I'm Mad as Hell

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and I can't do a thing about it

The more things change…

It never ceases to amaze me how big corporations can be so oblivious to what is happening on the streets just outside their fancy headquarters. We’ve all been disgusted by the big U.S. banks taking billions or trillions of dollars in bailouts and then turning around and handing out million dollar bonuses to their executives and top performers.

We are gob struck by hospitals in Canada who take all of their top doctors to meetings in Florida or Las Vegas rather than using the fancy boardrooms they have had built and furnished in their facilities.

All we can say is: what were they thinking?

So why are we surprised to learn that the CBC is sending twice as many people to a TV and media festival in Banff than any other Canadian network? That’s the way the CBC works. Some will go as a form of bonus or reward. Others will go to raise the CBC flag. A few will even go to Banff to do some valuable work. Heck, at the CBC they probably think they are saving money because they are likely sending fewer people than they sent in the past. While the profligacy boggles our minds, the CBC brass will be truly surprised by the mild uproar. It’s how they have always done their business. What’s new?

For years I traveled to conferences, markets and conventions all over the world. A few when I was with CTV, a few more at CBC, and regularly when I helped run a private company that produced television programs. Several things became obvious to me on my travels: first of course, was that CBC always had the largest contingent of any of the Canadian broadcasters or producers, most of whom were there for reasons that I, as a participant, could not fathom.

Further, except for a tiny group of people who were there to look for programs to buy or sell, it was a complete boondoggle. Most of the participants go to the conventions to see old friends, have fancy lunches and dinners with the same people they see at every convention, and to party…I know people, including CBC types, who never showed up at any of the serious convention events, in fact they were probably sleeping off last night’s party so they could be fresh for tonight’s party.

In truth, because the broadcast people already know most of the other participants, it would be far cheaper and way more effective to telephone the people they are meeting with or to travel to their offices, whether they are in New York, London or Paris. They would not have to pay huge entrance fees. They would not have to compete with hundreds of others for face time. Most important, they could do all their business in one quick meeting and then head home.

The problem with these organizations, like CBC, the big banks, hospitals, is that they have developed a culture that took years and years to grow and it is almost impossible for them to see beyond the way they have always done their business. You can see it in Richard Stursberg’s book, Tower of Babble. Here’s a guy who claims to have had massive money problems. He says he begged the CBC Board of Directors to allow him to create new sources of revenue to combat millions and millions of dollars in shortfalls. Yet, here’s King Richard, crowing about the results of studies that he personally ordered. He names at least three studies he called for. Each one probably cost over a million dollars. In all my years at Global and CTV I do not remember even one study bought and paid for by the broadcaster. That’s what they paid their execs to do: make decisions based on experience and intelligence. Yet to Stursberg it is normal. He sees it as part of his job. He never once puts two-and-two together to come up with the possibility of saving money for programming by shutting down the useless studies he is commissioning. To be fair, the CBC has been doing studies since long before Stursberg showed up. When I was at CBC local news we received the results of a study that said the viewers wanted more international news. There was another study that said The National should be moved to seven p.m. Yet another study told us that our viewers were slightly older than those of CTV, Global and CityTV. All of this was “cover-your-ass” information. It meant CBC bosses could say decisions were not based on their ideas, a study said they should do what they did. At CBC some expenses are never questioned.

I use the idea of studies as just one example. I could talk about the fact that although it is true that CBC programming dollars have been cut to the bone and production staffs are below the minimum needed to do the work in many cases, CBC management is still bloated. There are too many bosses for too few employees. I know of one unit at CBC news that has one producer and three bosses. I know the CBC documentary unit has over a dozen people to buy docs from independent and foreign producers, when it is a job for a maximum of three people at most broadcasters in the world. But hey, this is the way the CBC has always done its business.

The way for the CBC to survive the future cuts has little to do with the measures being taken today and much to do with a complete change in the culture and the way of doing business. I see no signs of this happening. I hope I am wrong. If you know of examples of changes in the culture that could save the CBC please share them. I for one would be ecstatic to hear about them.

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Tower of Babble

Review: The Tower of Babble by Richard Stursberg

Written for J-Source Website

The Tower of Babble, like Richard Stursberg, is a mass of contradictions. On the one hand Stursberg proves himself to be an incredibly astute observer of what was wrong with the CBC. Amazingly, he also comes across as a man whose bungled solutions to the CBC’s problems were in many cases wrongheaded – and worse – contradictory.

As I read the book I found myself constantly shaking my head. Sometimes it was in reaction to Richard Stursberg’s accurate insights into what needed fixing (the internal battles for funds, the lack of understanding of what is entertainment), other times it was in reaction to the incredible solutions he advocated (moving The National to 11 where it failed miserably before), sometimes in complete contradiction to his own stated goals. More important, though, than any of this, was the amazing chutzpa of a man who has obviously never been wrong and is not afraid to make this clear to everyone who reads his book.

Don’t get me wrong, The Tower of Babble is a good read. Stursberg has a way with words and sprinkles in enough humour to keep the proceedings light, even when the content drifts into a numbers game both fiscally and with audience research.

The best chapter in the book is about the lockout of CBC employees in 2005. Here he lays out the reasons for the lockout and fully explains how CBC management came to their decision. He points out that the lockout was necessary for two reasons: first, the technological changes, the move to on-line and the need for multi-tasking were essential for the CBC to survive in the 21st century. Second, it was vitally important to not allow the CBC unions to strike during the new TV season coming up in late September of ‘05 because Stursberg and company were unveiling the first of their new dramatic, comedic and reality based offerings; even more concerning, the CBC could not afford any disruption to the new hockey schedule, the National Hockey League coming off a lockout of their own that cost the corporation millions.

