CBC’s factual philosophy

It's been nearly four years since Julie Bristow, executive director of factual entertainment at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC), helped to launch the department. Bristow spoke with realscreen about what works for the public broadcaster and the challenges of budgeting for factual programs.
March 1, 2010

It’s been nearly four years since Julie Bristow, executive director of factual entertainment at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC), helped to launch the department. Bristow sees the target audience for the CBC’s factual programming fitting into a very unique niche: the programs must fit into the history of Canada’s public broadcaster, which is based in a tradition of documentary and news culture, yet they must appeal to a broad audience and provide entertainment value. And if they can somehow create a national conversation around a subject, all the better.

Take what The Week the Women Went, produced for the CBC by Vancouver-based Paperny Films, did for the channel. ‘It was a format that we bought from the BBC, but I think why that tended to work for us was because it was a highly constructed documentary series and it was [about] real people in small-town Canada,’ says Bristow. ‘It started a discussion about gender politics in the country which was really interesting. As funny as it was, people were always looking at it and saying, ‘I wonder how that plays out in my household?”

When the division started in May 2006, the team had specific slots to work with, but Bristow believes the channel is open to expanding the number of slots for factual because the genre has been doing so well. One of the most consistent factual performers for the CBC at the moment is Dragon’s Den, which remains a Wednesday night staple because of its success. Battle of the Blades, a figure skating competition show pairing hockey players with female professional figure skaters, premiered to great success last year and will be returning this fall. ‘It was a perfect pitch for the public broadcaster who also obviously has the hockey franchise and supports figure skating as well,’ says Bristow, who happens to be a former figure skater herself. Right now, while the CBC and Insight Productions are preoccupied with creating the second season, they are also trying to work out ways to participate in format sales for the program into other countries.

The factual division looks for programs that reflect the country and its people’s stories back to themselves. Bristow, for her part, wants to see new ways of telling these stories. Still, Bristow says the biggest challenge for working in factual at the public broadcaster is figuring out ‘what the financing structure looks like’ for the bigger-budget programs.

‘The challenge for factual is that these shows generally don’t qualify for funds like [Canada Media Fund],’ she says. ‘Although they qualify for tax cuts they don’t qualify for some of the funds the dramatic programs do.’ Since all of the CBC’s factual programming is original (they do acquire formats, but all programs are filmed specifically for the broadcaster), Bristow says one of the strategies for funding factual includes finding ways to bring sponsors into the mix. ‘If they’re going to capture the imagination of the country [the programs] can’t be small,’ says Bristow.

For more with Bristow, see the March/April issue of realscreen.

About The Author
Daniele Alcinii is a news reporter at realscreen, the leading international publisher of non-fiction film and television industry news and content. He joins the rs team with journalism experience following a stint out west with Sun Media in Edmonton's Capital Region, and communications work in Melbourne, Australia and Toronto. You can follow him on Twitter at @danielealcinii.