I'm Mad as Hell

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and I can't do a thing about it

Lloyd and Lisa

While we are waiting for Global to announce their new anchor and looking at CBC and wondering what they will do to first to fix a badly battered newscast and a new formula that is obviously not working as far as the viewing public is concerned, and second deal with the future of Peter Mansbridge, I want to take the time to discuss Lloyd Robertson and Lisa Laflamme.

I remember quite vividly the shock of Lloyd coming to join Harvey Kirk on the CTV anchor desk. At the time I was at CTV producing Canada AM. Harvey was the most popular newsman in Canada. He was a big lovable bear of a man who was most popular with his co-workers and contrary to what has been written in the past few days, still the star of CTV News in the minds of the public. Harvey didn’t work very hard at it, but when he was called upon he proved to be a very good writer and journalist. He sat in on Canada AM a few times when Norm Perry was on vacation and quickly endeared himself to my staff and the audience. He was actually a very good interviewer.

At the time Lloyd said he was leaving CBC because the union rules didn’t allow him to take part in the writing and producing of the news. He was only allowed to be an announcer. At CTV we were expecting Lloyd to come in pumped up for his opportunity to write and take a full part in the preparation of the broadcast.That never happened.

Lloyd wasn’t taking any chances, however. He was not going to play second fiddle to Harvey. He brought his own producer to run the show, Tim Kotcheff, and together they worked to minimize Harvey and maximize Lloyd.

Internally that created some small problems. It turned out that Lloyd really couldn’t write and he backed off doing that very quickly. The newsroom staff had far more respect for Harvey’s abilities than Lloyd’s. The boss, however, always favored Lloyd with the best assignments. It took a few years but Tim and Lloyd created a process to rid the staff of Harvey loyalists and of Harvey himself. The problem here being that CTV had by far the best newsroom staff in Canada at the time and over the years it has had to be trebled and quadrupled to accomplish the same amount of work that a brilliant pre-Lloyd newsroom could do.

But as it turned out Lloyd was not without an abundance of talent. With Harvey gone he made the news his own. Not with writing or journalism, but with star power and trustworthiness. Lloyd shone as an anchor. He had the ability to speak to everyone in the audience as individuals. People responded to him, in my opinion, because he was honest. What you saw on air was what you saw in person. He was a good man who enjoyed what he was doing and cared about the quality of his work and his show.

For his co-workers there was another talent that was only revealed when Lloyd began to host specials like elections, budgets and live events. He was masterful. He had the ability to control the feel and pace and content of events that were coming at him from all sides. In the parlance of TV news, he was the best “traffic cop” in the business. He had a prodigious memory for facts and he always did his homework. Perhaps most amazing was his ability to listen and talk at the same time. When I produced the Royal Wedding of Charles and Diana, Lloyd had both an ABC and a BBC feed beaming into his headset and further he had me interrupting him telling him where we were going next. He could listen to all three, actually hearing and repeating important information and never miss a beat talking to the audience. He was truly a savant.

Lloyd speaks to ordinary Canadians because he is deep down, after the seven figure salary, an ordinary Canadian. He’s a good family man. He is serious about his religious beliefs and he is not afraid to let his feelings and basic people instincts show. He will be a hard man to replace and he will be missed in the Canadian news business.

I never worked with Lisa Laflamme but I have admired her work for a long time. I remember when she was a local reporter in Kitchener and I was running CBC News in Toronto. On many, many occasions I asked the people around me who was this young local small town reporter who was producing pieces to equal most of the work being produced on CBC and CTV at the national level? A few years later I watched as began to do a lot of anchor work in Kitchener. She took to it naturally. She was comfortable behind the desk from day one and had the ability Lloyd had to talk to her audience like she was one of them.

When I went to Global to be news director I thought, wow, here’s an opportunity to hire Lisa away from CKCO. Unfortunately I had the dumbest and worst VP of news that I have ever had the misfortune to work for or even hear about. We needed a reporter who could fill in on the anchor desk on weekends and holidays. Lisa was doing a spectacular job in Kitchener so the fit seemed perfect. I went to Doug Bonar (ah, what an apt monicker) and told him I was going to offer the job to Lisa. He asked to see her audition tape. I showed it to him. He refused to allow me to hire her. Why? Did he not like her reporting skills? Truth be told, he wouldn’t know a good reporter from a can of cream soup. Did he not like her anchoring skills? He knew as much about anchors as he knew about astrophysics. No, I couldn’t hire Lisa Laflamme because Doug Bonar did not like her hair!

It worked out for the best for Lisa. I know she has the talent and ability to be a fine replacement for Lloyd Robertson. Her biggest problem will be that Lloyd is a mighty hard act to follow.

Filed under: Media Commentary, , , , , , , ,

A Failure to Communicate

I don’t know why but I am always amazed when media executives feel the need to tinker with a program or a format that is doing well and has a loyal audience. I have heard all the excuses: the audience is too old, we need to grow the audience, and my favorite, and the worst of all reasons, the show needed to change, it was looking rather tired.

The truth is there are no good reasons to make wholesale changes in any program that is holding its own other than money. If the costs rise above what the budget allows a producer has no choice but to deal with the financial realities. But when change comes via the whim of an exec it is time to change the exec, not the program.

There are countless examples on both sides of this equation. CBC Radio 2 is one of my favorite examples. Take a national channel that has a large and devoutly loyal audience, that in most of the country is the only provider of serious classical music and change it so that classical is moved away from the highest listening periods and replace it with a mishmash that is impossible to describe or to explain and watch the ratings go down the drain.

In an age where everyone is desperate for a niche that guarantees audience, CBC Radio threw the niche they had away. It is beyond stupid. The biggest winners in this one were the NPR border stations and classical music stations in Buffalo, Seattle and Detroit.

The same kind of story took place at CBC TV’s The National. Wholesale change for what appears to be no strong reason. The result: the ratings are in the toilet and not a single viewer I have spoken to or heard from likes the new newscast.

