Interview: The balancing act of CBC’s head programmer Sally Catto

SallyCattoWhen CBC announced their 2015/16 schedule a few weeks ago, there were familiar shows, familiar names behind new shows, the return of arts programs, and a whole lot of acquisitions with Australian accents. This week, CBC’s general manager of programming Sally Catto answered some of our questions about how all those puzzle pieces fit together into one schedule.

It’s been a few weeks since the 2015/15 scheduling announcement. What kind of reaction were you hoping for and did you get that reaction?

I was really happy with the reaction. You’re always thinking of your audience – that’s why we do what we do, so we can have programming we love but always in line with how our audience is going to respond to it.

There were some shows they haven’t seen yet, but there was certainly excitement over the return of Chris Haddock for example [with The Romeo Section], and the range of programming. I was really thrilled about the reception to our arts programming. That’s something new we’re introducing this year and it’s so important as a public broadcaster. It’s not a playing field we’ve been in for the last few years.

Even our factual programming – shows like Keeping Canada Alive to me are unique and tell our stories in a really powerful way. Those shows I heard a lot about.

What I found interesting when I think about the reasons why, is there was commentary out there about the number of acquisitions, that they seemed high. I went back and looked, thinking I don’t believe it’s higher than last year if you look at the totality from summer to summer. And that’s actually true. It’s not that there were more acquisitions, it’s that this year we included summer when we announced our programming. Last year when we did the upfronts I don’t believe we delved deeply into the summer schedule, so it’s a longer period of time we were covering this year.

Also I think because we had footage from our acquisitions, they probably stood out more. Our new programming and even our returning shows are in production or are about to go into production, so we didn’t have footage of This Life or The Romeo Section or even the new season of X Company. So that also could have contributed to that perception.

That was the one thing I thought I should have made more clear if people think it’s an issue, because I felt it was so obvious we were increasing our original programming and there was a great response, but I noticed comments about a lot of acquisitions.

I heard that as well and I didn’t do the math but it seemed to me you’ve always had acquisitions. Last year I believe they almost branded them – I can’t remember what they called it. 

Yes, and that might have been a cue too. They called it CBC Selects and we didn’t do that this year. Our philosophy is our acquisitions are an important part of our schedule. Obviously our priority is original programming, but each acquisition is acquired with great care and it’s still in line with our strategy. We want it to be seen as a key part of our programming — not the most important part, but when we acquire a program we put a lot of thought into it.

This year, we were more title focused in the way we rolled it out. I’m big on showing people the schedule, so when you’re doing that, by nature of that process, you’re doing it show by show. So that could have contributed to the perception as well.

A lot of them seem to be Australian productions this year. Is that coincidence or how did that happen?

Honestly, it’s total coincidence. We were laughing that we should have branded it: Aussies in Canada. It really is a coincidence. Some of them were acquired quite a while ago and are only now appearing on the schedule. We just love Please Like Me and yes, that just happens to be Australian. Love Child? Does as well. But then you’ve got Raised by Wolves, Banished, and Jekyll and Hyde which are not. Last year we had some Australian series as well.

When you’re picking these acquisitions are you looking primarily at public broadcasting from around the world? You obviously aren’t trying to get in the same mix as the private networks?

No, and just so you know we have a wonderful senior director of acquisitions, Jenna Bourdeau , who’s been working with us since late last year and she’s been making some really lovely choices for us.

We haven’t come out and said it has to be a public broadcaster. We gravitate to that first. I think in our minds it’s: is this the best of the world that you might not otherwise see in Canada, that we feel is in line with our more cable strategy, our single-cam comedies in comedy, so do we feel that thematically and in terms of balancing the schedule are we differentiating ourselves from the privates, is this a fit? But if we see something fantastic that isn’t on a public broadcaster we will still pursue it.

What we are not prioritizing or what would be very unlikely would be a straight American acquisition – why would we do that? We wouldn’t for our series. That’s being done and it’s being done well. But showcasing something that Canadians might not always get to see fits in nicely with our strategy.