Thus rather than wait for the workers to strike, CBC management locked them out in August.

He crows about how the plan worked to perfection. The workers were out in summer when viewership is down anyways, and then settled long before the puck dropped on a new hockey season. His only regret, it seems, was that management got everything they wanted from the new contract but had to keep quiet when the union bosses claimed victory. Not being allowed to gloat is obviously a terrible sacrifice for Stursberg.

The other interesting chapter is the one he calls “Money.” Here we get a glimpse into how difficult it is to run a public broadcaster. When the economy took a dive in 2008 all TV networks in North America, probably the western world, were badly hurt. As businesses suffered they spent fewer dollars on advertising. Adding to this was the fact that tight money meant loans were close to impossible to secure. Stursberg points out that Global and CTV could pay less for U.S. shows, could cut stock dividends, could cut profits – in other words, there were all kinds of fiscal tools open to them. More important, they could act quickly. CBC needed approval of their board of directors, government committees, and the heritage department to do anything and that could take months or even years. Further, since CBC is a non-profit company, there were no fiscal tools open to them, and since they made or bought predominantly Canadian programs, there was no way to pay less for content.

Stursberg and his staff desperately tried to come up with schemes to make money. They wanted to run infomercials overnight but the board said the CBC was not allowed to run infomercials; they wanted to allow political advertising when no election was called, but the board nixed this idea too. It seems whatever plan Stursberg came up with, the CBC Board of Directors said ‘no’.

Most of the rest of the book is old hat to anyone who has followed Stursberg and his time at the CBC. The rants in favour of popular programming, the need for one million viewers for every show, the “wrongheadedness” of mandate programs…these are the views we have come to expect from him. Sure, he makes more arguments, but they all sound like the same ones we have been hearing since “King Richard” rode in on his high horse to save the damsel CBC in distress. I have no problem with Stursberg staking out his ground again. Where I object, is that so many of his arguments are just plain wrong, both factually and philosophically.

Here are some of the incredibly basic factual errors he makes: he says CBC has no programs that make the top 20 in Canada. Hockey Night in Canada is regularly in the top 20.

He says before him CBC never produced popular programs. What about Front Page Challenge, Kids in the Hall, SCTV, Road to Avonlea, heck what about Tommy Hunter and The Plouffe Family?

He says that CBC didn’t produce “any” programming in the 70’s and 80’s. Has Stursberg ever heard of Seeing Things, Street Legal and some of the above named programs.

He says Newsworld was launched in the early ‘80s. In fact it was started in 1989.

He mentions “Sunday Morning” in 2004. It had been cancelled and replaced by that time (with Sunday Edition).

He says Global television never produced any sports. In fact they produced Leafs games for several season in the early ‘90s.

For heaven’s sake, he calls Traders a CBC drama. It was on Global.

He constantly claims he miraculously turned around CBC-TV’s audience numbers and adds claims that he brought them to their highest levels ever. Barry Kiefl, who was the best audience researcher the CBC ever had, maybe the best any broadcaster had in Canada, disagrees. Kiefl points out that CBC’s audience share is 8.7. It has been between 8 and 9% for eight years. Yes there was a bad year before Richard came to the CBC but that was directly attributable to the NHL lockout. Before the NHL lockout the CBC had an 8.9 share. In fact before Stursberg arrived, in the early Robert Rabinovitch years, the corporation actually reached a 10 share. The ratings were never at an all-time high in Stursberg’s time at CBC.

Here’s a quote from Barry Kiefl’s blog, mediatrends-research.blogspot.ca:

Then, why is it that CBC seems to have more viewers for some individual programs today than a few years ago? Well, and this is a fact that few in the TV industry want to address, it turns out that three years ago, in fall 2009, the definition of who was to be counted as being in the audience was changed dramatically by the ratings system. The majority of programs on all networks for the past three years have had a much larger audience as a result. Audience share wasn’t much affected because almost every station’s audience went up. But audiences really didn’t increase, just as the temperature is not affected when one switches from Centigrade to Fahrenheit degrees.

Mr. Rabinovitch and Mr. Stursberg both began their careers as Ottawa bureaucrats and learned, as so many in Ottawa have, that if you repeat something often and loud enough, the press (and their readers) will come to believe that it must be true.

Philosophically, the problems may even be worse than the factual errors. He argues that the industry demands plots finish in one show so that viewers don’t disappear when they miss a program. He doesn’t deal with the fact that some of the most successful shows on TV are Madmen, The Wire, The Sopranos, The Good Wife, and 24, all of which have ongoing story lines. Has Richard ever heard of recording shows, of downloading programs? This from the man who wants CBC to be on top of the new technology.

He goes on about the “new” direction for news. He talks about how important local news is. However, when he expanded local news from 30 to 60 minutes, he didn’t add staff or funds to make it possible for local to do a credible job (perhaps taking it from The National, which he felt is over staffed and over funded). Further, he talks about how he wanted The National to be a place to go for depth and explanation of the days events, yet he doesn’t explain getting rid of perhaps the best news documentary unit in North America. Nor does he explain the contradiction in turning to television doctors Frank Magid and Associates. Remember, these are the people responsible for “Eyewitness” news, if it bleeds it leads. Stursberg never sees the contradictions.