For me the most egregious and radical change comes from a network that doesn’t usually make these kinds of mistakes, CTV. Canada AM is a show that is close to my heart. I worked on the show for six years, including close to five years running the place. In the day, with hosts like Norm Perry, Helen Hutchinson, Keith Morrison, Valerie Pringle and Carole Taylor Canada AM was one of the most important news programs in Canada. Every day the top politicians and newsmakers involved in the biggest news stories of the day felt they had to appear and explain their role in whatever was going on. Not a week went by when the daily newspapers across the country didn’t quote from an interview seen on Canada’s first morning news and current affairs program. Most weeks the AM crew actually broke stories.

Yes, there were entertainers and quirky stories, but these were reserved for the final 30 minutes and only if there wasn’t a breaking news story that needed more coverage.

For those of you who love the celebrity gossip and interviews this may sound dreary, but in fact it was exciting TV. Every interview was live and every issue discussed totally current. The proof was the huge and loyal audience. On average the show had 750,000 viewers in homes. On many days it was over a million. All of this without counting audience members in hotel rooms, restaurants and offices.

Today few people are watching what can only be described as a long version of E-Talk. Celebrity after celebrity spit out the same hackneyed tripe that they spouted two days ago on the endless celebrity gossip shows that dominate early evening TV fare. The interviews are mostly on tape so there is no real excitement generated. The news is mostly relegated to the newscast. And to make matters worse, almost all the personality on the show comes from the weatherman, Jeff Hutcheson. Canada AM has become a great advertisement for morning radio.

Today Canada AM still calls itself the highest rated morning show in Canada. Big whoop. With an audience that hovers around 250,000 viewers it barely makes a dent. When was the last time a Canada AM interview was quoted in The Globe and Mail? I suspect many of you were too young to read The Globe when that happened. I know what you are going to say, there’s a lot more channels and competition today. You’d be right. But other morning shows have held their own in the ratings and more important, there are few new morning current affairs shows that didn’t exist during the heyday of AM. The competition is no more fierce.

Nobody I have talked to knows why Canada AM changed. It took a few years so there is no one person to point a finger at. There is no corporate memory of the great show that Canada AM was. There is only this impostor that has stolen the name and fills the time slot.

Here’s where the lesson comes in. If you are going to change a program or a format there is actually a secret to doing it successfully. You must find a way to keep your loyal viewers happy while attracting new viewers. Therefore the answer is evolution not revolution. The changes have to be imperceptible. The best example here is CTV News. If you were to poll the audience they would tell you the show hasn’t changed at all in decades. In fact that isn’t true. Look at old tapes and you would not recognize the program. There have been lots of changes. They have been brought in slowly. The folks at CTV News seem to understand that they cannot upset their loyal viewers in order to grow their ratings.

There are other examples: 60 Minutes and Law and Order stand out because they both lasted more than 20 years and they both have large and loyal audiences all these years later. I know Law and Order was canceled recently, but it tied Gunsmoke for the longest running TV drama in the U.S. television history.

The problems go deeper of course. If the people running the networks don’t get it, how can the folks they hire understand what to do? Every time I speak to a network boss I am amazed at the level of incompetence and the lack of understanding. Money is everything and creativity is ignored.

Maybe it’s just me but from my perch it sure looks like the folks who run television today don’t come close to understanding how to make shows the audiences love. When I was selling shows to networks all I ever heard was: I want a show just like… If a forensics show is a winner, in three years there will be ten on the air. The CBC buys formats like Dragon’s Den rather than take a chance on coming up with something new and unique. Thankfully there are some very smart producers and writers selling shows to the bozos who run the networks. These smart, creative people somehow manage to get the odd show by the buyers who have no understanding of the history and the craft of television making. Usually it is pure luck. Modern Family and Corner Gas are the exceptions. Sure, the nets take credit for their successes, but ask them to explain how the shows got on and you will get a lot of ums and ers. There was a time when men like Don Cameron was running CTV News and John Kennedy was buying drama at CBC that quality and creativity ruled. These men were masters of their profession. They were not followers, they were leaders and we were all better off for their leadership.

Filed under: Media Commentary, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Anchors Aweigh

Kevin Newman sent shockwaves through the Canadian television news business when he announced he is stepping down from his job anchoring Global’s early evening national newscast. It came as a surprise for many reasons, the most important of which is the fact that the audience numbers are terrific, according to Global, the highest of any national newscast.

It’s also surprising that it came so early. Many in the business have speculated that Kevin will take either the CBC job from Peter Mansbridge or the CTV anchor position from the soon to retire Lloyd Robertson. The problem is neither job is officially open or coming open for months.

Kevin’s friends swear that he is saying he really has no plans to move to CBC or CTV. He is telling them that the new digital project he is involved with is serious and it is also an opportunity to help his son who is also part of the project.

Somehow, Kevin’s statements have not blunted the speculation. I admit I too find it hard to believe that the most sought after news reader in Canada is going to walk away from the kind of job only three people in English Canada ever get to fill at the same time. It takes a very big ego to push your way to the top of the news business. Kevin not only anchors the news, like Peter Mansbridge, he insists on being managing editor. When you are so involved in all the decisions and perhaps more intoxicating, all the business and politics of the nation, it is hard to walk away. No digital job will be able to fill that void.

I, for one, believe that Newman or his agent has already been contacted by CBC, CTV or both. I have no concrete information on this, but there has been so much talk for over a year that I have to believe where there is smoke there must be fire.

The truth is Lloyd Robertson is all but gone. After the Olympics he met with CTV brass to hammer out a timetable for leaving. I know he said he wasn’t going but if you parse his statements they only say he is not leaving directly after the Olympics and he will be there for the Budget. My sources tell me he went berserk when the information that he was leaving came out. He attacked his agent, lawyer Michael Levine, who Robertson believed to be the leak. This does not sound like a man who is sticking around. It points to someone who wants to go like Kevin Newman, on his own terms and in his own way. Lloyd Robertson will not be anchoring CTV News in 2011.

