I'm Mad as Hell

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and I can't do a thing about it

Mourning TV

So here I sit in Buenos Aries after week long stays in Mendoza and Salta Argentina and a quick stopover in Santiago Chile and I must say, even though my Spanish can at best be described as rudimentary, I am more than a little envious of the South Americans for their amazingly strong early morning television. Unlike Canada where only the all news stations bother much with news in the morning, CBC network does do an hour from 6 am to 7 am too, in South America, or at least these parts, they start their broadcast day with hours of serious news content…live newscasts, live news interviews, even live cameras out on the streets.

It is truly impressive to see three or four stations competing for news viewers with the latest reports and live coverage of events from six am until at least nine am (it may start earlier and end later, I have to admit I haven’t been in front of a TV before 6 or after 9). In every hotel they blast their favorite, sometimes two favorite newscasts out into the breakfast rooms and everybody seems to be glued to the news, even those in large group. Sure, there’s some recut footage from yesterday’s newscasts, but it makes up maybe 25 or 30 percent of the coverage. Most of the reports are either live or live interviews.

Contrast that with Canada.

Look, I startd out in morning television on Canada AM in the early to mid-seventies. AM was a serious part of CTV News. Every morning we produced a live two hour show with interviews with the top newsmakerws of the day. The interviews were seldom booked more than a day in advance and in many cases were booked overnight when a story broke. I remember redoing entire shows at 2 am when Pope John Paul I died and when, thank you Larry Leblanc, John Lennon was killed. Canada AM got the first ever interview with Jimmy Carter after he became president, even before the U.S. networks. Politicians, business people, lawyers, sports stars, you name them, clamoured to be interviewed live first thing in the morning. Norm Perry, Helen Huthinson, Gale Scott, Pam Wallin…they were all serious journalists and took little or no joy in the odd feature interview we produced. Oh for the day…

Today Canada AM isn’t even a shadow of its former self. Beverly Thompson is too busy dealing with the latest paint trends, dressing your lettuce and the top fitness apps to even notice a big news story. The newscasts are just rehashes of last night’s CTV National and the odd international piece that AM can grab from an American network.

Global is the newest kid on the block in the early morning, and while I applaud what seems to be a serious attempt at Global to compete with CBC and CTV for a national news audience in the evening, their morning show is a dog’s breakfast, at least the timing is appropriate. At Global morning television is a cross between “The View” and CITY-TV’s “Breakfast Television”. Liza Fromer leads a band of four people who all seem to want to talk about every subject that comes up no matter whether they have anything of note to add. It’s nuts, all four, or sometimes only three interview the guests who’s subject matter is scarily similar to Canada AM and Breakfast Television, and everyone seems to have the right to interupt the newscasts with comments on the stories. The most frightening part is that Global News Director Ward Smith had the gall to call it a “groundbreaking new format.” I guess he has never seen “The View” or “Breakfast Television.”

Breqakfast Television is what it has always been so I will give it a pass. The format was created to be the anti-Canada AM. That was a smart way to compete and at the time it was pretty original. The format lives on even though the folks in the chairs have changed.

Finally, I want to note that the only game in town for news is CBC. CBC News Morning and CBC NN’s morning shows do try to bring Canadians a serious look at what’s going on in Canada and the world. Unfortunately there are a galaxy of hosts, seven the last time I counted, and the budgets are miniscule, so except for the odd interview, it is last night’s news again with some new footage grabbed from the U.S. nets when a big story breaks.

What happened? Are Canadians that uninterested in news? I suspect it is easier to fill with cooking, gardening and Kardashianalia than to work at finding guests to discuss the government’s latest cost cutting measure or how the cops nabbed another 60 in a child porn ring. Based on what I have seen in South America, it isn’t news that’s turning people off, it’s networks turning off the news.

There is one glimmer of hope though, CBS’s new morning show is once again trying to do serious news coverage. All I can hope for is major success for CBS so that everyone else will copy the idea.

PS…there is a rumor afoot that Canada AM is soon to be cancelled and replaced with local morning shows across the country. If that’s true, will they be more like what I’m seeing in Argentina or will they be more like “Breakfast Television clones?

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Hewitt’s Law

I just returned from over a week in the U.S. Pacific Northwest. The weather was great. The scenery was beautiful. The company was amazing. The only negative was trying to watch TV. The current coverage of Obama’s healthcare reforms is enough to drive even the most hardened news junkie away from the television. American networks are dropping the ball big time. They are not delivering the facts. They are allowing falsehood after falsehood to make it to air with little or no comment. If I worked for news at CBS, NBC, ABC, or CNN I would be hanging my head in shame and telling the people I met that I was an accountant.

