Inside CBC’s digital-first strategy for Northern Rescue

The family adventure series is the first original drama to debut exclusively on CBC's streaming platforms.

CBC announced its 2018 fall premiere dates earlier this week, though one project was conspicuously absent from its linear TV schedule.

That’s because the pubcaster announced that Northern Rescue will be its first original drama to receive a digital-first release.

Produced by Don Carmody TV (DCTV) for CBC and Netflix, the project will launch exclusively on the CBC TV app (which contains both a paid, ad-free tier and an ad-supported, free tier) and (also ad-supported), with all episodes dropping simultaneously in December, before heading to linear at a later date in 2019. Netflix has not yet announced when it will debut the series internationally. In terms of the deal structure, CBC has exclusive first-window rights in Canada for all broadcast and digital platforms. The series will eventually launch on Netflix Canada at a later date, but will also remain on CBC’s streaming platforms.

While this is not the first time CBC has experimented with a digital-first launch for one of its scripted properties, this marks the first time CBC has employed the strategy on a Canadian project of this scale.

CBC previously released the half-hour comedy Crawford (Rabbit Square Productions) on its app ahead of a linear launch, and the pubcaster has also experimented with the strategy on some of its acquired international dramas. The first of those was Elisabeth Moss-starrer Top of the Lake: China Girl (U.K./Australia/New Zealand), which launched on CBC’s digital platforms last fall. The pubcaster intends to go further down the digital-first path for subsequent international pickups, including Australian miniseries Sunshine Kings and British medical drama Trust Me, both of which launch this fall.

“[The Northern Rescue release] is part of our continued focus on increasing digital audience engagement and investing in expanded content for CBC’s streaming platforms to better target younger audiences in addition to core CBC viewers,” Sally Catto, general manager, programming, CBC, told Playback Daily.

In recent years the pubcaster has continued to shift increasing amounts of resources toward expanding its digital output. Last December, CBC launched an updated OTT service that includes a new CBC TV app, which contains both a paid, ad-free tier and a free, ad-supported tier. A week later it revealed that it had reached its goal of doubling its digital reach across all its platforms by 2020. When the CBC launched its strategy in 2015, its online reach was 8.7  million – between April and October of 2017 it saw an average of 18 million unique visitors per month. The digital shift has led to cancelations too, with CBC last week announcing the end of its daytime business show On the Money as it redirects some of its linear investment toward digital.

As to why CBC saw Northern Rescue as a good candidate for a digital-first release, Catto said the project is well-suited for co-viewing audiences looking for bingeable content. She added that it also allows CBC to align its digital release with Netflix’s global streaming rollout.

The family adventure series follows widower John West (William BaldwinBackdraft), who uproots his three children to his small hometown to take command of the local search and rescue service.

Catto added that CBC is also looking to capitalize on the typical lull between its fall and winter broadcast seasons. “We have identified December and the holiday period, which is always a strong season for CBC, as a key opportunity to bring new streaming content to Canadian audiences at a time when family viewing also increases,” she said.

As CBC continues to bolster the library of content it offers online (its digital platforms, CBC TV app and, now house more than 4,000 hours of content), it remains on the lookout for projects that could launch first on digital. “CBC will continue to evaluate projects on a case-by-case basis to identify where an early digital release could build greater audience engagement,” she said.

This story originally appears in Playback.