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and I can't do a thing about it

CBC and the talent deficit

“So it appears Laura di Battista will be the next “outside the CBC hire.” She’ll take over the afternoon show on radio, probably early in the new year.

“So in the past few months the powers-that-be have hired Dwight Drummond (City) and Anne-Marie Mediwake (Global), Tony Parsons (BCTV) – never mind the stream of City people over the years (Stroumboulopoulos, Richler, Laurie Brown).

“Does anyone else see a strange pattern of CBC News dismissing the competition with contempt, and then turning around and hiring their on-air talent? Why doesn’t the CBC have these people in its system if it’s so important to them – or is the CBC’s system so flawed that it doesn’t have people with the type of on-air experience/talent/look that is what management believes it needs to compete?

“Our news programs on TV and radio are now so close in content and look to the private stations that there’s almost no difference – even editorially … especially editorially.

“Funnily enough the woman that hosts the extremely popular Cityline (Tracy Moore) was a reporter at CBLT who was continually turned down for a full-time job.”

This was an email I received recently from a very concerned and highly respected CBC employee. It made me think about the history of mistakes the bosses at CBC have made in dismantling local news.

Let me start with a little bit of history. In the ‘50s CBC Television was the only game in town. Many call it the golden age of CBC-TV. It was a time of experimentation. New shows, new kinds of programming, live dramas and of course the building of local news teams in markets from coast to coast. The network and the medium were growing. Personalities were being created…Wayne and Shuster, Juliette, Percy Saltsman, heck even the actor who played the Esso dealer on Hockey Night in Canada, Murray Westgate, became a big star across the country. Wherever CBC opened a local station they created a local news program and a local news team.

For the next three decades the local news became the training ground for some of the finest television journalists that this country has known. People like Mike Duffy, David Halton, Peter Kent, Eric Malling, Peter Mansbridge, Wendy Mesley, Craig Oliver, Steve Paikin and Paul Workman to name just a small fraction. From the ‘50s to the mid ‘80s if you wanted to know who the reporting stars of the future were going to be you had to tune into the local CBC Newscasts in Toronto, Winnipeg, Regina, St. John’s, Vancouver and the rest of the country. So what happened?

In 1984 and 1985 the federal government began to cut the CBC’s budgets. What followed was a massive blunder. The Vice President of CBC English, Denis Harvey, decided that in order to save the budget of the CBC’s national news service, he would take a butcher knife to the budgets of the local news. He misunderstood two very important facts at the time. The first was that local news had double the viewers of The National. Yes it was spread across more than a dozen CBC stations, but hey, The National’s audience came from all those same stations plus the affiliates. Harvey was cutting the successful newscasts in order to save a service that was rapidly falling behind CTV.

His second error was in not comprehending the inherent value of local news. Study after study in the U.S. has shown that strong local newscasts build ratings that create strong local stations. Those high ratings for local news result in bigger audiences for network programming throughout the evening. They got this at CTV and in the United States. Their networks are built around strong local affiliates that build in their turn around highly rated local newscasts. CBC was throwing out their babies with their bathwater. There is an argument to be made that the ratings of The National were actually undermined by the cuts in local news.

The rapid decline of CBC local news continued unabated. It was a vicious cycle: staffs were cut, ratings plummeted, money became scarcer, so staffs were cut further, rating fell even more and ad revenues all but disappeared. Soon many local news operations were shut down and the idea of regional news raised its ugly head. Can Edmonton and Calgary share a newscast? Apparently not. By the new millennium local CBC news was all but non-existent. In Toronto audiences fell from highs of over 300,000 viewers in 1985 to under 40,000. The results were similar in Calgary, Vancouver, Halifax and Montreal. People were not watching because CBC was not providing a serious newscast.

Today we are left with the legacy of those times and those decisions. Sure, local newscasts are sort of back. Ninety minutes of information that repeats more than my mom’s garlic burgers. Staffs that are one-third the size of those who produced just sixty minutes in the past. Worst of all, rather than follow CBC’s historic striving for quality news coverage, they are emulating the worst of the privates’ local news coverage. They are chasing ambulances, fire trucks and police cars with hardly an attempt to look at local issues.

Under the circumstance it should come as no surprise that CBC has to go outside to find talent. It should also come as no shock that the talent they are hiring fit the CITY-TV mold far more that they resemble what we used to expect on CBC.

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19 Responses

  1. James Wicks says:

    Full disclosure:
    I loved working for Howard Bernstein.
    I am unashamedly a HUGE Howard Bernstein fan.
    I would work for Howard anytime, anywhere, for any amount.
    However good you think you are, working with Howard makes you way better.
    You know why? He knows his stuff.
    Love him or hate him, Howard Bernstein calls ’em like he sees ’em.
    And you can take that to the bank!

