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
Barry Walsh is editor and content director for realscreen, and has served as editor of the publication since 2009. With a career in entertainment media that spans two decades, prior to realscreen, he held the associate editor post for now defunct sister publication Boards, which focused on the advertising and commercial production industries. Before Boards, he served as editor of Canadian Music Network, a weekly music industry trade, and as music editor for As content director, he also oversees the development of content for the brand's market-leading events, the Realscreen Summit and Realscreen West, as well as new content initiatives.