To go back to your original programming, you do have some high profile names from the past like Chris Haddock, and you had announced Michael: Tuesdays and Thursdays is coming back, though I understand that’s not until possibly fall 2016 …

Yes, we had people ask about that and Kim’s Convenience which we had announced.

I forgot about that one. I’m excited about that.

Yeah, it was a debate — do we bring that up again, do we remind people? Those were ordered well in advance so they will definitely be featured at our next upfronts. But you’re right, both of those are for the 16/17 season.

For this season though you do have a recognizable name who’s been successful for you in the past in Chris Haddock, and you’re bringing over a Radio-Canada series with This Life … does that stem solely from confidence in the creators and the material, or is it also a marketing benefit that you have a known quantity to a degree?

With Chris it’s just that he’s one of the most talented writers I’ve ever read. It was an honour to work with him in the past. He has a brilliant voice. He speaks from an organic place in Canada – not just the fact that this will be set in Vancouver but he embraces the environment in his writing that gives it an authenticity above and beyond his talent in character. Chris is someone whose voice makes you just so interested in hearing what he has to say and the stories he wants to tell.

With him it was more what do you want to do? What’s your passion? I think, too, the fact that we’ve shifted to more premium drama, open to more serialized programming, open to darker programming, open to that kind of ongoing narrative is a perfect strategy fit but I feel really lucky to have him back in the fold. That was definitely just based on his incredible talent.

With This Life we do often look to find ways we can partner with Radio-Canada. We try to work closely together when possible. It doesn’t always work because the audiences are different so there’s programming we’ve tried that maybe doesn’t work so well. It will never go from the outside in, like we’ll never say oh, we have to work with them.

With This Life what you’re first responding to is the creative and the storytelling. I think most people are touched by somebody they know or are related to that is dealing with terminal illness. This is a story not just of this woman but of her family, and about valuing your life and about the finiteness of it that’s told in a really dramatic yet entertaining way. People won’t know it until they see it but there are real moments of humour and it can be very uplifting at times.

It could be my own age but you get to a point where you think, ok, I’m at this stage of my life and I see that there’s an end to it. Often it’s because of the death of someone we love and then it becomes a reality that one day this will happen to us. That sounds all very much like my own self-reflection going on but I think there are themes in there that are really worth exploring, and again the talent involved – a wonderful producer, great writers. And again, it’s something different on our schedule. It’s a contemporary, family-driven character drama. Those can be the hardest to find but when you get them right they’re incredibly satisfying. If you think of Friday Night Lights or Parenthood, this isn’t identical to that but I do covet the character-driven drama.

Speaking as someone who would love for Intelligence to come back, and who is happy Michael: Tuesdays and Thursdays is coming back, I like the idea of going toward a darker, serialized cable model. But isn’t there a danger of people looking to the past and saying well, Intelligence was cancelled and ended with a dramatic cliffhanger, Strange Empire – I’m not going to berate CBC for cancelling it, but what if these essentially cable series get a cable-sized audience? Is this a sustainable direction if you can’t get a bigger broadcast audience to follow these shows?

There’s a balance in our schedule, and what I’ve said about our strategy and the direction we’re headed is it’s an evolution not a revolution. We recognize there’s programming that’s already on our schedule that is broader, that is more episodic, that brings in those numbers and is beloved, and very strong in its own right, like Murdoch Mysteries and Heartland. It’s not as if we’ve torn that off our schedule and said hey, we’re stripping it down and starting again. We’re looking for a balance and we’re looking to slowly bring in that balance.

Of course we want all our shows to have the widest possible audience. But when we look at a series that is more serialized, darker, cable, you don’t go in with the same audience expectations, at least we don’t. We’re not as focused on that as people might think, depending on the show.

