September 12, 2017 – Rudy Buttignol, President & CEO Knowledge Network

Rudy Buttignol, C.M. is the President and CEO of British Columbia’s Knowledge Network Corporation, and President of the BBC Kids channel, a joint venture with BBC Worldwide.

Since his appointment in 2007, Buttignol has led the transformation of the public broadcaster from a single television station to a multi-platform, digital media service that includes streaming video through its apps and websites. This TV on demand strategy has significantly increased audience share and tripled self-generated revenue.

Buttignol also moderates annual documentary financing forums in Amsterdam and Leipzig; and is a tutor at the Berlin-based Documentary Campus Masterschool. He is a Director on the Boards of the Vancouver International Film Festival, the Britannia Mine Museum, and the Knowledge-West Communications Corporation; and Vice-Chair of the Canadian Association of Public Educational Media. In 2011 he was appointed to the Canadian Cultural Property Export Review Board, an independent tribunal of the federal government.

 

 

 

Transcript of Rudy’s talk:

Before I go any further I want to introduce my colleague Pamela Thomas who is joining me here and supporting me with this presentation.

 

She’s been a great partner in my office, helping us stay organized because you can’t operate on three hours sleep but I’ve been an insomniac all my life which is one of the reasons I pioneered 24/7 television in Ontario and now here. It had to be an alternative to sex lines and kitchen appliances.

It’s great to be here for a second time. I thought, “Wow, you must really like me.” Either that or I’m a cheap date. Seriously, it’s a pleasure.

I’ve been honoured with awards many times. When you’re the CEO or leader of a group you really represent the whole team that’s behind every activity you do. Film and television production and broadcasting is an incredible team sport and I was honoured to receive an award on behalf of the work that my entire team does.

 

However, when you get an award sometimes it’s the recognition of those closest to you that matters the most and I was lucky enough to get an honorary doctorate this summer from Thompson Rivers University. My family was there and they nodded and said, “Congratulations.” But on convocation day I showed the picture to my three and a half year-old granddaughter Rosie. I was wearing one of those big fancy robes with a big floppy hat and of course you can’t explain an honorary doctorate to a three and a half year-old. She just looked up and said, “Grandpa, you’re a wizard!” I finally impressed my granddaughter! Those are the things that really matter in life.

 

I’m really honoured to be here today. I’ve met many of you before and today, I’ve read up on some of the work you’ve done and some of the new members are examples of the distinguished careers that you’ve all had and continue to have through your contributions to your communities.

It’s in that civil society that I think countries like Canada stand out above all other countries. It’s not so much diversity in itself that’s important about Canada but the fact that we are united in our diversity. It’s both hands working together that make Canada such a special place and I’ve always felt lucky that my father decided that Canada would be the place we would immigrate to.

 

I’m going to do something different from my last presentation today just because I wasn’t sure which speech I gave and I thought I would change it up a bit just to add some variety.

 

What I thought I would do is make some formal remarks. I will speak extemporaneously on a few issues that are near and dear to my heart and I think are really important for public policy in the audio-visual sector. Then I will take some comments or questions if there are any and I thought I would also give you a sneak preview of a sneak preview.

 

We are launching our fall broadcast season at the Vancity Theatre tomorrow evening. We’re going to show a break reel which takes place after a program ends and before the next one starts. We have no commercials and there’s a long period of time that’s available and I thought I would show you that, as an example of the programs that are coming in the fall season.

 

As devices for watching video continue to proliferate, the average time spent in front of a video screen has exploded.

 

According to surveys we are spending 35 hours a week in front of a television set, a computer, a laptop, a tablet or smart phone. That works out to be 10 years out of 50 in front of some kind of electronic device and that’s not the scariest part. According to researchers at the BBC the average person will spend one and a half years just looking for something to watch.

As American Internet giants Amazon, Facebook, Netflix and YouTube continue to disrupt and dominate the media industry, here in Canada the ownership of most television networks is being consolidated in the hands of the few and the powerful.

 

This has called into question the future of public broadcasting. How can it possibly survive in an era of social media, transnational streaming services and vertically integrated corporations that own the satellite, cable, fibre optic and wireless infrastructure through which everything must pass?