The truth is I have skimmed the surface of the errors and contradictions presented by Stursberg. Anyone who reads his book will add dozens more to my list. So why read The Tower of Babble? It is a rare opportunity to see inside CBC management. It is an amazing look at one of the most controversial, confrontational characters to work in media in Canada. And it actually does provide many examples of what’s wrong with our national broadcaster and the difficulties inherent in trying to keep it running.

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CBC: Failure at the top

It is all too clear that no matter what you think of the cuts to the CBC in last week’s budget, the people who run the Corpse have been missing in action in the process. Sure they will tell you how hard they have been working behind closed doors in offices and boardrooms across the country for the past while to figure out how to cut $200 million from their budgets over the next three years. The problem is that the real work they should have been doing was never done.

It seems, and this is according to CBC President Hubert Lacroix, that the government came to them a few weeks ago and asked them how they would cut 5% or 10% of their budget. I want to first say that this should be none of the government’s business. Yes, they can cut the CBC’s stipend any way and any amount they want to, but there is supposed to be an arms-length relationship between the national broadcaster and the government. The purpose of this is to make certain that there’s no political interference in the running of the CBC. By asking the Corpse how they would make the cuts the Finance Ministry and the Heritage Ministry crossed a line that should never be crossed for the protection of all Canadians.

Just as important though, the President of the CBC should not have provided the government with the answers they asked for. This was the time for Hubert Lacroix to take a stand, in fact many stands, against a government that recognizes no rules unless it suits them.

The first thing the CBC president should have said to the government was that the CBC could not deal with any cuts at all. The broadcaster is already underfunded and cannot do the job it has been mandated to do with the money it is already getting. I don’t know whether this is true or not, but it doesn’t matter. Lacroix is there to protect the CBC’s budget and mandate not to give it away whenever the government comes calling.

Certainly the Harperites would have cut anyways, but at least Lacroix should not have made it easy for them.

Second, Lacroix and company should have appealed publicly to all Canadians. He should have held a media conference to say that the Tories were planning to cut the CBC budget. He should have explained the consequences to his organization and to all Canadians. In other words, he should have put up a fight. It’s his job to make it difficult to hurt the organization he runs, not to make it easy.

Third, Lacroix should have told the government it is none of their business how he will make any cuts if they are forced on him and the CBC. Once again, that’s his job, to protect the CBC not to help the Finance Minister balance his budget.

In the end Lacroix committed the biggest crime of all. He told CBC staff and all Canadians that CBC could not only absorb the cuts, but that his 2015 plan would still be able to go ahead. He made the cuts look like it was no big deal to the average Canadian. He gave Canadians no reason to protest, no reason to care.
If you don’t believe me, just check out what the Heritage Minister, James Moore, said when he was questioned about the cuts in question period. He said:
“I would encourage my honourable colleague to look at the speech that was given by Hubert Lacroix, president of the CBC, that outlines it in greater detail, and as a matter of fact the member opposite has it exactly wrong,” he said. Moore then used his time to explain that the budget allows for the “funds necessary for the CBC to fulfill their obligations under the Broadcasting Act.”
The network will still be able to fulfill its 2015 plan which, he said, includes maintaining coverage in all areas, maintaining its official language “footprint,” more “digitization,” and to become “leaner”. The plan “serves the interest not only of the cultural communities but also of taxpayers.”

Talk about an easy out. Thank you very much Hubert Lacroix!
From the performance I have seen over the past week from CBC brass I find it near impossible not to believe that Lacroix, Kirsten Stewart and French V.P. Louis Lalonde appear to be far more interested in keeping their jobs by making the government like them, than they seem to care about the future of the CBC.
It’s too bad really, just when the CBC needs strong leadership most, it becomes obvious that the folks running the corporation are petty bureaucrats whose only interest is self-preservation. Past CBC presidents have resigned their posts over far less.
As far as the actual cuts are concerned, there is little specific information available at this time. Lacroix and his hench-people promised more information soon. What is clear is that $43 million is going to be cut from English programming. Kirsten Stewart refuses to say, at this time, whether that will come from entertainment, sports, or news. We do know that the doc unit is gone, at least as far as making documentaries is concerned. CBC will basically become a buyer of docs in the future.
We were also told that 10% of managers will be cut. We were not told whether this referred to salary or numbers. CBC is still massively over managed. Few managers have been cut over the years. I, and almost anyone who has ever worked for more than one network in Canada, am amazed that CBC honchos can’t cut far more from management to protect programming and the people who actually make the shows.
Lacroix estimates that 81% of the cuts will come from the networks (French and English) and 19% from the regions.
All-in-all a sad time for the national broadcaster: unloved by government and un-led by it’s bosses. If there is any justice in the world, Lacroix will not have his contract renewed. Nobody likes a suck up, not even the folks he’s sucking up to.

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King Richard: in his own words

Having just returned from a marathon two month stay in South America and a side trip to Montreal, it came as a bit of a surprise to see that Richard Stursberg, the former grand poobah of all things English at the CBC is back too, and he’s back in a very big way.

It seems Stursberg has a new book out, “The Tower of Babble” that tells the inside story of his tumultuous tenure at the national broadcaster. It should be an interesting, perhaps maddening, look at the machinations of the folks who ran the corporation and a behind the scenes account of some of the most divisive time in CBC history.

As a sort of preview King Richard wrote what he and The Globe and Mail are calling an essay entitled “How to Save the CBC.”

If the book is anything like the essay it will be both a direct and indirect exercise in self-congratulations. Heck if Stursberg pats himself on the back at the same rate as in his essay, he will need shoulder surgery to correct the rotator cuff damage he inflicts on himself.

