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Does Heather Conway have what it takes to save the CBC? by Simon Houpt

Jul 25, 2014

Source: Globe and Mail

Heather Conway is fairly certain nobody wants to stab her in the back just yet.

“I gotta believe I’m so beloved that just none of that is going to happen,” she says with a wry smile, taking a seat with her back to the dining room of Luma, an upscale redoubt in TIFF’s Bell Lightbox headquarters.

Give it some time. It has been less than seven months since Conway became the executive vice-president of CBC’s English services, giving her responsibility for CBC-TV, CBC News Network, the documentary channel, Radio One and 2, cbc.ca, other digital operations, and more than $750-million in annual spending. Even at the best of times, the position is one of the most scrutinized in the Canadian cultural industrial complex.

And in case you haven’t been paying attention, these are not the best of times for CBC.

Potential critics have been warming up in the wings. Within days of her appointment last fall, some began grousing that Conway – a former marketing executive with no direct programming experience – was a dismaying choice for one of the most powerful broadcasting jobs.

Then last month, while staff were still trying to digest a cut of 657 jobs announced in April, they responded icily as Conway helped unveil an overhaul of the public broadcaster that will axe about another 20 per cent of their colleagues, or 1,500 positions across English and French services, over the next five years. During a tense town hall where the strategy was launched, she was accused of being gleeful about the cuts.

One staffer, echoing a popular conspiracy theory, noted darkly that Conway and her boss, CBC/Radio-Canada president Hubert Lacroix, had each previously been associated with the Conservative Party of Canada, the CBC’s perceived Enemy No.1.

In person, at least one accusation immediately seems off-base. “I’m the anti-glee,” Conway notes here at Luma. She speaks in a low register, with muted expressiveness. “On my happiest day, glee is probably not an emotion that pops to the surface.” Over a two-hour lunch, there are only three moments that approach delight: while showing a video of her nearly four-year-old daughter Olivia, whose birth mother is her ex-partner Camilla Gibb; recalling the “brain-on-fire” experience of working on the introduction of the GST in the late-1980s with then-finance minister Michael Wilson and future Bank of Canada governor David Dodge; and talking about the Green Bay Packers.

Perhaps, then, she is not such an odd choice for a time of existential uncertainty at the CBC. The daughter of Scottish Catholic immigrants, Conway is focused on the practical. She has an undergraduate degree in economics, a master’s degree in industrial relations, and a wonk’s passion for public policy.

“It might be my economics background, but I tend to look at problems and challenges and say: ‘What is fixed, and what is variable?’ ” she says. “To put your calories against the stuff you can actually have an impact on, the variables, is so much better use of your time, your energy, your intellect, your creativity, than to spend all of your time focusing on what’s fixed.”

Is she referring, perhaps, to the CBC staffers and others who rail fruitlessly against the federal government’s funding cuts? “I’d put that in the category,” she says with a nod. “I think there’s a – ‘If wishes were, you know, butterflies,’ or whatever – I don’t even know what the expression is, but it’s a desire, and I understand it completely, and I can sympathize with it. I could join in, but it doesn’t really get me anywhere.”

Conway grew up watching and listening to the CBC in a household with deep respect for public service and its unique responsibilities. Her father was in the military, and then a public servant; her mother was a teacher. “My very first memory of a news event was the [April 1968] Liberal convention, and my parents yelling at the TV: ‘Tru-deau! Tru-deau!’” She was six years-old.

Politics was a mainstay of the dinner table. Conway found her own path, becoming, she says, a “card-carrying member of the NDP.” After working with Wilson, she served as a strategist on Jean Charest’s failed leadership campaign against Kim Campbell, an experience which she says “soured me on party politics.” In 1994, she left Ottawa for Toronto and the private sector.

She joined TD Financial Group, rising to executive vice-president of corporate and public affairs, where she helped sell the 2000 merger with Canada Trust and the resulting layoff of more than 4,500 staff. That led to Alliance Atlantis Communications Inc., the film and TV producer-distributor. As head of marketing, Conway negotiated the carriage agreements for the company’s growing stable of specialty channels.

Later, she served for 21 months as CEO of the Canadian division of Edelman, the worldwide public relations firm. She was about the same length into her tenure as chief business officer at the Art Gallery of Ontario last year when CBC came calling.

Lacroix praised her experience. “We need somebody who understood the magnitude of the challenges – the management challenges, the financial challenges, the technical challenges – and if you look at her CV, her background, that’s exactly what she brings,” he said at the time.

And if Conway has never programmed a network, she moves easily in the world of TV and film production: Her domestic partner is the writer-director Patricia Rozema (Mansfield Park). She joined a fantasy football league whose commissioner is Kid in the Hall Mark McKinney; she loses because she repeatedly overpays for the Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers. She can’t help it. She’s a Packers fan. She even owns one of the team’s trademark cheesehead hats. “They were the last community-owned team in the NFL, and that appealed to me,” she says. “Like CBC.”