Lloyd’s departure leaves CTV in a bind. They don’t have an obvious successor and the wannabe’s at CTV create political problems for management. Choose one and you upset the others. They have even discussed a dual anchor of Tom Clark and Lisa Laflamme. Kevin Newman solves all their problems.

At CBC the problem is very different. The National has been playing second fiddle to CTV News for decades. When Knowlton Nash was pushed aside for Peter Mansbridge the thinking was that Peter would provide the star power that would propel The National into the number one spot in the ratings. It has long been an embarrassment for CBC that they spend more than double the dollars on news, they have more facilities, more bureaus, more correspondents, more writers and a way larger staff, yet they are continually bested by CTV. Peter never made a dent in CTV’s armor. The difference between CTV and CBC in the ratings has never changed very much, until this past fall that is. CBC’s numbers have been worse than dismal since they adopted their new younger, flashier, purportedly more populist newscast. It’s not Mansbridge’s fault the newscast is close to unwatchable, but everyone in the business knows that change has to come soon and if younger and flashier is what CBC wants, Peter is not the flavor of the day anymore. Is Kevin Newman the right person to replace Peter? Is there anyone else?

At Global, where news has always been more of an obligation than a choice, the jockeying for Kevin Newman’s position at the anchor desk is taking on a seriously Machiavellian tone. So far there are about twenty applicants for the job. The search to replace Newman is led by Kenton Boston. Boston was appointed VP of National News by Troy Reeb when Reeb was appointed Senior VP four years ago. Reeb got the Senior VP job after he DIDN’T get the job as Kevin’s backup anchor. (fyi Reeb was a former Global National correspondent in Ottawa and Washington.) Reeb has declared his interest in replacing Newman, and is now the leading internal candidate. CanWest isn’t wasting any time and plans to make the decision within a month. So here are the big questions being whispered in all the dark corners at Global’s headquarters: as Senior VP, what is Reeb’s role in choosing Newman’s replacement? Is Reeb about to choose himself? It is not unprecedented. The last time it happened at the national level was when Knowlton Nash searched the world for a new host for The National and somehow found he was actually the best man for the job.

Filed under: Media Commentary, , , , , , , , , , ,

Read ‘em and weep…the CBC News story

We have been hearing an amazing amount of self congratulations from CBC management about how the new National is doing well or it’s on the right track. There has been a series of hero-grams sent to staff pushing them to keep up the good work. The bosses maintain that the changes in the newscast are a work in progress and that staff is busting their butts.

All this blather in spite of the fact that I have never met a single viewer who thinks the changes in the newscast were anything other than awful. In fact many media friends, including some who still work for The National tell me they have stopped watching the program. Non media friends complain about the set, Peter’s walks, the dumb reporter interviews that add nothing to show, but really, would they notice any of this if the quality of the stories and storytelling was high enough to keep them interested in the content? I suspect not.

It has been too easy to blame criticism on unhappy former employees who are disgruntled because they were pushed out. It has been too easy to point fingers at older viewers who don’t like change. It has been too easy to fall back on “it’s a work in progress” excuses. The truth is, and the numbers are all too clear, the new National is an abject failure that has not resonated with the viewing audience and worse, has turned many loyal news junkies away.

With the help of a mathematically inclined friend who has access to the ratings I put together a table that clearly shows how poorly The National is doing. But first an executive summary of our findings:

We used 70 programs (Monday-Friday) in 2009 from the beginning of January to the second week of April. The National average was about 804 thousand, while CTV News got 993 thousand.

This year, 2010, we looked at 59 programs during the same period. (The Olympics made 11 weekdays not applicable.) This time the National averaged 644 thousand, CTV News — 1257 thousand. That’s almost exactly double. Using last year’s system — if you reasonably assume CTV News didn’t gain viewers, their ratings jump can be attributed to the new people meters — that would mean that The National has averaged less than 500 thousand in 2010 using the pre-people meter numbers, a ratings fall of almost 40%! Incredible and embarrassing…

Two other small observations. Last year, there were 9 days when The National actually got higher numbers than CTV. This season, it never got close. The other thing is that we picked a period when The National‘s ratings were actually UP! If you were to look at the September-December stretch, CTV’s numbers were regularly more than double, sometimes, even triple those of CBC’s flagship news program… The numbers are even more startling than we expected.

A few more facts to ponder. During the study period in 2009 the lowest rating at CBC was 615 thousand. In 2010 the lowest rating was 451 thousand. In fact the CBC failed to reach 500 thousand viewers four times. During that same period CTV News had four nights with over 1.5 million viewers.