Stursberg’s essay in Globe starts with the amazing idea that he presided over the CBC’s Golden Age. He says audience numbers were sinking at the CBC since the 1970’s. By the time he took over they were at their lowest in history. This is sort of true. What Stursberg fails to point out however, is that CTV, Global, in fact all terrestrial broadcasters lost audience in those years. As new channels, cable and specialty came on board, audience numbers spiraled downward. In the 1970’s the worst rated network show in Canada still got a 20 audience share. By the time the new millennium started the highest rated network shows in Canada were barely able to get a share of 18. The falling numbers had more to do with the new 500 channel universe than the CBC’s failures.

He goes on to say that starting in 2006, when the CBC began to reinvent itself…code for: the Stursberg leadership years, the CBC had a rebirth in both numbers and interest. So much so that the CBC has never been stronger than it is today.

There’s more than a little hyperbole here. Never! What about the 50’s and 60’s when CBC was either the only network or one of two networks? Nevermind that. More important, let’s look at how CBC raised its ratings under Stursberg. First of all, the national network forgot it’s mandate. They stopped running arts programming. The arts on CBC was an important outlet for serious dance, music, and the like. Sure it got poor audience numbers but it served a community that had no other access on television to this sort of programming. The same for religious programs, remember “Man Alive?” Stursberg led a regime that rooted out and killed anything that didn’t meet his audience numbers expectations. So yes, if you remove a show with 100,000 viewers on ballet and replace it with a drama that gets 500,000 viewers overall numbers will rise, but at what cost to the services provided? An awful lot of important CBC support disappeared with the mandated shows.

Stursberg also takes credit for the success of CBC radio. He points out that Gian Ghomeshi’s “Q” gets more listeners than Peter Gzowski got in the good old days. The numbers data he is working from is correct. The context is AWOL.

CBC Radio is doing marvelously well. I suggest that the quality of the programs is an important factor, but a far more important reason is the fact that private radio has shot itself in the foot. Too many stations sound the same. Too many stations are programming to baby boomers who are not listening to as much radio as they did when they were teenagers and at the same time young listeners are having a hard time finding the music they want to hear. The only competition CBC Radio has is from sports talk and phone in shows. Luckily Stursberg and company never got around to fiddling with Radio One’s content or they might be in the same boat as private radio is today…leaky and sinking.

Stursberg takes credit for the CBC’s producing programs that according to him compete favorably with shows produced in the U.S. If that’s the case why is there not a single CBC show in the top 20 other than hockey? If that’s competing, I’d hate to see what losing looks like.

He claims CBC has beaten Global in prime time for the past four years. Huh? Yes the CBC beat Global the year of the writers’ strike in the U.S. when all Global was running was re-runs. Other than that I have never seen numbers that place CBC ahead of Global.

King Richard even has the temerity to suggest that “Marketplace” and “The Fifth Estate” are doing better today. What the… The fact that those two shows are doing reasonably well is a tribute to the fine people that make those shows. Moving “The Fifth” to Friday night away from the larger audience night on Wednesday did hurt the numbers. They are now below one million viewers most nights. And what the CBC did to “Marketplace” is beyond disgusting. It has been moved all over the schedule and it has seen it’s season shortened. How do you do that to one of your most successful shows? The folks who produce those programs deserve a medal for overcoming the odds that were stacked against them by Stursberg and co.

Stursberg goes on to make some interesting points about the damage that’s being inflicted on the CBC by the government cuts. He even has some interesting, if very general and unexplained thoughts about how the CBC should proceed in the future, but make no mistake, Richard Stursberg is playing fast and loose with the facts to build up his own legacy. It’s not that he is completely wrong, it’s that he is manipulating the facts in the most self-serving of ways. Read his book. It is important to understand where he was coming from, but don’t be fooled by the rhetoric. The CBC is in trouble. The mandate is all but gone and forgotten. And contrary to what Stursberg says, too few Canadians care about the future of the CBC, and for that reason, he has more than a little ‘splaining to do.

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Mourning TV

So here I sit in Buenos Aries after week long stays in Mendoza and Salta Argentina and a quick stopover in Santiago Chile and I must say, even though my Spanish can at best be described as rudimentary, I am more than a little envious of the South Americans for their amazingly strong early morning television. Unlike Canada where only the all news stations bother much with news in the morning, CBC network does do an hour from 6 am to 7 am too, in South America, or at least these parts, they start their broadcast day with hours of serious news content…live newscasts, live news interviews, even live cameras out on the streets.

It is truly impressive to see three or four stations competing for news viewers with the latest reports and live coverage of events from six am until at least nine am (it may start earlier and end later, I have to admit I haven’t been in front of a TV before 6 or after 9). In every hotel they blast their favorite, sometimes two favorite newscasts out into the breakfast rooms and everybody seems to be glued to the news, even those in large group. Sure, there’s some recut footage from yesterday’s newscasts, but it makes up maybe 25 or 30 percent of the coverage. Most of the reports are either live or live interviews.

Contrast that with Canada.

