I'm Mad as Hell

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and I can't do a thing about it

Debate This!

I know I’m not the first person to say this, but the time has come to take election debates out of the hands of broadcasters and the political parties. There are just too many impediments to organizing a fair and workable set of debates that would serve the electorate as opposed to the party leaders and the broadcast schedulers.

I have been a delegate in the discussions of two political debates in my time in the news. What I saw from the inside is what I expect is still going on, that is: the party leaders dictating acceptable format based on their own needs, good debaters want more chance to debate, poor debaters want to limit direct discussion between the leaders, incumbents want as few debates as they can get away with, everyone wants to exclude the weakest parties, especially if they have an excellent debater as a leader (Elizabeth May being the obvious example). It is all extremely self-serving and the voter’s needs have never in my experience, ever been a factor in creating the rules.

Worse still, the party leaders never object to using blackmail to get their way. If you don’t provide the limits they want they threaten to not take part. In a sane world this would be ignored by the broadcasters. They would hold the debates exactly as they want because they are paying the freight. But television executives are basically cowards. They live in fear of losing access to one or more of the leaders. The CBC fears the loss of funding. They fear a public backlash from supporters of a leader who refused to take part. They chase after the idea of fairness and balance which can only be proven by having all the leaders attend. So inevitably they give in to every demand by every party leader. This is a recipe for the blandest of debates and the least amount of light and electricity. Canadian political debates are designed by the sitting Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition to provide the least amount opportunity for failure, the least amount of opportunity for real debate and the smallest chance of getting into any substantial discussion of the important issues. Oh, and you are never allowed to call out a leader for refusing to answer the question or fudging his or her remarks.

As if the party leaders don’t go about screwing it up enough, the broadcasters for their part, show little or no interest in developing any real debate. When I have been a part of the discussion almost ninety percent of the meeting time has been taken up by finding the absolute right time to hold the debate. For the networks, that means staying away from their top shows. Global would rather not lose a new episode of House, CTV can’t possibly lose an episode of Canadian Idol, CBC will not allow the debate to interfere with the hockey playoffs. I never heard any discussion about the best time for the voters.

Of the remaining ten percent of the discussion, most of the time is spent on venue and who will be the host broadcaster. As if that makes a difference to anyone. Global, CTV, CBC can all provide studios if needed. They all have excellent crews and directors to pull the debate off. Since the costs are shared, I say who cares. Time discussing this stuff is wasted time. You could choose the broadcaster and the venue by lots and it would make no difference to any of us.

This time the broadcast consortium claims to have decided that Elizabeth May should not take part. I wonder. Since the deals were done behind closed doors we’ll never know. I saw the party leaders in my time claim that they had no say in a decision that was forced on the broadcasters. The broadcasters had to keep mum and the leaders took the high road. Who’s to say whether this was the case with the Green Party in this election?

The time has come to take the rules, the timing and the venue of the election debates out of the hands of the broadcasters and the party leaders. They have too much at stake to make decisions that are beneficial to the electorate. It would be great if we had a U.S. style commission to make the decisions. I loved it when the League of Women Voters ran the debates in the United States.

An independent group should be charged with creating the rules free from political interference. The rules should be set long before an election is called. When the rules are announced and the dates are chosen, the networks will have the option of covering the debate or not. I bet they will all be there no matter the rules and the time slot. The party leaders can opt out I suppose, but once again I will bet that no party leader will ever not join the debate, the political fallout would be far too costly.

Maybe then, we could actually have serious debates (I mean several during every election period) with rules that serve us all: rules that allow the leaders to take each other on; rules that allow for rebuttal and argument; rules that allow deeper discussion of the most important issues.

I can dream, can’t I?

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

Playing with numbers

Everybody is right and everybody is wrong. It sounds impossible but in the crazy world of broadcast television anything is possible. Just ask the spinners at the Canadian networks about their ratings and watch the numbers fly.

Right now we are in the midst of a massive self congratulatory period where the Canadian nets are taking to the podia to proclaim the major successes they have had over the past year. The ratings are amazing, it’s true, almost everybody’s numbers are way up. But, and it’s a big but, does that mean that there are more people watching the fare offered by CTV, Global and CBC?

To me the answer is obvious. In a world where network TV audiences have been declining for a decade or more it is hard to believe that there has been anything broadcast in the 2009-2010 television season to change the trend. Sure there have been some hits, there always are. The real reason for the numbers rising is the new counting method. This is the first television year for the new PPMs (personal people meters). These pager-like devices are worn by people and report back to companies like Neilson on what viewers are actually watching. It is clear that this is a much better system than asking someone to fill in a questionnaire where he or she could lie, forget, not bother or just plain ignore their viewing choices. On the other hand, the PPM measures what’s on the TV if you are in the room, not whether you are actually watching it. For my generation that doesn’t mean much. Put a 60 year old in front of a television and we’ll watch color bars for twenty minutes. Young people, however, are a different breed. They can be on the computer, listening to an ipod and still have the TV tuned to the hockey game. What they are actually watching or listening to is anybody’s guess. So while I accept that the new numbers are more accurate, I don’t believe they are truly accurate.

For CTV and Global the results are just about money. The more viewers they have, the more they can charge for commercial time. That’s great. Even without the new TV tax it should mean a windfall in ad revenues for this year and in the future. The Olympic numbers were staggering. On some occasions there were close to 15 million Canadians watching. Put in perspective, Canada’s best ever rated shows before this year were in the 5 to 6 million range. Over at Global shows like Survivor and House are doing gangbuster business. If we are lucky, and I wouldn’t hold my breath, maybe a few of these extra dollars might find themselves funneled into new Canadian content…in prime time.

The CBC, as usual is a different story, Kirstine (Layfield) Stewart and company are fighting for both the future of the people’s network and for the proof that the choices they made back in 2007 are the right ones.

The critics, and I am one of them, claim the CBC has dumbed down. They have dropped cultural programming, they have stopped producing gritty, real drama, and they have clearly begun a love affair with reality and fluff. Most upsetting to me is what they have done to news and current affairs. The Fifth Estate has been relegated to the dead zone of Friday night. The National has become the national joke for its lack of content and its ridiculous new set. The Nature of Things and Marketplace have been shuffled around more than a deck of cards on poker night. There is, it is clear, no backing for anything that could be deemed serious.

I am not the only one saying these things. In a Globe story Ken Finkleman and others have gone out of their way to question the direction of mother corp. These are people who in past times depended on the CBC for their livelihood.

The answer according to Ms. Stewart: check out the ratings. The CBC is thriving with Little Mosque on the Prairie, Dragon’s Den, and 18 to Life.

So here is where it is true and it is wrong at the same time happens. Yes the numbers are up. Six CBC shows have over 1 million viewers (one of which is Jeopardy). Thank you PPMs. It is also true that the corp doesn’t have a single show in the top 20 in Canada. The hockey playoffs will nudge Hockey Night in Canada into the top 20 but that will be it. Battle of the Blades and Dragon’s Den are certifiable CBC hits. But even with the PPMs, The Ron James Show, 18 to Life, Being Erica, Kids in the Hall and Little Mosque can be described as ratings losers. None reach much over half a million viewers with the best ad campaigns and the best time slots. The Fifth and Marketplace are in the same audience range without any ads and in schedule purgatory.

So when Ms. Stewart finishes patting herself on the back for her brilliance, remember that CTV is doing much better with Canadian programming and even Global is overpowering the CBC numbers. You see everything is relative in the world of TV ratings and people like Stewart are the first to use the numbers to their own advantage even when they are meaningless.

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

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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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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