I'm Mad as Hell


and I can't do a thing about it

News Lite

I hope all of you are not too tired to read another review of the new The National. I thought it would be fair to wait a few days and see a few shows before wading into the fray. Unfortunately there has been no real argument so far. I have found only one positive review or comment about what the CBC hype machine calls “the new direction,” that comes from my old pal and normally an astute viewer of all that’s new and interesting in television, Denis McGrath. For a counterpoint to what I’m about to say please look at his blog ‘Dead Things on Sticks.’

As for the rest of what I’m hearing, here’s a few quotes:

“This is news lite. I can’t believe Peter Mansbridge is allowing this to happen.” That from a prominent CBC News team member.

“Well, I watched last night and, I have to tell you, I’m feeling abandoned. It’s all so damned fast and flashy. Even the new radio news … and I like Peter whatshisname as a reporter … I feel like he’s yelling at me. And what’s with the casual jargon of the anchors and reporters. What has happened to the concept of ‘excellence’? I am in mourning. Help!” This comes from a TV pro who I have always admired for her understanding of what works on television.

“Okay, maybe you can’t review a restaurant after ONE night, but how many times do you have to get food poisoning to stay away from it?
Just one example that epitomizes everything from both nights: “Research shows 82% of Canadians use the internet…” What research will we get tomorrow — the percentage of Canadians who use the toilet?! Or perhaps info about a machine that does NOT cure cancer? Oh, wait, we already got THAT today!
Just incredible…” This came in from one of the most talented producers at the Corp.

I have heard from about 15 current and former CBC News people and they all agree, they don’t like the new The National. Well, you say, these are insiders or people with ties to the way it used to be. You are right. But I also participated in a live blog with J-Source while “the new direction” was premiering. The polling they were doing showed over 70% of viewers hated or disliked the show.

The worst news of all for the CBC News honchos is the rumor going around the Corp itself. I could confirm the rumor but not the facts. Nobody is talking. The rumor is that over 700 comments came in to CBC after night one and all but 30 were negative.
It looks like the negative messages may be beginning to seep into the mindset of the news producers. By night three there were already a few minor changes. Peter was still standing, as was everyone else, but he never came out from behind the: what can I call it? It’s not a desk. It’s kind of a grounded UFO. He wasn’t left to wander and find a spot in studio. Second, there was an actual opening that promoted the stories coming up on the show. If you remember on night one, they went right into the first story cold. Also there was no weather hit halfway through the show. Pity, I’m dying to know about the new typhoon heading for Manila.

On the other hand, lots of the bad persists. There are still way too many promos. So many, in fact, that it feels like they are replacing the 20 minute documentaries that once appeared in this time slot. Worse still, most of the promos are for stories that the newscast does not deliver on, some of the promoted material even shows up as 20 second voice over, no story at all.

Oh, and did I mention Peter is still standing. Can we make our host look less comfortable on set? How about asking all his guests and fellow reporters to be even less comfortable than Peter? The best remark I saw was after the interview on night one with General Rick Hillier. Peter announced the general would be on The Hour after the news. Someone wrote in: “I bet George gives him a seat. And The Hour is the youthful, hip show.”

Wendy Mesley is one of my favorite people at CBC. She’s an excellent reporter and a tough interviewer. What the heck is she doing on this show? Her stories look and feel like unfinished Marketplace items where they forgot to tell us the point of the research. Her stuff is inane at best. What a waste.

The biggest problem of all though the lack of depth in most of the items. There were 10 voice-over items on show three. None got more than 30 seconds and none were given context or explanation. Is P.M. Harper’s first trip to China and India not more important than that? How about Hilary Clinton in Pakistan, especially on the day of more car bombings?

True, on night three they mined all they could on swine flu. It was over half the content of the program. Unfortunately it included a piece by Ian Hanomansing that was just a longer version and completely repetitious of what was in the opening story. It also featured two interviews with a doctor about what to do if you get swine flu. A, she was not the best at articulating her points and b, this was not really news. On a real newscast this could have been done graphically and succinctly in 45 seconds. It would have been easier to understand too. This segment is what we used to call a “sand bar” in my old newsroom. The show comes to a complete stop when it hits it.
From where I sit there was only one high quality worthwhile story on the entire newscast. It was Ioanna Roumeliotis’ opening item on swine flu. As for all the rest, I can pick them apart easily for their lack of depth, context, focus and journalism. The worst was probably Susan Ormiston wasting my time and yours asking Afghan President Karzai’s brother in a telephone interview if he took CIA money and whether he was a drug runner. “No” he said. Okay, thanks for talking to us.