 

According to conventional wisdom public broadcasting is doomed. But on the contrary public broadcasting has never been more necessary than it is today because it comes down to one essential question; who can you trust?

Recent political upheaval such as Brexit and the U.S. Presidential election caught many by surprise. Journalists, commentators and pollsters failed to correctly gauge the popular mood for change. Social media amplified the consensus that Britain was sure to remain in the European Union and Americans, for the first time ever, would elect a woman to its highest office. Those foregone conclusions were reported endlessly on news channels and shared and liked on social media. It didn’t matter whether the information was trustworthy so long as it attracted eyeballs for the benefit of advertisers and data miners.

 

Thanks to the power of social media fear and ignorance now spreads to every corner of the Earth at the speed of light. Facts seamlessly intermingle with fiction, truth co-mingles with lies until they are virtually indistinguishable from each other. What better counter-bending force against the spread of fear and ignorance than the power of an informed public to be armed with information they can trust? It’s knowledge that equips individuals to make reasoned decisions about the future of their communities.

 

In the age of media proliferation the public broadcaster is an island of trust in a sea of commercialism. As a public broadcaster Knowledge is audience-centred. It operates exclusively in the public interest. It’s transparent and fully accountable to the public and its relationship with British Columbians are based on the values of quality, integrity and trust. It serves the under-served: young families, young children and the 50-plus audience which is the least desirable demographic for advertisers obsessed with chasing Millennials whose brand loyalties are yet to be defined.

 

Yet you take those two groups together, 50 plus and children, and young families, that’s almost half the population.

 

Knowledge is a showcase for British Columbia, its talent and its stories. It’s free of commercial advertising and corporate sponsorship though its survival is never guaranteed. It’s been 10 years since it emerged from the near-death-experience of privatization.

 

In 2006 Knowledge was given a second chance to transform itself. We had to replace our outdated analogue broadcast platform and invest in a fully automated digital plant enabling 24/7 service on television and streaming videos to computers and mobile devices to better serve British Columbians.

 

Now viewers judge a service by what they see presented on their screens. In the digital era they can find anything they want on their own if they know what they are looking for so we stopped being a purveyor of programs and embraced our role as a curated programming service.

 

What we offer now to viewers, our values proposition, is an expert curatorial experience that they can enjoy and trust. We’ve come a long way in 10 years. I like to think of the Knowledge Network as the unique fusion of two of the best broadcasting models in the world: PBS of the north and BBC of the west. The crowd-funding model of PBS combined with the programming ethos of the BBC.

Audiences can now see Knowledge anytime anywhere. Our websites and mobile apps offer livestreaming of our broadcast service and a wide selection of video on demand titles with or without a cable subscription.

 

And young children have made the Knowledge Kids Go app incredibly popular. With its hundreds of videos and games, free to download, with no in-app purchases and no in-app advertising Apple named it the best new children’s app in its Canadian app store when it launched last year. We’ve just launched the Knowledge Kids Go app for the new Apple TV box and we’re working Samsung and LG smart TVs next.

 

Knowledge offers exclusive documentary series on arts and culture, history and social issues, natural history and the performing arts. Every weekend we premiere some of the best drama series from Britain and Scandinavia such as Foyle’s War, Scott and Bailey, Indian Doctor, Line of Duty, the upcoming Land Girls and Mankell’s Wallander, the Swedish version. And of course that favourite chestnut that keeps on going, Heartbeat. It’s still one of the most popular shows on our service.

 

We curate themed documentary and anthology series such as the upcoming anthology Globalization and its Discontent. It’s a 10-week long look at the rise of inequality. A global look that we’ve been working on for the past two years. We’ve been assembling the documentaries that we think are the forces that are creating inequality in our world on a global level and these are the kind of things that are only found on Knowledge Network.

 

We’ve done similar things in the past. Last year we did a 27-week series on the rise of modern China. It was an idea that China became a huge global player and it was really important for our public to really understand the social, cultural and economic forces that were in the process of changing the world.

