I'm Mad as Hell

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and I can't do a thing about it

Pointing Fingers

Last week I received an anonymous email purportedly from CBC News staff that was sent to CBC President Hubert Lacroix. It took a few days to determine that this letter in fact came from inside the CBC and further that it was truly meant to go to Mr. Lacroix. I don’t know if he actually received the letter but I do know it really did come from CBC News staffers.

It is a terrible indictment of where CBC News is at today. Low morale, poor leadership, and a general malaise have overtaken the place. Perhaps this is part of the reason it has taken so long to launch the new CBC National News.

Here’s the letter:

Dear Mr. President,

A concerned group of staff are writing to inform you that CBC English Radio and Television are in a state of crisis and desperately require intervention.

Our current managerial structure seems to have been inspired by the mythical hydra whose many heads frequently consumed one another. Former executive vice president Harold Redekopp’s notorious “pylons” have now been replaced by “the Stursberg Labyrinth,” where daily management decisions have to be run up multiple reporting lines. While it was certainly a challenge to work efficiently and effectively in the previous management structure, the current system is an unmitigated disaster where everyone is forced to serve not two but ten masters.

Mr. Stursberg’s leadership choices have also strongly impacted daily News operations. When John Crookshank, the best thing to happen to CBC News in a decade, suddenly resigned a scant few months into his tenure, Jennifer McGuire was made head of News despite the availability of candidates with superior news-gathering credentials. That decision continues to have repercussions.

In a similar vein, Jill Troyer was made Director of Regional Programming, where she has utterly failed to gain the trust or confidence of those she was intended to represent. Ms Troyer is directly implicated in the sudden departure of Mike Linder from the CBC this week. We understand that Mr. Linder was an award winning journalist in his own right. He was, by all accounts, one of the most creative, charismatic, effective and popular managers in the entire English service. The Edmonton News show he re-built from the ground up is now universally regarded as one of the best in the country. While the specific reason for Mr. Linder’s departure is not known, we’ve learned that CBC Edmonton staff were so outraged they nearly rioted when the announcement was made, and would likely have “stormed the Bastille” if their jobs were not at risk. With his outstanding journalistic and managerial track-record, Mr. Linder will no doubt be scooped by the competition and CBC News will be exponentially poorer for his loss.

Even more disturbing than the above is the fact that Mr. Stursberg was overheard by CBC employees making highly disparaging remarks about you and your attempt to build strong, collaborative bonds between CBC management and the unions. We would like to state for the record that we greatly admire you collaborative management style, in particular, your willingness to listen openly and fairly to concerns staff have raised. Genuine honour and integrity are not qualities commonly associated with CBC’s senior management and your unique approach is deeply appreciated. We think it is very unfortunate that some who claim to represent you do not also share your ethical code.

Sadly, these are ugly times and we recognize that were the authors of this letter ever to be identified, our careers, incomes and pensions would all be jeopardized. As such, we regret to inform you that this email account will be deactivated as soon as this letter has been sent.

Mr. President, morale at every conceivable level of CBC English Services is at an all time low. As such, it has become necessary to publicly declare that “Rome is officially burning.” What is desperately needed now are more fire fighters and less fiddlers throughout CBC’s management system.

Yours in dismay,
Concerned CBC staff

Okay, it’s not the best written letter and it does get a bit childish when it points a finger at Mr. Stursberg’s alleged disagreement with the President’s direction. But the letter is a symptom of a very diseased operation.

A lack of money because of budget cuts, the remaining fallout from the lockout a few years back, the changes in leadership and the quality of the new people in charge, the project to renew the news and the subsequent changes, all these things have been piled on a beleaguered news staff. Any one of these things could hurt an organization, together they are deadly.

Where is CBC News at today? The latest fallout starts with the new direction of the news that practically bans all news documentaries. This was the one thing CBC News did that differentiated it from CTV and Global. On many nights it was the most interesting part of what has become a pedestrian newscast. From where I sit, it is a huge mistake.