What is the CBC trying to do here? They say they want a younger audience. Fine. But is talking down to them the best way to get young viewers? Being shallow? Look, if a youthful viewer is the type of person who will choose CBC News over CSI Miami or the Maple Leafs playing Dallas he or she is obviously not shallow. He or she want real content as much as the 60 year-old viewer. Pandering to youth is patronizing and bound to push serious people of all ages away.

The new The National is seriously flawed at best and leaning towards awful. The line-ups have made no sense. There is no natural flow to the stories. The stories when they appear are poorly reported and shallow. There is too much going on to distract and too little to hold the viewers’ attention. Thin gruel indeed.

I have a friend at CBC who predicted the whole thing would fall apart in six months and the real national news would find its way back on air. There will be no announcements, no full page ads in the newspapers. Sure we’ll be stuck with the pastel pink and blue set and even the big round thing that replaced the news desk, but the important things, the real stories, the journalism, the depth will return. Let’s all hope there will be enough viewers left to welcome it back.


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11 Responses

  1. Okay.

    Let’s get one thing straight – people do not like change and I suspect the National has an old audience and this whole new makeover is not aimed at them whatsoever. They are trying to attract a new audience and that takes time. Having said that I have not yet seen enough of the new National to give an opinion and I can also tell you as a former Journal producer that a lot of the CBC types are old timers and they more than anyone else do not like change – any change at all. So in a nutshell – give it some time. In due course the audience numbers will tell the tale. But at this point it is too early to conclude anything other than personal opinions and we all know what they are worth including mine.
    I rest my case.

    • hlbtoo says:

      Hi George…it’s been a long time…I agree, the oldtimers hate change. Unfortunately they are the only audience left and they are pissed. Talk to some of the audience relations people at CBC, they’ll tell you everyone hates the new show. So far all of the younger people, 30 and under, I’ve spoken to either don’t watch and have no intention or hate the show as much as the old farts like you and me. This is not an auspicious start. Will the show change? Yes, there is too much talent left at CBC News to continue in this direction. When the ratings start to fall so will the silly new ideas about news. Oh, by the way, even after the biggest advertising blitz in recent memory The National got just 700,000 viewers on Monday night. The numbers quickly dropped to 500,000 by the half-way point in the show.

      • good points you are raising. If this does not work, good bye to the consultants, i suspect it is frank magid our of the u.s. i dealt with them years ago when they tried to get me to use them. i did not but used another firm. I see a lot of their touches in the show. It will be interesting to see how it all unfolds. What the CBC is doing is obvious, they are willing to annoy their old established audience in the hope of getting a younger one. They will need at least a month and more to see how it all pans out. Boy if it does not there will be serious trouble at the corp. And one more thing, i don’t recognize the moniker.

  2. Josh says:

    Paul Wells also had relatively good things to say about the *new* CBC: http://www2.macleans.ca/2009/10/26/stand-up-act/

  3. Lon says:

    The changes that have been made, we are told, are for the younger viewers, the ones who apparently like things packaged in flashy bite sized portions. But guess what. These “younger viewers” think the format is just one more sad example of how television programmers time and again keep making the same mistake in thinking that young people are not interested in content.

    Actually, they are. And I speak from some experience. I am currently teaching at a college, and most of the young students I have spoken with think the format is, yes Howard, pretty “awful”, as you want to say but can’t quite bring yourself to.

    They don’t understand why television new these days is served to them that is so “lite”. They want the big ideas. They want truth, content, and insight that help to explain this very complicated globalized culture they increasingly find themselves in.

    And so is it any wonder that they have little interest in the new format and instead log onto their favorite intelligent websites for their information about the world?

    • hlbtoo says:

      Lon…it’s important to let the people in charge at places like CBC know that just because you are young it does not follow that you are shallow.

      • Lon says:

        Let’s hope. Because young people do get, Howard, that the most entertaining, sexy, and arresting thing is simply truth and insight. What they don’t get is why older people would ever think otherwise.

  4. Denis McGrath says:

    Okay, but now that we’re focusing in here and talking about this, let’s remember our McLuhan here and keep the discussion about presentation neutral – which it isn’t currently. For as much as you keep trying to keep the discussion on content — easily 90% of the negative chatter out there is on form.