 

We also commissioned original documentaries from BC’s independent filmmakers such as the fourteen-art series that we had on last year and the year before, Emergency Room: Life + Death at VGH, and coming up soon, Vancouver: No Fixed Address, which is about the crisis of housing affordability in Vancouver. Tomorrow we are releasing it online exclusively for the first few weeks at knowledge.ca. It will be on broadcast as part of the globalization series.

 

Contrary to conventional wisdom we are more popular today than ever before and this summer Knowledge Network was regularly the third most watched network in prime time in B.C. We chased the CBC to the fourth position and we are just right behind Global and CTV. We have about five percent of the CBC’s budget so if you provide something commercial-free that the audience wants they will come.

 

In 10 years the number of Knowledge donors has grown from 23,000 partners to 39,000 individuals today and with donations to our annual fund rising from $1.7 million to $4.3 million last year. That’s what allows us to continually invest in quality program and original programming that the audience really loves.

Just an aside, every time I meet new government ministers or deputy ministers the first thing I always tell them is the number of supporters that we have because they are their most powerful constituency and they have saved us in the past both in my former life at TV Ontario and here in British Columbia. They were the public that saved public broadcasting from privatization and now government loves us.

 

We also started an endowment fund nine years ago with an initial gift of $250,000 from Sid and Nancy Sharman of Nanaimo and today that $250,000 has grown to an endowment of $6.6 million and counting. That’s about sustaining a future for Knowledge Network where one day we won’t be dependent on government. The interest earned from the endowment fund will be what ensures the support of arts and culture programing and public service for British Columbians for years and years to come.

All this makes us really proud to proclaim that today Knowledge Network is the most publicly supported public broadcaster in all of Canada.

 

The digital revolution is upending every facet of media production, distribution and consumption. But like all technological revolutions before this one it doesn’t guarantee that society will be better off.

 

Joshua Cooper Ramo author of the 2016 book, The Seventh Sense: Power, Fortune, and Survival in the Age of Networks has this to say: “Power and influence will in the near future become even more centralized than in feudal times and more distributed than it was in the most vibrant democracies… Network power is wild at the ends with all the creative energy of a world filled with devices empowering human dreams and the violent slips of old balances. But at the centre it is dense, still, and even quieter, with the silently cranking algorithms of massively concentrated power.” And we see that in Silicon Valley.

 

Since the outcome of the US Presidential election and a newly popular concept of “alternative facts” and fake news George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, a novel about a totalitarian society ruled by Big Brother, has become a best seller once again.

According to educator and media theorist Neil Postman there was an earlier dark vision of the future whose prophecies were closer to coming true: Alistair Huxley’s Brave New World which was published in 1932.

 

In Postman’s own book Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business, he warned that television’s effect of turning all subject matter into entertainment would diminish us, just as Huxley had predicted. According to Postman, Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us while Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. In the Huxleyan prophecy Big Brother does not watch us by his choice – we watch him by ours. When a population becomes distracted by trivia, when cultural life is redefined as a perpetual round of entertainments, when serious public conversation becomes a form of baby-talk, when, in short, a people becomes an audience and their public business a Vaudeville act, then a nation finds itself at risk. Does that sound familiar? I should have put “Twitter” in there to make the point stronger.

 

Perhaps Huxley and Orwell’s predictions of a dystopian future are both being realized now. After all, we freely volunteer private information about ourselves while simultaneously robots in the form of algorithms secretly manipulate our behaviour for the benefit of the few and the powerful.

 

Internet giants Google and Facebook demand near total control of our online identity while remaining secretive and unaccountable for their own operation. In exchange for “free” information your search history, your spending habits and your whereabouts are sold to advertisers, insurers, employers and security agencies.

 

In an ever-expanding media universe a trusted space for independent voices matters more than ever before. British Columbians trust Knowledge Network to provide diverse points of view that challenge the way they think about current issues so they can make important decisions that are essential for their well-being.

 

Viewers will spend several years of their lives in front of some kind of video screen. It’s our mission to ensure that we will not be spending all those precious years amusing ourselves to death.

 

The federal government, past and present, has really failed to develop policies that regulate Internet services like they regulate all of life and it’s all been in the name of consumer choice but their actions and inaction have actually led to less choice and more cost for consumers.

This fall the federal government will release public policy regarding the film and television industry and its relation to Internet services and the prospects so far don’t sound very good. Have you heard of cord cutting?