Here’s the actual numbers for you to ponder:
2009                                                                                              2010
Monday Jan. 5                                                                          Monday Jan. 4
CBC 681       CTV 1033                                                            CBC 553      CTV 1057
Tues. Jan. 6                                                                                Tues. Jan. 5
CBC 857     CTV987                                                                 CBC 514       CTV 1137
Wed. Jan. 7                                                                                Wed. Jan. 6
CBC 713     CTV 855                                                                 CBC 659      CTV 1268
Thurs. Jan. 8                                                                              Thurs. Jan. 7
CBC 976     CTV 986                                                                CBC 689      CTV 1147
Fri. Jan. 9                                                                                   Fri. Jan. 8
CBC 843     CTV 855                                                                CBC 547      CTV 1067
Mon. Jan. 12                                                                             Mon. Jan. 11
CBC 971     CTV 933                                                                CBC 543       CTV 1175
Tues. Jan. 13                                                                             Tues. Jan. 12
CBC 807     CTV 943                                                               CBC 733      CTV 1435
Wed. Jan. 14                                                                             Wed. Jan. 13
CBC 731     CTV 1289                                                             CBC 675      CTV 1314
Thurs. Jan. 15                                                                          Thurs. Jan. 14
CBC 719     CTV 1013                                                             CBC 729      CTV 1211
Fri. Jan. 16                                                                                Fri. Jan. 15
CBC 771     CTV 987                                                               CBC 578      CTV 1231
Mon. Jan. 19                                                                             Mon. Jan. 18
CBC 808     CTV 1119                                                              CBC 629      CTV 1140
Tues. Jan. 20                                                                            Tues. Jan. 19
CBC 1003     CTV 967                                                            CBC 667      CTV 1070
Wed. Jan. 21                                                                             Wed. Jan. 20
CBC 959     CTV 903                                                               CBC 685      CTV 1374
Thurs. Jan. 22                                                                          Thurs. Jan. 21
CBC 806     CTV 1087                                                            CBC 703      CTV 1532
Fri. Jan. 23                                                                                Fri. Jan. 22
CBC 880     CTV 929                                                               CBC 685      CTV 1327
Mon. Jan. 26                                                                             Mon. Jan. 25
CBC 928     CTV 918                                                                CBC 628      CTV 1164
Tues. Jan. 27                                                                            Tues. Jan. 26
CBC 907     CTV 926                                                               CBC 571      CTV 1195
Wed. Jan. 28                                                                            Wed. Jan. 27
CBC 907     CTV 1002                                                           CBC 640      CTV 1004
Thurs. Jan. 29                                                                         Thurs. Jan 28
CBC 909     CTV 1050                                                           CBC 678      CTV 1152
Fri. Jan. 30                                                                               Fri. Jan. 29
CBC 587     CTV 923                                                               CBC 603      CTV 1026
Mon. Feb. 2                                                                               Mon. Feb. 1
CBC 827      CTV 983                                                              CBC 528      CTV 1069
Tues. Feb. 3                                                                               Tues. Feb. 2
CBC 947     CTV 850                                                               CBC 492      CTV 1183
Wed. Feb. 4                                                                               Wed. Feb. 3
CBC 1007     CTV 907                                                           CBC 571      CTV 1477
Thurs. Feb. 5                                                                            Thurs. Feb. 4
CBC 885      CTV 1089                                                           CBC 665      CTV 1272
Fri. Feb. 6                                                                                 Fri. Feb. 5
CBC 615      CTV 694                                                              CBC 537      CTV 1000
Mon. Feb. 9                                                                              Mon. Feb. 8
CBC 805     CTV 1061                                                            CBC 670      CTV 1112
Tues. Feb. 10                                                                           Tues. Feb. 9
CBC 872     CTV 941                                                               CBC 820      CTV 1174
Wed. Feb. 11                                                                            Wed. Feb. 10
CBC 716     CTV 863                                                              CBC 791       CTV 1542
Thurs. Feb. 12                                                                        Thurs. Feb. 11
CBC 903     CTV 902                                                             CBC 669      CTV 1320
Mon. Mar. 2                                                                             Mon. Mar. 1
CBC 686     CTV 883                                                              CBC 707      CTV 1256
Tues. Mar. 3                                                                            Tues. Mar. 2
CBC 706     CTV 878                                                             CBC 451       CTV 1113
Wed. Mar. 4                                                                             Wed. Mar. 3
CBC 809     CTV 996                                                             CBC 550      CTV 1248
Thurs. Mar. 5                                                                         Thurs. Mar. 4
CBC 828     CTV 994                                                            CBC 666       CTV 1272
Fri. Mar. 6                                                                               Fri. Mar. 5
CBC 731     CTV 909                                                             CBC 492      CTV 1268
Mon. Mar. 9                                                                            Mon. Mar. 8
CBC 658     CTV 1108                                                           CBC 623      CTV 1350
Tues. Mar. 10                                                                         Tues. Mar. 9
CBC 833     CTV 1023                                                          CBC 645      CTV 1426
Wed. Mar. 11                                                                          Wed. Mar. 10
CBC 832     CTV 1273                                                          CBC 709      CTV 1618
Thurs. Mar. 12                                                                      Thurs. Mar. 11
CBC 728     CTV 1045                                                         CBC 669       CTV 1663
Fri. Mar. 13                                                                            Fri. Mar. 12
CBC 727     CTV 881                                                            CBC 551      CTV 1269
Mon. Mar. 16                                                                         Mon. Mar. 15
CBC 742     CTV 940                                                           CBC 705      CTV 1481
Tues. Mar. 17                                                                        Tues. Mar. 16
CBC 754     CTV 974                                                           CBC 548      CTV 1456
Wed. Mar. 18                                                                        Wed. Mar. 17
CBC 953     CTV 1141                                                         CBC 714      CTV1382
Thurs. Mar. 19                                                                     Thurs. Mar. 18
CBC 933     CTV 1221                                                         CBC 778      CTV 1374
Fri. Mar. 20                                                                          Fri. Mar. 19
CBC 623     CTV 898                                                          CBC 595       CTV 1161
Mon. Mar. 23                                                                      Mon. Mar. 22
CBC 837     CTV 1107                                                       CBC 635      CTV 1308
Tues. Mar. 24                                                                      Tues. Mar. 23
CBC 875     CTV 1027                                                       CBC 462      CTV 1341
Wed. Mar. 25                                                                       Wed. Mar. 24
CBC 826     CTV 1162                                                         CBC 778      CTV 1240
Thurs. Mar. 26                                                                    Thurs. Mar. 25
CBC 900     CTV 1110                                                        CBC 722      CTV 1238
Fri. Mar. 27                                                                          Fri. Mar. 26
CBC 735     CTV 882                                                          CBC 545      CTV 1101
Mon. Mar. 30                                                                      Mon. Mar. 29
CBC 680     CTV 1097                                                       CBC 936       CTV 1119
Tues. Mar. 31                                                                      Tues. Mar. 30
CBC 930     CTV 921                                                          CBC 645       CTV 1219
Wed. Apr. 1                                                                         Wed. Mar. 31
CBC 849     CTV 1025                                                      CBC 634       CTV 1347

It is pretty obvious from the numbers, The National is getting killed since the new format kicked in. Only five times in three months did the newscast have higher ratings than one year earlier, this even though the people meters have buoyed the numbers of all the big networks. Only once did the rating approach the million mark, this was after the second night of the Don Cherry movie. All in all, a most dismal showing. At this point it is fair to question the changes made at The National and the people responsible for those changes. Anywhere else in the real world the people behind this sort of failure would be looking for new jobs.

