Upfronts ‘21: Canadian Network Execs Sound Off on Year Ahead, Diversity, and the Importance of Canadian Creators

In June during the Canadian upfronts, broadcasters made a slew of announcements including schedule acquisitions, incoming homegrown projects, and initiatives designed to tackle issues of diversity and racism from a systemic level. Through a series of CMF interviews, upper management at Bell Media, CBC, Corus Entertainment, and Rogers Sports & Media weighed in on the future of Canadian television, streaming, and what’s coming up next.

Q: It’s been an unprecedented year for television, what was your overall strategy in tackling this schedule?

Justin Stockman, Vice-President, English Content Development & Programming at Bell Media: Ensure that we had a lot of variety. Some of our competitors are heavily invested in either competition or reality programs, or they're heavily invested in crime shows. We wanted to have more fulsome offerings for viewers. Family viewing, some great female-led programs, and then programs that appeal to all adults. We've got a great mixture of comedies, dramas, competition, reality… we've got it all.

Troy Reeb, Executive Vice President Broadcast Networks at Corus Entertainment: The environment of the past year has been anything but predictable. We were looking for content that would give a sense of comfort and predictability to not only the audience but the advertiser. Our goal with all of our advertisers is always to offer a safe environment that assures them there's going to be some predictability in the ratings, and that we can deliver strong, popular audiences. We think we've done that. Some critics may roll their eyes at yet another NCIS just like they roll their eyes and get another Star Wars movie. But guess what, they are both hugely popular. And we're thrilled to have some of the biggest franchises in television history expanding on the Global schedule this fall, along with some really interesting and buzzy new dramas and comedies across both our conventional and specialty television services.

Julie Adam, SVP News & Entertainment, Rogers Sports & Media: It was really about doubling down on what was working for us. And doing what we could to focus on the shows and the franchises that our audiences love, and finding a way to do more of that. That would be number one. Number two is consistency. Making sure, in a world where COVID has wreaked havoc on our lives, to be as consistent as we could with our schedule for both our audience and our advertisers. And then the third piece was around original programming, and finding ways for us to produce, create, collaborate on more original content.

Barbara Williams, Executive Vice President at CBC: We're excited about what we have to offer for fall, and I think the big strategy line is that the country is changing and CBC has to change with it. Our biggest priority is to be sure that in our ongoing content offering across all of our platforms, TV, radio, podcasts, everything, we are thoughtfully reflecting Canada as it is today, and who our audience actually is today. And that has been the filter for everything we've done. 

Sally Catto, General Manager, Entertainment, Factual & Sports at CBC: Each decision is informed by what's missing. What groups of people or regions in Canada are not as well reflected in our programs? We're developing all the time. So every year we have a number of projects to draw upon, and then we make our decision while taking into consideration all those factors.

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Sally Catto, General Manager, Entertainment, Factual & Sports at CBC

Q: What are you looking for from Canadian creators right now?

Catto (CBC): Our creators, particularly our BIPOC creators, are hopefully better positioned with us than ever before, because we have made significant changes internally. We changed the structure of our scripted teams, we've had changes in our unscripted team. We've really focused on separating development from production. So there's a highly focused development team. And we have ensured that those who are taking the pitches and who are part of the decision-making are better reflecting the country. That hopefully will give people who are out there coming to the CBC some comfort in a sense that they will be heard in a truly authentic way. It’s those authentic voices and the unique points of view that we're looking for, always.

Stockman (Bell Media): Generally with Crave, we're really trying to ensure a subscription product, we're speaking to every potential interest. Some people will want to watch Letterkenny and Canada’s Drag Race. But if you only want to watch one or the other, we have to have a lot of variety where we're trying to build up as verticals with different types of audiences. With CTV it’s got to be that big, broad feeling. You don't want to just mimic American TV and make it Canadian. We've had good luck with Transplant, for example, a Canadian story, where Canadians can look at it and see it's also a reflection of our society, but it does stand with those American shows, so it’s now on the NBC schedule. 

Lisa Godfrey, Senior Vice President, Original Content and Corus Studios, Corus Entertainment: In the post-pandemic world, viewers will want some drama with a bit of comedy, or content that is more on the lighter side of things. I use the term “left of center” a lot, and what I mean by that are different shows you may not have expected to be on HGTV Canada, for example, that sort of shake up the traditional model. We did that with Rock Solid Builds and Island of Brian, which are different takes on the home renovation categories. There is a more, roll up your sleeve approach with those kinds of shows and we see them being huge hits around the world. I'm out there talking to international broadcasters all the time. And in an analog world, they're looking for that show that's going to bring in subscribers as well. We're looking to bring in ratings and viewers, they're looking to bring in subscribers. And so you need to make a splash. Now more than ever, it's critical we work with cast and crews that reflect the diversity of our audiences. That means representation in front of the camera and behind the camera, and elevating those stories that are meaningful.

