I have just recently returned from China where just about the only English channel that was available to me was CNN. Tuning in the news became an end of day ritual similar to ending the day in Canada with The National or CTV News. Interestingly I was struck by the incredible lack of news on what purports to be an all news television service. For two weeks it seemed the only thing happening in the world was the U.S. health care debate. In the last few days of my trip the Israelis, never overlooking an opportunity to commit a major diplomatic faux pas, announced the building of a slew of new homes in Arab East Jerusalem, this while Vice President Joe Biden was in town trying to make nice to the Netanyahu government in hopes of restarting the peace process.
Two weeks, two stories of any consequence. It became clear to me that that’s what is wrong with the concept of all news television. There are no local stories. There are only big stories. Unfortunately, or maybe fortunately big stories don’t come along all that often. Thus channels like CNN and CBC NN are left to hash and rehash the same story over and over again. What I’m saying here is that on days without a Haiti earthquake or a primary election involving a black candidate and a prominent female candidate CNN can be really, really boring. Watching the news networks’ attempts to heighten, that’s a nice way of saying sensationalize, a story can begin to be an antidote to insomnia.
It becomes very clear very quickly why CNN has dropped to fourth place among American news networks. Without an election or an earthquake it is far more interesting to watch Fox News. Why? Because the people at Fox are willing and mostly able to ratchet up a story in the most unethical way. They don’t care about the facts, they only care about the ratings. Sad to say it is more interesting to watch the ranting of an over the top bozo who has never let the facts get in the way of a good story than to watch another dry panel discussing the ins and outs of the minutia of health care or a different dry panel discussing the history of the U.S. and Israel.
I learned very early in my TV career that television is an entertainment medium. When I was producing local news my biggest competitor was not CTV or CITY, the ratings winners were Three’s Company and game shows. When I was at The Journal the audience giant was Hill Street Blues. Heck, I remember my host, Peter Kent, now a Tory M.P., refusing to go to studio for taping until the episode of A Team he was watching ended.
What does all this mean? What struck me was that CBC NN and CTV’s all news channels have little opportunity to ever gain a serious (in size) audience. They have too little going for them and far too much stacked up against them.
If CNN with reporters and crews all over the world is having a hard time finding enough stories to grab and keep viewers what chance does a Canadian all news network have?
Here are the facts. The Canadian news channels have to share a small band of Canadian reporters and a ludicrously tiny few international reporters with the main network they are attached to. If a story breaks anywhere outside of Canada they are ill prepared at best and hopelessly over matched as a rule. When Haiti broke did anyone tune to CBC NN for the story? If you did you missed the super coverage provided by CNN and for the record, most Canadians found their way to CNN.
Even if a big story breaks in Canada the news networks are ill prepared. Not because they can’t get cameras to the scene but because the reporter with the best ability to cover the events has his or her eye on that evening’s national newscast. The main network newspeople hire the reporter. They pay the reporter. The reporter’s future is dependent on the folks who run the national news. Until CBC NN and the CTV all news channel have their own reporters and their own bureaus worldwide they will never excel at what they are licensed to do: fast, complete coverage of breaking news stories. Don’t hold your breath, that will never happen. If they can’t do that, why bother to exist at all.
The truth is, and no broadcast journalist wants to deal with this, the highest rated program on CBC’s all news channel was The Antiques Road Show. Since the changes at CBC NN no program has come close to the numbers that showed garnered.
Worse news still, CP24 gets better ratings than either CBC NN or CTV. Why? Because it makes better background viewing. You tune to that channel without actually watching it. The weather is right there. The time is always there. The business numbers are constantly there. If a great story is breaking you can catch it as it scrolls by and tune in to CNN for the details. There’s no need to pay attention and there are no discussions and panels ad nauseum to focus on. In fact it is a better station with the sound turned off.
The time has come for CBC and CTV to face the facts. All news TV in Canada is not a great idea. It’s a waste of time, effort and most important dollars. CBC and CTV would be far better off using the channels as a kind of CBC 2 and CTV2. The news people could still jump in if there were a breaking story. The National could still have a second home during the hockey playoffs and everyone would be a winner, especially the viewers.