Filed under: Media Commentary, , ,

Where was the News?

After seventeen glorious days the Olympics have come to an end. In Canada all seems right with the world. We won the most gold medals ever and of course, maybe more importantly, we won gold in hockey. The universe has unfolded as it should, at least north of the 49th parallel.

I will resist the inclination to heap too much more praise on the Olympic broadcasters. I thought they did a great job, some of you have had very specific complaints, I would characterize them as niggles. All I will say is that no Olympics has ever had total coverage in high definition of all the sports from all the venues. The fact that you had to be a subscriber to many of the channels is not the consortium’s fault. It was made clear from the time CTV, Rogers, APTN etcetera won the right to cover the games that events would appear on all the various and sundry channels that came under the consortium’s umbrella. If you did have access to all the channels you could choose to see every event live and in its entirety. That is a massive technological feat and one that was delivered as promised.

Where there was a major failure was with CTV and The Globe and Mail’s coverage of actual news during the Olympics. It’s one thing to be a shill, as former CBC News and NPR boss Jeffery Dvorkin points out, this is normal. Broadcasters always hype their own events. But that’s not what I’m talking about. I am referring to CTV News going seventeen days without a proper newscast. Five minutes of Lloyd at 11 p.m. give or take ten minutes depending on what Olympic event was finishing or starting is abysmal enough. Worse, on most nights, the five minutes of news provided by CTV was taken up by three minutes of what Brian Williams had just told us about the Olympic results.

CTV can have no excuse for ignoring the news of the world. On most days because of poor weather and built in extra days to make up for bad weather, there were long stretches where nothing was going on. Brian Williams was called on many times to fill airtime when there was no event to throw to.

Further still, there are two TSNs, four Rogers Sportsnets, APTN, Much Music and more channels that were available to pick up 30 minutes of slack per day while CTV provided a decent newscast.

Over at The Globe and Mail the editors decided that if you can’t beat them join them. Day after day the news was discarded for more Olympic stories. The front section never had more than three pages of non-Olympic news…oh, unless you consider three pages of sports news tacked onto the end of the front section most days.

The Globe insists it is Canada’s national newspaper. In that case doesn’t it have a duty to cover more events in Canada and the world than the self-sponsored and self-owned Olympic coverage? If a huge non-Olympic story took place in the last two and one-half weeks I defy a Globe reader or a CTV viewer to identify it. Can’t. They just don’t know about it.

For two media, newspapers and television, that are supposed to be hard hit by the new media they showed no understanding of their precarious situation. Any news junkie who cared was forced to scour the internet for news. Some of those people will have found new sources for their news content and won’t readily return to The Globe or CTV. Only this time CTVglobemedia will have no one to blame but themselves. One question though, what did all the news reporters do for the past two weeks? A paid holiday in the south I hope.

On a completely different note, I do hope my non-Toronto readers will forgive me a short rant. Last week one of the most popular broadcasters in Toronto left his show. Andy Barrie had hosted the morning show on CBC radio for decades and he was a major success story. In a crowded market he was number one. Quite a feat for him personally and for CBC Radio. Andy was not my cup of tea, I found him soft in a crunchy granola, Birckenstock kind of way, but I was always impressed by his popularity and success.

In other words, he will be very hard act to follow. Matt Galloway, Andy’s replacement has been an excellent host of the 4 to 6 show in Toronto. Unfortunately for Matt he is replacing an icon. That’s a difficult job under any circumstances. Matt has to know that he will continually be compared to Andy by a listenership that has been loyal to Andy for a very long time. So what do the brilliant producers of the morning show do? After a week of long goodbyes and tributes to Andy Barrie, the idiots at CBC radio bring Andy back for an encore and an even longer goodbye on Matt’s first show. This is lunacy. Why can’t the bozos at CBC Radio let go?

Matt Galloway should have been given a clean start to his own show, an opportunity to make the morning show his own. Ted Koppel didn’t show up on Nightline on the next show after he retired, Walter Cronkite didn’t return for a bow on CBS Evening News, Johnny Carson didn’t return to show up Jay Leno, Harvey Kirk and Knowlton Nash didn’t come back to haunt Peter and Lloyd. This sort of thing is just not done. It’s unseemly. Andy should have known better. The producers should have known better. The fact that it happened speaks to a dysfunctional CBC.

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End of an era at CTV?

Every once in a while I hear something that’s impossible for me to confirm. Last week someone who works with CTV told me something that will be big news in Canadian television if it is true. It took me dozens of calls to many of the people I know and trust to attempt to confirm the story. I totally trust my initial source but I needed a second source to be able to publish. In the end I was told a similar story by two more people but nobody could confirm the details. So here goes, I am publishing the story as a very trustworthy rumor not a certain fact.

It seems the CTV Olympic coverage has resulted in a major casualty for the network. Lloyd Robertson has gone to CTV brass and told them the workload is too onerous. It seems he would have preferred not to travel to Vancouver and not to anchor the Olympic news coverage. At 76 years old, even though Lloyd seems to be in great shape, he’s finding the travel and the workload difficult.

I am told he has called for a meeting with the CTV bosses that will take place on March 3rd. At this meeting he is expected to resign his post as the CTV News anchor.

CTV is preparing for the loss of “Canada’s most trusted news anchor.” Insiders say the network will replace Lloyd with a two-person desk. It seems they cannot make up their minds as to whether Tom Clark or Lisa Laflamme should be Lloyd’s replacement. So the two will share Lloyd’s duties for the foreseeable future. The way it was described to me it will be a sort of contest. The news reader that the audience responds to will eventually take over the sole anchor position, the loser will go back to reporting.

