March 8th 2016 – Rudy Buttignol – The Growth and Development of the Knowledge Network

Rudy_Buttignol

Rudy Buttignol is the President and CEO of British Columbia’s public broadcaster, Knowledge Network, and President of the BBC Kids channel. He moderates financing forums in Amsterdam and Leipzig and serves on several boards including the Vancouver International Film Festival.

Buttignol was TVO’s Creative Head of Network Programming, Head of Independent Production, and Commissioning Editor from 1993-2006. His notable commissions include The Corporation, Manufactured Landscapes, Diamond Road, and the Emmy/Grammy Award winning Yo-Yo Ma: Inspired by Bach. From 1975 to 1993, he worked as an independent writer, director and producer of children’s series and documentaries.

International honors include the inaugural Doc Mogul Award from the Hot Docs International Documentary Festival and nine Canadian Academy Awards. Buttignol is a graduate of the Faculty of Fine Arts at Toronto’s York University and has completed Executive programs at Stanford and Harvard.

Notes on Rudy Buttignol’s presentation by John Gunn

Eric Watts then introduced our guest speaker, Rudy Buttignol, CEO of the Knowledge Network who was brought to BC from TV Ontario to oversee the transformation of the Knowledge Network from an being an arm of the BC Open University into a commercial-free Public Channel as a Crown Corporation rather than being privatized. Among other awards Mr. Buttignol has the Order of Canada.

Mr. Buttignol noted that this meeting was taking place in the Planetarium – for him, a place of much significance. For some years, he covered the NASA and other space programs from Canada and from Houston. His talk is titled “How the Public saved Public Broadcasting” – in other words, how Knowledge Network was saved from privatization. A show of hands indicated that almost everyone in the room tunes into this channel to some degree and many are supporting donors. This has become the most widely supported such network in Canada. In the 90’s there were four English language public supported channels – one in each of BC, Alberta, Saskatchewan and Ontario. In the early 2000’s all four were under review – should they be privatized? That is what happened in Alberta and Saskatchewan and these two eventually were sold to Bell and Rogers and are now no different than other channels. Fortunately, Knowledge remained a crown corporation and is currently 50% supported by the BC Government and 50% by public donations.  Mr. Buttignol makes a valid parallel – Stanley Park is free for all and is protected from commercial development – likewise this network is free for anyone to enjoy, like the park, and is protected from commercial invasion. At the time that the BC Government created the new entity it had 22 thousand paying supporters and this was critical to their decision. Typically people spend 47 hours a month watching a screen. Public broadcasting is a significant portion of that, and if we didn’t support it with our donations and government grants, a large portion of that money would go to support PBS stations in USA. By the way, Buttignol was involved with PBS at one stage and was impressed with the number of Americans who leave endowments to their PBS outlets. We should try to promote this form of donation more here than at present. Knowledge Network is “Audience Centred” and provides programming which would not likely appear on commercial networks. They choose programs that they believe are in the public interest. For example they put together “Mad Mad Money” to show BC people what went wrong in 2008. Though it required viewer attention, it was hugely popular. This was followed by “The Party’s Over” showing what followed and again, was widely viewed. Then a huge 27 week anthology followed, regarding China with material that would not likely appear on any other network. They do not shy away from informative programs which may offend some audiences.

Children’s programs for 12 hours a day, all promote literacy as well as entertainment. Disney programs are never carried. Incidentally, once you reach age 50 the TV advertisers have little interest in you as a market so they support programs accordingly. Knowledge Network serves the “over 50’s” extensively. They are now launching another “Emergency Room” series – the previous series outdrew all other networks at the time. Another local program of importance is on the Haida nation and their territory – again of interest to the “over 50’s”. The network no longer does “in house” productions – all their local programs are done by independent entities.

One of the important moments for the network was when they got a grant from the BC Government to convert to digital format. This allowed them the stay on-air 24 hours a day at no extra cost, and to archive all their material on the web. It also allowed them to provide programming for all devices. Today the government grant remains fixed so more donor input is what will provide more and more quality programming. Since newspapers no longer have TV guides Knowledge Network decided to improve their own guide and they now have six editions a year on quality paper and in full colour. As a result of this alone, viewers have increased in numbers. They are the 4th most watched channel in prime time yet have a budget of about 5% of the major channels. Over 1 million people in BC tune into Knowledge Network at least once during the week. They have gone from $1.7m to $4m in annual donations from just under 40k donors. When the network became an entity in its present form it was receiving 80% of it funds from government; that is now down to 50% due to increase from donors and they expect this trend to continue so that soon the government figure will be much less than half.

Questions and Answers

How come your network can maintain ownership of “Heartbeat” against your competition in the commercial realm?

There is some element of loyalty at work, but mainly, that particular program has little appeal for those under 50 years – ergo, no appeal to the commercial people selling TV advertising time.

How do you choose your UK programs?
We just go to the market and try various things – to some extent it is trial and error.

Who owns you?
We are a Crown Corporation.

Can I still watch those programs you did on the 2008 crash?
Yes, go to knowledge.ca and you can download any one of the series.

Have you considered having programs aimed at other languages?
Yes we have seriously looked at this but found there are so many languages wanted and many of them have special on-line programs so that we decided to stay out of that area.

Does the new “skinny basic” programming required by CRTC affect your range?
Under the new rules, our network is mandatory on all basic packages.

How did the VGH emergency program come about?
It so happened that I had to take my mother to an ER at 2am one night and so I witnessed it in action and decided this was something that would work on Knowledge Network.

How would you fix CBC?
More money and take out the commercials.

Do you ever talk to PBS so you don’t run the same programs (e.g. Doc Martin) at the same time?
No, never. I like PBS and have a good relationship with them but they are a competitor.

The speaker was thanked by Brian Maunder.

 


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