    And Lon, c’mon. A journalism class? A bit of selection bias there, ya think?

    What I know is that opposed to five years ago, when I want to find out information now, half the time one of the sources that pops up for me is a You Tube video. They use music…flashy graphics, different ways of dynamically presenting the info. You can forward them. You can comment. They go “viral” easily. And they’re twenty times more compelling (and produced for a fraction of the budget) as any trad newscast, CBC, CTV or otherwise …

    If you truly can keep the discussion on truth, depth, context, reporting — and get the people who know journalism to truly try to integrate the strengths of CBC reporting into a more vibrant, interesting, and 21st century presentation, then perhaps something will be achieved.

    But what I hear is what you always hear: fear of change for the sake of itself. It’s no different than fear of Elvis’ swivelling hips.

    When I watch the news — and I would by no means call myself “young,” there are two things foremost: I probably have had some exposure to that story before – through one of the myriad mobile updates I get. I don’t watch CBC News. it bores me. I don’t watch CTV news. It actually goes beyond boring me into some bad other place. CNN actually, most of the time, does show the shallowness that you accuse CBC’s new look of. I do like the presentation of the News with Keith Olberman on MSNBC. Why? What’s different? Opinion. Humor. Graphics. Different arrangement of story choice. Formatting that doesn’t seem so staid.

    All of the energy spent complaining about standing and fighting the future.

    If the problem is shallowness, then fine. Focus on that problem. But that’s not what’s leaking out. What’s leaking out is that it’s all part of a fit of pique of negative reaction to every bit of the change. And so long as that’s the internal story, then any failure is a self fulfiling prophecy.

    If it tilts too much toward style, fight that. But doing nothing wasn’t an option.

    I watched the CBC News 3 times this week. The last time I did that was probably 15 years ago. And I’m way better informed than I was 15 years ago.

    Complaining about guys standing up isn’t going to get any of us to the solution.

    • hlbtoo says:

      Denis, well reasoned, as usual. Here’s the thing: there seem to be 3 issues that are bothering people about the new format at CBC news 1. The standing 2. The constantly moving graphics and 3. The lack of real stories on the newscast.
      I submit that the problem with Peter and his guests standing is that it is totally unmotivated. Wolf Blitzer stands because he is front of that huge board. On election coverage Peter stands to provide access to all the bells and whistles of the coverage. There is no reason for Peter to stand, especially when he is interviewing someone. This makes Peter look uncomfortable and the audience senses this. That sense makes them uncomfortable.
      As far as the graphics are concerned, they too are unmotivated and far too obvious. There is a lack of subtlety that gives one the feeling of being on a small sailing ship in a storm. CTV has moving graphics and nobody complains because they are deftly integrated and subtle enough to not distract.
      The shallowness is my primary complaint and I assume the major complaint of most regular viewers. Like it or not most TV news viewers get 100% of their news from television. CBC is a tax payer funded organization that I submit has the duty, no, the obligation, to produce a journalistically strong and balanced newscast that delivers information with depth and context. If not them, who? Relying on people like you who are net savvy or people like me who read 4 or 5 newspapers a day to fill in the blanks is not an option. Far too many Canadians depend on CBC as a news source. Sinking to the level of all foreign news as 30 second voice overs and scary H1N1 stories is not only unworthy, it is not what Canadians are expecting and more important for CBC, not what Canadians are willing to pay for.
      So far the complaints are not just coming from old cranks who dislike change…they are as close to universal as anything in Canada ever gets.

    • Finally, a cogent arguments that is interesting and raises lots of valid points and the most important – look at the big picture and stop looking at all the small stuff. Amen.

  5. Mepple says:

    I can’t take more than a minute of CBCNN at a time anymore. I loathe visual and auditory busy-ness. I prefer a relaxed but professional presentation. Even before the changes, I couldn’t watch the hourly newscasts without wincing every time a new headline was punctuated with an annoying “kapowsha” or whatever sound that was. Now the bottom of the screen has awful large white spaces in the graphics, which makes me feel like I’m going snowblind. It just looks cheap. The effect with the monitors in the background with dancing graphics is just bad, and reminds me of an interview show Newsworld had in the 1990s that was trying to imitate the wandering cameraman effect that was popular at the time. (Incidentally, I’ve given up on CNN almost entirely now. Heck, I’ve given up on most television, starting with the trend a few years ago to put station ID “bugs” in the corner.)

    Above all, do not distract me from the program if you want me to watch and pay attention to the program.

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