It’s the idea that people are cancelling their television service and it gives the impression that people are actually physically cutting a cord and becoming unbound from the big media companies but it’s just a change. People still have the big cord coming to their house but instead of buying a TV package and passing that on to the distributors and program producers, people are buying in to the broadband services, which aren’t cheap. They buy their services from over-the-top programs like Netflix, Amazon and the like. But it’s an uneven playing field.

The Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) failed to regulate our industry. Instead, we’ve had a series of regulators actually speculating or trying to guess who the winner will be but as you know it’s usually the market that determines the winner and not the regulators.

 

They had the Let’s Talk TV hearings. When I was last here I was asked about impending changes. The idea that there was going to be cable and bundling and the CRTC was going to introduce the concept of skinny basic. People just wanted to buy the services they were looking without buying a bunch of extra television channels.

The CRTC set about to change the regulations with the hope of giving consumers more choice and also skinny basic for those Canadians who didn’t watch a lot of television. They could pay a $25 fee for monthly service.

Skinny basic was not a success and the reason was that cable companies quickly found a way to charge that $25 plus other service fees to bring it back to $50 a month. Instead of giving consumers choice, the big companies like Bell, Rogers, Shaw, Vidéotron and Telus further strengthened their hand chasing a lot of independent programming services out of the marketplace. They did this all in the name of consumer choice to save you money so you get less now and will quickly pay the same or more.

 

Our regulators really failed to do their job. As regulation we had the former CRTC commissioner who had come from an illustrious career as a deputy minister in heritage. At first he seemed to be the public’s champion but quickly lost sight of the goal. There was a really odd hearing on the Superbowl ads. Right now when a Canadian distributor buys the rights to a Superbowl they put the program on at the same time as the United States but they get to substitute the American commercials with Canadian commercials. The CRTC received a lot of complaints that people were missing out on American commercials and based on that the CRTC bespoke change that said that Bell could not substitute the American commercials for the Canadian ones so that people could enjoy American commercial advertising, which is really crazy. There was a myth that on the Superbowl, big companies unveiled really fantastic commercials that you could only see there and of course advertising companies pay an enormous amount of money to advertise in the Superbowl and almost everything that’s on television goes on the Internet instantly. The commercials aren’t that good, they are just too expensive and it’s all based on a myth. In 1984 when Steve Jobs introduced the Macintosh they created the Big Brother commercial and they ran it in the Superbowl and they only ran it once and never again. That’s the only time it ever happened but people held on to that myth thinking that the same happened with the Superbowl and our regulator has made a rule protecting American advertisers on programs where the Canadian distributor has the rights. It makes no sense.

 

What we’ve heard coming down from the heritage minister about taxing Netflix, one of the over-the-top services that you can get through the Internet. Did you know that Netflix, Amazon and those companies come into Canada as a retail operation and follow no regulations, pay no sales tax and pay no contribution to our system of producing Canadian content? Yet, they have access to funding that’s derived from television subscribers on cable and satellite packages. It’s really odd because the previous prime minister and the current prime minister have both said that there would be no Netflix tax. It makes absolutely no sense. Who in Canada can start a business and not have to pay fire regulations where you can locate fire safety and the whole thing and pay some form of tax. Our government has been so blindsided by the digital revolution that they’ve just let it into the country and created an unlevel playing field. The industry far and wide have called for a level playing field: either tax and regulate the over-the-top services or unregulate and untax the conventional services. But you can’t have it both ways.

 

I think that’s a huge threat to the future of Canadian services and distinctive Canadian voices.

 

Digital is not a strategy, it’s just a technology and for too long people have focused on and spellbound by it without understanding the media consumption forces underneath it. It’s federal policy that’s going to have to change to help stem the tide. Again, either untax the conventional services or tax the new services but you can’t have it both ways.

 

At Knowledge Network our focus is always going to be maintained not on the technology but on the public. It’s the public that we are here to serve and it’s the public that we have in mind when making our programming decisions.

 

Questions and Answers

  1. I’m suffering from withdrawal since Indian Doctor went off the air. Is there another series in the works?
  2. I knew I was going to get asked that question because it seems to be one of the most popular things, so I’ve brought the lineup for the next two years.

