Rudy Buttignol - Part 1: Early Days of Knowledge Network

My name is Rudy Buttignol. I am President and CEO of the Knowledge Network. We are BC’s public broadcaster. And I am newly the President of BBC Kids subscription channel.

 Fraser. The Knowledge Network is one of the last standing educational networks that were created in the 70s.

Buttignol. Yes, we’re one of four educational networks and one of two English-language networks. We have repositioned ourselves as the closest thing to a Canadian PBS.

F. Those educational networks -- the Knowledge Network, the former Access, TVO, and so on -- were really the creatures of government policy. How did that evolve?

B. Public broadcasters really came out of the 1970s; or maybe they were rooted in the 60s and saw light in the 70s. We are mandated by our provincial governments to provide a television service, which is now a broadcasting service. In this crazy system, the provinces decided they were going to do it and then the federal government agreed it could be done, since education is the purview of the provinces. It was a reaction to the rise of the identity of the provinces within Confederation; at least that's my view of it.

F. There was a huge discussion in the educational community about the need for television.

B. We were a bit behind in Canada. In the States, PBS grew out of what was called EDNET, the educational network. Canadian provinces decided to do something similar in educational broadcasting. Quickly, it became evident that pedagogy was not television's strong suit; but, that public broadcasting with an educational mandate, might distinguish itself as different from regular television. So, what we do is probably less pedagogical than motivational. We won't teach you how to read, but we might encourage you to read.

F. Can you talk a bit about how educational policy in BC has evolved from the time you went on the air until now?

B. Like the network that I was formerly involved with, TVO, we started in the Ministry of Education. At some point the government didn't quite know what to do with it because it wasn't exactly kindergarten to grade 12; so we got moved to another ministry. In Ontario we were moved to Citizenship and Culture. While I was at TVO, we were moved to Culture, to Advanced Education, then to the Ministry of Education. At Knowledge Network, we started at the Ministry of Education, then somewhere else for a while; when I took over four years ago, we were in Advanced Education, which was colleges, universities, and other institutions. With the last cabinet shuffle, we have been moved to Citizen Services, which seems to be the right Ministry.

F. That seems to be a move from an adjunct to education to a public service. You're now a public broadcaster in a much broader sense.

B. Yes that would describe our primetime schedule, speaking to adults; yet in daytime, from six in the morning to six in the evening, we are exclusively focused on kids’ programming, all day every day. That's with kids from 2 to 6 as a core audience, as well as from 6 to 12; that programming is heavily educational. The programming focused on kids aged 2 to 6 is based on literacy or numeracy, wrapped in good social values like caring and sharing. It's non-violent; we never take programming that sells product, sugar or cereal. The intent is to get kids ready for school. Our daytime programming is therefore an important part of the school system. By the time they get to school they know the alphabet, how to count, and have some social skills.

F. How did you develop your relationship with BBC Kids?

B. BBC Kids is great. I had gone to this media strategies course at Harvard Business School, which made me realize that, in this fragmenting business, we had to become more efficient at what we did in broadcasting. I realized that I had to become better at generating money for content. I needed to find at least two other channels to operate in areas where we were excellent: kids’ programming and documentary programming. In British Columbia, in the morning and afternoon blocks for kids, our kids’ programming rates either first or second. So I was looking for a kids’ channel and I'm still looking for a documentary channel.

I’ll tell you how I got BBC Kids. Two years ago here at Banff, Hilary Read from BBC worldwide, with whom I was going to have a meeting the next day, came up to me and said, “What are you doing?” I said, “I'm killing time between meetings.” She said, “Oh me, too. Are you interested in buying a channel?” I said, “Yeah. I'm looking for one. What do you have?” She said, “BBC Kids.” I said, “Perfect!” And two years later, we're operating BBC Kids out of Burnaby, BC as a joint venture between BBC Worldwide and the Knowledge Network.

F. Does the Knowledge Network have the autonomy to do that on its own or do you have to enter into negotiations with the province?

B. I ran it by my board, who were enthusiastic. We did have a dormant shell company called Knowledge West Communications Corp. that had been created for this purpose 25 years earlier. I came up with a strategy when I was in the shower one morning, scribbled it on a piece of paper, and ran it by our Ministry and the Attorney General's office to make sure that the way we were going to do it was perfectly legal according to the legislation. But, before we went to government, I talked to some prominent business people who were close to government. I took a couple of people out to lunch and said here's what I'm thinking: this is a public-private sector partnership, with a for-profit operation whose fees and profits will go to the not-for-profit side for the creation of original content. What do you think? How will this be seen within government? Are we overstepping? The person looked at me as though I were mad and said, “Brilliant! If you can pull it off.” You never know within any particular government; so, having gone through the "back channel,” I knew that we would be fine and then we went to government.

F. Were you attracted at all by federal policy?

B. Not really. We do rely on the Canadian Media Fund for the projects that we do with independents. When I went to Knowledge Network, I declared that we would do no in-house production; all production would be with independent producers. We were too small to do our own production. And I wanted to support BC and Canadian filmmakers. That industry is so small and so fragile that we needed to put all our dollars into it. In order to make those budgets hold, of course, we had to rely on the Canadian Media Fund as well (or the Canadian Television Fund before that). That policy is important, but I wouldn't say that it is critical to our operation.

Rudy Buttignol - Part 2: Early Career