Knowledge Network is British Columbia’s publicly funded educational broadcaster and streaming service.
We subsequently had a chance to speak with CEO Michelle van Beusekom right after her trip to the Whistler Film Festival (WFF).
HNMAG: What kinds of productions do you work with the most?
Michelle van Beusekom: In terms of original commissions, our main footprint here at Knowledge is with documentaries.
HNMAG: Are you originally from BC?
Michelle van Beusekom: No, I was born in Ontario and lived for the past twenty-one years in Montreal, so I’m a newcomer.
HNMAG: What brought you from Ontario to Montreal?
Michelle van Beusekom: Work at the CBC. I started my broadcast career at the Women’s Television Network (WTN) based out of Toronto. They were bought by Corus which turned into W. I left WTN, for a development executive job with the CBC in Montreal and I did that for four years. Then I worked at the National Film Board (NFB) for fourteen years. For the last four years, was the Executive Director of English language production. I developed a strong connection with the documentary community here in British Columbia through my work at the NFB. Then I worked as the Executive Director of the Documentary Organization of Canada which deepened my BC doc relationships.
HNMAG: How did you first get involved in Film and TV?
Michelle van Beusekom: It was accidental. I was doing my PhD at York. I was writing my Thesis on 19th-century Cuban Nationalism. I was also transcribing documentary rushes. This was in the mid-1990s when the CRTC licensed a bunch of new specialty channels. A person at the company I was transcribing for was hired by WTN and she recommended me for a job as the assistant to the new director of Independent Production for a month. After that, I realized that for me documentaries were a more interesting way to connect with people about ideas. I dumped the PhD and shifted my focus to Film and TV.
HNMAG: When you moved to Montreal, you were hired to work for the CBC in English.
Michelle van Beusekom: Yes, my job was to work with independent producers, English-speaking in Quebec and Ontario outside of the Toronto area, to encourage more productions from those areas. Producers outside of Toronto are frequently disadvantaged due to the lack of access to Toronto-based decision-makers so this role was an attempt to address that imbalance.
HNMAG: Did you learn French while living in Montreal?
Michelle van Beusekom: I had a base from high school and built on that by taking courses. There are amazing programs for newcomers in Quebec. I did intensive immersion classes from six to ten after work for a year. It was pretty exhausting but effective!
HNMAG: In April of 2023, Pierre Poilievre suggested in Parliament to cut funding to the English arm of the CBC. How would you respond to that?
Michelle van Beusekom: CBC has a long history of supporting Canadian stories that reflect our country back to itself. So many leading talents in our industry cut their teeth at the CBC and so many ground-breaking shows have been produced for the CBC. If it wasn’t for the CBC our production community and on-screen culture would look very different. If that’s the recommendation, we should ask what replaces that. What happens to our culture? Is storytelling important to who we are as Canadians?
HNMAG: Tell us more about your move from Montreal to the Knowledge network in BC.
Michelle van Beusekom: I came here in February of 2023. I was approached by a headhunter and when I looked closely at Knowledge’s size, scope and mandate, I was attracted by a number of things. It’s an organization of just fifty people. Its footprint in original programming is mainly in the documentary space and that is the space where I’ve spent most of my career and where I have my strongest connections and relationships. Public mandates have always appealed to me. Knowledge is free and commercial-free and provides quality programming and a safe environment for preschoolers. For adults, we focus on the forty-plus demographic, providing a thoughtful alternative to commercial programming. It’s programming for curious minds. Knowledge has a very strong brand. I was surprised that it was so small. I was already very aware of and impressed by Knowledge before I was approached about the job and then got really excited when I took a closer look.
HNMAG: What is exciting that’s coming up at Knowledge?
Michelle van Beusekom: It’s been a very big year for us. We greenlit six creative one-off documentaries, mostly features, this year. We recently green-lit a five-part limited series on wildfires. We were beneficiaries of new funding with Creative BC and just announced a new commissioning stream for premium limited series docs which will be in place for three years. This stream opens up an exciting opportunity for BC filmmakers to work on a bigger creative canvas. I am very excited by the impact Knowledge can have for BC documentary story-telling.
HNMAG: Why is the Knowledge Network important?
Michelle van Beusekom: We provide audiences with a unique free and commercial-free offer serving audiences that aren’t well served by commercial offers. We also support vital programming genres – documentary and children’s – that are under existential threat in Canada. In the preschool space, we regularly collaborate with other public broadcasters to collectively license work and ensure that kids in BC have access to quality home-grown programming.
HNMAG: Are there any Children’s programs set in BC?
Michelle van Beusekom: Luna, Chip & Inkie is our flagship children’s animation series. The series features distinctive characters and stories set in BC landscapes. We just completed production on season two.
Michelle van Beusekom is a senior television executive who is passionate about authentic storytelling, Canadian culture and quality television for both adults and children. She has a strong background in the documentary world and through her work at Knowledge is working to expand opportunities for BC documentary filmmakers. Knowledge also provides a platform and support for home-grown educational children’s television. Knowledge Network plays a big role in our culture and along with other non-profit platforms, such as the CBC, are worth fighting for.