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and I can't do a thing about it

The CBC Shuffle – Not a new dance show.

The CBC and especially CBC Newsworld are in the midst of shuffling their staff, both on air and behind the scenes. I have spoken to half-a-dozen news and current affairs staffers at “the Corpse” and cannot find a single person who can figure out what’s going on. In fact, they are being told by their bosses that they too have no idea what the plan is. What everyone seems to agree on is that the CBC has discovered CNN and now wants to recreate itself as some sort of northern reincarnation.

Why CNN? Because they’ve had great ratings for their “all news” channel for well over a year. As always at the CBC, there is no point in creating something new when you can steal ideas from someone else. It feels like almost every new CBC show for almost a decade has been purloined from successful British or American formats, think, The Greatest Canadian, Triple Threat, Antiques Road Show, do I have to go on.

This plan, CNN North, is doomed to failure if ratings are the sole reason for the changes. First let’s look at why CNN has had such a great eighteen months: it’s been the best damn news year since 1945. Obama versus Clinton, Obama’s presidential campaign and the collapse of the economy have kept even those least interested in the news glued to their televisions. CNN was going to have a great year whether they did a wonderful job or not. In fact CBC News had a great year, so why change?

CNN’s other success has been in putting together one of the strongest “all news” on-air rosters of talent anywhere, what they like to call “the best news team on television.” Stars, whether we think they deserve to be or not, like John Roberts in the morning, Lou Dobbs in the evening, and Anderson Cooper and Campbell Brown at night, CNN has hosts you love or you love to hate. Either way you want to watch them.

Who does the CBC have? Does Carole MacNeil really have the kind of star qualities it will take to win viewers away from House or CSI? I think not. Is Evan Solomon going to be “must see TV” from Parliament Hill? I hope so, but I fear not.

From my perspective there are only two on air hosts with the ability to be stars who are left at CBC: Wendy Mesley and Linden MacIntyre – and so far neither are being mentioned as Newsworld stars and further, both have other jobs they seem to like and excel at. You may disagree. You may even have a few more – or different  – on-air ideas that appeal to you but you have to agree the CBC does not have a lot of bench strength.

It would have been very different a decade and more ago when the CBC was crawling with talented interesting news people. Mike Duffy immediately comes to mind. He had what people in the business call “TVQ”: star quality. Joe Schlessinger was a reporter you could trust. Jason Moscovitz was memorable and unique. Brian Stewart had gravitas. Don Newman made himself one of the deans of Ottawa journalism. They also had Wendy Mesley, Linden MacIntyre, Pamela Wallin, and even Knowlton Nash. Not to be hard on Carole MacNeil and Evan Solomon who are talented hosts, but compare them to the names I came up with. Right! No comparison.

How did this happen? How did CBC News become so devoid of exciting and interesting people? In fact, where are the great or even good reporters?

Take away Terry Milewski today and few of the remaining CBC reporters would have even been considered for a national reporting job, let alone a hosting job, just a few years back. Today’s CBC reporters go from the incompetent to at best, adequate. Personality is no longer a prerequisite, it seems CBC News sees being interesting and exciting to watch as a detriment. Where are the Dan Bjarnasons and Patrick Browns? The guys you knew as soon as you heard their voice or saw them on TV.

Finally, the CBC shuffle is about speed, they say, about getting the news on the air fast, whether on Newsworld or the main network. This is a great thing to aim for. It’s something other networks have always done.

When I was at CTV News in the ‘70s and got the first interview with the just inaugurated Jimmy Carter for Canada AM it ran on the National News first. When Craig Oliver broke the story of the Canadians hiding the American Embassy staff in Teheran and helping them to escape Iran it ran on Canada AM, the first available news program. We are told that at CBC you have to save your scoop for The National thus taking the chance that another network will get the story on the air first. Consider, this is decades after Newsworld has been created.

In any case it’s the CBC’s intention to end this lunacy at least. Okay, that’s good.  But, being CNN and acting and reacting with speed takes money. CNN has reporters, stringers and deals with international reporters all over the world and the United States. How will CBC cover a breaking story in a place they have no reporter? I’m afraid they will do it the way they always have: get someone on the phone, buy some BBC footage and get a reporter to the scene within three days. That’s not speed. If you want to be CNN you have to be everywhere. That takes big bucks by CBC standards. Are the powers that be prepared to increase the CBC News budget? On the contrary, they are looking for cuts. They are nickel and diming the flagship service at the same time they are talking about a grandiose shuffle.

Don’t bet the farm on the success of the changes at CBC News and be prepared in six months or a year for the same-old-same-old. You all remember Prime Time News. Perhaps you don’t. It lasted a minute or two before the news moved back to ten and a few sacrificial lambs were axed.

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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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