Feature / Spring 2014
#daring-career-move

Can Kirstine Stewart, a former CBC executive, boost Twitter’s fortunes?


Kirstine Stewart, managing director, Twitter Canada

On March 2, during the Oscars telecast, host Ellen DeGeneres pulled out her smartphone, corralled Meryl Streep, and chirped, “I’m going to take a picture of us, and then we’ll see if we can break the record for the most retweets.” A crowd of Hollywood A-listers including Brad Pitt, Kevin Spacey and Jennifer Lawrence piled in around Streep.

The picture was posted on Twitter from the ceremony. Within hours, the image had been shared – or retweeted – two million times, in many cases by people who were simultaneously watching the Academy Awards on TV and using their phones or computers to tweet about the show. The tweet easily broke the old record – held by Barack Obama for a photo he posted immediately after his re-election in 2012.

DeGeneres’s “selfie” was good fun in a stodgy broadcast. But it also bore a message: Far from being competitors in a war of attrition, television and social networks are actually growing closer together, each harnessing qualities of the other to expand their reach and influence. It’s an idea that might explain why, when Twitter opened its Canadian office one year ago, it didn’t turn to the technology sector to hire a managing director. Instead, it recruited one of the most powerful figures in Canadian broadcasting: Kirstine Stewart (BA 1988 UTM), then the head of the CBC’s English-language services. In the previous two years, Stewart had green-lit some of the highest-rated shows in the CBC’s history. Everyone from Rick Mercer to Peter Mansbridge worked for her.

And then, all of a sudden, she was gone . . . to Twitter?

***

Before being approached to run Twitter’s Canadian office, Stewart had been using the fledgling social network while overseeing the CBC’s programming, partly as a (slightly reserved) contributor of her own thoughts, but mostly as a way of keeping her ear to the ground.

“When you work in TV, you’re in a bit of a void,” she says. “You don’t know necessarily who’s watching. You get a Nielsen report the next morning that tells you, with very generalized numbers, who aged 25 to 54 is watching your show. And I’ve always been driven by the question of why is someone watching, who is watching, what keeps them coming back?”

Stewart is at ease under camera lights but just as happy to fold herself up in a tiny side office at Twitter’s Canadian headquarters, where we sit down to speak. Twitter Canada is still a small operation (though a growing one): its 20 staffers – for Stewart, a radical downsizing from the CBC’s 5,000 or so – are tucked into a brick-and-beam office space on King Street West in downtown Toronto.

Founded in 2006 in San Francisco, Twitter allows users to share their thoughts in public, in bite-sized chunks of no more than 140 characters each. But, like a haiku, a lot can be packed into a simple form. Instead of just posting descriptions of their lunches, Twitter users started talking directly to each other, sharing links to interesting stories, and engaging in freewheeling conversations, debates and outright arguments. Unlike the cloistered confines of Facebook, where users mostly keep to their existing social circles, Twitter became a place for people to broadcast their thoughts to the world, and forge connections with folks they’d never met.

The service grew. Today, Twitter has 240 million active users worldwide (much smaller than Facebook, with 1.2 billion), yet it is an increasingly prominent force in the public sphere. Everyone uses it: from teenagers talking to their friends, to revolutionaries drumming up support, to the Pope addressing his church. Increasingly, it’s even finding a role in affairs of state: when the Crimean crisis emerged in March, tweets from U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry were taken as policy statements.

Yet, despite its widespread adoption, Twitter is losing money – US$645 million in 2013. More troublesome for the company, the rate at which new users are signing up has slowed sharply. It needs to increase revenues, and that means turning itself into a platform that not only welcomes advertisers, but offers them a better deal than its competitors by promising that their ads will reach just the right people, at just the right moments.

And that’s where Kirstine Stewart comes in. Much of Stewart’s time these days is spent shuttling among television networks, media producers and big-league advertisers – evangelizing Twitter and engineering new ways for them to use the service. She was the first person to be hired at Twitter Canada, and her mission is to boost the advertising market for the company. It’s no small task, but she’s no stranger to pressure.

When Stewart took over as head of the CBC’s English language services in 2011, the Globe and Mail ran a story. She remembers the headline well enough: As soon as she hears the first three words, “Will Kirstine Stewart…,” Stewart laughs, shakes her head and finishes the sentence: “…Save the CBC?”

Questions such as this followed her throughout her tenure.
Stewart spent a total of seven years at the broadcaster, the first five as the executive director of programming for CBC Television. “I remember the day Little Mosque debuted on the CBC. The National did a story on it: Can Little Mosque on the Prairie turn around the CBC’s fortunes?” she says. “When it did 2.1-something million viewers that night, I asked Peter Mansbridge, are you going to do a report today saying, ‘Yes it did’?”

For all that, it was not the career she was expecting to have.

“People who actually attend college media programs hate this story,” she says, by way of introduction, “but this is what happened.” Stewart was an English specialist at U of T Mississauga, which in those days was Erindale College. She arrived at U of T two years younger than most of her classmates, and proceeded to zip through her degree in three years. “I was young, I was eager,” she says, and then, almost as an afterthought, “I should have learned to calm down.”

Stewart spent her teenaged years in a country house outside Milton, Ontario. The Erindale campus was close by, so she spent her first year driving in from home. In her second and third years, she moved into a residence townhouse with a group of psychology students who would use her as a test subject; she remains close with one of them to this day. In class, she focused on critical theory, with a soft spot for Marshall McLuhan. Today, the eldest of her two daughters has picked U of T – the St. George campus – as her first choice to start her undergrad this fall.

