I'm Mad as Hell

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and I can't do a thing about it

Bland on Bland

The other day I was reading an article in one of the newspapers that was basically an interview with the U.S. actor with the highest TVQ on television. TVQ is another name for star quality. An actor the viewers respond to positively. In this case they respond more positively than any other actor regularly seen on television. It was a big surprise to me, and unless you read the same piece, it will be a big surprise to you too. It’s Pauley Perrette. She plays the tall goth scientific investigator on NCIS. With her crazy clothes, spider web tattoos and huge platform shoes it is hard to believe that the character she plays, let alone the actor could be so popular in a country as right wing and closed minded as the United States.

Ms. Perrette’s popularity, and the popularity of the other stars of the show, especially Mark Harmon and Michael Weatherly, goes a long way to explaining why a show that has seldom had good reviews and is generally ignored by the entertainment media is on most weeks the most watched drama on American television.

A long time ago, a very smart television producer taught me that most viewers watch television in one of two places…either their living room or their bedroom. He went on to explain that nobody invites anyone into their home that they are not very comfortable with. He further pointed out, if you like someone you will have them back to your house more and more often. The lesson is obvious. If you want to produce a successful television show, the stars should be the type of people that the viewers want to spend time with.

A few years ago at the Cannes TV Market, MIP, I sat in on a discussion of how reality TV is produced. Some of the top reality producers explained how they draw in the big audiences. They explained that they send every day’s rushes back to focus groups to test the TVQ of all the contestants. What they found, and the way the show works, is that everyone on the show who is well liked gets to stay. They adapted the TVQ theory a little too because everyone the audience hates also gets to play longer. Their formula gets rid of the players who are bland, who do not create any response at all. How they get rid of the players they don’t want is grist for another story. Suffice it to say that they manipulate the cast to try to end up with a man versus a woman as the final pair, and if all goes right, one contestant the viewers will cheer for and another the audience will cheer against. Perhaps this explains the popularity of House.

So what does all of this have to do with television news in Canada?

It seems to me that the people who produce news and current affairs in this country have yet to learn the lessons that drama, reality and comedy programmers have known for years.

It’s not that News producers don’t know. Ask anyone who works at any of the major newscasts and they will tell you who their stars are. In most cases they will explain that their stars are great journalists, but if you let the conversation flow you will find they will begin to talk about the great performers. The people with personality that shine through the TV screen and brighten up a room. At CBC Adrienne Arsenault stands out today. She is immediately recognizable. Sure, she does a great job, but she also has high TVQ. In the past Mike Duffy was a star even greater than his ability as a journalist or his girth. At CTV I see more and more of Omar Sachedina. Yes he’s a talented reporter, but he is also a performer who is welcome in the homes of Canadian news viewers. Craig Oliver was one of the great reporting stars that CTV had. Everyone knew Craig in the same way they knew Mike Duffy. CTV has also had Harvey Kirck and Lloyd Robertson. You couldn’t walk on any street in Canada and not see immediately how people responded positively to them.

Look closely at CBC and CTV news however, and you will not be blown away by the personalities you see night after night. For the most part you would be hard pressed to recognize them on the street if a camera was not pointed at them. I sometimes wonder how some of the very bland people became on air television reporters. Was it by default? They were, like Mount Everest, there. What’s the process that allows such nondescript people to get these few and important jobs telling the stories of Canada to Canadians?

One incident speaks of the failure of Canadian news broadcasters more than any other to me. When Pamela Wallin was whizzed from CBC News one of the greatest opportunities to create audience for The National opened up. The person with the highest TVQ at CBC news at the time was Wendy Mesley. If ever there was a true news star at CBC it was Wendy. Add to that, she is a terrific journalist and a good interviewer. She was a natural to replace Pamela. Oh, and as if all that is not enough, she had just divorced Peter Mansbridge. The pairing would have earned audiences off the charts for news in Canada in my estimation. People would tune in just to see how the former couple got along on air. The great journalism would have been a bonus. But it was not to be. I have asked CBC people why it never happened and have heard all kinds of answers, none of which have made any sense. I do know, however, if it was NBC, ABC, or CBS Peter and Wendy would have certainly been co-hosting and perhaps, the ratings they created together might have saved The National from the changes that led to the predicament that CBC News faces today.

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11 Responses

  1. Farmpunk says:

    You continually lump TV and Radio together with your criticisms of CBC News. Do you listen to the World at Six? Do you know who Jacques Poitras is? Cudmore? Lunn? Westaway? Anthony Germain??
    Are they performers up to reality tv standards? Can a person with a great TVQ carry that over radio news?
    You’ve spent a great deal of time dumping on CBC TV News for being lightweight. But now you want “attractive” performers in addition to investigative and original journalism that holds power to account… using a reality TV measure.
    That armchair must be very comfortable.

    • hlbtoo says:

      Hi Farmpunk…I believe I make it clear that I am referring to CBC TV and CTV. No doubt radio has a very different presentation style and what works on one medium does not necessarily work on the other. I think The World at 6 is an excellent program, probably better than any CBC TV broadcast. But TVQ is about TV…not any other medium.
      Now, as to your second comment, does one have to be boring to be deep? I think not. TV is an entertainment medium. When we lose sight of that fact we lose viewers. Choosing people who are excellent journalists and great performers should be the goal of every broadcast news operation. Why comromise in our search for the best?

