CBC commissioning editors disagree with perceptions

10 May

Up The Yangtze, a film by Yung Chang

When I attended the Hot Docs Festival in Toronto a few weeks ago, a heard a lot of talk about the CBC, much of it disgruntled. Once back in Montreal, I summarized these concerns and sent them to Andrew Johnson, Commissioning editor and senior producer of ‘The Lense’ who was very generous with his time and also consulted his colleageues, Catherine Olsen and Michael Claydon. Here’s our exchange:

Dear Andrew, hope this finds you well. I publish a blog on doc matters. I noticed at Hot Docs that there’s a perception that the CBC no longer plays the role it used to in documentary, especially social-political, and that the private broadcasters are picking up the slack. Some com-eds from private networks told me they find themselves with a lot of projects which even they think would be – or used to be – a natural fit for the CBC. Who at CBC would be the right person to ask a few questions to about this ?
Do you yourself have a (quotable) opinion on the subject ?

The response:


Thanks for your note and the information about your blog. I’ve consulted with my colleagues Catherine Olsen and Michael Claydon and, with respect, we all disagree with the implication that CBC is somehow less interested in or less engaged in the creation of documentaries, “especially social-political” documentaries. Each of us has the following response…

Catherine Olsen:

“The CBC & CBC Newsworld continue to be a champion of documentaries dealing with political and social issues. Is it true that we’re focusing more on Canada and Canadian social political issues in our commissioning – possibly – just as many other Canadian and international broadcasters are championing stories on their home turf. This is a worldwide trend …. but we still have some extraordinary examples of international stories that we commission including the theatrical and television hit Up the Yangtze, Liberty USA, Anthrax War, Stolen Babies, The Last Planet (the latter 4 still in production). On the acquisition and pre-sale front, The Passionate Eye continues as it has for the past 15 years to show more docs dealing with international social political issues than any other channel in Canada. (2 nights a week, 52 weeks a year).”

Michael Claydon:

“Most of the documentaries shown on the DOC ZONE are social/political in nature – what has changed is that we are putting more of an emphasis on a more journalistic approach at the main net, and trying to develop a brand that CBC viewers will respond to. That may not fit with the approach of some documentary makers, but the fact remains that CBC TV, CBC Newsworld and Documentary commission more hours than any other broadcaster in Canada.”

Andrew Johnson:

Lens docs primarily deal with contemporary social and political issues – in fact we’re more committed than ever to these films, but they do need to connect with the national audience we serve at CBC Newsworld – a news and current affairs network. All of our docs are, of course, are made by independent Canadian film-makers, mainly through commissions.

This season and next we have aired or will air commissioned films dealing with everything from anti-Wal-Mart activists, same-sex couples trying to adopt children, and the collision of drug issues & US-Canada relations to an experimental diet that may lead to a breakthrough in the fight against the obesity and diabetes epidemics in First Nations communities, the human cost of Canada’s refugee backlog, and the enormous social cost of revenue-generating video lottery terminals. We also look forward to airing a film about the collision of conflicting interests (government, environmental, tourism & First Nation) as efforts to cope with a unique, people-friendly orca lead to a tragic ending. This documentary has already won a dozen international and Canadian awards.

All of these films deal with tough or difficult subjects through engaging and dramatic stories. They pursue social-political issues through a wide range of approaches and are of real interest to Canadians. At Newsworld, we’ve been very pleased with the huge audience response to our documentaries this season just we’re gratified by the numerous awards our films and our filmmakers have won in recent years.”

Of course, there are other outlets for documentaries (including social-political) on CBC – such as The Nature of Things and Documentary.

In conclusion, we simply can’t accept the assessment of CBC that you’ve mentioned -we believe we’re still a home for provocative, cinematic and entertaining social-political docs. Of course, we can’t participate in all of the worthwhile projects that come to us so we’re happy to hear that the private networks are now entertaining these kinds of stories too. Nevertheless, we remain open to receiving new proposals from Canadian documentary-makers at anytime – and we will continue to commission and broadcast powerful, independently-made documentaries.

with best wishes,

Andrew Johnson
Commissioning Editor &
Senior Producer, “The Lens”

One Response to “CBC commissioning editors disagree with perceptions”

  1. ernest godin May 11, 2008 at 12:09 pm #

    Well, interesting answers.But, beyond there perceptions, I wonders if the size of the structure and the daily pressure of operations is really in accordance with these intentions.As an example, our company sended a project this winter and we are still waiting for a minimal answer.We received good and constructive feed back from the privates, NFB and Radio Canada.But from the CBC a silence…
    Ernest Godin
    Kondolole Films