(Many years after her own graduation, Stewart found herself across a table from a man who was talking about having attended a class at Erindale with a professor Stewart remembered from her own time there. The man was Zaib Shaikh, who would later star in Little Mosque on the Prairie. Hearing the professor’s name, Stewart struck up a conversation with Shaikh; they eventually got married.)

Stewart’s goal at UTM was to land a job in publishing. In fact, she did a co-op placement with a publishing house in her final year, with an eye to getting hired back when she finished her degree. But her graduation, in 1988, coincided with a downturn in the publishing industry, and her former employer told her no positions were available. So Stewart went through the job listings in the Toronto Star, where she noticed one for a “girl Friday” at a local television distribution and production company. (“It was literally an ad for a girl Friday. It was called ‘girl Friday.’”)

The position involved everything from fetching coffee to answering the phones – the most basic of administrative tasks – but it gave her a chance to work with all parts of the operation. Soon she was promoted to sales executive, and when the publishing house called to say that a position had finally opened up, she decided to stay where she was.

It was her first taste of television programming. The company, Paragon Entertainment, was in the business of selling Canadian series to buyers around the world – series such as the original Degrassi dramas, and the beloved children’s cartoon, The Raccoons, which is just about the most Canadian thing ever set to celluloid. “I sold The Raccoons to Soviet television,” she says. “It was the first western show they ever bought.” (The Saudis, apparently, really wanted it, but she had to explain to them that the show featured a trio of talking pigs, which wasn’t going to fly there.) In her seven years at Paragon, the former girl Friday worked her way up to become president of distribution.

For the next decade, Stewart worked for several broadcasters – she even did a stint in Denver running 23 international television stations owned by Hallmark. In 2003, she returned to Toronto to work for Alliance Atlantis.

It was from there that she made the jump to the CBC, becoming the director of programming for CBC Television in 2006. She arrived at a time of turmoil: faced with wrenching budget cuts, the broadcaster had just come through a traumatic job action that saw familiar CBC personalities take to the streets, as managers haplessly tried to cobble together substitute programming. “Kirstine Stewart came along immediately following that and faced two challenges, one of which was to make the CBC a less polarized place in which to work,” says John Doyle, the Globe and Mail’s long-time television critic. “It was really a challenge to her leadership ability. I think she succeeded enormously in that.”

The second big challenge was the CBC’s programming direction. Here, Stewart mostly stayed the course laid down by her predecessor, focusing on “lifestyle” shows – to the chagrin of those who yearned for more high-culture fare, or a return to The National/The Journal glory days of Knowlton Nash and Barbara Frum.

Instead, Stewart championed a slate of crowd-pleasing shows such as Battle of the Blades, Dragons’ Den, Being Erica, Murdoch Mysteries and Little Mosque on the Prairie – the kind of offerings that delivered viewers in droves and, three years later, remain the properties much of the public identifies with CBC Television.

“The nice thing about being able to bring on the kind of programming that we did was that shows that had been there for a long time – Rick Mercer Report, The National – also benefitted from the fact that more people were coming to the CBC,” she says. “It was more relevant in their lives.”

***

Twitter could use some of that same broad appeal that Stewart brought to the CBC. The social network is a favourite of media types, but it remains a niche service compared to Facebook. Twitter has long had a reputation among its devoted users for being addictive, but it’s difficult for outsiders to engage with. It can be bewildering at first, and demands that users learn terms such as hashtags and retweets.

But those who use Twitter, use it a lot. (A study by Sysomos, a social media analytics company started by a U of T prof and a grad student, found that five per cent of Twitter users account for 75 per cent of all activity on the social network.) These power users like to tweet about what they’re doing at any given moment, and this is especially true when they’re watching TV. This phenomenon offers a unique opening for brands and advertisers. Twitter’s software is constantly scanning the contents of hundreds of thousands of tweets being posted around the world every minute. By looking for keywords or phrases, Twitter’s algorithms can get a pretty good sense of whether a user is watching a TV show. (Someone who mentions Marge and Homer in a tweet at 8 p.m. on Sunday night is probably watching The Simpsons, for instance.) This gives advertisers a unique opening: knowing what the Twitter user is looking at on their television screen right then, they can insert complementary advertising into the user’s Twitter feed.

To pick a hypothetical example, if a Twitter user tweeted about an Olympic bobsledder while the competition was being aired, the service could make an informed guess that that user is watching the event. Twitter could insert ads from a company such as Oreo, which was running special Olympic-themed Twitter promotions. (Cookies made to look like gold medals, and so forth.)

Advertising on mobile devices and social networks is still in its infancy. But researchers say that one thing we do know is that ads on small screens – such as ads injected into a Twitter feed – can pack a punch. “There’s a lot less screen, so people pay more attention to what’s on the screen,” says Avi Goldfarb, a professor of marketing at the Rotman School of Management. All the same, he says, it’s a trial-and-error endeavour. “Twitter is very much on the frontier. Social media advertising is still relatively new. There’s no textbook for what works, and what doesn’t, like we have with TV.”

It’s an uphill struggle: a media market that was once concentrated around big, profitable TV networks has fragmented into thousands of smaller online outlets and specialty television stations, all competing for advertising dollars. Online advertising rates continue to drop.

But for Stewart, Twitter’s future isn’t one that pits old media against new, despite the scramble for dollars. It’s part of a new media landscape where one medium complements the other. “The fragmentation puts a huge stress on the way you finance things, for sure, but I think it also creates opportunity for some interesting things to be done,” she says – a world of tech-savvy brands, smart advertising, and Twitter feeds that bring the television-watching and Internet-chatting experience closer together than ever. “I think it’s the most exciting time for media that there’s ever been.”

Ivor Tossell (BA 2002 Vic) writes about politics, business and technology.


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