I'm Mad as Hell

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and I can't do a thing about it

No News is Bad News

At the end of the year it’s traditional to look back at what occurred during the past twelve months and pick out the highs and lows. Most years there are a few examples of each. 2009, however, has proved to be one of the most dismal years for news and current affairs in Canada ever. I can’t think of a worse period in my lifetime.

Everybody has already noted the disaster that is the new National at CBC: thin gruel masquerading as news, the worst reporting staff in CBC Television history, the inability to fill sixty minutes with relevant stories, and this doesn’t even refer to the ludicrous and totally unmotivated standing around to read the news and do interviews. The good news is that the audience numbers are way down. Perhaps this will induce the CBC bosses to see the error of their ways. I’m not holding my breath.

The CBC’s last great journalism show has also been diminished. The Fifth Estate has been moved to the dead zone of Friday night where it is almost impossible to garner decent ratings. The reason for the move: a better night to run Being Erica. Now I’m all for Canadian drama but why do the schedulers at CBC need to promote Canadian drama at the expense of their flagship current affairs program?

CBC fell further under the leadership and thrall of the evil emperor, Richard (Darth) Stursberg. He and his hand-picked minions of “yes” people seem to be doing the best they can to wreck CBC News and Current Affairs. Under his rule we have seen the degradation of national news, the moving of The Fifth and local news to dead zones, the virtual disappearance of the once popular program Market Place (it finally reappears after New Years), the now almost non-existent documentary, and I haven’t mentioned the terminally unwatchable CBCNN. There are those within the network, the cynics I guess, who believe Stursberg wants to see news and current affairs fail miserably so he can take the money and spend it on new drama, comedy and reality. If that’s the case the man has not looked at the history of television. News has been, and still is, one of the best ways to build an audience for your entire schedule. Hello, Dick, is the CBC still the CBC without Little Mosque on the Prairie and Being Erica? Is the CBC still the CBC without The National and The Fifth Estate?

CBC Radio has fared a little better but those in charge there believe it is purely a case of benign neglect and they fear that neglect is coming to an end. One producer of a flagship current affairs program on radio told me that Stursberg and company are beginning to look at radio. Scary. Ratings are good, but they can better if the shows are “dumbed –down” like over in CBC-TV land, at least that’s the idea the radio producers are getting from their bosses.

Over at CTV and Global the news is not much better. The bulwarks of “Capitalist Broadcasting” are coming to the government cap-in-hand begging for money in the form of cable and satellite fees. Their hook: they want to save local TV. Local TV, isn’t that the part of their empire they have abused and chopped going way back before they had a small financial dilemma? To prove how much they care about local TV they have been closing local stations even before they find out whether the CRTC will grant them their millions in unearned cash and they have steadfastly refused to guarantee that the dollars they squeeze out of cable and satellite subscribers will go to local TV. Save our shareholders! I guess that doesn’t sound so good in a television ad.

In the meantime CTV still runs W5 but buries it by running it against hockey on Saturday evening and if and when they invest in a documentary, it always airs in the W5 timeslot.

Over at Global, they bury their current affairs in their schedule too. Hands up anyone who has seen or heard about a Global documentary. I saw one on the rise of religion in Canada but that was only because a friend produced it and was kind enough to let me know when it was going to air.

CTV and Global news do a much better job of appealing to Canadians than CBC News does. For proof of this I only have to point out that both get over a million viewers regularly while CBC has trouble reaching half-a-million. Both are better produced and slicker than CBC’s effort but there is little room for celebration. Neither makes any attempt at depth or context. In a world where ABC, NBC and CBS have long understood that fewer stories told more completely is the best way to compete with all-news TV; CTV and Global are still doing newscasts the same way they were done pre-CNN and the internet. Here too CBC News’ failure may be a key. CTV and Global have always done a better job when they were pushed by excellent coverage at CBC. Now that the “Corpse” news has sunk below CTV and Global’s level there is no need for the privates to try harder.