    Howard hired me away from CFTO back in the mid-1980s where I had been a reporter for 5 years. The truth was, CBC was in my DNA. My father was one of the pioneers of CBC television in the 1950s, first in Halifax, then Ghana, West Africa, then Toronto.

    Back in the early 1970s when I was first starting out, I happened to take an announcer’s test from George Rich, a CBC staff announcer. At the end of the test he pronounced judgement: “You should find another line of work.”

    Rejection has a way of making you dig deep. And so I did.
    Fast forward to 1985.
    Howard saw something that others didn’t, and he hired me away from the number one rated TV station in Toronto.

    I was hired as Weekend Anchor and weekday reporter.
    My first day on the job at CBLT I was assigned a story.
    A producer gave me the script and I turned in a voice-track.
    Upon hearing it, she sent me back to the voice-booth to recut it because she said I hadn’t delivered it in the regular CBC style that she was used to.

    Numerous takes later, the audio track she ultimately accepted was the one in which I sounded like a depressed sailor on shore leave without a dime to my name. But, ever the dutiful new employee, I had followed her directions to the letter, and and gave the dullest read I could. George Rich would have been proud.

    After the story hit the air, Howard came into the newsroom and asked me what the hell I had done? He said to me, ‘That isn’t the Jim Wicks that I hired? Where did he go?

    When the truth was ultimately exposed, Howard confronted the producer and, as I stood nearby, told her flatly: “Don’t ever do that again! I hired Jim to sound like Jim, because he’s a natural and a damn good reporter. If I had wanted him to sound like the CBC, I would have hired someone who sounded like that.”

    Or words to that effect.

    The point is, the CBC could use more visionaries like Howard Bernstein at the helm, and less of the ‘fill-in-whatever-their-name-is-here” that currently run the joint.

    It doesn’t matter whether you are working inside the Corpse, or outside, good talent under the right direction will always shine.

    It’s true what they say, cream always rises to the top.
    And the CBC needs more cream like Howard Bernstein in its coffee!

  2. anonymous says:

    I’m a long time CBC employee – NOT in the limelight. What I can tell you is that it’s not all as simplistic as this. There is a LOT of internal politics and a general feeling by management that current employees are never good enough for a higher-level position (there are always a few exceptions to this, generally for friends). Many people have left, only to come back a few years later in a better position, which they weren’t even considered for previously. Experience gained within doesn’t appear to be as valuable as that gained outside – why is beyond me, as it makes no sense. There are a LOT of dead-end jobs.

  3. Joe Clark says:

    I’m not clear why so many of your paragraphs appear or attempt to be direct quotes.

    • hlbtoo says:

      Joe, the first six paragraphs are direct quotes from an email I received from a CBC employee. I believe I say that in paragraph seven.

  4. Barry Kiefl says:

    Howard, I enjoy reading your comments but you, like a lot of CBC managers, have a selective memory of CBC audience performance. In the mid-80’s The National had an audience of approximately 1.8 million viewers on the full CBC network, according to Nielsen data, while the supper hour news programs had a combined audience of about 1.2 million viewers on CBC-owned stations. Even after controlling for the more limited distribution, the supper hour local news programs could be said to have an audience roughly equal to that of The National, not twice as many viewers.

    In my 25 years at the CBC I can think of no better manager and thoughtful person than Denis Harvey. The CBC desperately needs more people like him.

    • hlbtoo says:

      Barry Kiefl was the excellent numbers man and audience research expert when I was at the CBC. I trust his numbers more than anyone else in the business that I have met. Having said that, Barry it was you, back in 1985 that gave me those numbers.
      Further, The National’s numbers included the affiliates which means double the number of stations compared to CBC local.
      BTW, I loved Denis Harvey. He was thoughtful, honest and in this case wrong. I told him so myself. A few years later he admitted to me that he may have been mistaken about local news. That’s part of what made Denis so special.

      • Barry Kiefl says:

        Howard, thanks for the compliment. I can provide the 1985-86 data to you right now but I believe your recollection about what someone gave you 25 years ago may be in error. The fact is that on the local CBC-owned stations, the national and local news programs had about the same size audience in the mid-80’s. Not to say that local news is not important. I left CBC because senior management didn’t like my reports showing the strength of the local news audiences in such communities as St. John’s and Charlottetown.

      • hlbtoo says:

        I trust your numbers Barry…

  5. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by All About the CBC. All About the CBC said: Blog post by a retired broadcast news editor about the state of local news at the CBC. Some interesting history… http://fb.me/H5Aglnf6 […]

  6. Jode says:

    I’m glad that someone has pointed out the elephant in the room.

    CBC has to revert to the standard of public broadcasting — not mimic the flashy non-newsworthiness of the private stations.

    What has happened to my CBC??

    Please go back to setting the standards for “news.” If I wanted to see CityPulse, I would have tuned in years before to CityTV and Global. There is no more critical thinking, there are no more important local issues — this stuff isn’t news.

