Layfield defends new direction at CBC

The new architect of CBC’s primetime schedule says she wants to boost primetime ratings with smarter packaging and promotion, more coproductions with international public broadcasters, more international formats that are bought and produced locally, and more best-of-the-world shows like Coronation Street.

But Kirstine Layfield – who joined the network as executive head of programming shortly before it cancelled the last of its dramas last month – is also striking back at critics who say the high-minded public broadcaster is dumbing-down or Americanizing its programming.

‘There are great examples internationally of public broadcasters doing very well at indigenous programming that is not American-style programming,’ she says.

The former Alliance Atlantis executive adds that she objects to recent characterizations in the media that she is as a joyless programmer, beholden to computer models and commercialism.

‘To insinuate that any part of this is sinister is weird,’ she says dismissively. ‘It’s kind of broadcasting 101.’

The CBC has also stressed it will replace the three series it cancelled in February – This Is Wonderland, Da Vinci’s City Hall and The Tournament – with new titles by fall.

In a wide-ranging interview with Playback, Layfield explains her plans to revive the third-placed network, noting that the Alliance Atlantis specialty channels she oversaw (Life Network, HGTV, Food Network Canada, etc.) doubled their audiences by taking eyeballs away from conventional broadcasters, which she aims to do at CBC as well.

She says the oft-sluggish CBC executives will be expected to greenlight projects faster and will be more direct and open when communicating what they want from producers – reversing the previous party line that Canadians would know CBC shows when they see them.

‘We have to work with the production community – tell them we have the knowledge of how to get to the viewers, and it’s their business to create the programming to reach the viewers,’ she says.

Her boss, Richard Stursberg, raised eyebrows at the CFTPA conference in Ottawa last month when he said future Ceeb dramas will be expected to draw one million viewers per episode, and 800,000 for documentaries.

Layfield plans to hit the ground running, possibly by holding a national road show to explain the CBC’s new programming strategy and its execution to producers. She started a similar series of gatherings while at AAC.

‘We have to climb down from the ivory tower and become the Tower of Babel, talk more about what we want, more about what we know and the shows we want to air,’ Layfield explains. ‘We need to draw a picture of what success looks like. One million viewers is a lot less than Desperate Housewives’ [viewership].’

But unlike CTV and Global Television – which are rich in U.S. shows to drive their primetime audiences and ad revenues – CBC will have to recruit new viewers on its own. Her aim is not to compete against U.S. shows, but to play in the same sandbox as CTV and Global by poaching viewers of homegrown fare like Corner Gas and Canadian Idol.

Nonetheless, rival broadcasters are stepping up to offer her early encouragement.

‘Kirstine’s ideal for this job. Not only is she an accomplished broadcast veteran, [but] her programming savvy together with her particular leadership style should take the CBC in a fresh direction,’ says Jay Switzer, president and CEO of CHUM.

‘She has the ability to reach out to the independent production community and bring some new blood to the CBC,’ adds Ira Levy, chair of the CFTPA and executive producer at Breakthrough Films & Television.

Among indie producers there is also a sense of relief now that CBC has finally hired a replacement for Slawko Klymkiw, who exited nearly six months ago.

Layflied insists her strong card is that she is not in the pocket of independent producers who have been long allied with the CBC. She wants to give a chance to next-generation producers.

‘As a public broadcaster, we have an obligation to entertain and inform the Canadian public, and it’s going to have to be more of the Canadian public than have been watching lately,’ she says.

Recalling the media furor over the recent cancellations, Layfield also dismisses the suggestion that dramas should be immune from cancellations or audience targets.

‘If a beautiful tree fell in the forest, and no one was there to watch it, how beautiful was it?’ she asks.

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