Barbara Williams, Canadian Broadcasting Corp.’s top program producer, unafraid to touch Canada’s third track – embracing the country’s growing cultural diversity Sexuality and Inclusivity – When she pitches a “reset” to local advertisers in her pre-winter speech, the public
We hope you will CBC Treated as yours…as Canada’s. Because it has nothing to do with whether you are Canadian or not. CBC Executive Vice President of English Services Williams speaking to media agencies and marketers in Toronto in November .
Williams, who oversees CBC’s English-language television, radio and digital services, later told The Hollywood Reporter Embrace inclusive Storytelling isn’t about ticking boxes or virtue signaling, it’s about stating the obvious.
“Our primary responsibility here is to reflect contemporary Canada because we truly recognize that contemporary Canada is different. A country made up of people with backgrounds,” Williams said.
The effort to make its programming reflect Canada’s diverse population means that CBC spends at least 30% of its programming budget on people of color and Content from Aboriginal, disabled, bilingual, and LGBTQ creators. The result is a new series of inclusive series as Bollywed and Bones of Crow follow Domestic and international success of local shows such as Kim’s Convenience, Sort Of and The Porter.
Elsewhere, Simu Liu, actor best known for her roles in Marvel Studios and Shi Legend of the Ring and Kim’s Convenience , will host Canada’s music trophy, the Juno Awards, at the CBC For the second consecutive year in .
with THR with Sally Catto, General Manager, CBC Entertainment, Facts & Sports, William James believes that all Canadians “should feel that PBS belongs to them. So it’s very purposeful. We’re seeing the benefits of that.”
With CBC’s winter lineup, you’ve put the spotlight on greater diversity and inclusion in storytelling to reflect a changing Canada. Why this strategy?
Williams: We at CBC have long been committed to being more diverse in every way, both internally and externally, the stories we tell, Who tells the story, how it is told, and where it is told. If you will, we must go the extra mile. Over the past few years that I’ve been here we’ve really united around a phrase that I think people on my team would recognize is that our main responsibility here is to reflect contemporary Canada because we truly recognize that contemporary Canada is different. We are a nation of people from all corners of the world, from all walks of life, of all races, cultures and backgrounds. We have Indigenous peoples, and we want to respect their lives, and we want to share their stories. We very much want the PBS to be that conduit, that container, that everybody living in this country has the opportunity to see themselves, to hear themselves, somewhere that is reflected in the vast amount of content that we do on CBC. We’re really committed to it, and we want to show that today.
How can you be sure that going the extra mile in inclusive storytelling will pay off?
Williams: I think there are a couple of things. Of course, we’ve done a lot of research over the last year and a half, we’ve talked to young audiences. We talked to people from racialized communities. We talked to the black community. We spoke to Aboriginal communities and they told us very clearly that CBC means little to them now. They cannot see their own reflection. They don’t hear their stories. They don’t feel that CBC necessarily belongs to them. So, in part, they told us. Second, we know that when we reach out to other communities in a respectful manner, helping to discover and grow new voices and new stories, we do connect with people, and as their public broadcaster, we become stronger than ever meaningful and more valuable. This is ultimately how we measure success. We need to be different, we need to be valuable. We’re not just one media company among many. As a public broadcaster, we are the only ones with this special responsibility. That responsibility comes from everyone who reflects this country, and they should feel like the PBS belongs to them. So it’s very purposeful. We see the benefits of it.
You are also breaking down barriers between all audiences, taking your chances with groundbreaking series like Sort Of, it has a trans-Muslim character played by Bilal Baig, and it hits the US breakout on HBO Max. How do you know this series will be a hit in an industry where most TV shows fail?
Williams: I want Sally to talk about the show. But I’ll just introduce that when this script came out, when this idea came up, Sally immediately knew she had something. That’s the magic of being a great commissioning editor, because it’s really hard to do these things.
Cato: What resonates somewhat
is – I know Bilal has talked about this – we are always in transition idea, and I think the beauty of is that is real and real, and we might see a character on screen that we’ve never seen before. It’s also telling a story and sending a message that our lives are always in motion. And I think, at this time in the world, especially, the kind of truth that really resonates in these stories is undeniable, that idea that there’s always a shift. Maybe people don’t think about it, but it’s happening to all of us. So I think that’s the beauty of it. It overwhelms you in a very funny, obviously well-written, beautifully acted way. But I think that’s what made it a hit. That’s great. Kind of like that intangible thing that somehow really comes through all of this.
Barb, when you spoke to Canadian advertisers during your Winter Upfront presentation, you said “We want you to think of CBC as your thing… …as a Canadian thing. Because it’s not about whether you’re Canadian. That’s who you are in Canada.” Talk about that.
WILLIAMS: It was a very thoughtful line with a very thoughtful line. There are a lot of people who live in this country who don’t necessarily identify as Canadian, who aren’t sure if they want to identify as Canadian. There are a lot of newcomers in this country who might want to be Canadian one day, but aren’t right now. In this country, in this land, there are many different ways of life. Not everyone has the same history, experience and background. Yet their public broadcasters need to hear all of it, accept all of it, and reserve all of it for everyone. That’s huge. It’s hard. But that’s what we strive for, respecting the individuality of the people who live in this land, while at the same time finding a way to connect and engage with them in a way that means something to them, whether it’s in entertainment, of course, in news – Quite frankly, in the stories and news that we tell and how we tell them and how we reach all these communities and those people.
