CBC Canada CEO Hubert Lacroix: embracing change

Since Canadian radio began with the first licences for private commercial radio stations in 1922, public broadcaster CBC (marketed as CBC/Radio-Canada) has worked to counter the American media influence and protect Canadian culture.

In the modern day, CBC/Radio-Canada continues to inform, enlighten and entertain, sharing Canada’s daily journey through the news, commentary and culture that Canadians need today and in the future. CEO Hubert Lacroix is perfectly aware of the current landscape, having overseen the broadcaster during a period of unprecedented change in the way content is consumed.

Hubert Lacroix

“I was recruited by a national headhunting firm,” Mr Lacroix says, “out of what I was doing. I spent more than twenty years doing mergers and acquisitions in public markets. I was a securities lawyer, sat on many public company boards, chaired public company boards.” Mr Lacroix’s expertise was in takeover bids and initial public offerings, meaning he had several clients within the media environment. He worked particularly closely with one large company, the Telemedia corporation, which held a number of media assets in the country.

“So I got closer to [Telemedia],” he explains. “I left my law practice on January 1st 2000, joined them on a full time basis, became their executive chairman. And with them we built at that time a radio network across the country.” The Telemedia network grew to have about 82 radio stations across Canada, a network as big geographically as CBC/Radio-Canada is now. Eventually, stations across the network were sold off, and Mr Lacroix returned to the law.

Hubert Lacroix was working in a firm in Montreal, and he was approached by a head-hunter and asked if he was interested in the job at CBC/Radio-Canada

Once again a practicing lawyer, working in a firm in Montreal, he was approached by a head-hunter and asked if he was interested in the job at CBC/Radio-Canada. It took a little while before he could be convinced. “I had no political colour, I said no a couple of times. I went to interviews and actually had an exam in Ottawa, like the others on the shortlist, and then there was a decision made that I was going to lead CBC/Radio-Canada.” Since that time, the landscape of the business has changed significantly, due in the most part to digital innovations, creating many new challenges for public broadcasters around the world, challenges CBC has had to face head on.

“We have 89 radio stations right now and 27 television stations, and that network is across the country. Obviously the idea is you cannot be a public broadcaster without telling the local stories, [which] have to also find a place at the network level, and be told across the country.”

21st Century Model

“I’ve been the head of CBC/Radio-Canada for [almost] ten years,” Mr Lacroix says. “I’ve had time to reflect on where we’ve been and what we’ve done. I walked in on January 1st, 2008. At that time there was no such thing as an iPhone, an iPad, no Netflix, no Snapchat.” Mr Lacroix recognises that the huge strides made in technological development in such a short period of history have had a profound effect on the workings of the television industry. He notes that in the Vancouver Olympics in 2010, the iPad was not yet in widespread use.

“The broadcaster that I lead has had to not only adjust to this, it has had to keep its connection with Canadians in this environment, with everything being so fragmented, where the revenues are migrating from what used to be a relatively safe television environment.” In days gone by, to achieve high audience numbers, CBC were competing for viewers with a relatively small number of other Canada-based broadcasters. Nowadays, the scope of competition is much vaster and far more wide-reaching.

“You are competing against Vice and Netflix, all of this content that is created by a Netflix for your attention, and there are so many minutes per day, and that’s why [there’s a change] in an environment where 40% of our revenue was derived from TV advertising.” As a response to the influx of pay-monthly streaming services and digital content providers, Mr Lacroix has been forced to consider how the broadcaster can adjust by leveraging partnerships.

CBC/Radio-Canada believes in the quality of Canadian content, and its aim is to promote such content on an international level, exposing Canadian artists to the rest of the world

“I get really annoyed when people compare us to Vice, because it’s really not understanding what a public broadcaster does. [Vice] doesn’t do news—they do great documentaries, they have interesting content, but they don’t do news like we do news.” Mr Lacroix admits that it is the task of CBC to gain a greater understanding of the reasons behind the popularity of platforms such as Vice and Netflix to a certain demographic, and to work out how it can tap into that market to benefit from changes in content consumption.

“This is when we adjust,” he says, “in the context of the mandate that we have, which is clearly a mandate that neither Netflix nor Vice have, which is: compelling Canadian content promoting Canadian artists, creators, not only in this country, for the rest of the world to see.” CBC/Radio-Canada believes in the quality of Canadian content, and its aim is to promote such content on an international level, exposing Canadian artists to the rest of the world. It is something the broadcaster takes great pride in doing.

“The broadcaster is about Canadian content in primetime, when most Canadians are watching. If you look at our programming schedules, just the ones coming in the fall, there’s no U.S. content, we have one series in French, just about nothing in English.” By offering almost 90% Canadian content across its scheduling, the broadcaster has found the best way to compete with content streaming services, making sure that it creates compelling entertainment to put on its platforms. “That means partners, it means dealing with producers, it means looking for partnerships that we would not have done before. We just did Alias Grace with Netflix, we’ll look at other organisations of that kind to see whether certain Canadian content can’t be done with them.”