Lloyd Robertson, Peter Mansbridge and Kevin Newman all signed two year contracts at about the same time a year and a half ago. Lloyd’s early departure could take CTV out of the Kevin Newman sweepstakes. Rumors have been around for years that both CBC and CTV want Kevin Newman as their replacement. Kevin is doing a great job at Global but let’s face it, there is little room for growth there and the new owners, if the sale of Canwest Global goes through, Shaw, are known more for saving money, than spending money. The end of the Asper era could be just impetus needed to have Kevin jump ship. Unfortunately for CTV though, Lloyd would have to stay on until Kevin’s contract runs out. Can they convince Lloyd to stay until the fall?

So if the plan goes ahead as described to me, Lloyd will be gone very soon.

Let’s look at the two in house contenders. Lisa Laflamme was a wonderful reporter in a small newsroom in Kitchener before she joined CTV. I knew her work well. In fact I tried to hire her when I ran Global News only to be rebuffed by an idiotic Vice President who didn’t like her hair. CTV got her instead and she has flourished. She has covered major events around the world doing the same excellent work that she was known for in Kitchener. She has also been a better than adequate fill-in news reader for Lloyd and Sandie Rinaldo. A few years ago she was considered Lloyd’s heir apparent but something happened to change CTV’s opinion. Well it seems Lisa has recovered enough to be considered again.

Tom Clark came from CFTO in Toronto where he was John Bassett’s chief political reporter. This meant he had to take a strong Conservative line to keep his job. For many media insiders his excellent work was overshadowed by his politics. When CTV took over the station Tom was freed from his political straightjacket. He too has flourished. He has reported mainly from Ottawa and Washington where his work has been excellent. He has also been a regular fill-in for Lloyd and has done that anchoring job well too.

So why is CTV so hesitant about these two fine journalists? I guess the feeling is Lloyd is a tough act to follow. It takes years to develop the kind of audience loyalty Lloyd has been able to deliver. The fear of making the wrong choice seems to be greater than the ability to make the right choice.

Over the years there have been other favorites to replace Lloyd. I remember when everyone thought Keith Morrison was the obvious successor. He was the weekend anchor and hugely popular. He went on to host Canada AM and The Journal before leaving for a reporting career at NBC.

In Toronto many assumed that Ken Shaw would replace Lloyd. Ken is probably the most successful anchor in local Toronto television history. The Toronto audience loves him the way the country loves Lloyd. His newscasts have always led in the ratings. But I have never heard a serious discussion that Ken would take over at the network. In fact I don’t remember a single time that he has ever hosted a national program.

In the end there is only one thing for certain at CTV, the next CTV News anchor will not be an announcer like Lloyd Robertson. Lloyd’s replacement, or replacements will have a background in journalism, and this at least, will be a good thing no matter who gets the job.

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Weekend Update

The Olympics start today and that’s great news for anyone who has attempted to watch CTV for the past three months. Hopefully when the coverage starts the endless repetitious promos stop. CTV has managed to make me tired of the Olympics before they have even started.

More good news, CTV News and The Globe and Mail actually covered what could be called negative, and dare I say newsworthy, Olympic stories this week. There was one item on the search for doping athletes and another item on the possibility, or as some may think, the probability, of more cheating by figure skating judges.

Let’s not get too excited though. CTV News and The Globe have not stopped shilling. Page three in The Globe still belongs to the interminable in-house torch relay. CTV stars and management along with Globe reporters still get their cute white uniforms and moment in the sun while former Olympic gold medalists like Kerrin Lee Gartner are still shut out. Heavens, Lloyd Robertson found five minutes on a heavy news day to interview his co-hosts for the opening ceremonies, Brian Williams and Catriona Lemay Doan. The special insights they offered were that Canadian athletes are ready to win some medals and that our days as genial Olympic hosts are over. That took up more than 20 percent of a national newscast.

Jeffrey Dvorkin, who was an important player at CBC News for years before going to the states to head up NPR (National Public Radio) News, reminds us that CBC also oversold the games when they had the broadcast rights. I was at CBC for the Calgary games and at CTV for the Montreal games but I don’t remember this much over the top, unabashed and unashamed selling ever going on.

Is it only me and cynical types like me that are turned off by so much hype? I hope not. I’d like to think my reaction is fairly representative of the audience at large. In any case, now that the actual games have started we can all cheer for our favorites and begin to forget the excesses of the Canadian Olympic broadcast consortium.

As if the end of the Olympic promos was not enough good news, CBC this week finally acted by chopping half of Mark Kelley’s abysmal CBCNN program, Connected with Mark Kelley. While I am certain that most Canadians would have far preferred complete cancellation, we will have to make do with the show being cut from two hours to one hour. A new producer was hired to run the show and perhaps to make sense of ludicrous format that depended on news nobody else cared enough about to air. It is my guess that CBC will eventually kill Connected when they can figure out a way to walk away from the show without losing too much face. The CBC brain trust also has to figure out what to do with the likable host who is responsible for creating the worst news and current affairs show on Canadian television.

In the meantime I hope the brass are going back to the same focus groups who told them they didn’t care for Connected to find out that CBCNN’s morning fare needs a lot of help. Heather Hiscox, Anne-Marie Mediwake and Suhana Meharchand are not helping viewership with their rehashes of yesterday’s news coupled with rip and read wire copy stories. If you are sick in bed and have run out of the kind of cold medicine that makes you drowsy, mornings on CBCNN are the perfect way to induce sleep.

People, CBC types, I don’t, or at least shouldn’t have to tell you: a television program needs content to attract viewers. Three or four hours of the next best thing to dead air doesn’t sell TV’s.

So incrementally it’s been a darn good week, meaning that progress has been made. It’s not time to celebrate yet but it is time to be optimistic that some sense may be beginning to return to Canadian broadcast journalism. At least I hope that’s the case.

