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.