Rudy Buttignol – Part 3: TVO and Educational Broadcasting.

Fraser. Can you talk about your time with TVO?

 Buttignol. It was a great experience at a time of great cutbacks. TV Ontario was going through a regime change with Peter Herrndorf. It had gone from being an incredibly well-funded place with massive quantities of in-house production. Now the government was making huge cutbacks. When I went there, the workforce was shrinking from 800 to 400. The annual grant from the government was being cut in half. We set ourselves the challenge, saying we are going to face expanded competition and less money; so, we should have a bigger gain in the audience. The audience matters. It doesn't mean that there should be a bigger audience but we need an audience appropriate to what we were doing. So, if we were doing an important documentary about a difficult subject like the Armenian Genocide, it wasn’t going to get a big audience, but should have an impact.

Because of the change in funding, the organization decided it would engage the independent producers. So they put a call out for Canada's first Commission Editor to start that model, which had been created before in the United Kingdom. Part of it I suppose was luck, and part of it was my connection to the Independent community. I decided this was something I can do. So, instead of producing a few films a year, I could commission dozens of films and help the industry move along. That was a big change, moving from being a producer to a broadcaster-Commissioner. It was a great time at TVO. The conventional wisdom would have said, “You're losing half your staff, half your budget, and the competition has tripled, what you going to do?” Instead of lowering our expectations, we raised them. We decided to go from one share of the audience to two shares of the audience.

F. That is an amazing tribute to a team that persevered at a time when other broadcasters were shutting down.

B. We had an opportunity to reposition ourselves. I eventually became head of programming there. We had been a “broad”caster, involved in a lot of genres, including lifestyle programming, and how to-s. I decided that we shouldn't do that. Home and Garden was doing a great job; food network was doing a great job. If the consumer wanted that programming, it was there. But we should do things that were important and that were hard, that no one else wanted to do. It was self-evident that kids and the general public need a trusted place. Where in this great big commercial sphere were the public spaces? We shouldn't compete with the commercial networks, but we should make the commercial space better. The analogy I would use is Stanley Park, which makes Vancouver a better place to live and increases the value of commercial property nearby. Would developers love to take over Stanley Park and put up condos? Absolutely. But it would diminish the quality of living and the value of real estate. I see our public space in television as being the same. We make the commercial space better. It was easy for us to grow because we did not have a dominant space. We didn't have to cede any territory. It was easier for us as an alternative public broadcaster to say we would not compete with the commercial sector. The commercial sector should be our number one supporter.

F. Let's look ahead. What do you see for educational broadcasting in the future in light of the technological changes that have been brought about by the Internet?

B. We have to be nimble. On the broadcasting side, taking on BBC Kids, we have become more mature; on the Internet or mobile side, it's important that we stay current with the technologies. The technological side is incredibly unstable. One thing we know about our mobile devices is that they will be in scrap yards in China in six months. We are not a technology company, so I think we have to stay current and follow the industry wherever we can, where it makes sense, using best practices. But there's one thing that never changes: human nature.

The number one value proposition we have with the audience is that we’re a trusted service, whether we offer something on conventional television, smart phones, tablets, or whatever. People come to us because they trust us to program in their interests alone. That’s a core value and why people come to us; it’s never going to change. As far as technology is concerned, nobody knows. I have read almost everything that's been written about the collapse of the financial markets, and I'm reminded of something that Warren Buffett said, "the market is there to inform you, not instruct you.” And that applies to our market; you hear a lot of people predicting what's going to happen in broadcast. But the market will do what it's going to do. You still have to do your own independent thinking and make sense of the case. And that's never going to change. That's what I spent most of my time doing.

F. How do you situate the Banff Television Festival in all the things that you do?

B.  Just like family, you don't want to see all of your relatives at funerals. Banff is a big celebration; it's like a family reunion that we've all agreed to come to once a year catch up, say hello and, and exchange ideas. And that's the human nature side of it. Nothing replaces face-to-face contact. Banff has stayed relevant by making the panels relevant; the industry has good reason to come. Once we get here, most of the business happens between the panels. Most of it is human interaction; you meet up with people you want to work with. Even if it's a good proposition, if they don't trust the person, it's not going to happen. It’s a people business, built on relationships. This is a great place to do that.

F. 32 years and still going strong….

B. It's great.