    This is the time for the CBC to take control of real news. While other privately owned stations discover different ways of covering fires and robberies, let’s get the CBC to take over the void in real issues that matter. Otherwise, we may as well all be tuning in to Ben Mulroney’s latest Justin Bieber updates and other he said, she said stories.

    Please hire educated journalists from solid journalism programmes, and not just good-looking or good sounding broadcasters from other stations. Please make use of the talent you already have in your newsrooms.

    If not, I don’t see why the CBC is even relevant at all anymore. The right-wing haters of the CBC will all have valid points for why taxpayers continue to fund the exact same content that is available on other privately owned stations.

    • James Wicks says:

      What has happened to our CBC is the same thing that has happened to all television outlets, be they network or local, in Canada or the U.S.
      There is a severe deficit of talent to draw from.
      We talk about having more choices in this million channel universe, but with that many choices there just isn’t enough talent to to go round.
      The benchmark that was ‘quality’ 20 or 30 years ago, has changed.
      And not for the better.

  7. Johnny Insider says:

    Howard,

    Thank you so much for this post.

    It is indeed the elephant in the room. And there is so much more that needs to be said.

    For years, the CBC has treated its on-air talent as interchangeable. It’s not that there’s a talent deficit, but a Howard points out, very little growth that happens internally.

    The mentality is akin to the Toronto Maple Leafs of the early 1990s. Instead of developing their own talent within their own farm system, they simply went out and bought aging free agents, handed them the keys, and said “please lead us to the promised land.”

    It never happened.

    The veterans never signed with the Leafs because they were ambitious, driven, willing to play for an underdog, or looking forward to becoming franchise players for the next twenty years.

    They did it for the money. And the Leafs never won.

    At least if the CBC had an eye for the right talent, it would be different. Instead, everything is done along a corporate mandate.

    Need a visible minority to anchor the network? No problem. Here you go.

    Need a spunky girl to balance a show dominated by white males? Voila.

    The problem is, the talent level just isn’t there. The proof is in the ratings.

    These decisions alienate existing staff – including up and comers, who are leaving the CBC in droves. If the CBC did have an eye for talent, they never would have let up-and-coming talent like Moore, Madan, Singroy, Nagata, Baichwal, Paikin, Gutfreund, etc leave.

    What we’re left with are aging, one-size-fits-all journalists who cannot perform an unscripted live, let alone carry a national audience.

  8. psa says:

    One factor, or set of factors, that aren’t noted here are the advent of the 24 hr media cycle and the shift away from quality writing. Some of the has to do with the general audience retraining toward the sound-bite sized info nugget. The draining of attention span was made clearer to me recently in company watching a documentary. The narration was stellar, detailed and wonderfully written prose. After a few minutes the youngest person in the room, a university student, chimed in with… I can’t believe he is still talking, like, ohmigod.

    We are now bombarded by trivia and infotainment bordered by crawls and graphical overkill. The audience no longer believes or expects that a newscaster might be a person of substance. They are now cast in the role of attractive on-air talent. The news is no longer about relating events that matter but about finding the demographically charged ratings pushers. An attractive person has died! Let there be banners and scrolls, impoverished people suffering… same old. We now have the incredible capacity to become blase, bored and disinterested in entire wars in which we ourselves are engaged.

    The simple truth is that literacy is suffering, even among the educated and affluent. Attentions spans are shrinking across the media landscape and to compound these factors media outlets like CBC are competing to find talent and staff among the thousands of other outlets running night and day.

    A Murrow or Cronkite appearing in the modern age would be a no-go, branded either as untelegenic or too dry, boring even. I’m sure there are politics and institutional issues at an organization like CBC. Especially considering being beholden to the increasing partisan avarice of the political class for a budget. It all makes me sad, the CBC was, perhaps is and should be a national treasure.

  9. lilly says:

    Honestly, I’m graduating from an (in my opinion) excellent j-school next year and while I love the CBC and have worked for them before, the atmosphere’s toxic. I’m not keen on being hired into that environment of politicking and cuts only to remain in the same job for the next thirty years.

    When my mum was a young journalist in the 80’s, she said, everyone wanted to work at the CBC. You had the time to craft good stories, and the support to grow. It’s not true at all anymore, and there aren’t many people in my graduating class who would take that job. It’s just plain sad.

  10. Jerry says:

    the cbc needs some serious help form the federal government; it seems all the tories want to do is axe the cbc.

  11. Mark Andrew says:

    Question: Whatever happened to Jason Moscovitz anyway?

  12. Fred says:

    Sorry to chime in so late. But I found this post and some of the comments very interesting. Truth be told, I find Laura di Bautista awful (incoherent, terrible interviewer, inarticulate, downright simplistic). I think I understand now a bit better why. It seems the CBC was looking for a host with a local brand. It’s too bad, I generally enjoyed voth Andy Barrie and Matt Galloway, but now avoid “here and now” like the plague.

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