I'm Mad as Hell

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and I can't do a thing about it

A Failure to Communicate

I don’t know why but I am always amazed when media executives feel the need to tinker with a program or a format that is doing well and has a loyal audience. I have heard all the excuses: the audience is too old, we need to grow the audience, and my favorite, and the worst of all reasons, the show needed to change, it was looking rather tired.

The truth is there are no good reasons to make wholesale changes in any program that is holding its own other than money. If the costs rise above what the budget allows a producer has no choice but to deal with the financial realities. But when change comes via the whim of an exec it is time to change the exec, not the program.

There are countless examples on both sides of this equation. CBC Radio 2 is one of my favorite examples. Take a national channel that has a large and devoutly loyal audience, that in most of the country is the only provider of serious classical music and change it so that classical is moved away from the highest listening periods and replace it with a mishmash that is impossible to describe or to explain and watch the ratings go down the drain.

In an age where everyone is desperate for a niche that guarantees audience, CBC Radio threw the niche they had away. It is beyond stupid. The biggest winners in this one were the NPR border stations and classical music stations in Buffalo, Seattle and Detroit.

The same kind of story took place at CBC TV’s The National. Wholesale change for what appears to be no strong reason. The result: the ratings are in the toilet and not a single viewer I have spoken to or heard from likes the new newscast.

For me the most egregious and radical change comes from a network that doesn’t usually make these kinds of mistakes, CTV. Canada AM is a show that is close to my heart. I worked on the show for six years, including close to five years running the place. In the day, with hosts like Norm Perry, Helen Hutchinson, Keith Morrison, Valerie Pringle and Carole Taylor Canada AM was one of the most important news programs in Canada. Every day the top politicians and newsmakers involved in the biggest news stories of the day felt they had to appear and explain their role in whatever was going on. Not a week went by when the daily newspapers across the country didn’t quote from an interview seen on Canada’s first morning news and current affairs program. Most weeks the AM crew actually broke stories.

Yes, there were entertainers and quirky stories, but these were reserved for the final 30 minutes and only if there wasn’t a breaking news story that needed more coverage.

For those of you who love the celebrity gossip and interviews this may sound dreary, but in fact it was exciting TV. Every interview was live and every issue discussed totally current. The proof was the huge and loyal audience. On average the show had 750,000 viewers in homes. On many days it was over a million. All of this without counting audience members in hotel rooms, restaurants and offices.

Today few people are watching what can only be described as a long version of E-Talk. Celebrity after celebrity spit out the same hackneyed tripe that they spouted two days ago on the endless celebrity gossip shows that dominate early evening TV fare. The interviews are mostly on tape so there is no real excitement generated. The news is mostly relegated to the newscast. And to make matters worse, almost all the personality on the show comes from the weatherman, Jeff Hutcheson. Canada AM has become a great advertisement for morning radio.

Today Canada AM still calls itself the highest rated morning show in Canada. Big whoop. With an audience that hovers around 250,000 viewers it barely makes a dent. When was the last time a Canada AM interview was quoted in The Globe and Mail? I suspect many of you were too young to read The Globe when that happened. I know what you are going to say, there’s a lot more channels and competition today. You’d be right. But other morning shows have held their own in the ratings and more important, there are few new morning current affairs shows that didn’t exist during the heyday of AM. The competition is no more fierce.

Nobody I have talked to knows why Canada AM changed. It took a few years so there is no one person to point a finger at. There is no corporate memory of the great show that Canada AM was. There is only this impostor that has stolen the name and fills the time slot.

Here’s where the lesson comes in. If you are going to change a program or a format there is actually a secret to doing it successfully. You must find a way to keep your loyal viewers happy while attracting new viewers. Therefore the answer is evolution not revolution. The changes have to be imperceptible. The best example here is CTV News. If you were to poll the audience they would tell you the show hasn’t changed at all in decades. In fact that isn’t true. Look at old tapes and you would not recognize the program. There have been lots of changes. They have been brought in slowly. The folks at CTV News seem to understand that they cannot upset their loyal viewers in order to grow their ratings.

