CBC looks past TV to a digital-focused future

As CBC's executives continue to fine-tune its strategy, the pubcaster is increasing its digital-content load - in part with more features - and enhancing its 'local for global' approach.

Four years after setting its ambitious digital strategy to double its online reach by 2020, Canada’s public broadcaster is now planning for a future that may not include linear at all.

“We have to, today, set the stage for the digital CBC that will ultimately replace the linear CBC. I think we’re pretty well along that journey,” Heather Conway told a packed house at the CBC’s season preview on May 24 at the Centre for Social Innovation in Toronto.

CBC, which hit its digital reach target by 2017, launched its TV app in December. This week the pubcaster announced it will be adding an additional 250 hours of programming to the platform, including exclusives and a curated selection of “best-in-class” international series like Portlandia and Moone Boy.

While Conway didn’t divulge specific numbers, she told Playback Daily that the CBC is pleased with the uptake for the app thus far. “We’re ahead of where we thought we would be, in terms of numbers of people,” she said, and added that the pubcaster has gleaned some interesting information about audience behaviours.

“We’re surprised by how many people are using it to watch linear TV,” she said. “Instead of watching on their TV, they’re watching CBC on their computer and live-streaming.”

She also noted that audiences are using the app for catch-up viewing, adding that series like Schitt’s Creek and Kim’s Convenience can sometimes see a 50% lift in audience that watches on-demand over linear.

For Conway, the app is a necessary step forward for a broadcaster determined to keep pace with audience needs. “Canada is consuming OTT in droves. We need to be there. We need to be where Canada is to preserve our relevance,” she said.

Sally Catto, general manager of programming at CBC, says the broadcaster has big plans for the platform, including the potential of adding third-party content. “We’re exploring all possibilities,” she said.

One area where she said the CBC will be making a big push is in Canadian features. While the CBC does pre-license feature films and supports filmmakers through its Breaking Barriers Film Fund, Catto says it’s a challenge to find a place for films on the linear schedule.

“We are trying to create that space for features, but what’s exciting about our OTT platform is we can really double down on that and acquire more features, support more features, and give audiences a place where they can go to see Canadian feature films,” she said.

At the same time that the CBC laid out its digital engagement goals, its Strategy 2020 plan also committed to providing more distinctly Canadian and diverse programming.

“When I think about when we started the shift four years ago to a programming strategy that was much more distinctly Canadian – investing in arts, documentary, our comedy slate, our news brand, high performance sport – it was out of necessity, but necessity has become an incredible virtue,” Conway said.

One noticeable trend in this year’s new shows is the regional diversity, with the lineup featuring series set in P.E.I., Nova Scotia and Northern Ontario.

Cavendish, from Picnicface founders Mark Little and Andrew Bush, is set in the iconic P.E.I. town, while Circle Blue Entertainment’s Diggstown is set in North Preston, a predominantly black community in Halifax.

Catto stresses the strength of the stories and creative drove the CBC’s decisions to greenlight these series, but noted that when choosing between a wealth of great content, unique settings are becoming increasingly important in the decision-making process.

“The creative always has to come first, but then you look at where is this set, where is this located, is this telling us something about our country that we haven’t seen before?” said Catto.

“The phrase I’m hearing more and more now is ‘local for global,’ which I love, because I think we’re at a time when specificity of place and places that audiences may not have been or know about, is really appealing. It’s no longer seen as an international barrier,” she said.

One international partner that’s signed on for a very Canadian CBC original is Netflix. The streamer is on board for family drama Northern Rescue, from DCTV, which has Parry Sound, ON playing a fictional town in Northern Ontario.

CBC has previously partnered with the streamer on Anne and Alias Grace, two historical dramas that by their nature required higher budgets. With Northern Rescue, Conway said the CBC had an opportunity to once again elevate the quality of the show by increasing its budget – an opportunity it will continue to jump at.

“When you fund the CBC and a CBC creation and a CBC show at the level that some of your beloved global technology giant shows are [funded], it succeeds,” she said. “It doesn’t just succeed in Canada, it succeeds around the world.”