 

I think we ran all three seasons of the Indian Doctor all together and that’s all they did. They just did the three seasons and we waited until all three were completed and brought them together and that was it for Indian Doctor. It was one of those shows that ended up being incredibly popular on a Friday. So that was it, it was just the three seasons. It’s not in production anymore.

 

  1. How are other countries handling Netflix? Are their policies similar to Canada?

 

  1. Fortunately the European countries have had a bit more time because Netflix started as an English language service so the people in the non-English speaking countries had time to look and see the effect.

 

Fortunately the European Union, led by the French who have no compunction about regulating culture and making sure that the French language is represented and European culture is represented, is imposing content quotas. They are forcing Netflix to provide a certain percentage of their library to make sure it comes from the European Union or that it is in French.

 

They are in the process of actually regulating the content. I’m not sure about the taxation policy but in Europe they generally tax everything one way or another. But they are going on the content side with local production.

 

Some of Facebook’s privacy controls came from the Canadian privacy commissioner. These are global companies so when jurisdiction sets that kind of a regime it forces the big Internet giants to change because they have to make one model that fits their global model.

 

  1. Could you comment on the ratio of Knowledge Network productions to purchased productions?

 

  1. I would say that in terms of the projects we actively invest in and commission it’s probably 10 per cent of our entire programming service but it represents 50 per cent of our spending. We can commission a documentary, have a trigger license to make sure the production gets off the ground but for every hour we might have to commit $50,000 to $100,000 an hour and when we acquire a documentary we might pay $5,000 to $10,000 an hour.

 

The original commissions are the most expensive to do. It represents only 10 percent of the schedule, sometimes, but it represents 50 per cent of the money we spend and that’s the one we are actively engaging to raise money for, so we can continue to do great things.

 

We have a multi-part series on paramedics called First Responders that we’ve been working on, gaining access to emergency health services and the Vancouver Department and for two years we’ve been trying to gain access to cover the wildfires across the province, the evacuation and the recovery.

Those are the things we are raising money for because we think it’s really important for British Columbians to understand what’s happening here. Those are the stories that are the most important but hardest to tell because they are all so expensive.

 

  1. Is there room to collaborate with the CBC?

 

  1. I believe in the value and importance of the national public broadcaster without a doubt. We don’t really collaborate with the CBC because they really don’t play nice with us. When they invest they invest a lot of money and they want to be exclusive everywhere in Canada and it really doesn’t make sense.

 

However, we do collaborate with the French CBC, Radio Canada because a lot of their rights are only in the French language so there are a lot of productions where we come in on the English language side.

 

We also collaborate with our provincial counterpart and my former Network TV Ontario and we collaborate with some of the Quebec specialty channels that are looking for English language broadcasters.

 

The CBC has been very difficult. They are the big players. We have an annual budget all combined of about $13 million a year. The CBC I think has $1.2 billion a year.

 

They don’t like the fact that we chase them for market share in this market, they see us as competitor sometimes.

 

However, on our video streaming and our video on demand we go completely non-exclusive. We don’t care if it’s broadcast anywhere else because we are a content curating service and we are willing to work with just about anybody. We’re the most flexible broadcaster around in terms of arranging rights. We’ve gone non-exclusive online.

We do collaborate with other provincial services and specialty channels and more and more we’re helping our filmmakers collaborate with international broadcasters. Particularly colleagues in the BBC in the UK and the European broadcasters, mostly the Nordic ones where they actively invest in international productions. So we help our filmmakers pull together their financing that way.

 

  1. What do you think the government, regulators or whoever it is looking from the outside should do to fix the CBC?

    A. I think it’s not the regulator but the federal government. My belief is that the public broadcaster should just go commercial free first of all. Absolutely. But the real change has to come from the federal government itself and even with this new government that professes support for the national public broadcaster, it has not made the structural change that any contemporary corporation or organization would make.

 

Normally the government would appoint its board of directors and that board would conduct a professional search for its chief executive officer and its president. Instead, this government has followed the past governments where the government appoints the board of directors as well as the chief executive and president separately.

