Q&A

‘WE NEED THE CBC’S VOICE’

The broadcaster’s chair seeks niche markets, not gross audience numbers

CAROLE TAYLOR May 19 2003
Q&A

‘WE NEED THE CBC’S VOICE’

The broadcaster’s chair seeks niche markets, not gross audience numbers

CAROLE TAYLOR May 19 2003

‘WE NEED THE CBC’S VOICE’

The broadcaster’s chair seeks niche markets, not gross audience numbers

Q&A

CAROLE TAYLOR

CAROLE TAYLOR knows broadcasting. She began her career in 1964 as a 18-yearold hosting After Four, a show for teenagers at CFTO in Toronto. She would spend the next 20 years in the business, including stints at CTV’s Canada AM and W5. After moving to Vancouver in 1975, she married the city’s mayor, Art Phillips, and in 1986 entered politics. Elected to Vancouver city council, she served for four years, in that time turning down several invitations to run for the federal Liberals. She kept her hand in broadcasting as a freelancer while turning her attention to a number of charities she was involved with. In May 2001, she was appointed chair of the CBC’s board of directors. The corporation faces daunting problems, not the least of which is finding a way to maintain a presence in a 500-channel universe. Taylor discussed the challenges confronting the CBC with Maclean’s editors.

What was your incentive for taking this job in the first place?

I’m an outsider. I come from the West and I understand the alienation that is felt. And I don’t think public broadcasting will survive in Canada unless we get back out into the communities. So the job that I saw was first really about relations. Repairing relationships between the CBC board and senior management and repairing relationships between the CBC and the community as well as with people in government. There’s an opportunity here to not only turn the ship around but really get it going full speed.

Critics note that the CBC’s funding is extremely high compared to its market share.

We need the CBC’s independence, we need its voice, we need its support of culture. I don’t know that there’s ever been a time in history when that has been so important. When the CBC started, it was important just to get the service out there, across the country. But now it’s got this sense of independence and support for culture, which you can’t do on a commercial basis. The CBC

is tied up completely with how strongly we feel about Canada. After Sept. 11, and now the war in Iraq, I have a real clarity about the issues facing us and whether we want to continue, as a nation, to be strong and independent. If we do, then let’s identify those institutions that support the idea of being Canadian. Are we going to say we’ve got a culture, and if so, how are we going to support it?

You’ve worked in private and public broadcasting. What strikes you as the fundamental difference?

Private broadcasters must make a profit. But because of the grace of the Canadian taxpayers, we do productions at the CBC that are not economic because Canadians feel it’s important culturally. In Canada it costs at least $ 1 million to produce a show. But you can buy an excellent American one for $100,000, so you put that together with advertising and you’re making money. If you want to have Canadian productions, they have to be subsidized.

Are you disillusioned by the lack of support Canadians show for indigenous content?

I don’t look at it as straight ratings. We did the Royal Winnipeg Ballet’s Dracula last year and the audience numbers were maybe 200,000. So some people would say that’s terrible, but I see it as a huge success because, for one thing, we won an Emmy, and second, people who love ballet had a chance to see it. It also helped keep the Winnipeg Ballet alive for another year. Every cultural organization in this country is on the edge and CBC is part of that support.

It appears CBC Radio made a mistake when it jettisoned older listeners by adopting a new format to attract younger ones.

CBC Radio is looking at changing, but it was never trying to go down to the youth audience. That was never a discussion that I was in on. And I disagree with your characterization. I think the Current is a great

new show and this idea of change is one that is going to become constant at the CBC. People retire. Arthur Black retires, it’s sad. And someone like Peter Gzowski, because of health, can’t continue, so there will always be reasons to re-look at programs and try to do them better.

We have to get used to being creative, taking risks and changing. So we asked, can we be more relevant? Are we on top of the big debates of the day? Are the debates being discussed in the community also being discussed on the radio? Is the format working? Are we taking into account the importance of the regions? Of course we realize our demographics are significantly older than they used to be. But to say that you want someone younger than your demographic listening to you doesn’t mean you’re going down to the youth segment.

Some people argue the CBC should be funded along the lines of the Public Broadcasting System in the U.S.

We’ve looked at PB8 because we’d all like to do this better. We all see the visible appeals for money on air at PBS but that’s a small part of its budget. The last set of numbers I saw was around $400 million a year from their public appeals. Well, if you take a tenth of that, which is sort of Canada’s size, you’re only talking about $40 or $50 million, and that would mean nothing to the CBC budget of $1.3 billion. So the model doesn’t work for us in terms of financing. And in terms of broadcasting, it’s tricky because PBS is very decentralized.

How important are ratings at the CBC when production decisions are made?

I believe we’ve got to get away from these gross audience numbers and I’m prepared to make the case for niche broadcasting. For instance, the ballet. I would be willing to stand before Parliament and explain why that is important, whatever the numbers. We should look at niche markets rather than the gross numbers.

In the future, will the CBC be based on one main network or a series of specialty networks?

The model is changing and we have to be flexible enough to see where that’s leading and go with it. The CBC board has to stay out of specific programming decisions, but I think we can set general directions, one being the regional emphasis. I would like to set another: being international. Not only should we get our culture and our production and our ideas out there, but we should also have Canadian eyes reporting on world events. I never felt that more strongly than after Sept. 11. What did it mean for our immigration policies, our borders, our security, our values? We’ve got a role to play out there but we have to

figure out how we can do it in a financially responsible way.

How does a national public broadcaster reflect a country that in itself is so diverse, geographically and ethnically?

It’s difficult when you’ve been through cutbacks and hiring freezes for a long time— when you should have been bringing more of those individuals into the system. We are doing it now to the extent we can, with not just our on-air people but our decisionmakers behind the scenes. If you walk through our offices we have to look the same as the community, and we have to look the same as the community on-air. Our stories have to be ones that people relate to.

A lot of people at the CBC complain that it’s too bureaucratic, with many services needlessly duplicated.

You have to have leadership that says the goal is to be more flexible, to be more creative and to take more risks. Part of it will come from our initiatives on integration. In the past we’ve had silos that are completely separate: English radio, French radio, English television, French television. We want to start working closer together so we can support each other. A concert done on English radio can just as easily be a concert on French radio. And perhaps a camera on English television can be used on French television. I think it’s changing, but it does take time to get people to buy into the dream. I¡ül