It’s one thing to make inclusive shows, but it’s another to measure their ratings in Canada, so you can be on those shows Ads are sold, so underrepresented filmmakers can use subsidies to make more movies. Broadcasters here are working to better measure underrepresented audiences. Where is the industry?
Williams: That’s a good question. Our industry is really struggling to find reliable ways to measure all of these platforms and bring those numbers together in a meaningful way to really get a handle on the size of the audience. In the past, it was easy: overnight, that’s it. But now the content is on all these platforms for a long time. Kind of sitting on the [streaming platform CBC] Gem, giving opportunities for people over a year or two. We have to guess some ideas around the size of the audience. But it’s a challenge. That’s the problem; the industry hasn’t been set yet. We continue to need to find ways to be more aware of audience size. The game is won or lost regardless of the number of spectators. For most of my career, the number of viewers was the only measure of success. It was a very rewarding opportunity for me to join CBC and work at a place where success can be measured in ways other than audience numbers. I’m the first to say you have to have an audience. What’s the point if no one is watching or listening? But this is not necessarily the biggest is the best, the biggest is the most important. By making it possible for people who have never been exposed to an industry that is far beyond their reach to have real value in telling stories on a smaller scale that have never been told before, they finally have a sense of The method is in, supported and developed the story they have been spreading and needing to be told. So we measure success in many different ways. We try to keep a close eye on all of this to balance it out. It poses a fascinating puzzle.
You talked about underserved audiences wanting to see themselves on CBC screens. How do you deal with emerging creative talent from underrepresented communities, wondering if the CBC is really serious about working with them and just ticking the boxes?
Williams: Sally and her team have been working on this. Because it takes time. You have to build trust with the community; you have to be reliable, you have to be there, not just today, but tomorrow. And you have to be there not only when things are going well and when things are not going well, it takes time. So it’s a long-term game that we’re playing. We’re slowly but steadily building trust with many communities and many creators we haven’t worked with before. They are also new to us. Part of the commitment we made was to change internal teams. That’s the commissioning team, the development team, so we have a more diverse team within CBC that goes out into these communities, evangelizes, develops projects, gives them the green light. So this is all these pieces coming together. Frankly, it takes time, patience and persistence because you have to show that you mean business.
You also mentioned your news and current affairs divide, which is not easy because surprisingly, Canada is a divided country, political conflict on both sides. How do you solve this problem?
Williams: Oh, that little problem. First of all, CBC News is a very important organization in Canada. Time and time again, what news breaks, and it’s happened a lot over the past few years, people come to CBC for our trusted news and our complete news. We have more than any other news organization in Canada. We are in more communities across Canada. We are coming to the north. We have a much greater presence across Canada and we have a much greater presence around the world. So we’re strong, we’re big, we’re committed. We now realize that we have an opportunity to share our news and information content on more platforms so we can reach more people. The announcement about launching CBC News Explorer, it’s about recognizing that there’s a whole, younger audience out there who’s not going to turn to the six o’clock newscasts and who’s really interested in learning more and learning more about the context, The message of the story is behind the news and explained to them differently, in the formats and platforms they prefer to access. That’s what this new streaming service is all about. This is a major undertaking for CBC. It’s really important that we maintain and maintain the strength and importance of the CBC News brand.
Sally, I hear from emerging creators that they can take a risk because their series is greenlit for the CBC Gem. How do you ensure creators stay authentic and authentic on the CBC mainnet as well? 1235272323
Cato: We are indeed serving more young audience on Gem, we have more traditional audience on linear, And our budget really has to serve both platforms. I’d say more and more of our content can live comfortably on both platforms. And I do think that when we look at our digital originals, like our short films, whether they’re scripted or unscripted, we do say experiment, take some risks, take some opportunities here. But today, it’s really more of a monolithic look. Take Sort Of as an example. We publish it on Gem first. We think that’s probably the strongest audience segment, but we’re still going to put it linearly. So I think over time, the divergence in the kind of content has lessened.As we progress, there will be more back and forth fluidity, partly out of necessity ,real.
You are also welcome to your inclusive series like a bit and Kim’s Convenience
travels extensively outside of Canada?
Williams: We’re excited to see our content spread successfully around the world. One of CBC’s strategic priorities is bringing Canada out to the world, and we do that through a lot of news content that travels around the world, we do that through a number of scripted and unscripted programming, and we do a lot with our podcast. So a lot of our content has really managed to get out of Canada and find audiences around the world that are open and interested in the content that we’re creating. However, our first responsibility is to Canada and the people who live here. We wanted to reflect their reality, reflect where they were genuinely interested, and share their stories where they cared about sharing their stories, while remaining respectful. And Sort Of was a success in the US, just like Schitt’s Creek was in the US success.
Interview edited and condensed for clarity.