There are other examples: 60 Minutes and Law and Order stand out because they both lasted more than 20 years and they both have large and loyal audiences all these years later. I know Law and Order was canceled recently, but it tied Gunsmoke for the longest running TV drama in the U.S. television history.

The problems go deeper of course. If the people running the networks don’t get it, how can the folks they hire understand what to do? Every time I speak to a network boss I am amazed at the level of incompetence and the lack of understanding. Money is everything and creativity is ignored.

Maybe it’s just me but from my perch it sure looks like the folks who run television today don’t come close to understanding how to make shows the audiences love. When I was selling shows to networks all I ever heard was: I want a show just like… If a forensics show is a winner, in three years there will be ten on the air. The CBC buys formats like Dragon’s Den rather than take a chance on coming up with something new and unique. Thankfully there are some very smart producers and writers selling shows to the bozos who run the networks. These smart, creative people somehow manage to get the odd show by the buyers who have no understanding of the history and the craft of television making. Usually it is pure luck. Modern Family and Corner Gas are the exceptions. Sure, the nets take credit for their successes, but ask them to explain how the shows got on and you will get a lot of ums and ers. There was a time when men like Don Cameron was running CTV News and John Kennedy was buying drama at CBC that quality and creativity ruled. These men were masters of their profession. They were not followers, they were leaders and we were all better off for their leadership.

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12 Responses

  1. Excellent post Howard. In addition, the lack of governance accountability and managerial transparency are (imo) key stumbling blocks. It appear that neither the CBC Board nor the CRTC are able or willing to ask these questions. Other public broadcasters (with a few exceptions) are operating under the same delusional premise of ratings uber alles as the CBC, so the problem may be more widespread than we imagine.

  2. I always enjoy your posts Howard but I think you’re way off the mark regarding CBC Two radio. I started listening to the morning and late afternoon shows about six months ago and I’m completely hooked. Since I started listening, I’ve been exposed to excellent Canadian singer/songwriters and bands and have downloaded tons of tunes as a result. I tell people about it all the time and have heard back from many friends (aged 22 to 50) who have had the same reaction.
    The shows are smart, fun and relevant. Change isn’t always bad and in this case, the fact that off the grid, contemporary music has found a place on radio is a great development. Have a listen Howard and see what you think.

    • hlbtoo says:

      Leanna, I am not questioning the quality or value of the new content. I am however, saying that as the sole provider of classical music in much of Canada the CBC is doing a disservice to its long time listeners who now have no other place to get this content. If CBC wanted a Canadian music channel, maybe a good idea, it was time to start Radio 3. Oh, and the audience drop speaks for itself.

  3. bill murphy says:

    The other reason often offered is the need to put ones “stamp” on the program, what hogwash…

    Land & Sea, the CBC Nfld TV program on air now since October 1964 still has the same story line, music and simple graphic look. No effx, stings or pix flying around.

    Just solid straight forward story telling in normal language.

    It still has a huge audience right across Canada!

    Bill
    Tillsonburg

  4. Keeble McFarlane says:

    Lee Iacocca (remember him?) was a bit of a blowhard and definitely a big head. But he loved the things he made and sold, and he had an instinctive understanding of what would work and what would not.
    Same with broadcasting — you have to be a viewer or listener yourself to appreciate a good program. Forget the demographics, the surveys, what the advertising types say. You either have a program that works or you don’t.
    This lot we have now are so busy looking over their shoulders they don’t know Jack.
    That’s why they ditched such programs as Intelligence and The Border and gave us all those distrations on The National.
    My problem is that with all those disasters the alternatives to the CBc are even worse. I can’t listen to more than a couple of non-CBC stations.

  5. Bill says:

    On the other hand if you think the choices are bad in Canada its much worse in the USA. The “Reality” shows are just “copycat” stuff and there is so much garbage its hard to find anything to watch/hear.

    I still get my major news from CBC One either on Sat radio or the Internet every morning while I read the G&M in Florida!

    Radio in the USA is either what an American friend calls “Nazi” radio! Or wall to wall music coming out of someone’s basement studio… No news, weather, no local references or time checks..