Look, I startd out in morning television on Canada AM in the early to mid-seventies. AM was a serious part of CTV News. Every morning we produced a live two hour show with interviews with the top newsmakerws of the day. The interviews were seldom booked more than a day in advance and in many cases were booked overnight when a story broke. I remember redoing entire shows at 2 am when Pope John Paul I died and when, thank you Larry Leblanc, John Lennon was killed. Canada AM got the first ever interview with Jimmy Carter after he became president, even before the U.S. networks. Politicians, business people, lawyers, sports stars, you name them, clamoured to be interviewed live first thing in the morning. Norm Perry, Helen Huthinson, Gale Scott, Pam Wallin…they were all serious journalists and took little or no joy in the odd feature interview we produced. Oh for the day…

Today Canada AM isn’t even a shadow of its former self. Beverly Thompson is too busy dealing with the latest paint trends, dressing your lettuce and the top fitness apps to even notice a big news story. The newscasts are just rehashes of last night’s CTV National and the odd international piece that AM can grab from an American network.

Global is the newest kid on the block in the early morning, and while I applaud what seems to be a serious attempt at Global to compete with CBC and CTV for a national news audience in the evening, their morning show is a dog’s breakfast, at least the timing is appropriate. At Global morning television is a cross between “The View” and CITY-TV’s “Breakfast Television”. Liza Fromer leads a band of four people who all seem to want to talk about every subject that comes up no matter whether they have anything of note to add. It’s nuts, all four, or sometimes only three interview the guests who’s subject matter is scarily similar to Canada AM and Breakfast Television, and everyone seems to have the right to interupt the newscasts with comments on the stories. The most frightening part is that Global News Director Ward Smith had the gall to call it a “groundbreaking new format.” I guess he has never seen “The View” or “Breakfast Television.”

Breqakfast Television is what it has always been so I will give it a pass. The format was created to be the anti-Canada AM. That was a smart way to compete and at the time it was pretty original. The format lives on even though the folks in the chairs have changed.

Finally, I want to note that the only game in town for news is CBC. CBC News Morning and CBC NN’s morning shows do try to bring Canadians a serious look at what’s going on in Canada and the world. Unfortunately there are a galaxy of hosts, seven the last time I counted, and the budgets are miniscule, so except for the odd interview, it is last night’s news again with some new footage grabbed from the U.S. nets when a big story breaks.

What happened? Are Canadians that uninterested in news? I suspect it is easier to fill with cooking, gardening and Kardashianalia than to work at finding guests to discuss the government’s latest cost cutting measure or how the cops nabbed another 60 in a child porn ring. Based on what I have seen in South America, it isn’t news that’s turning people off, it’s networks turning off the news.

There is one glimmer of hope though, CBS’s new morning show is once again trying to do serious news coverage. All I can hope for is major success for CBS so that everyone else will copy the idea.

PS…there is a rumor afoot that Canada AM is soon to be cancelled and replaced with local morning shows across the country. If that’s true, will they be more like what I’m seeing in Argentina or will they be more like “Breakfast Television clones?

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CBC: Fire your non-budsman

Every once in a while, even though it feels like I’ve been around forever, I can be shocked or surprised by something that happens in and around the profession of journalism. The latest surprise was the CBC’s Ombudsman report that came out last Friday.

The background, I’m sure you all remember the incident in question, was when Marg Delahunty (Mary Walsh) of This Hour Has 22 Minutes showed up in the driveway of Toronto Mayor Rob Ford. Ford reacted by first running away from the CBC cameras, back into his house, then by calling 911 to get the police to remove the CBC crew from his property.

These are the events everyone agrees on.

Afterwards it was alleged that Ford tried to use his position as mayor to get he 911 operator to react more quickly and that he called the operator names and used the “F bomb” to drive his point home.

The problem is that Ford argues that he never said many of the things he has been quoted as saying. He agrees he used the F-word, but he says he never used his position as mayor and he never called the operators bitches. Further, since the days events and the charges and counter charges, the Toronto Police Chief, Bill Blair, has listened to the 911 tape and he agrees with Rob Ford’s version of the events.

At the CBC the case grew even more bizarre when CBC Online wrote a story about the events and actually put the words Rob Ford had allegedly spoken to the 911 operator in quotes as if they had the actual tape or at very least had heard it. Truth is other than Bill Blair, the 911 operator and Mayor Ford nobody knows what was actually said. Worse Ford and Blair say Ford never said what the CBC quoted him as saying and the 911 operator has been mum on the subject. Therefore it is completely and totally clear that the CBC breached journalistic ethics and the CBC’s own journalistic policy in the reporting of this incident.

Had the CBC reported the incident as a he said, they said case with no one being certain as to what was actually said…you remember, the way it has been done for decades by upstanding news operations, nothing would have blown back at the CBC, but as is the case more and more often in journalism, shoddy reporting, unsourced information and the need to get on top of a story were all more important than getting the facts right and delivering a report that was true to the facts that were known and could be proved.

The fact CBC dropped the ball is hardly big news. It happens too often now-a-days to even comment in normal circumstances, but this case was referred to CBC Ombudsman Kirk Lapointe because of a complaint from Mayor Ford’s office. This is where the shock comes in. The case should be clear to any first year journalism student, the CBC blew it. They reported a quote as if it was a fact. So far, because we and they have not heard the 911 tape, it is not a fact. It is conjecture.

How the heck can Kirk Lapointe, a seasoned journalist with years of experience rule that the CBC’s reporting including its use of anonymous sources, satisfied its policies on good journalism. To call this ludicrous would be an understatement. It crossed the line, it’s obvious, and Mr. Lapointe has made matters worse than before by condoning it. How can anyone ever trust the CBC Ombudsman ever again? Why bother to complain to the CBC about coverage when Kirk, “Rubber Stamp” Lapointe will eventually rule in favor of his bosses.

