Executive of the Year: Sally Catto

How does she follow the global success of Schitt’s Creek, Kim’s Convenience and Workin’ Moms? CBC’s general manager shares how she’s building on the momentum.

A s 2021 comes to a close, we’re rolling out our Best of the Year winners. First up are two leaders who are breaking down stereotypes – from two vastly different perspectives.

By Sadaf Ahsan

In just the last year, CBC has introduced the country to a slate of fresh and diverse new voices, with such comedies as Sort Of, the upcoming Run the Burbs, as well as Son of a Critch, and high-profile dramas Moonshine, The Porter and Bones of Crows.

It’s Sally Catto, CBC’s general manager of entertainment, factual and sports, who we have to thank in large part for greenlighting and bringing these stories to the screen. With a knack for knowing what will connect with Canadians, this isn’t the start of Catto’s trail of success which, over the years, has also included Schitt’s Creek, Kim’s Convenience and Workin’ Moms. The world has noticed, with many of these series finding love over the border via prestigious partnerships with HBO Max, Netflix, Lionsgate, BET, BBC and Endeavor Content.

Here, Catto — whose role spans TV, digital, radio and podcast platforms for the pubcaster’s entertainment, factual and sports programming – shares how her vision has broadened CBC’s horizons for its production teams, creators and audiences. And what’s next.

Playback: CBC has had a string of hit comedies in the last few years. How did you approach continuing that momentum with some of your most recent greenlights, including Sort Of and Run the Burbs?

Sally Catto: We’re always searching for that authenticity of voice, a really unique and distinct one that has something clear to say. [Sort Of creators] Bilal Baig and Fab Filippo were just so clear on their characters, on what they wanted to say, and that Toronto was going to be presented in a way so many of us know and love it, but that often isn’t seen. We always go back to asking, ‘What’s missing?’ What stories haven’t we told? Sort Of‘s subject of gender fluidity is something we were so happy to help shine a light on, but also so many of us can relate to being in transition in a certain stage of your life, and so that was universal. There isn’t a magic formula. With Run the Burbs, we have wonderful talent who we’ve worked with before, who we know audiences love, and who are exploring this timely, relatable subject of leaving your city. Again, it was something we hadn’t seen before but also felt was very relevant to our Canadian audiences. We like to feel that a series is reflecting a part of the country.

The last 12 months have seen unexpected programming losses for CBC with Kim’s Convenience and Trickster. How were you able to rebound for the 2021/22 slate?

I have to give credit to our very strong teams; their development slates are fairly full and there’s always been a spirit of looking for what’s missing. We have a wide range of content that we’re developing at any given time. For us, pivoting is really just going, ‘OK, what new voice can we now shine a light on while also learning from the past?’ And we have learned a lot, certainly through the process of Trickster and some of our other productions.

Some of your most recent commissioning partners are HBO Max (Sort Of ), BET (The Porter) and BBC (The North Water). How do you approach working with international partners to help finance CBC originals?

High-calibre content often comes with significant budgets, so to really deliver on the vision that our creators have, they are not going to be able to finance it solely out of Canada. We often know that going in, and sometimes there will be a producer who will bring in a partner, sometimes we have relationships with different financing partners outside the country, or we’ll develop a project within CBC and then it has gone to partners outside the country. Because we are in such a global marketplace now and borderless in so many ways, everyone is looking for great content and great stories. Whereas a number of years ago, I remember hearing ‘you can’t let it be Toronto for Toronto.’ That’s really changed and doesn’t even come up in conversation now, like in the case of Sort Of. I think they respond to the strength of the content, and it is important to be creatively in sync. With HBO Max, Netflix, BBC and BET, the creative synergies have been there so it feels like everyone who has come on board has been clear on the vision and has the same goal. When you get into the production stage and casting, sometimes you are trying to satisfy both parties, so it’s a balancing act there.

CBC’s programming was among the talking points in the recent snap federal election, specifically its Indigenous content. What is CBC doing to increase Indigenous representation on screen?

It is a top priority for us. We’re really focused on connecting with not only Indigenous creators, but Indigenous producers, and we have several Indigenous projects in development right now. It’s really important to us to make sure we’re learning as we go, to consult and connect with the community to get feedback and ensure that the storytelling is authentic. Right now, we’re really excited about Marie Clements’ Bones of Crows, which is currently shooting and will be both a feature film and limited series. But also, we’re hearing that audiences want to see more joyful stories, contemporary stories. We’re very focused on the breadth and scope of storytelling, and you will hear more about it in the coming year, but there is an Indigenous comedy we’re very excited about, too.

We also support the New Indigenous Voices program, and it’s incumbent on us to be reaching out and making sure that we are supporting Indigenous storytelling the way that Indigenous storytellers and producers want. In the last year, our scripted team restructured and that has been a good thing because we separated development and production to ensure we were dedicating the staff and the time to find new voices we can be working with. And when we look at the schedule, particularly this year, I do think it is a reflection of a commitment to be better and to do better by Black, Indigenous and people of colour. I’m not saying we don’t have a long way to go – we do – but I think we are reflecting different voices across the country and I want to credit Barbara Williams, CBC’s EVP of English services, for putting equity and inclusion first across the CBC. She’s made it very clear that changing the culture inside the CBC and being committed to it in our programming has to be supported from the very top.

How do you bring those diverse voices into the room when it comes to finding what’s authentic?

This is the time of year we start looking at what we’re going to pick up for next year, where the teams present their slate and, now, why they feel this is the right series to be picked up, so we’re bringing them more into the decision-making process. It’s not one person sitting in a room, we bring our teams into those conversations. We’ve also got our marketing team, our business team; there’s a number of people engaged. Complete change does not happen overnight, but we do recognize that we need to have voices in the room that are more diverse and that reflect the country.

What has been your highlight this past year?

Oh my goodness, just surviving as a mother of two during the pandemic. And the audiences that we might not always connect with on our linear platforms but who are gravitating to Gem. That’s very exciting for us because it’s the future, we have to connect with younger audiences. Just the fact that we premiered Sort Of on Gem, and then get to see it be in the Top 10 every week is amazing. Experiencing different elements of CBC has been special, too. Long-form, scripted and unscripted content are vital, but learning how audiences are connecting to a podcast, or to [the]new radio show The Block, which is our first radio show about music of Black origin, or seeing Q blossom during the pandemic is valuable.

This article originally appeared in Playback’Winter 2021 issue.