I'm Mad as Hell

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and I can't do a thing about it

Bland on Bland

The other day I was reading an article in one of the newspapers that was basically an interview with the U.S. actor with the highest TVQ on television. TVQ is another name for star quality. An actor the viewers respond to positively. In this case they respond more positively than any other actor regularly seen on television. It was a big surprise to me, and unless you read the same piece, it will be a big surprise to you too. It’s Pauley Perrette. She plays the tall goth scientific investigator on NCIS. With her crazy clothes, spider web tattoos and huge platform shoes it is hard to believe that the character she plays, let alone the actor could be so popular in a country as right wing and closed minded as the United States.

Ms. Perrette’s popularity, and the popularity of the other stars of the show, especially Mark Harmon and Michael Weatherly, goes a long way to explaining why a show that has seldom had good reviews and is generally ignored by the entertainment media is on most weeks the most watched drama on American television.

A long time ago, a very smart television producer taught me that most viewers watch television in one of two places…either their living room or their bedroom. He went on to explain that nobody invites anyone into their home that they are not very comfortable with. He further pointed out, if you like someone you will have them back to your house more and more often. The lesson is obvious. If you want to produce a successful television show, the stars should be the type of people that the viewers want to spend time with.

A few years ago at the Cannes TV Market, MIP, I sat in on a discussion of how reality TV is produced. Some of the top reality producers explained how they draw in the big audiences. They explained that they send every day’s rushes back to focus groups to test the TVQ of all the contestants. What they found, and the way the show works, is that everyone on the show who is well liked gets to stay. They adapted the TVQ theory a little too because everyone the audience hates also gets to play longer. Their formula gets rid of the players who are bland, who do not create any response at all. How they get rid of the players they don’t want is grist for another story. Suffice it to say that they manipulate the cast to try to end up with a man versus a woman as the final pair, and if all goes right, one contestant the viewers will cheer for and another the audience will cheer against. Perhaps this explains the popularity of House.

So what does all of this have to do with television news in Canada?

It seems to me that the people who produce news and current affairs in this country have yet to learn the lessons that drama, reality and comedy programmers have known for years.

It’s not that News producers don’t know. Ask anyone who works at any of the major newscasts and they will tell you who their stars are. In most cases they will explain that their stars are great journalists, but if you let the conversation flow you will find they will begin to talk about the great performers. The people with personality that shine through the TV screen and brighten up a room. At CBC Adrienne Arsenault stands out today. She is immediately recognizable. Sure, she does a great job, but she also has high TVQ. In the past Mike Duffy was a star even greater than his ability as a journalist or his girth. At CTV I see more and more of Omar Sachedina. Yes he’s a talented reporter, but he is also a performer who is welcome in the homes of Canadian news viewers. Craig Oliver was one of the great reporting stars that CTV had. Everyone knew Craig in the same way they knew Mike Duffy. CTV has also had Harvey Kirck and Lloyd Robertson. You couldn’t walk on any street in Canada and not see immediately how people responded positively to them.

Look closely at CBC and CTV news however, and you will not be blown away by the personalities you see night after night. For the most part you would be hard pressed to recognize them on the street if a camera was not pointed at them. I sometimes wonder how some of the very bland people became on air television reporters. Was it by default? They were, like Mount Everest, there. What’s the process that allows such nondescript people to get these few and important jobs telling the stories of Canada to Canadians?

One incident speaks of the failure of Canadian news broadcasters more than any other to me. When Pamela Wallin was whizzed from CBC News one of the greatest opportunities to create audience for The National opened up. The person with the highest TVQ at CBC news at the time was Wendy Mesley. If ever there was a true news star at CBC it was Wendy. Add to that, she is a terrific journalist and a good interviewer. She was a natural to replace Pamela. Oh, and as if all that is not enough, she had just divorced Peter Mansbridge. The pairing would have earned audiences off the charts for news in Canada in my estimation. People would tune in just to see how the former couple got along on air. The great journalism would have been a bonus. But it was not to be. I have asked CBC people why it never happened and have heard all kinds of answers, none of which have made any sense. I do know, however, if it was NBC, ABC, or CBS Peter and Wendy would have certainly been co-hosting and perhaps, the ratings they created together might have saved The National from the changes that led to the predicament that CBC News faces today.

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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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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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