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Gemini Joke

“It’s a juried award, which means that a volunteer group screens all the entries and decides on the nominees. That jury has a lot of power, and a lot of sway, and depending how it’s made up, you can favor certain things, favor your friends, or fulfill vendettas, say what you will.”

That’s a quote from my friend Denis McGrath’s highly popular blog,  Dead things on sticks. He’s lamenting the state of the Gemini Awards, especially in light of the snub to Corner Gas. Zero nominations for the most popular Canadian comedy show ever.

Denis is too nice a guy and too committed to Canadian television to say the obvious. The Gemini Awards are a joke. The industry should join most Canadians and ignore the TV show and the process.

Yes there are a lot of very worthy winners and terrific programs honored. All Canadians should both recognize and laud the quality television that is produced in this country. Heck, I’m a Gemini winner myself. But the Geminis are far too political and far too based on friendships and network loyalties to be taken seriously as awards of excellence.

I have two stories that speak to the ‘bull’ that the Geminis are:

When I was news director at Global I was on the jury for the best news program and the best news anchor. I was on the panel with someone from CBC, Tim Kotcheff from CTV and one other jury member. We watched the tapes from across Canada and honestly discussed the quality and value of each program we viewed. So far so good.

Then the trouble started. CTV did not enter Lloyd Robertson for nomination. I didn’t enter any of the Global anchors either. It soon became obvious that Peter Mansbridge would win the Gemini by default. Tim Kotcheff immediately protested. He demanded Lloyd be nominated. But you didn’t put him up for nomination, he was told. Kotcheff said he didn’t care. Further, he said if Lloyd was not nominated he would pull CTV out of the award show and the process. Of course everyone backed down and nominated Lloyd. I then demanded Thalia Assuras’ nomination. A whole lot of deserving anchors who were entered were shut out of any chance for recognition. In truth Thalia and Lloyd did nothing special that year. They did not deserve the nomination. That didn’t matter. It never does. Oh, by-the-way, Peter Mansbridge won the award. It was a foregone conclusion. He would have won whether he deserved it or not. He hadn’t made very many enemies yet and thus as the CBC nominee it was a lock. You see, CBC had about two out of three voters in the academy. CBC won everything in those days. That’s why CTV News boycotts the awards to this day.

The second story is even more curious. About a decade later I was jury chair for the best long form news story category, my description, not the category title. The CBC’s Terrence McKenna and Alex Shprintsen had done brilliant work finding ties to Al Qaida and Islamic terrorism in Canada after 9-11. Their piece was masterful, both great journalism and wonderful TV. Our panel of five looked at all the pieces sent in for nomination and as usual discussed each item as we saw it. Every single member of the jury stated openly that the McKenna/Shprintsen piece was head-and-shoulders above anything else we saw. It was clear the piece could not lose. That year the jury vote counted for 60 or 70 percent towards the award. I don’t remember which amount is correct. It does not matter though. Even at 60 percent if all the panelists agree on the best program the voters cannot override their choice. I left thinking I knew which news item had won months before the award ceremony.

Guess what? The McKenna/Shprintsen piece did not win. That means at least one, probably two or more jury members voted against the piece they openly professed to be the best by far. Why did they do this? I will never know because it’s a secret ballot by the jury. But Denis McGrath’s quote at the top describes some of the possible reasons.

I’m sure some Gemini panels are more honest than others. Some winners are most deserving. But as long as the process allows politics, friendships and network loyalty to play as large a role as the quality of the television programs they are judging and nominating, the Geminis will continue to exclude shows like Corner Gas, it will continue to make it more difficult for non-CBC shows to win, and it will make it almost impossible for excellent small market programs, producers and on-air personalities to be rewarded. In short the Geminis will continue to be a joke to those in the know and an afterthought for the Canadian television audience.

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Hewitt’s Law

I just returned from over a week in the U.S. Pacific Northwest. The weather was great. The scenery was beautiful. The company was amazing. The only negative was trying to watch TV. The current coverage of Obama’s healthcare reforms is enough to drive even the most hardened news junkie away from the television. American networks are dropping the ball big time. They are not delivering the facts. They are allowing falsehood after falsehood to make it to air with little or no comment. If I worked for news at CBS, NBC, ABC, or CNN I would be hanging my head in shame and telling the people I met that I was an accountant.

But that’s not what I want to talk about: the poor coverage of healthcare reform is just a jumping off point to talk about Don Hewitt. Hewitt was one of the creators of television news and current affairs. We all know him for 60 Minutes but he goes back a long way before that. He produced Walter Cronkite on CBS Evening News and Edward R. Murrow before that. He wrote the very vocabulary that television journalism uses and he did it from scratch. There was no TV news before Hewitt.

Lucky for all of us who have followed in his footsteps in broadcast journalism, he set the standards.

I wonder what he would say if he watched tonight’s evening newscasts in the U.S.? I think I know. He would wonder what happened to the story telling. Why are the reporters dealing with issues and not telling stories about people. What about the story of a working class family that can’t afford health insurance? Where’s the story about the middle class dad who’s afraid of losing his company-paid-for insurance? How about the couple on Medicare or Medicaid, government programs, telling us how well or how poorly these programs work for them? Those are just a few of the possibilities.

You see, the true genius of Don Hewitt was his understanding of three small things that every broadcast journalist should know without thinking. They should be automatic – like breathing. They were the backbone of all Don Hewitt accomplished and stood for and they are deceptively simple.

The first is to “tell me a story.” It was his mantra. When you wanted to get something on the air he demanded this simple act from you, the ability to tell an interesting story. What is more basic in broadcasting? Nothing. If you are not a story teller you should not be a journalist. In fact, if you are not a story teller you should not work in TV, radio or film. The ability to weave a tale that will grab the viewer’s attention and hold it is the singular most important craft that we have to perfect to do our jobs. When the powers that be are weeding out applicants for jobs that’s all they should look for. We can teach the rest. Cameras, edit suites, microphones…these are just the tools we use. We can learn how to use them in one year of community college. Story telling…that’s innate, something you are born with.
Don Hewitt’s second rule is even more abused by modern broadcast journalists than his first. He demanded that every story be entertaining. He realized immediately upon joining CBS TV in the late 1940’s that television is an entertainment medium. People don’t turn on their TV to watch the news, they turn it on to see House, CSI and Family Guy. Go ahead, ask your neighbors what their favorite TV show is. None will say it is the news, I guarantee it. Even though this is more important today in the 200 channel universe it appears to be less understood.