In the U.S. we have witnessed the disintegration of the CNN audience with the odious Fox News being the main recipient of new viewers. Serious stories go unreported south of the border while the balloon boys, disappearing politicians and “birthers” dominate the airwaves. Sensationalism is winning and stories like Copenhagen are losing. Worse still the all news folks are challenging each other to see who can distort or get the facts more wrong. Any coverage of the health care debate by Fox or MSNBC is sure to make a Canadian’s eyes roll.

The good news? Well 60 Minutes somehow continues to tell excellent stories and surprise, surprise, gets a big audience too. The Fifth Estate still has the ability to do the best research and find the best stories. PBS’ new Newshour format is even better than it was before. CTV’s reporters, as a group, are as strong as any reporting team I can remember; perhaps that’s because they took their best and added some of CBC’s best to create a kind of dream team of news reporting. The Agenda with Steve Paikin gets better every year and deals with the kind of topics that only PBS and TVO tackle; oh, and surprise, surprise, they get pretty good numbers doing it in the middle of prime time against the toughest competition. CBC Radio has so far stayed the mostly fine course (we can only pray that lasts). And finally, Lou Dobbs is gone from CNN, this alone could be reason to celebrate the New Year.

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2 Responses

  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by J-Source, Larry Cornies. Larry Cornies said: TV producer Howard Bernstein's stark year-end assessment of Canadian TV journalism. http://ow.ly/SGa0 […]

  2. line chalifoux says:

    Dear WordPress:

    You might think reading about the decline of the CBC is disheartening.
    On the contrary. It’s enormously gratifying to hear that someone is noticing the network is failing. And failing on so many levels.
    Bad journalism by people who haven’t learned where the ropes are much less the substance of them.
    The advancement of people wholly inexperienced at the roles assigned, followed by tacit support for their poor footwork.
    And perhaps the most contorted twist of all – the notion that this transformation is somehow being well received and ratings reflect that.
    Those who knew their stuff have been drummed out and those who showed any sign of promise have been shut down.
    Mediocrity doesn’t just rule: it’s become a goal to reach.

    It’s too bad there’s no open audit of how the organisation is structured. Those who are journalists with some fight left in them are outraged at how few reporters are actually working on mulitiple platforms relative to the number of people involved in planning their assignments. Sadly, having some fight left doesn’t bode well for those who dare to speak up. Criticism –however constructive- is not tolerated. “You don’t have the authority to speak up,” is a phrase that’s actually been uttered more than once.
    Keep your head down and your lips sealed tightly around what is offered is the message. Go along and get along is the motto. Meetings are full of bobble-headed lackluster decision-makers. Disagree at your own peril. Unless you like being isolated as one of those who is not a “team-player”.
    Of course, there is some value in not being a contributor to the death spiral. But the bully-boy tactics and schoolyard strategy of shunning and publicly demeaning those who don’t drink the koolaid are so antithetical to the fundamentals of sound journalism as to dishearten anyone who ever once cared. Whatever happened to the idea of checking out complaints and verifying the truth of what is being claimed?

    Nor is this sinkhole unique to the television arm of the corporation. Radio has not been saved or even left unscathed. The calibre of work in radio is about one tenth of what it was even a decade ago. Fact-checking does not exist. Hyperbole is reached for in order to plump up stories. Regrettably, most news readers can no longer pronounce words correctly. Grammar is something of yore, not unlike “new math” and telex machines.
    And if the facts are wrong, well shucks. Maybe it will be fixed. Maybe not. Mostly, errors are regarded as unimportant and annoying when pointed out. They simply piss off those who made the errors, and those who were supposed to spot them.

    There are a handful of people who know and love the business they used to work in. There are even some novices who still hope to learn and to one day do work that is regarded as worthy of the best in the field. But it’s now a rare moment when people have legitimate cause to feel proud of their work or to know they’ve done a good job. It’s not about breaking the mold; it’s about breaking the spirit that made journalism worthwhile.
    Signed
    necessarily anonymous

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