Like fantasy-football players, all media executives these days are picking their strategies and hoping for the best. Rogers Media spent $5.2-billion last November to nab the rights to 12 years’ worth of NHL hockey in part because the company believed its traditional business model – importing scripted U.S. programs to air on its City network in prime time – was in trouble. Bell Media bought Astral Media for $3-billion to ward off competition from services such as Netflix. Shaw Media, Bell and Rogers have all laid off staff in the past year. In the U.S., Rupert Murdoch’s 21st-Century Fox took a run at Time Warner this month, betting that bigger is better.

“We’re all sitting on a bit of a rocket,” offers Conway. “We don’t know where it’s going to land. And I think that’s why you’re starting to see people make choices. [Rogers Media CEO Keith Pelley] says: ‘I’m betting on sports. That’s my bet: live events.’”

CBC’s bet will see it spend the next five years moving from focusing on content primarily for television and radio, with digital and mobile platforms trailing behind, to developing content primarily for mobile and digital consumption – with television and radio trailing behind.

It will contract out all production except radio and TV news and current affairs.

While CBC’s move was widely maligned – partly because it will contract out documentary production – all media companies are rushing into mobile. Bell Media’s The Loop, formerly known as Sympatico, is experimenting with producing short-form videos that are quick to consume and easily shared. But CBC is making the shift under a massive microscope.

Conway says there is no similar legacy organization pursuing the same strategy as CBC. One potential model is Vice Media, the Montreal-born, Brooklyn-bred, multi-platform renegade outfit whose dance card has recently filled up with stodgy media companies wanting to know how they too can become popular with fickle millennials.

Conway met with two Vice executives in the spring. “Would I like to get some insights from them about how they’re connecting with those audiences who are not connecting with the traditional television-based newscast? Sure. I mean, that’s just smart. That’s my reason for doing it, not because I have some delusional notion of coolness about them, or that I’m captivated by them,” she explains.

“Vice has actually said that part of their inspiration is the CBC. Watching [former reporter] Joe Schlesinger in their youth do his stand-ups [in the field] is part of their DNA,” she says. “So I think the CBC brand is not as far from the Vice brand as somebody might initially think.”

She adds: “I think their interest in trying to do something with us is genuine. It’s not motivated by money. Because, you know, my first words to them” – she laughs – “are, ‘We don’t have a lot of money.’”

But Vice is also part of the problem for CBC: In a world where consumers and citizens are already able to access a dizzying array of information, why do they need CBC?

“I think in a media landscape where the audience fragmentation is getting greater and greater and greater, there is an even greater need for the CBC,” Conway replies. “When you can get more and more and more cultural content from everywhere, and everybody is trying to push that content on to you free, because they can monetize it through advertising and other means, where do you see yourself reflected?”

She draws a parallel to her experience as a lesbian viewer of TV and film. “I’ve had to watch many, many not critically acclaimed shows, because they’re about gay people, right? Because there’s so little content available to me that reflects who I am, that I will go – ehhh– ” she makes what she laughingly characterizes as a “cringey” face. “I’m in a marginalized community, to some degree, from a pop-culture sense. So I’m watching The L Word, whether I think it’s great or not.”

Who else, she asks, will program the “risky” programs? She points to The Boys of St. Vincent, an acclaimed two-part mini-series produced by the National Film Board about sexual abuse by priests at a St. John’s orphanage. Produced by the National Film Board, the film was slated to air on CBC in December 1992, when it was hit with an injunction brought by four priests then at trial for sexual abuse. CBC fought the injunction, and the film aired in some areas of the country – accompanied by emergency help-line information for victims of abuse or those who just needed to talk about what they’d seen. But it wasn’t until a year later that viewers in Ontario and parts of Quebec were finally able to watch it. “That was a national conversation that we needed to have. And very few nations had it,” says Conway. But a skeptic might point out that her example is 22 years old.

Conway acknowledges she doesn’t know exactly what the result will look like or whether viewers will want the content the new CBC offers – she and her staff will need to feel their way through the transition. “I don’t know who has the answers,” she admits. “I haven’t heard anybody yet where I have just felt that light bulb moment and said: That’s it!”

“I think that’s the challenge of the town hall, where people were saying: Where’s the Apple moment, the Steve Jobs moment? I think even Apple’s gonna’ have a tough time finding the Apple moment from here on in. It may just be a bar that’s not realistic anymore, in a landscape where every day brings” – she pauses, then torques the next words with irony – “brings a new opportunity to learn. To put it mildly.”

© Globe and Mail