Nataline Rodrigues, Director of Original Programming, Rogers Sports & Media: We are looking for lighter, feel good, inspirational character-driven stories with a range of emotions that resonate with our audiences who watch conventional television. For dramas, we are focused on episodic series that complement the Citytv prime-time lineup, that include procedurals with a distinctive hook, offering fresher takes while being grounded in believable real-world stakes. We need concepts that can stand out from the clutter that are relatable to a wide audience and are inclusive.

Nataline Rodrigues, Director of Original Programming, Rogers Sports & Media

Q: How many shows do you ideally want to have in development at any given time?

Catto: There's a natural cycle of production and development. Today there is definitely a pattern of shorter run series, we don't see as many long series, particularly looking at the streamers and the trends out there. [When so many CBC series ended this past year] we'd already shifted our mindset into what opportunity does this open up for us? What’s new? What new talent can we work with? What new content can we bring in?

Godfrey (Corus Entertainment): It's a constantly revolving thing, we're always developing series. Our strategy is to keep a robust slate of content, to hope for renewals and continue to build long-standing series that go on from season to season. We're in the hits business, so it's smart business to continue to renew hits and it’s smart business to create new hits. So you need to have those new exciting, shiny things to bring to the world.

Rodrigues (Rogers Sports & Media): Having show ideas in development is always a great way to explore and develop new creative voices and experiment with new teams. Of course, the more ideas the better but we typically have six to eight concepts in development, skewing more heavily towards dramas than comedies or factual entertainment.

Stockman (Bell Media): I can't share the numbers but I can tell you that we've really developed a very proactive approach in the last few months. We know we want to ramp up Canadian content, but it takes time from a budgeting standpoint and also just from a development standpoint. So as we ramp up, we really are looking at how many “slots” we have on CTV, on specialty, if there's any AVOD specific shows that we want to do, and of course with Crave, how many slots do we try to fill? We're continuing to add more but really trying to be proactive.

Justin Stockman
Justin Stockman, Vice-President, English Content Development & Programming at Bell Media

Q: Weigh in on the importance of listening to creatives when it comes time to end a show

Catto (CBC): It's essential. We don't think there's another option when creators feel their show has reached its conclusion, as it happened for us on a few of our shows this year. Of course we have conversations with them. We want to understand why, and make sure that it is for truly creative reasons. We support our creators. The biggest decision to make as commissioners of content is who you choose to work with. And the story that they want to tell. We're here to facilitate their stories. And when they feel their story has concluded, then it has concluded and we honour that.

Rodrigues (Rogers Sports & Media): It’s critical to listen to the creatives on our shows as we are counting on their distinctive voices and vision to create content that stands out and resonates in an authentic way. We pride ourselves on the close and trusted relationships we have with our key creative teams and production partners throughout the journey of their series - from development to delivery. For Second Jen, which wrapped its final season this year on OMNI Television, we worked closely with the creative team from the earliest days of their careers and the series itself represented an arc in their personal journeys as creators. Together we made the decision to close the chapter of that series, leaving the door open to explore new projects with them but also make room for other new and emerging diverse voices.

Stockman (Bell Media): It’s absolutely important because in the end, we're the commissioning broadcaster and we have a lot of skin in the game. We're often funding a lot of this and we obviously are providing a lot of creative guidance on what we think will work on our platforms. But in the end there’s no show without the creator. It’s usually their baby that they’ve dropped off for us to help them make. We have to work in partnership. We’re always working with our partners to ensure that we are on the same page.

Godfrey (Corus Entertainment): For us, it's always a creative conversation. It’s always a discussion between the broadcaster and the producer, to say, “What is the best show?” “What are the great creatives that we can do with?” And it's a collaborative process. I think that's why producers like working with us, too, is that it is extremely collaborative.

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Lisa Godfrey, Senior Vice President, Original Content and Corus Studios, Corus Entertainment

Q: How are you addressing inclusion and diversity in the next year?

Godfrey (Corus Entertainment): We have a three point strategy, that is to increase diversity in front of the camera and behind the camera, as well as in key creative positions and in leadership positions. We recently introduced a Banff showrunners program, which used to be the Banff writers apprenticeship program. We're looking for the next set of unscripted showrunner leaders who are from underrepresented groups. It’s important to start working with them, as they will hopefully build their own companies eventually. But I think we've really taken a deep dive on the lead characters this year that you'll see in a lot of our shows, as well as  working with our production partners behind the scenes. It is just part of our development process that you must find and go that extra mile to start filling positions in key roles like directors and editors and creative decision makers behind the camera.

Catto (CBC): We've changed our internal departments and decision-makers. We recognize that outreach is really important and we are going to be very proactive in terms of encouraging and reaching out to talent in the industry that we have not necessarily worked with before. We have initiatives already in place, like our relationship with the NSI and their new voices program. We are consulting with different organizations throughout the industry to really get a careful and thoughtful sense of what they feel is missing. And we are in the process of making some decisions about safeguards we can put in place to ensure that we have a balanced approach, not just in the choice of our creators, but in key crew and cast.