 

This president and CEO is not at an arm’s length relationship with the federal minister or the federal government and the board doesn’t have a lot of influence over them.

 

That’s a structural thing. The biggest thing is to just get out of commercials and everything else will follow. They have a lot of talented people and money and it’s a myth that the CBC doesn’t have enough money but my feeling is that nobody ever has enough money. Even Apple, the richest corporation in the world, is worried about growth.

 

It really should be about serving the public and that means getting out of advertising and once you get out of advertising everything else follows.

 

When you don’t have advertisers to think about, we as a programming team sit around and think, “what would this audience be interested in? What would that audience be interested in? How could we enhance the service?” We don’t think, “How do we get those 18-35 year-olds to tune in?”

Once you put the public first everything else follows. It’s not about the programs, it’s really about getting the commercials off the service and, secondarily, fixing the governance issue.

 

  1. What can we, as individuals, do about it?

 

  1. You can voice your concerns and write letters to your MPs and to the federal heritage minister. Voice those concerns at every opportunity but writing to your MP, the minister of heritage and the prime minister is the way to do it.

 

  1. Do you do any collaboration with PBS? Also, I notice more ads on PBS.

 

  1. Let me go back to the ads on PBS. I think that’s a critical mistake they made about 25 years ago or so. I was working in Houston at that time and went to a PBS conference. Because it was one of those inevitable periods of budget cuts so one of the seeds of an idea was “enhanced underwriting.” In other words you take that “Masterpiece Theater brought to you by Mobil Corporation” and then you kind of teased it about and said, “ Masterpiece Theater brought to you by Mobil Corporation! Mobil Corporation operating in over…”

 

That was the beginning of enhanced underwriting and now it’s become a full-blown commercial and I think it’s a terrible mistake for PBS. I think it’s a great service, I look at them as our American cousins, but the perception that it might compromise the programming is really terrible and it’s a short-term gain I think for a long-term erosion of trust.

In terms of collaborating with PBS, we don’t because they compete with us in our market. In other words we were born satellite to cable. We don’t broadcast over the air so we don’t go KCTS Seattle’s market but Seattle being a legacy station that predates us by 20 years comes into our market and competes heavily for donor money. Donor money is fine because they provide a great service and people support them with their annual fund.

When you’re considering legacy funding to an endowment consider keeping that in Canada because Americans in my experience, particularly in Houston, are just fantastic at creating endowments that support America’s future, America’s story, America’s youth and America’s talent. They are really fantastic and are so far ahead of us. One of the motivations for me to start the endowment fund was to keep that money here in Canada, in British Columbia in particular. We are doing that slowly but again I think it’s really important for people to consider that legacy giving. Building a future through endowment funds to keep them in Canada because Americans and Seattle are so far ahead of us and KCTS and those stations have the benefit of very big corporations that support them like Microsoft, Boeing and Apple.

 

In terms of collaborating we don’t have a lot of American programming on our service. We will on occasion when we think the programming is superior. We will have it as a special like Ken Burns’ war series that’s on right now or the jazz series. These are really outstanding series so we get them but most of our programming is an alternative to what’s available elsewhere which means our programming comes from Canada, Europe, the UK and more and more from Asia.

 

 

  1. Q. What about collaboration with film festivals like the Vancouver International Film Festival or the Toronto International Film Festival?

    I was on the board of VIFF. I just finished my third three-year term in May so I’ve been involved with the festival. We’ve been an active sponsor year after year. We’re an official media sponsor for the Vancouver International Film Festival. This year we commissioned a documentary called Shut up and Say something about the spoken word poet Shane Koyczan, who was a poet who was part of the closing ceremonies at the Vancouver Olympics. It’s a story about him on the road having this incredible success about this very difficult form of art to practice, spoken word poetry.

 

It’s also the story of him coming to grips with his own troubled background and when he comes to grips to the fact that his father was a First Nations person here in British Columbia and he reconciles with his father.

 

It was selected for the Vancouver Film Festival and is playing at the Vancouver Playhouse on October 4 and it plays on the following Sunday and I guess the programmers think it’s going to be a hit because they put it in their BC Gala spotlight so you’ll have three chances to see it.

 

 


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