    Bill

  6. Curious says:

    wow, howard. ‘…the bozos who run the networks.’ and… ‘I’m amazed at the level of incompetence and lack of understanding.’
    Harsh.
    Have you personally sat down (very recently) with these individuals and had significant, in-depth conversations about the strategy behind their programming decisions? Did you discuss with them about ‘back in the day’ we did it this way, not the way you are doing it now? Did they give you thoughtful context regarding how Canadian consumption of media has radically changed in just 10 years and in some regards, they are delivering smartly to contemporary tastes? (whether it sits well with the old guard or not)
    Did you personally conduct these interviews and then come away with your perspective that they are ‘bozos’? Or are you just personally disgruntled with what you are seeing/hearing. If you were currently running a network would you not be hard-nosed too and appreciate that 55+ is not a coveted demographic — even if you were that age yourself?
    That’s harsh too. But it is a reality.

    When you were helming newsrooms, would you have run a piece by a reporter which consisted of such opinions without a bang-on recorded interview to shore up and prove such provocative editorial?

    Exploring WHY tv and radio programming to Canadians is no longer just about one way or it is the wrong way is much more pro-active. It may not sit well with everyone, but Canada has grown up and no longer requires to be hand-held through their viewing and listening choices. The smart US networks have always known the viewer will ultimately dictate, even if it is not that programmer’s personal taste. What’s wrong with Canada finally moving out of the parental home too?

    If you want to be pissed about the way it is heading, the viewer/listener is very much a part of the equation, as they must be. Otherwise, it harkens back to the old CBC days of the 70’s through to the end of the 90’s when the executive buzz phrase was ‘we are making television/radio for an audience of one.’ And isn’t that terribly outdated and elitist?

    • hlbtoo says:

      Well, coffeetalk, I have to admit that you are right to a degree. I have not spoken to a lot of the people who run the networks. I know and have met and talked to a few. I have worked with a few in the past. So I’ll give you that small victory. On the other hand how would you describe a group of people who make the same mistakes over and over again, who lose or push out some of their best people because of age or salary alone, who have affected ratings declines time and again, who lose more and more money doing less and less, who ignore and sometimes really piss off their loyal audiences, who don’t learn from their mistakes, who do not seem to have a coherent view of the future of their product and their business and finally who need to follow the advice of “eyewitness news” doctors in order to make change?
      The truth is, and always has been, that viewers from 8 to 88 want the same thing…coherent stories about things they care about. Walter Cronkite at 65 had a higher percentage of young viewers than CBC or CTV has today. The average age of the news audience has not changed. It hovers around 45. It was thus when baby boomers were teenagers. Trying to get a new and younger audience by pandering will always fail. Attempting to grow your audience with quality and relevance will usually succeed.
      The top newscast in Canada is staid old CTV. The top U.S. newscast is staid old NBC. They both have a significant (larger than their competitors) young viewership. The top drama shows in both Canada and the US reach audiences of all ages. House is as much a favorite of 20-somethings as 50-somethings.
      The real failure here is discounting what generations of TV, radio and newspaper folk have learned and adding to that change and breaking the rules with a strong base of knowledge to back up your decisions. The 28 year old woman has always been the prize audience. It was thus in 1955, 1975 and 1995, why do you, coffetalk think today’s media execs are the first to realize it? And more important why do you think their tactics are working?

  7. The other reason often offered is the need to put ones “stamp” on the program, what hogwash…

    Land & Sea, the CBC Nfld TV program on air now since October 1964 still has the same story line, music and simple graphic look. No effx, stings or pix flying around.

    Just solid straight forward story telling in normal language.

    It still has a huge audience right across Canada!

    Bill
    Tillsonburg

  8. T says:

    CTV’s morning news (in Toronto) is definitely more entertainment & news. It astounds me that Jeff Hutcheson is given so much air time. He’s forever trying to be funny. He is constantly fidgeting whe he and other co-hosts are speaking. He’s a very unpolished interviewer. In short, too much airtime for someone who, at best, should be a weatherman.

  9. barbara pedersen Ahax Ontario says:

    your comment are amazing….i total feel the same way as you do.i just watch for him soo sweet and natural ill will miss him he is tooo young to leave us.hope his health is great
    …i hate changes especially when they are not needed….forget about us all folks do it all for the new stuff….they watch the news……not im my family…..thank you Jeff….love you
    .

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