The stupidity goes even further. Lapointe himself admits that he does not know what was on the 911 tape therefore he doesn’t know if the quote is correct. He actually says “In this matter only one of them is right. It just isn’t clear whom.” Duh! Then how can CBC journalists report what was said as a quote? Mr. Lapointe? To make matters worse Lapointe questions the reliability of Chief Blair because as Lapointe puts it, the chief is dependent on the mayor for his budget. Lapointe all but calls the police chief a possible liar without a shred of evidence. Mr. Lapointe it is time to resign. You have proven your worthlessness without a doubt. From now on you are liability to the CBC. Hubert Lacroix, I sure hope you are listening, get rid of the clown.

In the end we may find out that the CBC was right, although I suspect the 911 tape will never come out while Rob Ford is mayor. That doesn’t matter. The point, and the only point is that CBC reported something as fact that they cannot prove and that the folks who know what happened say is not true. Case closed.

Oh, and one more tidbit, the CBC had the Ombudsman’s report for at least 24 hours before informing their own news service of the ruling. The CBC journalists learned about the ruling from the Toronto Star. Then, to add insult to injury, CBC Online spiked their story about Lapointe’s ruling. It was never published. I guess what CBC brass wants is to make this breach go away.

_______________________________________________________________________________________________

A short word about the passing of Larry Solway. I had the pleasure of working with the man for two television seasons when he took over from Pierre Berton doing a half-hour daily interview program.

I have worked with some very fine and talented people over the years but not one was more dedicated and hard working than Larry. He never interviewed an author without reading his or her book. He always did his homework and looked for areas to probe that others had backed away from. He was a brilliant man who never shied away from preparation and hard work.

Larry should have been a star in the journalism and TV world in Canada. Somehow his honesty and principled approach to his profession worked against him.

One of my favorite Larry Solway stories was when he was hired to be a correspondent with CBC News. It was during the Biafran War and the news bosses decided that Larry’s first assignment should be covering the war. Larry pointed out that he had never reported before, had never been to or seen a war, and questioned whether he was ready for this assignment. All of this makes perfect sense to me, but the bosses at CBC News fired him on the spot…the more things change…

Goodbye Larry…those of us who knew you and worked with you will miss you.

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Canada’s Own Evil Empire?

Most of the blogs I write are born in a news story or an event that grabs my interest and all but twists my arm forcing me to write something about it. This one is different. This blog is the result of an accumulation of upset that has taken years to come to terms with. I ask you, anyone who reads this column, is there a huge corporation in Canada that is more anti-consumer than Rogers?

Let me start with the easy stuff. Rogers brought the mobile phone industry to Canada, does anyone remember Cantel? They created a mobile telephone system that was ludicrously expensive and then created fictitious fees to gouge their customers even more, fees that we are still paying, for services that do not exist and never have. Sure Bell and Telus came along afterwards and jumped on board to overcharge Canadian consumers, but it was Rogers that created the pricing policies that make this country one of the most expensive in the world to own and operate a cell phone.

Canada was a leader in creating cable television. We were the first country in the world to use this system for disseminating TV signals. Many Canadians have a short memory about this industry. In fact Rogers bought into the industry, they had little to do with creating it. What Rogers added was higher prices and the inability to chose the stations you wanted. They bundled services so that if you want The Movie Channel, you have to buy a whole whack of stations you may not have any interest in. Worse, if you want Turner Classic Movies, you have to pay the big bucks for The Movie Channel to get it. It’s been close to two years since they promised the CRTC that they would give the consumer the choice to pay for only the stations they want, yet nothing has happened. The Rogers people gift to Canadians: little choice, higher prices and if I may add here, long telephone waits and poor service.

I will only mention Rogers internet service in passing. Canadians pay way too much for internet service, again, amongst the highest in the world. And, if that’s not enough Rogers has added insult to injury by using throttling to slow their service when it gets busy. You pay for fast service, but Rogers slows it down on purpose. While U.S. companies race to install fibre optic wire to help make their service better and quicker, Rogers uses old fashioned coaxial cable that in many cases is as much as forty years old. They claim the high prices are to increase bandwidth and new technology…where do we, the consumers, see the results of that money?

Don’t get me started on their television services. In a previous blog, The Rape of CITY-TV, I discussed how Rogers ruined one of the most unique and innovative television franchises anywhere. When was the last time anyone noticed CITY-TV? They also own Rogers Sportsnet. This started as a regional sports network with four channels, each aimed at a different part of the country. Then the tricky bastards at Rogers added Sportsnet One, put a lot of the most watched content on the new station exclusively and made us pay more to see the channel. Rogers also owns Omni, the multicultural channels with bases in Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver.
What did they do with those licenses? First they got rid of most of the multicultural content and replaced it with cheap U.S. game shows and sit-com reruns. They do news in Italian, Chinese and Hindi and run some movies in those languages but they produce very little else. What you may not know is that when you see a Russian show, an Arabic show or any other minority show, the minorities buy the time from Rogers and then have to find their own advertising dollars to pay for their work and what they owe Rogers for the airtime. Many actually lose money to provide their poor communities with a service while Rogers makes millions off them and billions in total.

Rogers also owns the Toronto Blue Jays. They should be embarrassed by their involvement. They have managed to turn the largest market for any single baseball team, 33 million in Canada and 5.5 million in the Toronto area into what they call a small market. Year after year they have underfunded the Jays, in fact the Jays’ budgets are the same today, about $60 million U.S., as when Rogers bought the team. What that doesn’t take into consideration is that the Canadian dollar was at 65 cents when they took over and is close to par today. That means they are actually spending 30% less today then they spent when they bought the team. No need to ask why the Jays have never gone to the post-season under Rogers’ ownership, the answer is all too obvious.

