This series of posts by the Born Freelancer shares personal experiences and thoughts on issues relevant to freelancers. Have something to add to the conversation? We’d love to hear from you in the comments.

 

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The scene: A downtown Vancouver conference centre during a rainy Friday afternoon early last month. Two hundred or so independent writers and producers are attending an information session with an impressive panel of seven CBC executives flown in from Toronto, hosted by Vancouver’s Field and Post with the participation of The Development Collective.

We are there to learn directly what CBC’s top executives are thinking when it comes to developing and pitching new content for its numerous video platforms.

While not focused on freelancing opportunities per se (being more about looking at creating opportunities for content creators and producers to partner with CBC in developing new programming) there is still much for this freelance writer to hear about and to take in.

While waiting to fill up, the room buzzes with friendly industry chatter. There is a real sense of community. And according to Field and Post’s Robert Hardy, that’s exactly Field and Post’s purpose.

Founded in 2013 by “a small group of people working in factual, documentary and lifestyle television in Vancouver” Field and Post is all about “creating a community where there was none before” for its nearly 200 members involved in those traditionally under-represented genres. This they achieve through a series of regular networking events, workshops, a digital newsletter and an annual conference called FactualWEST (the next being held on November 3rd).

Karen Tsang, Executive in Charge of Production, Comedy, opens the session with some greatly appreciated definitions. CBC culture is full of its own unique jargon and terminology and somewhat sometimes bewildering job titles. Important to know: “Linear” is everything on traditional television; “Digital” everything online. Digital is perhaps its fastest growing and most important area these days with a mandate for content that’s more diverse and edgy. “Scripted” and “Unscripted” are also important distinctions to understand within the CBC, with content creation for each crossing many traditional genre classifications.

Helen Asimakis, Senior Director, Drama, speaks about scripted drama. Their biggest challenge is keeping their older audiences (for its linear service) while attracting younger audiences (who rarely watch traditional television) with content on their digital services. What works? Stories driven by the writer. Stories relevant to Canadians. Stories with a regional flavour. Book adaptations are always of interest. What are they not interested in? Hard s-f. Horror. How to pitch? Check the CBC independent production website. Essentially they are looking for strong concepts backed up and attached to a strong production team (as are almost all departments represented here today).

Michelle Daly, Senior Director, Comedy (with additional input by Karen Tsang) is up next. What is the CBC looking for in terms of comedy programming? Less “dramedy” and more “comedy”. Less topical material. Key words used were “smart,” “accessible,” “character-driven.” Interest was expressed in more comedy originating from western Canada. Again, the split between linear and digital platforms and their respective requirements was discussed. The one television channel requires content that’s super-relatable. The digital platforms are capable of more experimental, shorter, narrower-focused content.

Zach Feldberg, Executive in Charge of Digital Originals, explains that Digital Originals is content for a different audience than the traditional CBC television service. Digital Original content on the website cbc.ca attracts an audience of 25-40 year olds and is an online world parallel to its linear service. It provides content through online streaming and specific genre content “feeds” or specialty channels. What do they want? In a word, “niche” culture content. Content that will find a strong support base on social media and that will create a real online buzz — content that’s not designed to appeal to everyone.

Marie McCann, Senior Director, CBC Kids, outlines their strong commitment to providing quality programming for kids on both linear and digital platforms. CBC Kids provides 28 hours a week on the television network for kids eight and under and is now focusing on providing lots of new digital content online (as well as some on television) for kids up to twelve or thirteen.

Mike Miner, Executive in Charge of Production, Unscripted Digital, clarifies that his department works with all areas of the CBC providing short- and mid-length content for CBC’s digital platforms and feeds. He’s looking for diverse, unexplored “authentic” voices to provide “fun” concepts — nothing too “earnest.” For the CBC Arts feed he’s looking for freelancers to produce very short very visual very personal videos. For the CBC Life feed he wants content with practical takeaways on health, wellness, lifestyles, etc. Again, they are primarily interested in “noisy” content — real people with real stories — that will stimulate online discussion and buzz.

Jessica Schmiedchen, Executive in Charge of Development, Unscripted, first outlines her department’s responsibility for documentaries on both linear and digital platforms. She then goes on to explore her mandate to develop “factual entertainment” content for the television network’s prime time (8-10pm) slot with a 25-54 year old target audience that “hides the vegetables in the lasagna” (that is, that is entertaining but still educational). What is she looking for? Series proposals — not “one offs.” For linear she points to “Still Standing” as a successful popular television show that is factual but still entertaining to a wide audience. For digital, darker and edgier and not necessarily “wholesome” true Canadian crime stories was offered as an example possible genre.

And then the two hour info session is over.

A number of lucky attendees have arranged to pitch in-person the appropriate CBC executives and so the room has to clear out quickly. “Ours is a business built on relationships” notes Robert Hardy, and as a busy independent writer-producer himself he should know. Attending this session and pitching in person no doubt was the beginning of many “beautiful friendships.”

Although Field and Post is primarily geared for creators of factual, documentary and lifestyle television, these boundaries are often porous as this wide-ranging information session soon proved. I asked Robert Hardy how he thought it went. “I think it went very well. I was thrilled to see such a strong demand for this session and how many people came out. . . and for me, a strong highlight was the commitment that the CBC demonstrated  to regional production here in Vancouver by bringing seven of their top executives to the city, sharing their needs, and being so welcoming towards those who have ideas to pitch them.”

The takeaway

As a freelance writer this session gave me greater insight into the process of creating and pitching content today to the CBC — shows for which I might even one day freelance as a writer. It gave me a rare chance to learn directly from the creative minds that run today’s CBC about the challenges that they face. While I was in no immediate position to partner with any producers to pitch the type of content this session was primarily concerned about developing, it gave me much to think about imagining how and what ideas might one day be channeled effectively into such an opportunity.

I have tried my best to distill the essence of what resonated most for me – but remain cognizant that another correspondent might have found other issues raised to be equally relevant. Apologies to participants for the necessarily severe truncation of their frequently amusing comments.

Our thanks to Robert Hardy, Field and Post, and their Event Producer Amber Orchard for the guest invitation. Many thanks as well to all the panelists from CBC in Toronto for such an intelligent and engaging presentation. Congratulations to all concerned on producing a most successful community event.

Interested future content creators should spend time on cbc.ca to familiarize themselves with up-to-date pitching requirements, current programming schedules, as well as CBC mandates and policies.

The Canadian Media Guild has been running its own campaign to improve conditions for workers in factual television. They are hosting a social night for workers in factual TV in Toronto on July 19. You can register for that free event right here.

If you have any comments for the author you can email: thebornfreelancer at gmail dot com.

If you attended the session and would like to add your own thoughts — or if you have any thoughts on working in factual television or pitching the CBC in general — please share them in the comments below.

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