Back in the olde days, when I was running Canada AM and that show was a serious news and information program, I had a boss and mentor, Don Cameron, who was easily the most brilliant television producer I have ever met. He had a visceral understanding of what made information television work. If he were alive today he would be shocked by what passes for current affairs in today’s multi-channel universe.
When I took over Canada AM, Don gave me a list of rules to follow. His first rule of great television still makes sense to me even though it is now broken dozens of times every day: never interview journalists or university professors. His point here was that television is an emotional medium. It is people who have strong views, who take a side or are somehow attached to the story, that make us sit up and take notice. Facts work in newspapers and magazines but emotion carries the day on TV. The viewer remembers the distraught parents, the beautiful child, the homeless man…the viewer forgets how many, how high, and how much soon after the story ends. With this in mind Don Cameron insisted on booking people who had a real stake in any story we covered. A cabinet minister has to defend the government’s viewpoint. A mother tells a personal story. A worker who lost a colleague has an emotional response.
Journalists and professors are very knowledgeable but by the very nature of their work they step back and look at all sides of a story and inevitably they deliver the dreaded, “on the one hand and on the other hand.” This is boring to all but other journalists and university profs. The proof is in the numbers: CNN is last among U.S. all news and information channels, CBC NN reaches fewer viewers than local news in Saskatoon and CTV Newsnet has fewer viewers than local news in PEI.
Don’s second rule banned all regular panels. He said if you have an Ottawa panel every Friday and the big Ottawa news breaks on Monday, do you not discuss it on Monday and save it for your panel? Or does the panel ignore what is now old news on Friday? Either way doesn’t work. Don didn’t like regular panelists either. He felt that over time their answers become predictable. I, for instance, hate seeing Richard Gwyn on TV. I know he knows his stuff but I also know every position he will take on every story because I have read and seen his take for over 30 years. No matter what he says, to me it is same old, same old.
Why do I bring this stuff up now? This week a new head of CNN was named, Ken Jautz. It will be Ken’s job to lift CNN out of its current doldrums and back into the game they originated. When interviewed by The Hollywood Reporter Ken all but admitted that CNN is now mostly boring, but especially in prime time. He said, “We need to make our prime time more compelling and engaging, sometimes more fun, you could even say. We are going to adhere to our basic programming strategy of nonpartisan information inclusive of all different points of view. But we need to be livelier and more engaging.”
Jautz intends to improve the numbers at CNN by changing the hosts. I for one will be glad to see Larry King gone, his expiry date was sometime last century and his softball approach and kissing up to his guests was never very palatable to me. Maybe more important, he wants to up the ante on opinion, “By the time you get to prime time, in today’s media environment, there are so many websites and outlets, people know basic facts. In addition to facts, they want analysis, they want context, they want perspective and they want some opinion. And yes, I think we should provide them with as many points of view as possible, but we should provide them from all different ends of the political spectrum and from newsmakers as well as pundits.” Newsmakers…a full spectrum of opinion…this is a language I understand and agree with. This sounds like the ghost of Don Cameron.
Now if we could only convince the people who produce current affairs television in Canada. In my opinion the failure here has grown out of fear and laziness. The fear is that the producers will not be able to fill all of their time slots. Panels and regular guests present the guest bookers with a guarantee that they will easily fill a large portion of their hour or half-hour. No chance of dead air or the host talking to himself. (In my 5 years at Canada AM this never happened to me and we had to fill two hours every day, but the fear persists.) Regular guests and panels can also be depended on to not cancel and they know how to make it to the studio on time. It’s safe…boring but safe.
The laziness grows out of the fear factor. Why search for good guests when you have a tame pack of regulars who provide all the content without any of the work? Regular guests provide their own research and one easy phone call gets them to the show. Why look for a new and exciting guest who may or may not freeze on air or not deliver the needed patter? Why try to coax a newsmaker to take part in your show?
International panels are a major bugaboo for me. Here we are in this amazing multicultural country with brilliant people from every corner of the Earth living in our midst and how do we discuss a crisis in Pakistan? We book Richard Gwyn and Janice Stein. There are dozens of wonderful Pakistani people who understand both Pakistan and Canada. They can relate to all sides of a Pakistani issue and they know how to explain it to Canadians. Gwyn and Stein read The Times of London and New York Times. They may even call someone in Pakistan but when it comes to an emotional attachment they are severely lacking. They provide information not entertainment.
The folks behind “Fox News North” are right about one thing, our all news television in Canada is boring. If they were to comment on our talk shows, it is my guess they would have the same comment. For the most part I agree with them. There are remedies for our boring talk TV. Heed the words of Don Cameron and get off you fat, lazy asses and do some hard work finding great guests who will surprise, engage, entertain and inform us.