CBC’s Punchline: Canada’s New One-Stop Shop for Comedy

On June 26, 2014, the CBC announced a new digital-first strategy aimed at getting it to 2020. Part of that strategy consists of shifting resources and audiences to digital platforms. The CBC is trying to manage dwindling financial resources while at the same time fulfilling its mandate to provide diverse content to Canadians across the country. CBC’s Punchline—an online comedy channel that was soft launched in March 2014—is part of this digital strategy.

For the CBC, a platform like Punchline seemed like a natural fit. Comedy does well online, particularly among the 18-34 demographic who enjoy both short and slightly longer snippets of comedy on destinations like Funny or Die. The CBC has a history of comedy with shows like “22 Minutes”, “Rick Mercer Report” and “Mr. D”. “Canada punches way above its weight in comedy and short form video,” says Fergus Heywood, Executive Producer, Interactive Content, Scripted and Commissioned Programming, CBC English Services. Given such depth of content, the CBC saw an opportunity to fill a gap in the market and create a Canadian comedy community and destination. The idea is not just to promote CBC comedy but also to support the Canadian comedy community as a whole in line with the public broadcaster’s mandate.

A mix of original creation and content aggregation

Everything featured on the platform is original Canadian content — either created specifically for Punchline or curated from the web. There are no reruns of broadcast content. While there are web series the likes of “22 Minutes” or “Mr. D”, those channels’ content consists of original digital ‘spin-off’ content rather than clips from the shows. Punchline also showcases non-exclusive samples of some of the best Canadian online comedy videos, such as the “Bill and Sons Towing” and “Space Janitors” web series. Quoted from the site: “There’s a ton of awesome Canadian web comedy out there that we didn’t produce, but we think you need to see.” Punchline does this to provide indie comedy creators with access to a larger audience and a CBC ‘seal of approval’, which adds a great deal of credibility to the work. It’s not all video though as there are also articles, images and Buzzfed-style quizzes created by CBC staff and freelancers.

Curating the comedic Web

All content is tagged and searchable to facilitate discovery. This is the real benefit of a curated comedy channel. For example, episodes of “Bill and Sons Towing” are tagged with the title of the web series as well as the names of the performers playing in the episode and The Imponderables (the comedy troupe that produces and performs the series). On Punchline, the audience can discover more content from those performers and producers. With the overwhelming amount of content online, curation is a key value-added element that a channel can bring to web and mobile experiences.

The CBC develops content for Punchline in the same way that its creates for broadcast. The public broadcaster’s comedy department reviews submissions, checks out comedy acts and searches for new talent offline and online. Of course, content is developing faster for Punchline than it is for broadcast given the need to regularly upload new material to the site. The digital platform enables the CBC to reach out to Canadian talent and audiences throughout the country easier than it can with broadcast. There is less need for regional offices and outreach when talent and audiences are accessed digitally.

Punchline was financed through the Canada Media Fund’s Canadian Digital Media Incentive program (CDMI) as, at its core, it supports several CMF-funded television shows and is part of the CBC’s multiplatform strategy for comedy programming. The CMF funding was used to launch Punchline before its business model had been fully figured out. However, given the CBC’s financial situation, the goal is for the channel to be self-sustainable. “The CMF was a big part of the puzzle of putting Punchline together, and now we are exploring possible revenue streams to achieve sustainability,” adds Mr. Heywood.

Legacy

The launch of a platform such as Punchline reflects two seismic shifts that appear to be at play within the CBC. One is the strategy according to which digital platforms are a tool that will enable the CBC to accomplish its mandate despite current financial pressures. In its view, digital content can actually be an end in itself as well as a good way to cost effectively provide diverse content to audiences across the country.

The other shift is a return to the ‘public broadcaster’ mandate while abandoning the idea that the CBC needs to compete with private broadcasters to survive. Only a public broadcaster would try to support talent and programs in which it has no financial interest, but which speak to its mandate to ‘actively contribute to the flow and exchange of cultural expression’. By expanding from a broadcaster that pushes specific programming to a content curator that facilitates discovery of the best Canadian comedy content that exists out there, the CBC is developing a new relationship with its audience. In fact, it is saying ‘trust me, I can help you find the good stuff’ rather than ‘watch this, because I said so’. It will be interesting to see if this model works and—if it does—whether it can be used successfully for other genres.

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