But that’s not what I want to talk about: the poor coverage of healthcare reform is just a jumping off point to talk about Don Hewitt. Hewitt was one of the creators of television news and current affairs. We all know him for 60 Minutes but he goes back a long way before that. He produced Walter Cronkite on CBS Evening News and Edward R. Murrow before that. He wrote the very vocabulary that television journalism uses and he did it from scratch. There was no TV news before Hewitt.

Lucky for all of us who have followed in his footsteps in broadcast journalism, he set the standards.

I wonder what he would say if he watched tonight’s evening newscasts in the U.S.? I think I know. He would wonder what happened to the story telling. Why are the reporters dealing with issues and not telling stories about people. What about the story of a working class family that can’t afford health insurance? Where’s the story about the middle class dad who’s afraid of losing his company-paid-for insurance? How about the couple on Medicare or Medicaid, government programs, telling us how well or how poorly these programs work for them? Those are just a few of the possibilities.

You see, the true genius of Don Hewitt was his understanding of three small things that every broadcast journalist should know without thinking. They should be automatic – like breathing. They were the backbone of all Don Hewitt accomplished and stood for and they are deceptively simple.

The first is to “tell me a story.” It was his mantra. When you wanted to get something on the air he demanded this simple act from you, the ability to tell an interesting story. What is more basic in broadcasting? Nothing. If you are not a story teller you should not be a journalist. In fact, if you are not a story teller you should not work in TV, radio or film. The ability to weave a tale that will grab the viewer’s attention and hold it is the singular most important craft that we have to perfect to do our jobs. When the powers that be are weeding out applicants for jobs that’s all they should look for. We can teach the rest. Cameras, edit suites, microphones…these are just the tools we use. We can learn how to use them in one year of community college. Story telling…that’s innate, something you are born with.
Don Hewitt’s second rule is even more abused by modern broadcast journalists than his first. He demanded that every story be entertaining. He realized immediately upon joining CBS TV in the late 1940’s that television is an entertainment medium. People don’t turn on their TV to watch the news, they turn it on to see House, CSI and Family Guy. Go ahead, ask your neighbors what their favorite TV show is. None will say it is the news, I guarantee it. Even though this is more important today in the 200 channel universe it appears to be less understood.

When I worked at CBC News they were upset with me for telling my staff to make their stories entertaining. I had to come up with a new description the bosses would accept. I called for “engaging” stories. Today’s newscasts are anything but entertaining. The CBC is the worst offender and the changes they are talking about threaten to squeeze the last bits of entertainment from their newscasts. They don’t seem to understand that their competition is not CTV News and CBS News, it is CSI Miami and Law and Order. Even the 6:30 U.S. newscasts are going up against reruns of NCIS and 2 ½ Men. To Don Hewitt this was obvious.

Finally, Hewitt understood that people do not relate to issues, they relate to people. He demanded that his reporters and producers put a human face on every story. It seems simple and obvious to me as it did to Don Hewitt but I still see story after story on the news that deals with the issues of the healthcare debate without telling me how they affect a single human being. Why should I care about the deficit? Why do we have to help the banks stay afloat? There are real people, Americans, who are affected by what government does. Who is telling their stories?

Don Hewitt’s three simple rules should be the first thing we teach journalism students. They should be automatically understood by everyone who works in TV and radio news. Sadly they are not. In fact we are losing our acceptance of these basic rules. Just watch the news and you will see.

Like all great artists Don Hewitt’s genius was his understanding of the simple truths, the basics, and he never strayed from that. Even though I never met the man I am sad that he is gone. We need his wisdom more than ever. I’m afraid we will miss him more than we will ever know.

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A New TV Tax

Okay, stick with me for a second, when the Canadian government creates a regulatory body who are the men and women appointed to that body supposed to protect? If you think, like I do, that it is the Canadian people then you may be wrong.

If the CRTC, The Canadian Radio, Television and Telecommunications Committee is any example, then we the citizens have got it all wrong. These guys seem to think they have been appointed to protect the interests of the industry giants. The bigger the giant, CTV and Canwest/Global come to mind, the more protection they need. At least that’s what it appears to be looking from the outside in.

Their latest move, and it has nothing to do with the media, is to keep secret the names of companies that violate the “Do Not Call” regulations. These are the telemarketers that break the law and call you even though your name and telephone number is on their “Do Not Call” list. Why is the CRTC protecting the scofflaws? Well, if they were to be put out of business who would the CRTC regulate?

