I'm Mad as Hell

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and I can't do a thing about it

An American Fiasco…it can’t happen here.

The fiasco that’s playing itself out in the United States with Jay Leno, Conan O’Brien and NBC could not happen here in Canada. There was a time when it could but the amassing of television properties by just a few large conglomerates has put an end to anyone being able to force CTV, Global and even CBC to do anything they don’t want to do.

What occurred in the U.S. was a revolt by the NBC affiliated stations against the low ratings Leno was getting at 10 o’clock. This resulted in lower ratings for the local eleven o’clock local news and of course a corresponding loss of advertising revenue for NBC’s local affiliated stations.

The affiliates said enough is enough. We don’t care if NBC is saving money by not running an expensive drama at ten. Your gain is our loss.

In the U.S. the affiliates wield all the power. The networks need them to air national programs so that they can sell national advertising. That’s where they make their money. If the affiliate in Cincinnati or St. Louis doesn’t broadcast the NBC show it means a lower national audience. A smaller audience means less money for advertising for the network. It is this system that makes local television strong. This system is why local news is important in America and why the average local newscast in a small city like Buffalo spends more money on news than the huge CTV station in Toronto. The entire U.S. network system is based on a grid of local stations that cover the entire country, local stations that are only there to serve local markets.

For all the bull coming from CTV and Global about saving local TV the fact is the Canadian networks co-opted the local owners and bought them out years ago. CTV and Global own almost all the stations that broadcast their signal. If CTV or Global is saving money on a show that is not delivering audience it is their call as to whether the money savings are worth the audience loss. There are no affiliates left to complain. There is no local left. In Canada it is always about the network. In Canada it is always about the bottom line of CTV and Global.

What’s most interesting about the Leno problem at NBC is that the show was working well-enough for the network. Sure they were getting about one-half to one-third of the audience that ABC, CBS and Fox were getting in the ten o’clock time slot, but they were only paying 20 percent of what the other networks were doling out for shows like CSI Miami and The Good Wife. Do the math. They were actually making more money on the cheap Leno show with five million viewers than they would have made with a cop show or hospital drama with 10 to 15 million viewers. NBC in fact did not want to move or cancel Leno it was working for them.

In the U.S. it was the power of local TV, real local TV, that made the difference.

When I started in television at CTV in the seventies the entire network was controlled by the affiliates. The Peters family in B.C. created the highest rated newscast in Canada. B.C. TV was a powerhouse. In Toronto and Saskatoon the Bassets ran the local CTV stations and built the strongest local newscasts in Toronto and Northern Saskatchewan by far. In Ottawa and Halifax the Waters family built massively successful local newscasts that it seemed everyone watched. All these stations did one thing really well: they were local. They covered their communities better than anyone and they made money doing it. They also held the real power at CTV. The network had to make them happy or they would be called on the carpet to explain.

Even at CBC the affiliates had a lot of power. Years ago, in the mid-eighties, a study was done by CBC to find the best time slot for The National. CBC news was getting beaten badly going head-to-head against CTV National News. It was embarrassing to the bosses at CBC so they plotted to move the show. The study, it cost thousands of dollars by the way, came back saying 7 p.m. was the best time slot for The National. It would follow local news and would come on after NBC, CBS and ABC News. No problem right? Wrong. At the time the CBC had 14 affiliates in places like Sudbury, Victoria and Barrie and 7 p.m. is where they made their money. This was a local timeslot. Here the affiliates ran game shows and in some rare instances they ran local current affairs (Does anyone remember local current affairs?). It was local TV making local choices. The money they made in that hour helped pay for local news. The result: The National moved to 10 o’clock which was considered network time. I guess the relative success of that move and the creation of The Journal silenced the local critics for a few years. In the end though, most of CBC’s affiliates left them for CTV or Global as CBC News numbers started to retreat.

So, when you hear about CTV and Global trying to save local TV think about Conan and Jay. Think about the power local TV has in the U.S. Think about the fact that local TV does not really exist anymore in Canada. If Leno was a Canadian show there would be no talk of moving the program. Sure local news numbers would be down but the networks would be making more money and isn’t that all that matters to CTV and Global?

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5 Responses

  1. James Wicks says:

    Peter McCluskey, Howard Bernstein and Peter Mansbridge.
    Those are the 3 people who had the biggest impact on my career in CBC local TV.

    It was back in the mid-1980’s. After nearly 5 years of slagging it out at CTV’s Toronto affiliate as a reporter, I was passed over for a promotion to be weekend anchor. They gave it to a guy with family connections to the boss. When I got the news, I did something I had never done before: I went to get drunk. First bar I walk into I sat down beside a guy who said, ‘don’t I know you?’

    Great, all I want to do is get drunk, and like the promotion, it looks like that’s not going to happen.
    And that’s how I met Peter McCluskey, who introduced himself as a senior producer at CBLT. I was going to be drinking with the competition. What the hell. So over the next hour, I cried in my beer about how my career was washed up and what do I do now?

    Next day, I got a call from Peter’s boss, Howard Bernstein, who offered me a job as weekend anchor/reporter at CBC’s flagship station. And thus began the best journey of my career – before or since.

    For the next three years the team that Howard and Peter built rocked! I felt re-engerized and tackled my new job in a way that I could never have imagined. We had a great team of reporters, photogs, editors, writers and producers. Steve Paikin, Ken Daniels, Phil Jenkins, and many, many more. Soon, Howard promoted me to weeknight anchor. There was a synergy in local TV that I had never experienced.

    Howard eventually left for Global, and a new regime was installed. Some guy from Winnipeg with a funny sounding name and strange new ideas. And so it was that things began to change at the local level, although not always for the better. And then the news broke: Peter Mansbridge was leaving for CBS.

    A national hue and cry went up, Knowlton Nash stepped down and Mansbridge was crowned St. Peter.

    Not long after, while the dust was still settling on the Mansbridge-CBS affair, I got a call from a local TV station in Miami offering me the job of primary anchor. I wasn’t sure about it. My heart was at CBC in so many ways. I turned to a close group of associates for advice and counsel. One of those that I asked was Peter Mansbridge. We met for coffee. He told me that at one point in the negotiations with CBS that he had ‘mentally accepted their offer and had ‘left Canada.’ I was already there, in New York,’ he said. I will always remember his advice: “take the money and run, Jim. things are changing, and not for the better.” Ultimately I did accept the offer. But in many ways, I never really left Canada or the CBC.

    My entire career, in Canada and the U.S., has been in local TV. A network associate once said to me, “you blew it. You stayed too long in local. Network is where it’s at.” Is it really? Not from my perspective. I miss Canada, and working in Canadian local TV. The real power of local TV in the U.S. is that this is the way local Canadian television used to be, back in the day.

    • hlbtoo says:

      Thanks for the kind words Jim. You did get out just in time. CBC cut local news to the bone and eventually caused its extinction before lamely trying to bring it back in the past two years. CTV and Global never cared about local news at all. Remember when we used to poke fun at local TV in the U.S.? Who’s laughing now?

  2. Chris says:

    Hey, not all local TV stations are gone. There’s still NTV (http://ntv.ca/).

  3. […] just to add to what you’ll read if you head on over to “Medium Close Up.” It begins with the NBC/Leno/O’Brien flap, but then provides context to what’s […]

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