Williams (CBC): There will be more of an official announcement to come, we're just not quite there yet. There's layers to this direct outreach to new voices and emerging voices that might not quite understand our process or feel comfortable reaching out to us. So there is some active outreach on our part, and there is the change of the decision makers, which is critical. And then within all of the content that we commissioned, we are looking to ask producers to make absolute commitments on talent, on showrunners, on numbers of people in writing rooms to ensure that the teams behind the stories are diverse. We’ll have some more specifics in the coming weeks. 

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Barbara Williams, Executive Vice President at CBC

Stockman (Bell Media): [In addition to the content diversity task force and other internal initiatives], when it comes to acquisition programming I think Hollywood got the memo. When you look at the new series we've picked up, there's a ton of diversity. I don't know if two years ago someone would rethink The Wonder Years with a Black family and assume that it will have mass appeal. It actually makes a lot of these series a lot more exciting and we were really impressed with the level of diversity. And of course we wanted to ensure that with our Canadian audience, we're reflecting Canada back to them. So our original slate that we announced is by far the most diverse we've ever announced. We really want to ensure we're speaking to all Canadians.

Adam (Rogers Sports & Media): We’ve announced a creation called All In, which has five pillars to it. There's community business content, hiring and career advancement practices, and mentoring sponsorships is the fifth. And so as an example, we've committed $10 million in creative services and advertising to support equity seeking communities and businesses. On the content side, we have a content advisory council—internal—that is being run by our teams at Rogers Sports & Media, across all of the various businesses and brands. That team is tasked with thinking about and coming up with ideas for how we can ensure that we're inclusive and we have diversity in content.

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Julie Adam, SVP News & Entertainment, Rogers Sports & Media

Q: How do you remain competitive as streaming continues to grow?

Catto (CBC): We don’t set out to compete with Netflix. We are Canada's public broadcaster, we have a very specific mandate. Of course we want those audiences. We want audiences that are younger. Like anyone who's generating content and putting it out there, you want it to be seen. But we really are focused on how we can reach Canadian audiences on a myriad of platforms. And I think that's what we get excited about, is that it's not just money or television. We do have CBC Gem, and the video views for CBC Gem have grown significantly, just in the past year. And we also are seeing a tremendous growth in audio with our podcasts and CBC Listen.

Stockman (Bell Media): Our AVOD product continues to grow. Everything we acquired is going to be on CTV.ca and the CTV app as well as on linear TV, and that product continues to grow and grow and grow. We're looking at AVOD as part of the future here. People will have a bit of both in their lives depending on what it is we're looking for, if it's a subscription show or if it's an ad-supported show that they would have watched on network TV before, if you're more of a digital viewer. We really think the variety that we put on the schedule will get that must-see feeling for people who really do want to tune in and not miss it. We really kept that immediacy and variety in mind when we were selecting our shows.

Adam (Rogers Sports & Media): There's no question that there's more competition. We are competing for people's time, that's really the game that we're in. And people have a limited amount of free time for entertainment. Streaming is only a piece of it with the amount of content creation and the TikTok of it all. We have to work harder and we have to work harder to create, and or purchase content that people want.

Reeb (Corus Entertainment): There is a clear lane for companies like Corus to offer a real proposition to viewers and advertisers. We are the home of advertiser-supported, often free content. Advertisers don't want to get shut out of the ecosystem, like they have been with services like Netflix and Disney Plus. We want to ensure our advertisers know there's always a place for them as part of Corus’ platforms, whether it's our traditional channels, our streaming channels, like StackTV, or the Global app, or our web services.

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Troy Reeb, Executive Vice President Broadcast Networks at Corus Entertainment

The current ecosystem has forced companies to show our value proposition to the studios themselves. Gone are the days when we are competing for shows just with other Canadian networks, or even just with other Canadian networks and streamers. Sometimes we're competing with other Canadian networks, with streamers, and with the studios themselves who have to make the decision whether they want to hold back content for their own platforms. Our reach across multiple platforms and multiple channels is quite unprecedented. We’re confident that we can continue to show that value and that not every studio is going to want to start to reach over the top and go directly to Canadian consumers.

Amber Dowling
Amber Dowling is a Toronto-based freelance lifestyle and entertainment writer whose work has appeared in various newspapers, magazines and websites across Canada and the United States. A previous president of the Television Critics Association and former editor-in-chief of TV Guide Canada, she’s covered all aspects of the platinum age of television and the emerging industry for publications including Variety, The Hollywood Reporter, Indiewire, Playback, The Toronto Star and The Globe and Mail. Aside from watching too much boob tube she’s a world traveller and mom with a serious penchant for bold reds and stinky cheese.
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