Pubcaster pledges primetime makeover

CBC execs campaign for change

MONTREAL — It’s been a rocky couple of years for Canuck broadcaster CBC, but programming execs Kirstine Layfield and Fred Fuchs are leading its makeover.

The two newly installed execs spent the past several weeks criss-crossing the country, telling independent producers that things are about to change for the better at the pubcaster.

Adding to the duo’s challenges, CBC TV topper Richard Stursberg has said the network has to produce shows that could draw around 1 million viewers, a viewership level seldom achieved in the past few years.

Layfield, who is executive director of network programming, says the CBC will put more of an emphasis on series now, rather than the specials and minis that were preferred in the past.

“When I look at programming, numbers are going to play a part in it. As the public broadcaster, we should be reaching as many people as we can,” says Layfield, who used to be a senior exec at Alliance Atlantis in charge of a number of specialty channels, including the Life Network.

Layfield also plans to try to program high-profile all day, not just in primetime. So she wants good afternoon shows and is in the hunt to develop some hot latenight shows, including potentially a latenight talkshow.

“I’m trying to fill a schedule that will drive people to primetime,” Layfield says.

Web plans to jump more aggressively into the reality genre, a move that has drawn criticism from those who believe it is inappropriate for a pubcaster. Still, earlier this year, CBC announced the creation of a factual entertainment division to be run by Julie Bristow.

Layfield says CBC reality shows will not be like “Survivor” or “The Apprentice.” Instead they’ll be more skewed to public affairs, like last year’s “The Greatest Canadian,” in which viewers voted on who they thought was the most significant personality in the history of Canada.

“We’re not talking about ‘Extreme Makeover’ or ‘The Swan,’ ” she says.

Talk is cheap, however. The real test will be to see what they deliver when the CBC unveils its 2006-07 season at a June 15 media conference at Toronto’s Canadian Broadcasting Center.

Rival Canuck webs CTV and Global are just back from Los Angeles, where they spent millions of bucks snapping up Hollywood shows, but the CBC is committed to an all-Canuck primetime schedule. Its fortunes depend entirely on homegrown product. But local hits have been few and far between in recent times.

Management didn’t help, with last season’s delayed launch due to a prolonged staff lockout.

Web also drew ire from all quarters in February when it axed three high-profile, critically acclaimed series: “Da Vinci’s City Hall,” “The Tournamant” and “This Is Wonderland.”

CBC said lackluster ratings led to the cancellations. Critics said the CBC brought on the ratings problem with the lockout and insufficient promotion of the shows.

To Fuchs — who spent years running Francis Ford Coppola’s American Zoetrope — all this shows that Canadians care about their pubcaster’s role providing a Canuck voice amid the American hits.

“My sense is that there’s a lot of goodwill about the CBC as a public-service broadcaster,” says Fuchs, who moved from California to Toronto five years ago to work as an independent producer.

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