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and I can't do a thing about it

The Reporters that got away

I was talking with a few friends recently, most of them still hard at work in the media, and eventually the discussion focused on the quality of television reporting. In general we lamented the poor reporting that makes its way on to the country’s airwaves. There have always been great reporters, there have always been competent reporters, but for the most part poor reporters seldom lasted, especially at the national level. Today we see far more of the latter and way fewer of the former. The merely competent remain in place at all the national network shows.

After a while we disagreed as to what was the cause of so many bad reporters plying their trade. Some say it is the incompetence of the bosses who wouldn’t know a great report if it hit them square between the eyes. Some blame the lack of a local feeder system at CBC that at one time provided all of the networks with the best talent and more important, a place to train where quality counted and a support structure was maintained to train young journalists in the fine art of story telling and performance. Still others say the workloads preclude quality. Once you have to do two, three and even four hits per day, you will never have the time to make your primary story excellent. One person blamed the “journalism” degree. He said we are graduating students who know how to shoot, edit, write and perform but there is little or nothing behind it. These graduates have no degrees in politics, economics, science, literature, history, geography, etc. They only know how to be journalists. In the past, before the journalism degree was a prerequisite, reporters came with degrees in all of the above mentioned areas and more. They had a level of knowledge and learning they could bring to a story or an event. To be fair there are many exceptions…reporters who are doctors and lawyers, correspondents with Masters degrees who majored in something other than journalism and the odd few who somehow overcame the bias towards a degree in journalism.

In truth there are elements of all of the above in the problems being faced today by those attempting to produce the best newscasts.

While we disagreed about the causes we all concurred on one thing: there are too few really great reporters to fill three network news organizations. Having said that, the position CBC finds itself in is all the more puzzling. Considering the fact that they lost their feeder system how could they let so many really terrific correspondents get away? The joke is, if you want to see the very best CBC television news reporters watch Global and CTV.

The CBC has never in my lifetime had a more mediocre to poor reporting staff. Sure they still have some very excellent reporters, my list includes Terry Milewski, Paul Hunter, Adrienne Arsenault, Neil MacDonald and Wendy Mesley, your may differ. Beyond these few holdouts from better days, the pickings are mighty slim. So you have to ask yourself, what were the honchos at CBC News thinking when they allowed so many of their best correspondents to get away? It’s a real poser.

At CTV Paul Workman and Tom Kennedy are two of the finest television reporters in Canada. They both came from the CBC. The circumstances were very different, but the result the same. Kennedy was never given the opportunities he deserved at the corpse and he fled. Workman was pushed out by incompetent managers who insisted he leave Paris and Europe where he had been a stalwart for decades. CTV also has Martin Seemungal whose enterprise as a one man band in Africa for the CBC was doing groundbreaking work; and Kevin Newman who was mistreated at CBC and practically forced to go to ABC in the United States. Wouldn’t Kevin look great hosting a political program on CBC? While anyone would be better than Evan Solomon, Kevin could make that show must viewing for political junkies. He would also be really great to have in the fold as the heir apparent to Peter Mansbridge.

Over at Global, someone had the very good sense to grab up Patrick Brown, the best Asia correspondent we have ever had in Canada. Nobody is more knowledgeable or comfortable with that posting. One of the CBC’s greatest blunders was allowing him get away. Also at Global Eric Sorensen is doing a great job. He was never given an opportunity at CBC. I tried to hire him when I was at Global. I could see that he had what it took to become a fine reporter and I have been proven right.

These six excellent correspondents alone could transform CBC news back into what it once was, a leader in the Canadian news business. They all came from CBC. They were all either ignored, pushed or mishandled. CTV and Global are richer for the blundering of CBC management. CBC is by far the poorer.

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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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CBC and the talent deficit

“So it appears Laura di Battista will be the next “outside the CBC hire.” She’ll take over the afternoon show on radio, probably early in the new year.

“So in the past few months the powers-that-be have hired Dwight Drummond (City) and Anne-Marie Mediwake (Global), Tony Parsons (BCTV) – never mind the stream of City people over the years (Stroumboulopoulos, Richler, Laurie Brown).

