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CBC-TV bets on arts and culture prime-time programming

Last Updated Oct 1, 2015 at 6:26 pm PST

Just as the private Canadian networks launch schedules full of Muppets, superheroes and other new American series, CBC is wading in with arts and culture. Have they painted themselves into a corner?

Sure, CBC is also touting next week’s return of long-running hits such as “Murdoch Mysteries” and the “Rick Mercer Report.” New, Canadian-made scripted shows such as Chris Haddock’s sexy spy drama “The Romeo Section” will also help CBC stand out from the import-packed competition.

Making a serious scheduling commitment to arts programming in prime-time in 2015, however, simply would not happen at a rival broadcaster — which is why Heather Conway is doing it.

Conway, CBC’s executive vice-president of English services, is in the second year of a five-year plan to steer the public broadcaster towards a digital future, and one that is — as she emphasized last May at the CBC season launch —”identifiably Canadian.”

Conway was the chief business officer at the Art Gallery of Ontario prior to joining CBC in 2013. She sees the arts strategy as one that will “make sure we have a distinctive voice, an offering that doesn’t look or feel like anything else on the dial.”

Selling art-related programming on TV has risks, agrees Conway. She’s heard the “eat your vegetables” marketing comparisons. One thing she’s learned from her first full year at the helm of CBC’s schedule, she says, is that she has to be willing to take creative risks — especially heading into a pick and pay TV universe, something the CRTC seems keen on mandating in the coming year.

“If you’re not distinctive, if you’re not identifiable, if you’re not offering something unique,” says Conway, “you’re dead.”

Jennifer Dettman, CBC’s executive director of unscripted content, is all in on the arts initiative.

“We have made a shift in our overall programming strategy,” says Dettman, “to do things other people aren’t doing.” That strategy, she adds, extends across all CBC platforms.

CBC’s marketing team has been tasked to get the message out, says Dettman, that this is not your parent’s arts programs. As for the arts sales pitch sounding like more “eat your vegetables,” Dettman acknowledges that “we have a lot of vegetables in our programming, but we try to hide it in a tasty lasagna, or a really great stir fry.”

Two new CBC arts programs launch this month:

“Crash Gallery,” premiering Friday at 8:30 p.m. ET, seems like another TV talent show, with three painters and other visual artists competing to win a competition. The difference, says Dettman, is that “this is not a show about who’s going to win or lose. It’s about watching creativity unfold in front of you.” It’s hosted by Sean O’Neill from the Art Gallery of Ontario.

“Exhibitionists” (premiering Sunday at 4 p.m. ET) profiles emerging and established Canadian artists. Recent Toronto International Film Festival Best Canadian Feature Film winner Stephen Dunn is featured Sunday, as is James Kerr, gaining notoriety as “The Renaissance Man of the GIF World” for his Monty Python-like mashups of high art and low comedy. Amanda Parris hosts.

A third TV series, “Interrupt this Program,” begins Nov. 6. Part travelogue with stops in Kiev, Athens and Beirut, Dettman says the five-part series will show how artists are “reimagining their city” and are the true “agents of change.”

Three other digital arts originals also premiere this fall, with “The re-education of Eddy Rogo” — about a wheeler dealer in the world of arts and antiques — already streaming online at http://www.cbc.ca/arts.

— Bill Brioux is a TV columnist based in Brampton, Ont.