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and I can't do a thing about it

Election Coverage: Bland Beats Boring

So far today I have talked to four people about the election night coverage. They range in age from 31 to mid-sixties. I know, this is not a scientific poll, but the fact that everyone is saying the same thing, including me, I feel very comfortable in asking the question: how could such an exciting night politically result in such lackluster coverage?

The only thing that kept audiences awake was the fascinating results. The news teams at CBC and CTV did little to add to the heat or the light. The performances sometimes rose to mediocre.

The worst offenders were the hosts. I have been a fan of Lloyd Robertson’s ability to “traffic cop” the big events for three decades. Last night Lloyd stumbled and bumbled his way through the night. At times it felt like he got more names of ridings wrong than right. Worse, he could not read his own graphics and passed on information that was at odds with what we were seeing. It seemed to me that either Lloyd was having an off night or he is past his best before date. Either way it resulted in one of the worst CTV election nights I have ever seen. In the past CTV seldom competed with CBC for pure information and analytical comment. Where they always won was by capturing the excitement of the night and presenting it in the most entertaining fashion. Not last night.

Peter Mansbridge may have had an even worse time but I am not sure it was his fault. Peter seemed hesitant all night like he didn’t know where he was going next. I have to believe that the people in the control room were slow in deciding where to go and left Peter hanging time and again. He hemmed and hawed all evening before passing the mic to another reporter or analyst. The CBC set didn’t help him either. When he was talking to camera someone in the background was managing to distract the viewer away from what he was saying. Rex Murphy spent the first hour of the show overtly munching on his dinner right behind Peter. Others on the set seemed to be watching and staring at the show instead of getting ready for their next appearance.

Having said that, I think CBC did win the night. They were saved by one expected source and one source that was a big surprise.

It should have come as no surprise that CBC’s “At Issue” panel was excellent. Time after time Chantal Hebert, Andrew Coyne and Allan Gregg brought perspective and understanding to what was going on. They were a ray of light on a very dark journalistic night. My only complaint is that the CBC did not go to them nearly enough once it became clear that the Tories would win a majority and that the NDP would be the Official Opposition.

More surprising was the wonderful job that Diana Swain did. She may have had the most difficult task of the night, reporting on more than 100 Ontario ridings that were splitting crazily among the three major parties. Every time Peter went to her she was clear, concise and had information that was important and relevant. She was by far the best performing CBC journalist on the night.

The worst performer on set was easily Evan Solomon. He added nothing and did it badly. He mangled his messages to the point that they were unintelligible. Did anyone understand his point about “holds still to come” for the Tories? Evan has proven on his daily show on CBC NN that he is not a political journalist. Last night he cemented that opinion in my mind.

As poor as the CBC coverage was, CTV was worse. Pamela Wallin was a major disappointment on the panel. Besides being a born again Tory she was a longtime professional TV host. Still, she managed to bore us with platitudes all evening while adding little or no insight into what was giving Harper his majority and how the Conservatives would use the majority to remake the country. Judy Wasylycia-Leis was even less informative. On a night where she should have been reveling in the NDP gains she managed to make one point and repeat it every time she appeared: great news, the Bloc is gone from Quebec. David Smith was the most useless member of a bad panel. He needed to explain the Liberal losses with more than a shrug and a promise that the Grits would rise again. Only Antonia Maioni was a terrific panelist. She was there to comment on Quebec and she did this with aplomb and the insight that was missing from the rest of the panel.

CTV made a huge error in putting Craig Oliver in Calgary at Harper’s headquarters. It’s not that he did a poor job, in fact he was great as usual. He brings the kind of experience and enthusiasm that makes election night coverage special. He should have been sitting beside Lloyd rather than the always deadly boring Robert Fife. Fife may know his stuff but he has little ability to rise above his material and excite the audience about what is taking place.

CTV also had two people who deserve kudos for their performances. Nik Nanos never failed to entertain while explaining the nuances of the vote and Omar Sachedina was a revelation. Sachedina was doing the same sort of thing that Evan Solomon was doing on the CBC coverage. The difference was obvious. Sachedina always had timely, insightful information to report and he did it clearly and engagingly. Of all the people on CTV’s set, I would rank him the most likely to be a star in the future.

One more point I want to make. After Michael Ignatieff’s speech both CBC and CTV panelists spoke at length about what a brilliant and great guy Iggy is. They also reported that Ignatieff, in fact, ran a great campaign. Besides the obvious fact that the Liberals came in third with under 20% of the vote, I think it should be noted that for 37 days CBC and CTV seldom reported on Ignatieff’s strong campaign. While Harper was allowed to get away with nothing but photo-ops and canned messages, and while Jack Layton’s surge was stuff of headlines, Michael Ignatieff was just the guy who couldn’t connect. For an entire campaign the networks fell in love with polls and forgot to report the stories. As has become usual in Canada, the horse race was more important than the issues. I believe the network reporting has done a great disservice to the Canadian voting public. Hey, maybe the results would have been the same had CBC and CTV done a better job, but we’ll never know.
(For more on the coverage please read Jeffery Dvorkin’s blog: And Now the Details. nowthedetails.blogspot.com)

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8 Responses

  1. Jeff K says:

    Pretty entertaining commentary Howard.
    I find that election coverage, whether federal, provincial, or municipal, generally tends to have long stretches of lacklustre coverage punctuated by exciting moments (not unlike baseball) especially when the final results are announced definitively after the first half hour. Still, for election junkies it is not without its insightful moments. Like the Bob Rae interview. A reminder of how different the end results might have been with Rae at the helm.
    Like the interview with Brian Mulroney who was as gleeful as a cat munching on a Liberal canary. It’s precisely at this point that I started to feel nauseous.

  2. T C says:

    Howard did you see any of the local CBC coverage? Even though they had 57 minutes to prepare for their 3 minute inserts, they were unmitigated disasters – truly painful to watch.

    • hlbtoo says:

      Hi TC, I tried to stick to the national coverage but I have heard from others that what you say is absolutely on the mark. A friend who is a CBC producer said it was embarrassing to be part of the same network.

  3. Chris says:

    Given my natural interest in elections (undiminished by the understanding that in a nation of millions spread across several time zones it’ll probably take hours to know the results), I seem to have developed an immunity to boring election broadcasts. I don’t mind the interminably long moments between updates, when pundits and misinformed anchors try to kill airtime by speculating on hypotheses, ones that will probably be disproved by the results.

    What I do notice is when they try to sex up their broadcasts with “novel” approaches, and in this regard Evan Solomon stood out like a whore in church. Their efforts to him make him into the CBC equivalent of CNN’s John “The Gadget” King seems vaguely pathetic, partly because Solomon used his tools so ineffectively, but mostly because CBC doesn’t have the dough to spend on those incredibly cool but irrelevant toys that CNN gives King to play with.

    As for the bumbling anchors…I can only assume they were both sobering up from a Royal Wedding bender the previous weekend.

  4. Chris says:

    I must confess I wouldn’t know Lloyd had been there since I opted to watch Royal Wedding coverage on CNN. In spite of the nails-on-chalkboard droning of Piers Morgan and Cat Deeley, it was still easier to tolerate than any three of the Canadian broadcasts – thanks largely to Anderson Cooper’s thinly-veiled contempt for both the event and his co-hosts.

  5. Johnny Insider says:

    The CBC had 38 election remotes across the country, covering nearly every “big” campaign battle in every province.

    Not including the federal leaders, they went live to MAYBE 3-4 of them. Viewers got a bunch of talking heads instead.

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