Now Rogers wants a piece of the Toronto Maple Leafs, Toronto Raptors, TFC, etc. Here they see an opportunity to parlay ownership of the teams into television content for their channels. If past performance is any example of future performance, don’t plan for any parades on Yonge Street…ever.

Over the decades Rogers has set the example of greed and gouging that has been seen and followed by the folks at Bell, Shaw, Telus and the rest. They could have been leaders in customer service, competitive pricing, quality television and performance excellence. They never chose those routes. All they have ever shown an interest in was maximizing their bottom line at the expense of their customers.

Who do I blame? Ted Rogers of course, but I also blame the CRTC and the Canadian government for allowing them to get away with the worst of their actions. How could the CRTC allow them to create phony charges for cell phone service? How could the CRTC have allowed prices to grow out of all proportion to other countries? How could the CRTC change their own rules to allow cable companies to own television stations? How indeed?

The people who ran and run Rogers should be ashamed of what they have wrought. The CRTC should be ashamed of what they have allowed to pass. Finally, successive governments of Canada, both Liberal and Conservative should be ashamed of standing by while the CRTC allowed Rogers to gouge the Canadian public.

I invite anyone from Rogers who wants to rebut anything to contact me. I will make space available to them to explain their side. I’m sure all Canadians would like to hear any explanation from Rogers.

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

Another Prime Ministerial Love-in

Every year around this time I look forward to the annual CTV News and CBC News interviews with the Prime Minister. They have become as much a part of the festive season as Christmas trees, carols and indigestion. Each year I hope for the kind of interview I remember from the past, but as time goes by I wonder if these sit-downs were ever any good. Is this a case of false memory syndrome on my part? I wonder.

This year’s first Prime Ministerial gabfest was with the new anchor at CTV, Lisa LaFlamme. Anyone who is a regular reader of my blog knows I have been a fan of Lisa’s since long before she came to network television. I was looking forward to some real journalistic third degree. Lisa has always struck me as fearless, therefor I thought she would be all over Stephen Harper. Sadly it was not to be.

Look, I know it was head and shoulders better than last year’s anemic effort where Robert Fife and Lloyd Robertson tossed softballs at Harper and never asked a follow-up question when it was obvious the prime Minister was dodging or ignoring the original query. The two senior CTV reporters embarrassed themselves and their network by skipping many of the most controversial subjects of the year.

A year ago, Peter Mansbridge’s one-on-one with Stephen Harper was only slightly better. He got around to all of the important issues, but you may see a pattern developing here, he too missed every opportunity to ask a follow up question when the Prime Minister was fudging or refusing to get specific.

So this time it was Lisa LaFlamme’s turn. Her first. I knew it was going to be painful almost from the start. Her first few questions were about the economy, immigration and health. Every question was too long, most double-barreled, and each one contained a way out for Harper. LaFlamme seemed to be saying, before I ask this question, and please forgive me for asking it, understand I am a nice person and I won’t force you to get specific. She looked like she was there to please the Prime Minister, not the Canadian public. It hit bottom when she prefaced an economy question by pointing out how tough a time it is to govern before she moving on to say that Harper is seen as a strong fiscal manager by most Canadians. Hello, who wrote this stuff, the P.M. press aides?

Needless to say Harper’s answers were typically long on generalities and almost completely devoid of specifics. Also, needless to say, there were never any follow-ups and at no time was he asked to explain.

From here the interview got a little better. Peter MacKay’s seeming spendthrift ways, and the Arab Spring were broached. These were the kinds of subjects Fife and Robertson ignored a year ago. Here the questions were asked at least, even though Harper’s explanations were never questioned.

The came Kyoto and the environment, on this subject LaFlamme developed a backbone. When Harper tried to explain that he got out of Kyoto because the biggest polluters had not signed on, she asked if he was blaming China and India for the environmental problems. She also asked Harper whether it was incumbent on Canada to show a little leadership on the subject.

LaFlamme followed this up by pressing Harper on the Eurozone crisis and the global economy. There was good stuff here about selling Canada’s oil to China and India, the Keystone Pipeline and the Canada-EEC free trade talks. When Harper said the negotiations were proceeding towards an agreement, LaFlamme asked what the Harper Government had put on the table. She didn’t get an answer, but she did ask the pertinent question.

Then it was back to the love-in. Harper was congratulated for endorsing a state funeral for Jack Layton and was seriously let off the hook for his government’s handling of the Attawapiskat situation.

The final quarter of the interview was with Laureen and Stephen Harper together. This section was filled with the usual People Magazine material: Harper’s kids (they seem so normal), life in the age of Facebook (the kids can’t post there for safety reasons), Laureen’s ability to comment (Stephen is almost always right but we do talk at breakfast), Christmas shopping and who cooks the Christmas dinner.

All-in-all a very pedestrian interview that shed little or no light on the troubles of the past year or the government’s expectations for the year to come. To prove how un-newsy the interview was, on a night when re-gifting and the World Junior Hockey Championships took up a too large portion of the newscast, CTV couldn’t find a single clip or highlight for their national newscast.

We get so few opportunities, especially from this Prime Minister, to spend the kind of time it takes to do an in-depth interview, it seems criminal to me to waste it without asking the really tough questions and demanding answers, or at least pointing out when the answers are not forthcoming.