The answer to the last rhetorical question is what’s behind the CRTC considering forcing the cable and satellite companies to pay CTV and Canwest/Global for delivering their signals. Never mind the facts, that their licenses clearly state that they are free services. Never mind the benefits that these companies already have given to them, like “must carriage”, that is they have to run the “over-the-air” stations, sometimes delivering them to places that would not normally get their signal. They get the best spots on the TV dial, ensuring higher ratings and more advertising dollars. And, let us not forget the simulcasting, that is substituting the Canadian feed for the U.S. feed when they are running the same program, perhaps the biggest dollar give-away to CTV and Canwest/Global of all. Simulcasting is the single biggest reason the Canadian networks grew and prospered in the past. Oh yes, that and the shameless hawking of U.S. programs that were picked up for nickels and dimes compared to the cost of actually producing something. All these benefits and the networks want more. They want the cable and satellite companies to pay them for their “free” service.

Guess what folks, the cable and satellite companies will not pay CTV and Canwest/Global. You will. It’s estimated that your cable bill will rise six dollars before taxes and you won’t get a single new service or program. Oh, and even worse, you won’t have any choice in the matter. Remember, the new charges are for “must carry” services. You can’t opt out of getting CTV or Canwest/Global or paying for them.

So here we go again. The CRTC who are supposed to be protecting our best interests have created a new hidden tax on all of us that will go straight into the coffers of the two largest media conglomerates in the country.

Now let’s get back to the original rhetorical question, why is the CRTC doing this? They are protecting the big guys because if they go down the CRTC will have nobody to regulate. That sounds like they have been regulating them in the past. Fat chance. When I worked at Global we had gone at least a dozen years without meeting our CRTC regulated license agreements. Did the CRTC shut us down. No. They renewed license after license on the promise we would do better next time. We never did.

The same is true for all kinds of stations. Omni, Vision, History TV and Discovery Channel to name just a few, are channels that have at best played semantic games with their license agreements and at worse flouted the terms of their licenses. Have any of these guys been sanctioned? Sometimes they get a five year license instead of a seven year license. Poor babies.

The TV industry in Canada is facing tough times. Advertising is way down because of the recession. But most stations are holding their own, making do, like they have in half-a-dozen recessions in the past.

What’s changed? CTV is in trouble. Why? Is it the recession? Only in small part. The biggest problem CTV has is that they went on a buying spree for two decades. They bought lots of local stations and they bought and opened lots of cable stations. Buying Chum/City was the last and biggest purchase. This has left them with a huge debt they can’t service in tough times. Is that our fault? Why are we paying for their greed? They got into this trouble because they wanted to keep others like Canwest/Global out. If they had taken care of their own business instead of worrying about Canwest/Global’s they would be in far better financial shape.

The dummies at Canwest/Global are even nuttier. They are in big trouble, on the verge of bankruptcy. Is it the recession? Absolutely not. These Bozos continue to keep The National Post going despite the fact that it is robbing millions of dollars from their primary business. The only people in Canada who don’t realize The National Post has failed seem to be the owners. They also bought Alliance Atlantis paying way too much for a company that was itself reeling and doing it at a time that Canwest/Global could not afford to add to their debt.

So the new tax on TV the CRTC is imposing is to help two large private media conglomerates get out of predominantly self-inflicted problems. I ask again, is that the CRTC’s job? Are they there to protect CTV and Canwest/Global or are they there to protect us?

The answer my friends is obvious…

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Making Saint Michael

I am being pushed and prodded from all sides. It seems everyone wants to know what I think if the Michael Jackson coverage. In truth I hadn’t given it much thought. In my mind Jackson has spent the last decade doing his damnedest to make himself irrelevant. I do not believe the media coverage of the events surrounding him have anything to do with news, it’s all about ratings.

When did news organizations begin treating “the Hollywood star making machinery” as a big story? I know that Elvis Presley’s death, while a big story, did not get wall-to-wall coverage. Maybe it was because CNN and Fox News didn’t exist but I doubt it.

The first big story I remember taking over all the airwaves all the time was the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. But hey, he was the leader of the free world.

The marriage of Lady Diana to the Prince of Wales was covered extensively but it didn’t knock everything else from the news.

I was executive producer of Canada AM when John Lennon was murdered. It was a shocker. We gave over half the show to the story. That’s half, not the whole show, and he was murdered.

The first time I remember a celebrity getting this kind of coverage was the accidental death of Princess Diana. You couldn’t get away from the coverage for weeks on end. Like the coverage of Jackson much of the coverage crossed the line and became maudlin and silly, but as the networks said, it’s what the people want. If we don’t run it the audience will change stations to a channel that is all Diana all of the time. What choice does that leave broadcasters?

So it’s not the news media who are at fault, it’s the audiences who seem to have an insatiable appetite for this trite stuff. Or is it? Is it possible that the media have created this monster?