I have said this before, and it’s complicated, but – Strange Empire was a wonderful show and I completely understand what some of the reactions were. I was very proud we were involved and I do think it signaled a change in direction. But the reason we didn’t move forward with it is not where we said oh, the numbers are low, we’re not doing it again. It was much more complicated than that and it was based on a number of factors. What I would say going forward is there are a number of series where if they aren’t getting incredibly high numbers that isn’t going to be the deciding factor in whether they come back or not.

If all shows on our schedule had that problem then yeah we would have a very practical problem in a time when we are dependent on getting revenue and programming in different ways. But we counter that by saying, hey, let’s be more open to partnerships the way we did with Book of Negroes and BET. Let’s look at different ways of funding certain properties. It’s a balancing act. Different properties serve different purposes on the schedule.

We know Michael: Tuesdays and Thursdays is more of a niche audience and yet we brought it back. We brought it back because we love it. We do think we can build the audience for it but we’re not expecting it to bring in the numbers of a Schitt’s Creek. It’s a totally different kind of a show but it’s very in line with the direction we’re headed – a single camera comedy with that lovely balance of drama and comedy, and again with that distinct voice of Bob [Martin], and that partnership of Bob, Don [McKellar] and Matt [Watts]. They’re a wonderful team.

You mentioned some of the different ways of funding programming more creatively. I’m not going to try to make you say that budget cuts are a wonderful thing, but you’ve done some interesting things with taking on a City show in Young Drunk Punk or the partnership like you say with Book of Negroes. It seems like it’s great that you had such a success with Book of Negroes but then it’s six episodes and done. Is it difficult to keep financing those projects versus having an ongoing series or is having more short-run series the way of the future?

It’s important to have your ongoing series, your anchors in the schedule. With the way people consume content now, with binge viewing, so much being on demand, there’s just such an appetite out there for all kinds of dramas. Again it’s what is the story and what is the length required to tell it. You’re right about Book of Negroes in that it’s not going to return but it served its wonderful role for us and we’re so proud to have been part of it. Could we survive on solid mini-series? No. But it is that year-to-year balance and that impacts all of your decision making.

I definitely think there’s room for both and I think the great thing – and I give this to Heather [Conway] – is that she’s come in and said take risks. Be prepared to fail. Try this, try that, see if it works and if it doesn’t that’s ok, knowing that you’ll end up with something really great if you’re not always playing safe. That’s been incredibly liberating.

That seems unique in Canadian television these days as well.

It’s so fantastic.

To get back to these partnerships, I mentioned Young Drunk Punk, and you have Blackstone on the schedule, though not exactly in the primetimest of slots…

I’d love to get Blackstone in prime time. It wasn’t just like “oh, we’re going to put this in late night.” What happened was there were playoffs in hockey, and we wanted it in Aboriginal Month, and when we started to look at the schedule, that 9-10 pm slot with all of our new programming, I literally couldn’t find a place. We don’t have 10 o’clock because The National is there. That’s great but it’s tricky for us in prime, so in the window that we have Blackstone for, that’s where we could put it in. It does suit late night, and it has quite the language in it, but that actually isn’t an issue. If I could find a place to put it – if I could put it at 9, it couldn’t go at 8 for sure because of the content – that was really more of a scheduling issue than anything else. That actually bothered me that we couldn’t get it in, but we did want it in Aboriginal Month and we did want to recognize it. It’s a wonderful drama and Ron Scott is an amazing talent.

We are looking at doing more with APTN. We just partnered with them on a documentary series and we’re talking with them for possible dramas. They are a great partner for us.

I have to put a pitch in for you to get Hard Rock Medical.

Oh Hard Rock Medical, yes, that fits in here, we’re looking at that as well. You love it?

I do, it’s a great show. It would fit well with Michael: Tuesdays and Thursdays. Not to play armchair quarterback on you.

Love it, you can come in and schedule with me.

So how did you get into this career? What drew you to it? 

I never knew I would end up in this job. At the time I thought I made mistakes but in the end they were pushing me further in the right direction. Sometimes you figure out what you love by doing what you don’t love.

