prize-winning book by Lawrence Hill.
“You have to keep refreshing and do new things. You want to be the place where Canadian creators want to come and do the serialized dramas,” said Conway. “And I think we have the better shot because we have more Canadian slots to show Canadian programming.”
Conway, meanwhile, dismissed recent speculation that the CBC would be placing Radio 2 online.
“There are no immediate plans to take Radio 2 off the air tomorrow. I listen to it every morning in my car,” said Conway. “On the other hand, I don’t know anyone in radio not trying to figure out their online strategy five or 10 years down the road.”
She also reaffirmed her commitment to CBC news, calling it one of the top five news brands globally.
“Who do Canadians turn to? They turn to CBC news. The CBC stands shoulder to shoulder internationally as a news brand,” says Conway. “It is a core delivery of public broadcasting. An informed public is what makes a healthy democracy.”
A poll posted for readers at thestar.com about the current CBC lineup showed that while there was strong public support for news, some of the scripted and lifestyle programming did not fare as well.
The poll — which asked readers to choose two CBC shows to cancel — showed that 27 per cent would axe daytime show Steven and Chris, while 17 per cent would cancel the comedy Mr. D and 16 per cent Dragon’s Den. Only 6 percent selected the soon-to-end Republic of Doyle.
But Conway says she retains confidence in her lineup.
“It tells me with Steven and Chris that 73 per cent love the show,” said Conway. “You’re not going to get me to say that something that we’re putting on the air that we decided to support is not something we support. It’s there for a reason. It’s working for most of the people who want to watch it.”
Conway, whose previous job was as an executive at the Art Gallery of Ontario, was not the obvious choice to head the broadcaster. Her previous experience in broadcasting was in marketing and communications at Alliance Atlantis Communications Inc. Before that she headed up public relations firm Edelman Canada.
And CBC President Hubert Lacroix found himself defending his choice, saying he was not looking for a traditional “programmer” to do the job.
But so far Conway’s candour, perhaps surprising for someone who spent years in public relations, and approachability seem to have won over employees.
“I believe truth is the best spin,” she says.