Kirstine Stewart on CBC’s cost-effective winter sked

The CBC EVP English Services talks to Playback about connecting with Canadians with a slate of returning shows.

Kirstine Stewart, CBC EVP English Services, says it’s a foundation year for the CBC, and that’s reflected in the pubcaster’s winter schedule, which was unveiled Tuesday.

With new shows Cracked and March to the Top, and several returning favourites, there are no big surprises on the schedule.

But that’s part of the CBC’s cost-effective strategy to go into 2013 with a slate that will connect with Canadians, says Stewart, particularly after a year plagued with budget cuts.

“We wanted to make sure we saved our best for the right time,” she tells Playback, adding that the fall was an opportunity to catch different audiences, with new shows like Temple Street’s Over the Rainbow, than those who connect with the U.S. pickups playing on CTV, Global and Citytv. “You play a bit with the schedule in order to maximize what you’ve got.”

The 2013 winter schedule brings returning series with strong audience to the airwaves, like Arctic Air, Mr. D and Republic of Doyle, shows that Stewart says people have been eagerly anticipating.

“It’s a heavy hitter kind of all-star grouping of great programs and then it gets joined by new shows like Cracked and March to the Top,” she explains.

Cracked (pictured), a one-hour cop procedural, looks to be grittier and darker than the CBC’s traditional drama offerings, but Stewart says the show will be complemented by the rest of the schedule.

And taking this approach is a move in leveraging the audience relationship that Stewart says the CBC has worked to regain over the last few years.

“One thing that was really evident with the CBC a few years ago was it needed to connect again with Canadians. The shows that were on the schedule weren’t necessarily being watched or enjoyed by a lot of Canadians, and that was a big problem,” she says. “So to get that trust and relationship back with the audience was incredibly important. Putting on shows Dragons’ Den, Being Erica, Little Mosque and Heartland were really good at fostering that,” she adds.

“Once you create that level of a relationship with the audience, you can start taking it places. [Cracked] is not as wide an audience appeal show as some of the others that we have, [but] I think it…gives people the chance to float from show to show in the CBC schedule and give [the show] a shot where it might not have [had one] a few years ago, so I think this is our time to do it,” she explains.

And one-off multiplatform program March to the Top has been building audience through coverage on CBC news and online, ahead of its Jan. 30 airing. The 90-minute doc produced by Muse Entertainment follows a team of 12 recovering Canadian soldiers on a climb to the top of Island Peak in the Himalayas.

But going forward, cost-effectiveness is a key to the CBC’s programming plans.

“One of the challenges with cuts is that [they] actually put these types of shows [like March to the Top] more at risk. A one-off is more expensive, just by virtue of the promotion that goes behind it, than a series is. This is definitely the kind of thing that we do less of than we used to, simply because of the money that’s available to us,” she says.

Stewart adds that winter 2013 also has more repeats, “double-teaming” shows like Dragons’ Den and George Stroumboulopoulous Tonight.

The federal government in April imposed a budget chop of $115 million over three years on the pubcaster, resulting in 256 jobs lost in English radio and TV services, a $10 million hit to the CBC’s news department, and $21.2 million in cuts to the English-language TV lineup.

And in October, the CBC said it would cut its budget by a further $28.4 million in fiscal 2013-2014 to deal with the phasing out of the Local Programming Improvement Fund.