Growing up I was a big geeky reader. I did read a lot through my childhood, and I did watch a lot of television. Not to say I didn’t participate in some activities, but I was a big reader and I have always loved storytelling and I have incredible awe of writers and the stories they tell. That’s always driven me, and I got an English degree.

The funny thing is I took a bit of a turn and ended up in law school. My boyfriend at time was writing the LSATs and said hey do you want to do this. I loved school and I loved learning and I ended up going to law school. I did practice a couple of years on Bay Street, at really wonderful firms – they were fantastic but I wouldn’t say I was fantastic. Doing that only made me feel more like this isn’t where I’m supposed to be.

So I left and went to work at a literary agency. It was great, but it was much lower income and I’m glad I did it before I had kids. I loved it. I was surrounded by authors. I went from there and just kept moving closer and closer to working with writers and working in television. What I do really appreciate being in this position is the balance of the creative and then the puzzle of the schedule.

I love working with other people with the same goals. This will sound really cheesy but from communications to business affairs to marketing and now with all the changes in digital, you’re on the same path. When I came into this role I thought oh, I’m with my people now. I hadn’t really felt that way before. To be part of the Canadian landscape and Canadian television, I feel really lucky. I know I’m not saving lives and I never lose sight of that, but I feel like being part of furthering those stories is an amazing opportunity.


10 thoughts on “Interview: The balancing act of CBC’s head programmer Sally Catto”

  1. A thorough interview, Diane, although I feel that Ms. Cato is still not being very straightforward about the cancellation of Strange Empire. She states that ratings were not a reason but then says “…it was much more complicated than that and it was based on a number of factors….”….such as?

    It’s not your fault she continues to dodge the question and if the CBC was a private corporation, fine, it’s their call…but they are not. They receive public funds and beyond any support for a given show, a taxpayer-funded exec should be able to provide clear responses to those who pay her/his/their salary. While lower-level staff at CBC were quite helpful to me when I made queries for my Western genre site, the executive vagueness is disappointing.

    Anyhoo, cheers for your time on this.

    1. I don’t think this falls under Freedom of Information act type information – there are things she likely can’t and probably shouldn’t disclose. I don’t think it helps anyone in the industry or audience for a network to sling mud after canceling a show.

  2. For crying out loud, if you think CBC was “hiding” things about the “Strange Empire” cancellation then you’re wearing a tinfoil hat.

    Ratings were poor. Is that the only factor? No. It never is at a network. You’re owed every discussion, every itemized consideration and a transcript of every conversation that led into the decision to put those resources somewhere else? No. You’re not owed that for your $33 a year, sorry.

    The very nature of a public broadcaster as large as CBC, that’s expected to do so much with a shrinking budget and series of hostile governments always looking to starve it to bring it to heel means that there is no such thing as a decision that everyone will applaud. If they gave 54 reasons for the thing you don’t like, well, that’s not good enough, give me 55. It’s a no-win.

    Catto and the CBC were as candid as could be expected about the Strange Empire cancellation. They looked at how much it cost, how many viewers it was drawing, what else they had in their development slate, and judged it didn’t deserve a Season Two.

    When the next season of shows replace it, and we see what they do, we’ll all have another chance to armchair quarterback the CBC’s decisionmaking. Until then, you’re owed nothing more than the honest answer you got.

  3. I appreciate the follow-up comments, and it appears, Mr. McGrath, that you are quite content with the response given by Ms. Cato. It is hyperbolic to claim that in requesting further information that I think CBC is “hiding” something or that I’m looking for “a transcript of every conversation”….what I stated is the desire for some specificity about the “number of factors”. If you think that is presumptuous to ask, well, you and I have very different ideas about transparency & accountability.

    As a final note, if you are the Denis McGrath that has written for the CBC show, X Company, I do think it would be fair for you to disclose that relationship. I don’t get paid anything by the CBC…in fact, it does remain the other way around.

