An interview with CBC’s scripted exec Sally Catto

SallyCattoAt the CBC 2013/14 Season Preview in Vancouver, TV, eh?’s Rachel Langer had the chance to interview Sally Catto, CBC’s executive in charge of scripted programming. She had lots to say about CBC’s 2013/14 slate, what’s in store in the future, and how big a role ratings actually play.

OK, so let’s get the scary money question out of the way first. What role did the budget cuts play in the upcoming season?

In the big picture you will see that we have a lot of returning hits. That’s two-fold. We’re so lucky that we have these returning hits. I was just thinking about the fact that years ago, and I’m not just talking about the CBC but the entire industry, we just didn’t have this many Canadian hits. To me it’s a tremendous success that we have (Republic of ) Doyle going into its fifth season, Heartland going into its seventh season, etc.

At the same time you don’t see a lot of new additions and I would say that’s because we’ve had a lot of success, but we just do not have the money to add a lot of new series to our slate, particularly scripted series. I think it’s very much a strategy of building and holding on to our successes. Fortunately we have them, but the impact is in scripted that we can’t add a new series to the slate — we do not have the money to do that. We’ve added an acquisition to the slate, and that financially completely works for us and we love the show. That is the most obvious impact.

Crossing Lines is the acquisition, correct? Can you talk to me a little bit about that?

Crossing Lines is a French-German co-production. We do look for shows that are out there internationally; we are not trying to be an American network. Ironically, Crossing Lines will be airing on NBC, but I can honestly say our interest in Crossing Lines preceded interest in that deal happening. Our acquisitions team were looking at it before that happened. When that happened it didn’t change our interest in it. As you will see we’re not simulcasting it, we’re not changing our Canadian schedule, and we think it will really compliment our schedule.

We are really happy with it and we love that Donald Sutherland, a great Canadian star, is in it. We think that it’s something our audiences will really love and it’s on that global playing field.

The new shows that are coming to the slate are movies, miniseries, that sort of thing.

Yes, Best Laid Plans is based on Terry Fallis’ wonderful book [as well as Still Life, based on Louise Penny’s book]. I think you’ll see in terms of our strategy, we really like to use those movies and miniseries to showcase our Canadian culture in a different way. Our ongoing series do it in one way, but I think when you have a literary adaptation, that will speak to Canadians.

Do you see a possibility for projects like that to spin off into a series or a larger project than initially planned?

I think it’s always possible. Neither of those were developed with that in mind. Certainly there are a number of Louise Penny books and looking at and reading the scripts for Best Laid Plans I can see the potential, so it’s a juggling act for us. It comes down to how many slots do we have, what’s our breadth of programming, does it tell a story about Canadians that we don’t feel is being told by any of our other shows. So there are many variables that go into it, how does it do, how will it perform, so it’s early to say. There is the potential in both of those [to expand], unlike a biopic, but we do have a number of strong projects being developed so at this point it’s just hard to say.

We have a very strong cop show presence in Canada — do you see that trend continuing?

You know I think for us, we have Cracked and again, because we really want to represent the different programming — and we have Crossing Lines now — I wouldn’t prioritize another cop show. We have a great cop show. We have a couple of detective series, as you know, and I think our competitors also do it really well, so trying to differentiate ourselves we would be more interested in continuing to diversify.

Can you tell us anything about what you have in the development pipeline?

We have some really exciting projects in development. We have a project in development with Joseph Boyden, who is a Giller Prize winner, and a beautiful, beautiful writer. It’s an original series in development, so that is stunning and remarkable so I feel honored to be working with him. We have another wonderful project in development with Laurie Finstad who did Durham County – a beautiful period western. We have a sweeping story about the Klondike based on Pierre Berton’s book, written by Ted Mann. I hesitate to say because we have so many.

I don’t want anyone to feel like “oh you’ve left us out because we’re not a priority” so that’s why we generally don’t have those conversations, but at the same time I’m so proud of what we’re doing. We’re working with incredible writers. I could go on and on and on, so anyone I’ve left out, forgive me because we love you all.

We also have upcoming another adaptation of the Book of Negroes that Clement Virgo is doing with the book’s author Lawrence Hill, so that will be going into production later this year.

How important are ratings to the CBC?

It’s a really great question. Ratings are very important to us. Should they be? I think we should care very much about whether Canadians are watching our shows, because if they aren’t, we aren’t connecting, we aren’t reaching them. I personally believe audience is extremely important, however I believe that there should be a balance. Not every show should be held to the same bar and the decisions shouldn’t be based on “is this going to bring in the broadest audience.” As a public broadcaster I think it’s a factor and I think it should be weighed very heavily for some of our shows.

Do I think it should govern every decision? No, and I don’t think it does. However, I think that often when there are comments made about the CBC — are you doing what a public broadcaster should be doing? I would argue yes and I can give you all the reasons, but I think what people don’t always remember is that, especially with our cuts, we’re incredibly dependant on and grateful for the Canadian Media Fund.

55% percent of our envelope is determined by eyeballs on the screen, so we are actually held to the same standard as a private broadcaster. That makes it imperative for us to consider ratings. If we don’t, our envelope goes down. That’s just a fact. I have mixed feelings about that — I think that’s just the way it is, though. We absolutely have to be cognisant of that and we’ve struck an amazing balance of providing shows you wouldn’t see on other networks and still bringing in amazing audiences.

Can you talk to me about some of the digital components that you’ve been bringing in? Could you see the CBC focusing at all on original digital content or web content, or more additional content to accompany the scripted shows that you have?

In terms of original content, would we love to? Yes, but it’s a monetary issue. I find it fascinating to be at a modern public broadcaster at this time of incredible change, because it’s all just content, and how are we showcasing it? That seems to be changing every year.

I look at Republic of Doyle and we had a second screen app for that this year, and that was so amazing to do that. I do feel like we tend to lead the charge on the digital front. Our Facebook game for Heartland Ranch won the very coveted Social TV Award, and it was up against shows from the States, and big Warner Brothers shows. I feel very proud of that. I think now, our [digital] content is primarily tied into our original programming that you’ve seen on the network. Will that change in the future? I think it’s entirely possible, but financially it’s hard. Just the way it’s all evolving, we won’t even see the distinction.

What is your favorite part of working with the CBC?

I really believe in the public broadcaster. I really believe in telling Canadian stories. I love where it all starts with the talent, with the writers. That’s where it all starts. I think you all see the shows in front of you and I feel very lucky that I get to see what happens behind the scenes. It’s the writers. I love working with our actors, and that the CBC has built a true star system and that we get to work with these great stars, but I also love our unsung heroes — I’m a big fan of those writers.