Going Global

The days of content being produced and broadcast nationally are over, and Mr Lacroix admits that the change in the model has made it imperative for national broadcasters to keep pace, requiring new ways to introduce Canadian content to international markets. “We actually are trying to create something called Panora.tv,” he explains. “It’s an initiative that we put together to facilitate and promote the export of video content to different markets around the world and to digital service providers.”

Panora.tv unites CBC’s interests with those of the Canadian National Film Board (NFB), the Australian Broadcasting Company (ABC), Portuguese national broadcaster RTP, the Swiss RTS, French FTD, Finnish YLE and the Spanish broadcasting company RTVE. “They’re all joining forces to launch this Panora.tv idea, where you would actually create an environment to facilitate the buying of the content created by all these broadcasters in an environment where you can acquire multi-platform broadcasting rights.” This is just one example of a project that CBC/Radio-Canada is very excited about, and with help from the Canada Media Fund, Panora.tv promises to be a groundbreaking scheme for promoting national content worldwide.

“You could get licensing rights on an as-needed basis, and it’s creating a marketplace where this very particular content, which comes from public broadcasters, is actually on display and facilitated for exposure.” Another example of the network’s expansion plans involves its French arm, Radio-Canada, which is working closely with three other French-speaking partners to create an environment for content to flow easily between networks. “If you were to click on Radio-Canada, it would give you a link to content created by somebody in Switzerland or France. That is part of the mandate we think we have, which is to expose the content that we create, and produce and broadcast, to other parts of the world.”

Moving with the Times

The question remains whether the new landscape of digital information and entertainment distribution will have a significant impact on the way CBC delivers its content going forward. Would the network consider amending its approach to stay competitive? “We have some very important journalistic standards and policies, which we will never move away from,” Mr Lacroix stresses, “and we will continue imposing on the news that we broadcast and the content we create for news.”

By having access to a multitude of news platforms, there is no longer a need for the national news to be presented in a certain way

However, even within these frameworks of integrity respected by public broadcasters, there is no reason why the format can’t be changed. One example is that CBC will be bringing in four new anchors for its national news. “You’re going to see next week, in Radio-Canada, also a different way to tell the news, and maybe a different pace. More in-depth pieces. When you come to 10pm and you want to watch, you already know the news, you’ve been bombarded by it.”

By having access to a multitude of news platforms, there is no longer a need for the national news to be presented in a certain way. This has allowed the broadcaster to provide people with a better understanding of the news by taking the time to put it into context. “We’d like the context pieces to be more in-depth. So maybe you’ll see, in French, a smaller number of stories at 10pm, but much longer pieces. So that’s one way of showing that the format is actually going to go to each Canadian and what they will get from news.” This will all amount to a personalisation of the broadcaster’s news output, including targeted content on people’s phones and a greater presence on social media to really help people get the best of CBC’s offering. “[One] of the [social media] labs that we’ve created, it’s called RAD. It’s a lab of 25 kids, they’re all below 35 years old. In their formats and way of telling stories they’re reinventing the way we do news and all sorts of other news-related items.”

The whole layout of RAD is fresh, with colouring and tone that represents a radical departure from the broadcaster’s normal aesthetic. Mr Lacroix explains how this is an experiment in French with the hope of expanding the idea going forward. “If you were watching [RAD], you wouldn’t know until you see the logo that this is a CBC/Radio-Canada content. We understand that anybody that is considered to be a digital citizen, they don’t look at nor interact with the content of news in the way they used to.”

Compared to a decade or two ago, the labour needed to turn out such content has also grown dramatically. In truth, it isn’t just now that this change has become apparent. CBC/Radio-Canada has already had to change its methods over the years. “We’ve been investing in that part of our business for a long time. Obviously it’s accelerated substantially, but it was a much simpler environment. Now our priorities, which used to be television, radio, internet and mobility, have been turned completely around.” These priorities now appear to be reversed, with mobility becoming far more important, followed by internet, both of which have become far more important than television and radio are now considered.

All of this means that the broadcaster now needs to invest in a diversity of skillsets in order to produce content, to find the right people to work for it, whilst also managing to retain them on staff in order to keep moving forward.  “Once you’ve [invested in] that,” Mr Lacroix says, “then the shift in the organisation of these people and of what’s going on is going to help accelerate the digital direction in which we are completely committed to [moving].” One important consideration on top of this is the need to continue to cater for traditional audiences. There are plenty of people who still listen to the radio and watch television in the way they used to, and this cannot be ignored.