I will give Lisa LaFlamme another chance because it was her first solo try, but my expectations will be for a much better effort next year.

P.S. The production values left a lot to be desired too. The camera pointed at Harper was too high and therefor always looked down on him and the camera was placed so that Harper was always in ¾ profile. Lisa’s camera was pointed directly at her, they should have done the same for the Prime Minister. Also, as the interview went on Harper started to sweat, especially above the upper lip, and he became shiny in the TV lights. I’m certain they could have paused to powder his face. They didn’t.

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

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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Monopoly…a Canadian way of doing business

A lot of you will look at the deal to buy Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment (MLSE) by Bell and Rogers as simply a sports deal. You may be questioning what this means for the future of your favorite sports franchise, be it the Toronto Maple Leafs, the Toronto Raptors, TFC (the soccer team), maybe even the Toronto Blue Jays or one of the other six NHL teams in Canada. If you are a sports fan in this country and whether you love the dismal Toronto franchises, or love to see them fail year after year, there are real sporting implications…the truth though, whether you like to hear it or not, is that the future of the Leafs success on ice is mostly irrelevant in this deal.

The sale of MLSE is about content rights, who will control the television, radio, internet, mobile, etc. rights to the sporting content generated by these teams. In those terms this is a very frightening deal. Bell and Rogers are already the two most powerful media conglomerates in Canada. They own and manage, some would say mismanage, 80 television stations including all of the major sports stations on TV. They own 88 radio stations including all of the major sports-talk stations. They will pick up an additional three television licenses that MLSE owns. Together they own the vast majority of Canada’s online and mobile services. You think that it’s just Bell and Rogers? Think again. They also own Virgin, Solo, ChatR and Fido, and of course the largest satellite and cable companies too.

It’s hard to believe that a few short years ago it was deemed illegal for a cable or satellite company to own a television station, let alone a network. Thank you CRTC.

This concentration of power will be bad for everyone. While Bell and Rogers are busy divvying up the nation, they leave little room for their competition. This means they can do with sports content what they have done with mobile technology and cable and satellite delivery. They can control access and they can control price. All you have to do to see the future is to look at what these to companies have done in the past. Canadians pay among the highest rates in the world for mobile service and internet access, and Bell and Rogers continually strive to keep competition out through influence on government and regulatory bodies and with unfair discount practices that disappear when the competition is wiped out. To quote Ellen Roseman in the Toronto Star, “Rogers and Bell bludgeon customers into accepting a flurry of extra charges for wireless phones. They hit them with unexpected bills for data roaming and third party text messages.”

Roseman goes to describe some of the dirty practices of Bell and Rogers that include discounts that evaporate before the subscriber ever sees them, raised prices that make the discounts offered moot, and of course, some 8000 complaints from Canadians to the government last year about how they are being treated by telecommunications companies like Bell and Rogers.

I expect to see access to Toronto’s sports franchises on radio and television to change in three ways, first, you will see far more games on Rogers Sportsnet and TSN and expect to see fewer games in which let’s say the Calgary Flames or Winnipeg Jets own the rights. Why pay the owners of a third party NHL club when you can pay yourself and fill the same amount of air time? Second, I see fewer opportunities for non-MLSE affiliated channels like CBC and Global to get the rights to the most popular sports entertainment. Finally, I see the possibility of a new pay channel that replaces Leafs-TV and Raptors-TV with a new sports channel that forces the public to pay big subscription fees to gain access to games that will no longer be available on any other channel, think MSG Network (Madison Square Gardens) or YES Network (Yankee Entertainment) two very profitable networks in the United States that control all of the most popular sports franchises in the New York City area.

Lastly I want to make a point about the way sports journalism will be affected. Since the owners of MLSE will now control virtually all of the sports broadcast media who will be left to criticize the missteps and worse the arrogance of this new sporting monster?

Will the guys at The Fan or TSN Radio take on their corporate bosses? Will they lose jobs and be punished for doing so? Does anyone see the conflict of interest here? Does anyone at the competition bureau or the CRTC care?

In the past few months Rogers and Bell have been busy buying the services of dozens of the best print sports writers to fill slots on radio and television and to write for new magazines. Most have quit their print jobs like Stephen Brunt, some like Damien Cox keep a foot in both camps. It is my contention that just about every sports writer in Canada is at least partially beholden to either Bell or Rogers. Sure you may write for a local paper in Vancouver that’s owned by the Post group or an independent in Toronto like the Toronto Star, but you all supplement your income, your reach and your popularity with appearances on one of the Bell or Rogers sports television and radio channels. Do you want to blow your chances for more guest shots? I think not. So, when the Toronto Raptors decide to spend less money and refuse to sign a free agent that’s available and who might make the team competitive, or merely watchable, will you write about it or just keep it to yourself? When TFC charges more for tickets than Manchester United (this is already a fact) will you shout about it in your column or is discretion a better road to take? For those of you who haven’t seen it, The Globe and Mail, which should stop calling itself Canada’s national newspaper, barely noticed this story. Why?

Sports journalism is for the most part an oxymoron in Canada. The last bastions were the daily newspapers in the major cities. Bell and Rogers have figured out how to co-opt even this small amount of opposition. Now it can only get worse.

Canadians in general and sports fans in particular will be the big losers if this deal is allowed to go through. The only way to stop it is if all Canadians get up of their backsides and scream at their political representatives. There’s one thing more powerful than the money and influence Bell and Rogers can and do wield, that is the threat of losing the next election.

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

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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