A friend of mine, a long suffering CBC news writer, producer and experienced news editor, asked to write a guest blog for Medium Close Up. What a great idea I responded. This is a real insider’s view of CBC News and the new directions that it is being taken by a leadership that is saying they want to improve the news. Here’s “Burying the Local News.”
Most novice journalists learn the hard way – read the entire news release. The gold is never in the first paragraph, it’s usually buried inside a ponderous quote or tacked to the end. It’s a silly trick that p.r. people use to disguise their real intentions. It usually works when the reporter has little experience, or little time to examine what is actually being said. Experienced reporters and editors are supposed to know the ropes when it comes to politicians and businesses – but what to do when the journalism organizations themselves try that old trick … and everyone falls for it?
A perfect example of ‘spin’ and how it is swallowed whole by overworked, frustrated and worried journalists was the CBC’s “thrilling” announcement on July 28, that it is expanding local news.
In a news release, Jennifer McGuire the new head of CBC News, said the expansion of the local newscasts from 60 to 90 minutes is an opportunity to “better serve Canadians in an economic environment where the inclination could be to retreat.”
What’s the truth here? Is the CBC really trying to “better serve” Canadians or is this nothing more than a hideously simple plot to grab more ratings?
It’s the last line of the news release where the gold is. In a matter of fact way it tosses off the sentence: “Coinciding with the expansion of local supper-hour newscasts, CBC Television will air Ghost Whisperer at 4 p.m., Coronation Street at 6:30 p.m., Wheel of Fortune at 7 p.m. and Jeopardy at 7:30 p.m.”
Now think about this. The CBC is expanding its local news coverage by 30 minutes, but shifting the start time by an hour. Instead of starting a 90 minute newscast at 6 p.m., or 5:30 p.m., it has decided to start the newscast at 5 p.m. – in effect moving the local newscast to a dead zone where it will be unlikely to ever get a significant audience ever again.
Here are some audience facts and figures (which come from the CBC by the way) from Tuesday July 28. This is just a random day, I have no specific reason to pick it other than all of the programs I want to discuss ran that day in their proper time slots:
Time Program National Toronto Calgary
4:00 p.m. Fashion File 22,000 3,000 No rating
4:30 p.m. Rick Mercer 34,000 No rating No rating
5:00 p.m. The Simpsons 169,000 13,000 9,000
5:30 p.m. Wheel of Fortune 370,000 18,000 3,000
6:00 p.m. Local News 294,000 44,000 6,000
7:00 p.m. Coronation Street 557,000 173,000 11,000
7:30 p.m. Jeopardy! 683,000 161,000 9,000
It’s easy to see that the most popular shows on CBC in the early evening are Coronation Street and Jeopardy! (which benefits from simulcasting). But look at Wheel of Fortune. Its numbers are terrible sitting at 5:30. If you’re a programmer you must find ways to increase the Wheel of Fortune audience in order to sell more advertising. If Wheel runs at 7, then it will have a much larger audience available and benefit from simulcasting which will pump the audience even more. But if you run Wheel at 7, what will you do with Coronation Street which for years was the CBC’s number one show, while being tossed all over the schedule, much to the anger of its extraordinarily loyal audience?
Someone, somewhere in the CBC, came up with the idea of running Coronation Street at 6:30 p.m., which would make it virtually impervious to schedule changes in the Eastern time zones, especially during the hockey playoffs. It would also give the CBC three back-to-back proven ratings winners. When the changes take place the CBC’s early evening lineup will be a force – but anyone can see that the loser is local news.
“This initiative by the CBC demonstrates leadership in the Canadian television market at a time when the Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) has asked all broadcasters to invest more in their local stations,” the statement read.
Really. How stupid does the CBC think its own workforce is? The answer is, I guess, extraordinarily.
Right now the CBC’s local news shows are mired in a ratings pit they are unlikely to ever get out of. Pushing them back to 5 p.m. isn’t going to help. There’s no audience there to get. Even if they manage to double the audience the CBC gets right now at 5 p.m. in Toronto that would mean 26,000 thousand viewers. In Calgary it would mean 6,000. The chance of doubling the audience is, of course, miniscule.
It just doesn’t make sense to spend millions of dollars producing newscasts for those paltry audiences. The work that goes into making a daily 60-minute newscast is enormous. The tension, stress and competitiveness is a grind that is every bit as difficult as any in the journalism or entertainment business. Making a 90-minute newscast for a few thousand people will destroy whatever little bit of morale still exists inside the CBC.
The journalists who work on the regional shows have had their shows canceled by one president [Robert Rabinovich], only to be reinstated a few weeks later after political protests. Budgets have been slashed. There have been layoffs, contractions, amalgamations and now “integration.”
In the late 1990s the shows were cut to half an hour so that the “Canada Now” experiment could fail. CBC executives were told from the start that running national and international news at 6:00 p.m., followed by local news at 6:30 was absolutely ass-backwards. They did it anyway to demonstrate how fearless, stupid and deaf they were to advice from their own people as well as industry watchers.
Any realist would tell you that with this latest decision the programming department is wagging the news department and to top it all off weary CBC staffers have to swallow idiotic statements from news executives that say, “It’s really quite thrilling to be able to expand our local news coverage …”
Journalists at the CBC don’t swallow this crap, but most are too busy to have time to think about what’s happening around them. They know the leadership in news serves at the pleasure of Richard Stursberg – and that’s why the leadership team is considered to be the weakest ever assembled at the public broadcaster. They know that the entire news division is teetering on the brink and ready to collapse under the constant, unending pressure to do more, more, more.
It would be nice if someone, anyone, in the executive offices would speak up and say they’re willing to take responsibility for the changes. Would anyone be willing to put their job on the line if this “thrilling” opportunity should turn into a colossal failure? Is there any way to measure success or failure?