“Does anyone else see a strange pattern of CBC News dismissing the competition with contempt, and then turning around and hiring their on-air talent? Why doesn’t the CBC have these people in its system if it’s so important to them – or is the CBC’s system so flawed that it doesn’t have people with the type of on-air experience/talent/look that is what management believes it needs to compete?

“Our news programs on TV and radio are now so close in content and look to the private stations that there’s almost no difference – even editorially … especially editorially.

“Funnily enough the woman that hosts the extremely popular Cityline (Tracy Moore) was a reporter at CBLT who was continually turned down for a full-time job.”

This was an email I received recently from a very concerned and highly respected CBC employee. It made me think about the history of mistakes the bosses at CBC have made in dismantling local news.

Let me start with a little bit of history. In the ‘50s CBC Television was the only game in town. Many call it the golden age of CBC-TV. It was a time of experimentation. New shows, new kinds of programming, live dramas and of course the building of local news teams in markets from coast to coast. The network and the medium were growing. Personalities were being created…Wayne and Shuster, Juliette, Percy Saltsman, heck even the actor who played the Esso dealer on Hockey Night in Canada, Murray Westgate, became a big star across the country. Wherever CBC opened a local station they created a local news program and a local news team.

For the next three decades the local news became the training ground for some of the finest television journalists that this country has known. People like Mike Duffy, David Halton, Peter Kent, Eric Malling, Peter Mansbridge, Wendy Mesley, Craig Oliver, Steve Paikin and Paul Workman to name just a small fraction. From the ‘50s to the mid ‘80s if you wanted to know who the reporting stars of the future were going to be you had to tune into the local CBC Newscasts in Toronto, Winnipeg, Regina, St. John’s, Vancouver and the rest of the country. So what happened?

In 1984 and 1985 the federal government began to cut the CBC’s budgets. What followed was a massive blunder. The Vice President of CBC English, Denis Harvey, decided that in order to save the budget of the CBC’s national news service, he would take a butcher knife to the budgets of the local news. He misunderstood two very important facts at the time. The first was that local news had double the viewers of The National. Yes it was spread across more than a dozen CBC stations, but hey, The National’s audience came from all those same stations plus the affiliates. Harvey was cutting the successful newscasts in order to save a service that was rapidly falling behind CTV.

His second error was in not comprehending the inherent value of local news. Study after study in the U.S. has shown that strong local newscasts build ratings that create strong local stations. Those high ratings for local news result in bigger audiences for network programming throughout the evening. They got this at CTV and in the United States. Their networks are built around strong local affiliates that build in their turn around highly rated local newscasts. CBC was throwing out their babies with their bathwater. There is an argument to be made that the ratings of The National were actually undermined by the cuts in local news.

The rapid decline of CBC local news continued unabated. It was a vicious cycle: staffs were cut, ratings plummeted, money became scarcer, so staffs were cut further, rating fell even more and ad revenues all but disappeared. Soon many local news operations were shut down and the idea of regional news raised its ugly head. Can Edmonton and Calgary share a newscast? Apparently not. By the new millennium local CBC news was all but non-existent. In Toronto audiences fell from highs of over 300,000 viewers in 1985 to under 40,000. The results were similar in Calgary, Vancouver, Halifax and Montreal. People were not watching because CBC was not providing a serious newscast.

Today we are left with the legacy of those times and those decisions. Sure, local newscasts are sort of back. Ninety minutes of information that repeats more than my mom’s garlic burgers. Staffs that are one-third the size of those who produced just sixty minutes in the past. Worst of all, rather than follow CBC’s historic striving for quality news coverage, they are emulating the worst of the privates’ local news coverage. They are chasing ambulances, fire trucks and police cars with hardly an attempt to look at local issues.

Under the circumstance it should come as no surprise that CBC has to go outside to find talent. It should also come as no shock that the talent they are hiring fit the CITY-TV mold far more that they resemble what we used to expect on CBC.

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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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