Quality helping Knowledge ascend television network rankings

The pandemic has been bad for many, but good for Knowledge.

Not pandemic knowledge, per se – that is a beguiling hot mess at times – but capital-K Knowledge. As in the Knowledge Network, the province’s public broadcaster, emerging as a quiet success story in a sea of streaming and screens.

Without grand fanfare, amid its 40th anniversary, the Knowledge Network has risen in the last year to become the third-ranked network among British Columbians, behind only Global and CTV in popularity in prime-time evening viewing. If you set aside the brief period this summer of CBC’s coverage of the Olympics, Knowledge’s prime-time schedule of original and acquired educational programming surpasses that of the national public broadcaster, with 40,000 or so tuning in hourly.

Given the almost absurd number of available viewing choices, many of them marketed across conglomerated media empires, this is one of those Little Network That Could tales.

This, despite a frozen government budget for a decade – not even indexing for inflation – from British Columbian NDP and Liberal governments alike. Nothing suggests that will change any time soon, CEO Rudy Buttignol notes.

Rather than turning to the public through government, though, Knowledge has found its salvation in turning to the public through donations. It is a business model some high-quality media have found attainable in recent years, in that loyal audiences will pay modestly but steadily for premium offerings if they sense any frailty or that they might lose what they value. Knowledge has been able to build this model inarguably improving its quality for adults and children alike whose tastes are not served readily elsewhere, and of course it has done so in an uncluttered, commercial-free platform that appears to matter more than some programmers might think.

Today the network receives about $6.6 million in annual provincial grants and another $6 million from its base of 47,000 direct supporters. The former keeps the lights on, the latter keeps the cameras on. The public benevolence in relatively small but consistent pledges, Buttignol says, is why it can commission and acquire programming.

“Without them, we would not be able to do anything like what we do.”

Knowledge has developed a demographically bookended strategy appealing to the serious elder and the curious child; in the process it captures the parent and the middle aged in a schedule that accessibly challenges and never panders. It isn’t a particularly prolific programmer, but it asserts its place through sophisticated curation.

Last week, the most adventurous yet of its original programming debuted, an extraordinary four-part documentary series titled British Columbia: An Untold History. It ought to be required viewing. I could fortunately preview the four hours, which roll out on Tuesdays at 9 in the next weeks and stream across knowledge.ca and the network’s apps across platforms.

The series serves as a crash reset on what we know about where we live. The segments – Change + Resistance, Labour + Persistence, Migration + Resilience and Nature + Co-Existence – are an unflinching examination of the socio-economic tensions that have defined us without us learning deeply about them. They are exquisitely shot creative documentaries, authoritatively informed by voices traditionally excluded from the public narrative. They are, in educational terms, a rewrite of the curriculum, eye-openers and mind-openers – and yes, uncomfortable, depending on your subject position.

An Untold History is exactly what public broadcasting was meant to be, but in many quarters isn’t, and emblematic of how Knowledge has matured under Buttignol in his 14 years.

At 70, responsible in no small way in this country for the development of cultural policy, Buttignol is far from any removal of its application or dialing back his dedication. Others in the industry see him as in his prime. He chairs an international advisory council on Hot Docs, the largest documentary festival in North America, and his CV reveals incessant occupation and leadership across several boards and industry entities as a four-decade executive.

He has not been shy about pronouncing upon the lamentable dismantling of Canadian media and its enfeebled state in asserting national identity, and his voice was prominent in efforts to tax the Silicon Valley giants that operated unfettered in Canada until recently.

He spent a dozen years patiently nurturing the development of An Untold History, brought to the screen by series producers Leena Minifie of the Gitxaala Nation and Trish Dolman of Screen Siren Pictures and writer-director Kevin Eastwood. The first draft of the project’s research from Jennifer Chiu weighed in at 98 pages, whittled to four by Eastwood. Buttignol’s favourite episode is about our story of immigration, unsurprising as someone who came to Canada from Italy at age four with his mother to reunite with his father, who had come a year earlier to work for the railway in laying track in northern Alberta. Our favourite media, whether film or music, revives our childhood.

He has one eye on succession in three years when his latest term expires, but meantime has another important landmark project to unfurl, one aimed at developing a new viewership that holds its space over generations.

It will be a $10 million series of 40 children’s animated (and musical) shorts, Luna, Chip and Inkie: Adventure Rangers Go, 11-minute episodes based on the 15-second clips of their characters we can now see as interstitials that dot the full half-day of the Knowledge schedule devoted to kids. This will be a healthy portion of his legacy, his version of Sesame Street, and an opportunity for Knowledge to reach beyond the province to find global audiences, with Canadian intellectual property in tow. It sets the place in good hands for the future.

And it is being done because British Columbians cared for it to be done. •

Kirk LaPointe is publisher and editor-in-chief of BIV and vice-president, editorial, of Glacier Media.