  4. Um. Chad. I comment on this site all the time. I am easily searchable on Twitter. I am quoted in the paper regularly on Canadian TV issues. The idea that I’m “Hiding” — on TV-eh? — my associations, past or present, with CBC Makes you look even more tinfoil-y than you did in your last comment. It never would occur to me that any regular or semi-regular reader of this site would not know I wrote for XCompany — or the Border, or Continuum, or any number of other Canadian TV shows. I am the closest thing you’re going to get to an open book in discussions of Canadian TV.

    But the fact that you go there shows what a no-win mindset any CBC exec would find themselves in with you. You want to see conspiracy, and demand increased granularity in reasons.

    The reasons were there. They were candid. The “more” you want is an unreasonable ask.

    But thanks for the laugh. And good work smoking out my secret, there, Poirot. :)

  5. While I always appreciate the time of a comment, Mr. McGrath, it is unfortunate that your follow-up digresses into adjectives such as “tinfoil-y” rather than stay focused on the issue of whether supporters of Strange Empire (and CDN taxpayers) desire a further explanation of the show’s cancellation. Considering that the series was put forward in 2014 as emblematic of CBC’s new direction but only one year later was cancelled with the explanation that it wasn’t due to ratings but simply other “factors” would make anyone curious as to what those reasons were.

    There is a sense of elitism in your arguments, Mr. McGrath, in that we simple taxpayers only deserve so much information based upon how much tax we pay. To say that Ms. Catto has not been duly forthright is not a “conspiracy”; it is an observation of her public approach toward fans & taxpayers.

    Finally, whether one is a regular visitor to this site or follows CDN TV closely or not, it is proper form to disclose any paid relationship with an organization or business superior when commenting upon such.

    Thanks the space of this forum, Diane.

    1. Can we agree to disagree on this? Denis gave the usual other reasons that go into a cancellation, and cost effectiveness for the ratings are such a no brainer, and there are possibilities such as they looked at what was developed for season 2 and didn’t think it worked, or whatever led to the producers lawsuit against the director for “devaluing” the series signals some difficult behind the scenes issues, or whatever — there are these type of hypothetical possibilities that no network should ever go public with. The show’s not coming back and that’s not an unusual occurrence in TV. I think it’s time on this thread at least to move on and accept that this is how TV works.

  6. Chad – because you don’t like an answer doesn’t mean it’s not an complete answer.

    An appeal to ever-greater levels for “transparency” and “accountability” no matter what explanation is offered is a logical fallacy called “moving the goalposts.”

    Your attempt to impugn me by laughably inventing this idea that I’m somehow in conflict is a logical fallacy called “fallacy of origin.” (ie: consider the source.”

    If those are the best arguments you’ve got, then it’s no wonder you don’t get satisfaction. Or apparently, read for comprehension.

  7. “Tin-foily”? Really, Mr. McGrath? Lol.
    Chad, I know you are disappointed in the cancellation but that’s tv. I’ve suffered through the early cancellations of many many series that I liked such as Jericho, Dark Angel, Freaks & Geeks, My So-Called Life, Wild Roses, Roswell, MVP, Veronica Mars, New Amsterdam, Life, The Black Donnellys, Men In Trees, The Mountain, Jozi H, Cane, Star-Crossed, Life on Mars, Life Unexpected, etc. and when you really connect with the stories, its a hard pill to swallow when you don’t get to see how things turn out for the characters. I’ve criticized the networks/programming heads the same as you and some of my criticism was probably most likely unfair/ridiculous/emotionally driven but at the time I meant what I said and I was exasperated. Low ratings are usually the bottom line but sometimes when nets renew lower-rated shows than the ones they cancel without much explanation it seems unfair. I’m sorry Denis called you tin-foiley; I think that’s unfair. However, you shouldn’t have jumped to the conclusion that he had a conflict of interest due to his writing for some CBC series cause that’s nonsense–I’ve been listening to rantings for years–he’s far from a network lackey.

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