“In this country there’s more than 80% of people that watch in a linear way, according to the schedule that we build in prime time. So that’s 30 hours a week of people watching it in a traditional way. We can’t forget them.” Audience numbers reflect this retention of traditional viewers and listeners, with the radio side showing that CBC is rated at number one, two or three in 21 of the 26 markets it works in, and number one in another 15 of those markets. “It’s all about the perception of what CBC/Radio-Canada bring,” Mr Lacroix adds, “and certain parts of the country have been easier markets for us to connect with. Eastern Canada, for example, has a very strong admiration and love for the broadcaster.”

This is contrast to the choppier relationship shared with viewers in central and western Canada, meaning the broadcaster has an objective to improve numbers across these parts of the country where it is harder to pull in viewers. “We have the number one morning show in Calgary, but we can’t have anybody watch our evening news. So why is that? We’ve changed our priorities, and what we now do is spend more time on trying to interact with people in Calgary in a digital way than we used to.”

There is clearly a geopolitical element to these findings, showing that certain parts of the country react differently to the broadcaster’s offering, meaning some extra work must be done to increase numbers in certain areas. “If you look at the corporate plan and the strategy, we would like 75% of Canadians to at least come to us and say that [they use] one of the services that we offer, there’s at least one link with us that makes it a really special relationship.” CBC set the target in 2014 of achieving 18 million online visits per month by the year 2020, which would represent double the 9 million it was achieving at the time. In 2017, it is already well ahead of schedule.

“This summer we passed that,” Mr Lacroix says. “We have more than 18 million Canadians that come to us on a monthly basis on one of our platforms, unique visits. It means that we’ve reached a lot of people, so now the challenge is going to be the engagement part.” The target is now to turn this interest into more minutes spent on CBC platforms, to create intimate one-to-one relationships that cater for the individual viewer and keeps them engaged in what the broadcaster has to offer.

Mr Lacroix has high hopes for the broadcaster even once his tenure is over, and is keen for CBC/Radio-Canada to keep trying new things, stabilising its position and helping to further its shift into a more digital world

More Canada

Mr Lacroix has high hopes for the broadcaster even once his tenure is over, and is keen for CBC/Radio-Canada to keep trying new things, stabilising its position and helping to further its shift into a more digital world. “The public broadcaster has a business model right now that is still extremely shaky. It has been helped by the liberals in this government, an investment of $650m over five years, and that allowed us to accelerate the digital shift and to become as important as we are.”

But, he admits, the business model itself is still deeply flawed in this new environment. The issue of how to move forward in the digital age has not yet been completely solved, and Mr Lacroix would like to see this addressed even once he has left CBC. “There has to be a fundamental rethink about what the broadcaster actually does. We delivered a paper in November which I think is a very important one, we said that CBC/Radio-Canada should take a leading role [in the industry].”

This paper outlined plans for the broadcaster to put together and lead a council of creative and cultural industries, similar to that introduced in the UK. Within this, the suggestion was made for the broadcaster to become advertisement free. With so much of the country’s advertising now being sold to digital media companies, there is a shortage for the rest of Canadian broadcasters. CBC/Radio-Canada could help significantly with this problem. “What we said is: let’s become ad-free. Let’s make sure we replace advertising dollars with support from the federal government. We will no longer compete with the others, we can be a better partner to the entire cultural community. That’s what I hope.”

Not only will this move create many more jobs, but it will also support Canadian creators as they produce fresh, innovative stories without the usual pressure of commercial success, something that can only be good for the national entertainment industry. “We could do all sorts of stuff with the programming schedule,” Mr Lacroix insists, “which we can’t do now. So, we would actually be a better broadcaster, we would be more in line to match Canadian’s expectations.”

The ultimate goal is to shift the focus of the Canadian public broadcaster, moving from insuring that it balances budgets with commercial revenue, to becoming freer to experiment with programming even more than it already does.  “We can’t forget that the broadcaster does one thing better than anyone else. Throughout all of these tough times, I’ve kept the geographical footprint of CBC/Radio-Canada, because I don’t think that you can be a public broadcaster without being deeply rooted in the region.”

Local and community stories will always be extremely important for public broadcasters to tell, and Mr Lacroix is keen for CBC to continue doing just that. But there will still be the need for partnerships to create great content, and chances will still need to be taken. “What happens in Victoria BC has to be told in a way that the Newfoundlanders, or the people from Prince Edward Island, or the people from Quebec can understand what goes on in the country. Our mandate is to contribute to a shared national consciousness and identity.”

For Mr Lacroix, that’s the fabric of CBC/Radio-Canada’s existence. As a broadcaster it enriches democracy by informing the electorate on the key issues, catering for Canada’s mosaic of different nationalities.  “When people say we need more Canada,” Mr Lacroix concludes, “we need more Canada because we actually have a way of looking at the world which is much more inclusive than many, and that’s our job—to continue doing that.”

Find out more about the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation by visiting www.cbc.ca.


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