When I worked at CBC News they were upset with me for telling my staff to make their stories entertaining. I had to come up with a new description the bosses would accept. I called for “engaging” stories. Today’s newscasts are anything but entertaining. The CBC is the worst offender and the changes they are talking about threaten to squeeze the last bits of entertainment from their newscasts. They don’t seem to understand that their competition is not CTV News and CBS News, it is CSI Miami and Law and Order. Even the 6:30 U.S. newscasts are going up against reruns of NCIS and 2 ½ Men. To Don Hewitt this was obvious.

Finally, Hewitt understood that people do not relate to issues, they relate to people. He demanded that his reporters and producers put a human face on every story. It seems simple and obvious to me as it did to Don Hewitt but I still see story after story on the news that deals with the issues of the healthcare debate without telling me how they affect a single human being. Why should I care about the deficit? Why do we have to help the banks stay afloat? There are real people, Americans, who are affected by what government does. Who is telling their stories?

Don Hewitt’s three simple rules should be the first thing we teach journalism students. They should be automatically understood by everyone who works in TV and radio news. Sadly they are not. In fact we are losing our acceptance of these basic rules. Just watch the news and you will see.

Like all great artists Don Hewitt’s genius was his understanding of the simple truths, the basics, and he never strayed from that. Even though I never met the man I am sad that he is gone. We need his wisdom more than ever. I’m afraid we will miss him more than we will ever know.

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Dishonest News Practices

For the most part newscasters, reporters and news producers spend a lot of time and effort trying to be accurate, clear and informative. As in all professions some do it better than others but it is important to understand that contrary to much of what the public thinks the people involved in making a newscast want their stories to be honest and fair.

That being said there is one Canadian television news practice that throws the honesty down the drain in an effort to look “Canadian.” Worst of all it is a practice that regularly comes out of our two most trusted news operations, CBC and CTV.

What I’m referring to is the ridiculous lengths to which Canadian network news will go to pretend they have reporters on the scene all over the world. It happens mostly on weekends but I have seen it every day of the week. A foreign correspondent, usually in London or Washington, will be asked by the desk to file a report on a story they did not cover.

I’ll make up an example to show you how it works. There is a train crash in Italy. Dozens are dead and many more are injured. CBC and CTV do not have reporters in Italy but this is a big story. The desk in Toronto calls the reporter in London and tells him or her they need the story. I’m sure you think that means flying off to Italy. No it does not. It means picking up the story from BBC News and or ITV News in London. Then the reporter strips the voice-over, the British reporter’s script, from the report and replaces it with their own voice, many times not even bothering to rewrite the script. The only thing the Canadian reporter produces is the closing stand-up, that’s the part where the reporter is seen on camera talking to the audience. That’s tacked on to the end and guess what? It looks like CBC or CTV had a reporter covering the story.

The producers will tell you the reporter signs off from London therefore there is no inaccuracy involved. That’s just semantics. The practice is a deliberate attempt to deceive the viewing public. And for what reason? What’s wrong with running the BBC report? Do we not trust the BBC to get it right? Of course not. If we didn’t trust them we wouldn’t use their story. It’s showbiz. Look, they are saying, we are covering the world. We are great big news organizations with a worldwide reach. But they are not. CBC and CTV are very small potatoes in the news world.

CBC takes the “Canadianization” of its news to the ludicrous. They will not run any American or British stories. What they will do is take U.S. and BBC news and cut it up and have it voiced over by Peter Mansbridge or whoever is filling in for him. That’s okay if it’s not an important story but Canadians are missing out on the details of major news stories because it looks bad to run a BBC or NBC story on a Canadian newscast. It’s nuts.

Ask a news viewer whether he or she would rather get a complete story produced by the BBC or a half-baked re-cut produced by CBC and you and I know what the answer will be. Why bother to watch the news if you don’t get all the news? I believe the CBC owes the viewer the best newscast it can produce and if that means the coverage of Iran has to come from a BBC or NBC reporter, so be it. Unless the CBC can produce a better story, which without a reporter on the ground is impossible, run the damn BBC story.

I’m as patriotic about Canada as anyone in this country but I don’t know what the Canadian angle is on the election and post-election rioting in Iran. If the CBC wants to follow a BBC story with reaction from the Canadian Prime Minister and the Iranian community in Toronto that’s great, but let me see the whole news item from Teheran in its original form. It won’t diminish me as a Canadian, it will help me understand what is going on 10,000 miles from where I live. I will thank The National not think less of them.

I would love to know where this idea, that we can’t show foreign produced pieces on our national newscast, came from. When I worked in news, CBC regularly ran NBC and even CNN items. I don’t remember hearing or reading a single complaint from the viewers. In fact, CBC’s ratings were much higher then.

CTV is guilty of the some of the same practices but not the religious zeal that takes them to crazy ends. CTV News does, however, have its own form of dishonesty. They lop off the U.S. stand up and cover all the American news logos with their own so we don’t know it’s an American produced item. Why? Like I said, showbiz.

CBC, CTV I’ve got some news for you: serious Canadian news viewers want their news unadulterated. They don’t want the abridged version we are getting. Showbiz is okay so long as it doesn’t interfere with the quality of what you are delivering. It’s time for Canadian news producers to grow up, Canadian news viewers did a long time ago.

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About the Author

Howard Bernstein is a former TV producer. He has worked at CBC,CTV, Global and has produced shows for most Canadian channels as an independent producer.

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