  2. Dave says:

    I think part of the problem may be the rotation of “guest anchors” into the National, if you are on only 4 nights a week and there are three other people doing the job on Friday and weekends developing an appreciation for the anchor is difficult.

    It doesn’t help to have long drawn out anchor succession issues as well. All to often it appears that the anchor is scratching and clawing to maintain his/her status/job. The hype about a new replacement being parachuted into the role invariably results in an oversell with new viewers who try the new anchor are underwhelmed or those with an attachment to the old anchor being actively critical. Pick a replacement and groom them ie. weekend anchor and transition over say 6 months to one year. Local commercial TV eases out anchors even better than CBC ever does.

    Similarly, Newsworld is disconcerting with what appears to be their constantly rotating rosters. CTV News at least tries to maintain a familiar face – consistency appears to be the secret of at least CBS’s programming success in the United States.

    I do wonder about CBC’s decision to brand “Newsworld” as being somewhat separate from CBC – News, it appears to have lost the goodwill from the CBC News brand with no added viewership or brand identification.

    That being said, my preference would be to have Ian Hanomansing replace Peter Mansbridge in the near future.

    • hlbtoo says:

      Dave you are very right about consistency…when you are talking about daily TV the viewer has to develop a comfort level, a habit, and the best way to achieve that is with consistency.

  3. Billy says:

    You hit the nail on the head with Wendy Mesley. She is by far the best of the best at the CBC. She also has a compelling story of her own, being a breast cancer survivor.

    I honestly have no clue why they repeatedly trot out anyone else. That includes Peter Mansbridge.

  4. I can’t remember if or when I would have taken exception to anything you have written Howard, but this is certainly the exception. Yes, I like the work of Adrienne Arsenault, who I have stated in past is arguably the best tv reporter in the biz.
    But my opinion stems from content,not appearance.

    You make it seem as though one can say anything at all as long as we view them with some degree of comfort. My God, people talk of the huge void at CTV when Lloyd is gone.

    Good Grief…..LLoyd isn’t a journalist, and it’s obvious over the years through his Q&A”s that he has no conception of the world around him. When someone needs Q cards to ask a question? Hmmm

    We sat together on a Detroit-Toronto flight in 1993. When I asked him what brought him there, he couldn’t remember.

    Yep, it doesn’t matter what we don’t see or learn from our newscasts, as long as the ratings tell the networks we are comfortable.

    And, as for the heir apparent, your Kitchener beauty, Lisa Lafflamme is no more qualified for the job than we are.

    But ofr course, CTV has already started the promos showing their future queen as the authority.

    • hlbtoo says:

      Hi Bill…you are right, we agree on most things. And I suspect we don’t disagree here as much as you think. Yes journalism comes first, but the ability to tell a story on air is also extremely important. If a TV reporter can’t deliver a story it is the same as a print reporter who gets all the facts but is a poor writer. To be successful as a television reporter one has to have all the requisite skills.
      Where we do disagree is Lisa Laflamme. She has been an excellent journalist for years and since joining CTV has covered all the major stories with courage and aplomb. One can never be completely certain about how an audience will take to someone, but I think Lisa will do well.

  5. You omitted the other of the big three, Global News and Dawna Friesen, Of course, since Global’s news airs earlier it isn’t a head to head battle. You also didn’t mention Robertson’s successor Lisa Laflamme. I went back to make sure you posted this in August 2011. To your original point of the TVQ, Friesen should win hands down versus Laflamme. I am curious to see if people tune in to CTV for Robertson, for the news or for the popularity of the station. His departure should answer this question.

    • hlbtoo says:

      Hi Shawn…I left Global out because other than their host, I don’t consider them serious players. The best thing they have after Dawna Friesen is their time slot which is far more sensible than CBC and CTV.
      As for the success of Lisa Laflamme, CTV has done a terrific job of slowly working her into Lloyd’s chair. In the end it will be up to the viewer to decide. I like Lisa but any change in a daily TV show brings the possibility of audience loss.

  6. Jeff says:

    It’s not that CBC doesn’t understand the importance of TVQ (Jian G. and George S. are good examples), it’s that on the TV side, they went looking for it in places where it didn’t exist. Consider the last official re-launch. Hardcore, seasoned journalists like Keith Boag, Neil MacDonald, Susan Ormiston, and Diana Swain were suddenly told to make themselves “more likable” to TV viewers – primarily because the CBC’s focus group testing showed they lacked charisma on air.

    The problem is, TVQ just doesn’t work that way. You either have it, or you don’t. It can’t be created out of thin air (Boag’s ill-fated stints covering the red carpet in LA are exhibit A). CTV understood that when they quietly brought in 3-4 talented young journalists (two ex-CityTVers) with decent credentials, but more importantly, who have real, genuine on-air personalities – not just the ability to giggle or look cute on air). They have the ability to emit their own personal brand. And that’s the key.

    Outside of a very small handful (Briar Stewart and Mohammed Lila come to mind), the last person with any TVQ at CBC was a guy named Kai Nagata. And we all know how that turned out.

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