Then came the reassignment of the staff that produced the documentaries. Some very talented people are cooling their heels in places they do not fit or would rather not be. Some have been pushed out of the Corp completely. Most of the people I speak to at CBC News claim they still do not know what is expected of them. The new National is supposed to start next week! Worse, when they speak to their bosses they are told they too do not know what is expected. Mixed signals abound. How long can a story be? Where will it run? Who do we pitch to? Staffers with 20 and 30 years experience don’t know where to turn.

At the same time some of CBC’s best on air talent has been banished to radio, Newsworld and retirement. The CBC News was weak on air before the changes, now they are close to laughable.

Finally, from what I have seen of the “new” direction so far, because in reality the news has already changed, only the new set, opening and music are still to be introduced, the content that has replaced the documentaries feels like filler. Non stories are being padded up to 3 or 4 minutes to fill the last 20 minutes of the program. In one such item I saw a group of kids, all of whom looked under 20, interviewed on the street and asked about what they will do to prepare for swine flu. Interestingly the script talked about those who remember the 1976 swine flu outbreak. These people were not even born in 1976. This is poor judgment, bad supervision and inexcusable journalism at the highest level of broadcast news in Canada.

The National, like any newscast succeeds or fails based on the people who do the work, their morale, their talent and their understanding of their jobs.  It is a given that morale is as low as it has ever been at CBC News, and that’s saying a lot. It looks from the outside like there is little understanding of the expectations of management. And finally, the talent level both on air and in management seems to be highly suspect.

Is it any wonder that The National’s ratings are less than half the audience at CTV National News?

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8 Responses

  1. James Wicks says:

    Last month I returned to Canada after a 15 year absence. I tuned in one night to catch the newscasts on CBC and CTV.

    OMG!!! What did I just see?

    Lloyd and Peter are still there, just waaaay older. On the evening I watched, Peter looked constipated (sorry Peter), and Lloyd looked like someone’s aunty, what with those glasses and all.

    The production value of both shows is high: the graphics are definitely snazzier, the music pulsing – it’s just, well, it’s just that I found both shows to be incredibly boring. Laughingly, so at some points. What’s with the fake talkback between Lloyd and a reporter?

    I love Canada, and in particular Canadian television. My dad was a pioneer at CBC Halifax in the 1950’s and 60’s. When it came my turn to join the family business, I worked for the CBC affiliate in Toronto, plus two stints at CTV’s affiliates in Toronto and Winnipeg.

    What I saw on my return to Canada was the ‘show’ – what both corporations want the nation to see: putting their best face forward, so to speak. But, behind the curtain, as fans of this blog know too well, it took hard-working individuals pulling together as a team to make the show work.

    Every newsroom has its own story. The kvetching then, as now, is a time-honored by-product of working in such a deadline oriented business. What’s different now? Once in its infancy, television, as an industry, is now a senior citizen trying to remain active, but from the looks of thing it appears that it can’t.

    The problem facing Canadian television is the same problem facing television: where have all the viewers gone, and what can we do to bring ’em back. So, we pack some extra rouge on the talent, spiff up this, change that. But in the end, we still deal have to deal with layers of management, many of whom have no business being in the position they’re in.

    One thing is clear: there’s no underestimating the Canadian public.

    Younger viewers don’t want what their parents wanted, they want something else, and they get it without having to make an appointment to sit down and watch the news at the end of the day. They’ve got so many different outlets all day long to catch the news. And that’s, ‘if’ they want to watch the news.

    Don Messer’s Jubilee had a good run. Maybe television had a good run, too. Time to put a fork in it?

    Warning: Kvetch alert!

    Jill Troyer, Director of Regional Programming?
    WTF?!
    She was my 11PM producer when I anchored the late news in Toronto.
    Maybe I should have stayed in Canada, and stayed with the CBC, who knows what I would have been manager of.

    Oye!

  2. Lon says:

    Bravo for not only publishing this, Howard, but for having gained the respect of your readers to the point where you would be the one to whom someone would send a letter like this.

    I will only add that you only need to watch the newscast these days to see how slim the pickings have become and how underused some of its best people are.

    Meanwhile, I hear Fifth Estate, which had a terrific piece recently on the emerging phenomenon of Internet suicides, is being moved to Friday nights. Guys, come on. People are going to watch a serious show on a Friday night?

    Slowly but surely, the legacy is being dismantled…

  3. walnutcrunch says:

    Funny how in some parts of the country “banishment” to radio actually means a far larger audience. TV over all I guess, even when the ratings say otherwise.

    • hlbtoo says:

      Hi Walnut, or do I call you Mr. Crunch? In any case, you are right of course, but I don’t know if the individuals being pushed out of jobs they have held for many years see it that way.

  4. Brandon says:

    As someone who gets 95% of my news online these days, from multiple sources — and, in some cases, in real time — there’s very little that TV news has to offer me.

    I watched the first episode of The National, online, and I switched it off halfway through because it was so painful to watch.

    Everyone looked so wooden and the stories they had offered nothing that actually piqued my interest. I was intrigued by the story about Aboriginals and HIV patients not able to get proper shots… and then I find out they just have to go to the next town or wait a week for the next batch.

    Now, granted, this was their first swing at the first game on a new home field… but after all the hype I really was left cold.

    That said, the one good thing about this show was that it made me go online and search for some of these stories myself. I did end up learning more about the ‘news’ but I highly doubt that the CBC’s general audience is that proactive.

    I’m not sure what The National’s game was before (again, I read news-feeds when I’m bored) but this actually pushed me away.

    Personally, I think what something called ‘The National’ (a but pompous…?) should do is to aggregate local news from across the country and go into detail about why it is news and how it effects the country as a whole.

    Maybe that’s how it used to be, I don’t know, but I think they should stay within the borders of our country ’cause I can learn more about the rest of the world (from far more credible sources) online any time I want.

    If I’m going to plunk by butt down (or use my bandwidth) to watch a Canadian News show then I want Canadian context given from a Canadian perspective… things that are impossible to offer when you’ve got 44 mins and 45 stories to tell.

    Anyways, I’ll do the same thing I do for any other TV show, they get 3 episodes. If they can’t hold my attention after 3 then I won’t be back.

    I don’t have a lot of free time to be watching a ‘news show’ in the first place and I can read 10 or more blogs in that same 44 mins… (let alone what comes through the raw news feeds).

    Personally, I want to see Rick Mercer do the news. He’s likable, he’s passionate and he actually wants us to know about our own country. (Mercer Report is the only thing close to a news show that I’ll watch on TV ’cause I genuinely want it to succeed).

    It’s a shame that all the right people — the passionate and creative people — are being stymied by a ‘hydra’. But it’s even more of a shame that without my somewhat nationalistic vested interest I wouldn’t even know or care.

    Someone’s gotta slay the dragon ’cause it’s scaring away (and eating) your viewership.

    Cheers,
    Brandon

    • hlbtoo says:

      Brandon, your reaction to the new ‘The National’ should be frightening to the people running CBC because you are part of the demographic they are trying to attract with the changes. I suggest you let them know directly…it seems to me that the new newscast is uniting all the demographic groups, nobody likes the new show.

      • Brandon says:

        Actually, I’ve just sent them a letter… I honestly hope it helps The National improve, but somehow I think it’s going to fall on deaf ears. :S

  5. Racicot says:

    Yeah, I switched to watching CTV – which sucks ’cause they keep playing those ‘Save Local TV’ scams… I mean ads.

    Poor CBC. Maybe if we (the taxpayers) gave them more money they’d learn to get it right someday.

    Or, I know… why don’t we give ROGERS some more tax-breaks so they can start giving us some of that good FOX NEWS?

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