Years ago there was a successful show format, A Current Affair, being the prime example, that was gaining popularity. News organizations were taken aback when their research found that viewers of this pop-news didn’t know the difference between what ABC was reporting and A Current Affair‘s coverage. In fact many viewers said they were regular news viewers and cited A Current Affair as their favorite newscast. So what did the networks do? Did they produce better more engaging newscasts? No they started to take up the cult of personality. They began to emulate A Current Affair.

Flash forward to today and you can see the results. News is all about personality. President Obama’s kids eating gelato in Rome is a story. Michelle’s dress is a story. The president’s date to go to a Broadway play is a story. And that’s the political news.

So yes, we in the media are to blame in the very least for creating the appetite for this kind of sugary coverage, lots of calories no real nutrition. There will be more of this in future not less, you can bank on it.

There are two things that do bother me. First, we are all brought up being told not to speak ill of the dead, “if you don’t have something nice to say, don’t say anything.” Well, that’s not the way we are supposed to think when we produce the news. A former colleague told me last week that journalism is the search for “truth.” That’s a pretty big idea but it is not wrong.

Where is the truth in the Michael Jackson story? This is a man who spent half a lifetime trying to banish any hint of color from himself. He was an anti-semite. He was strange to the point of being mentally ill, dangling his baby over a balcony and sleeping with young boys at Neverland. I’m not saying this is what the story of his death should be about, I’m saying his death has to covered in that context.

The same was true of Princess Diana. The media totally ignore that this “wonderful mother”, as they called her, hadn’t seen her boys in months because she was carousing around France and the Mediterranean with a known playboy. Further her charitable works were dwarfed by the money she spent on an enormous and hugely expensive wardrobe. She was no Mother Theresa who’s death was ignored because Di died.

If Stalin died today the media would probably heap praise on him for winning World War II and forget the tens of millions he murdered.

The second thing that bothers me is the easy fashion in which television news forgets that anything else is happening in the world. Iran disappeared as a story the moment Jackson died. Riots in China were given short shrift days later. We are lucky the Jackson celebration was before the G8 summit or the world economy and the environment might have disappeared too.

Do I sound upset? I am not. It’s what I have come to expect. Maybe that’s more upsetting than the network coverage.

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Ottawa reporters and the “pack” mentality

Canada’s Natural Resources Minister has caused more than a few headaches for her Conservative colleagues in the past few days. First one of her briefing books was left at a CTV News bureau in Ottawa. Then, just when the trouble seemed to blow over, she gets caught on tape badmouthing a fellow cabinet minister and seemingly enjoying the “sexy” medical crisis caused by the Chalk River Reactor shut down.

These events are not what most people expect from their political leaders and they bring up important issues. Too bad for Canadians though, our Parliamentary media are not interested in the important issues. As usual our media are interested in the gossip and the political infighting.

Have any Ottawa reporters asked how Lisa Raitt will be able to work with Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq after doubting her ability to help solve the medical isotopes crisis?

Furthermore, have they questioned Ms. Raitt on how she let the problem, the lack of medical isotopes, devolve to crisis level if she considered it such a “sexy” issue? What has she and her government been doing since the last time Chalk River had to be shut down in 2007?

I haven’t seen or heard anyone of our Ottawa reporters ask these questions.

There are real issues that affect real people at play here. Put yourself in the place a cancer patient waiting for radiation  and wondering whether there will isotopes available for your therapy.

So far the only things noticed by the media in Ottawa is the fight over whether Lisa Raitt will keep her job and how this will affect Stephen Harper and his government.

Okay, so this is not a major scandal, or at least it shouldn’t be, but it does allow me an intro into one of my biggest pet peeves about Canadian media: our Ottawa bureaus are so caught up in the horse race, who is ahead in the polls, to run the country that they seldom cover what’s important in the stories that come out of Parliament.

For instance, I don’t care how the budget will affect the Conservatives’ election prospects, I want to know how it’s going to affect my budget and my life.

I don’t care what the Liberal leadership change means in the polls, I want to know what Michael Ignatieff intends to do with his leadership and what his plans are for the country if he should become Prime Minister. Forget that, that would take some work. It’s much easier to follow the polls and report on who is winning today or to cover the political back and forth in Question Period or the scrums on Parliament Hill.

The Ottawa bureaus of all the major media are a captive pack of jackals feeding off the meat the politicos leave out for them. The political parties are vying for your votes, therefore what they plant in the media is meant to either directly help their chances of winning the next election or to hurt the other parties’ chances of winning the next election. It’s not rocket science.

But the Ottawa reporters don’t seem to understand this.  Can it be because they only talk to two kinds of people: politicians and their aides and fellow Ottawa journalists? They don’t seem to notice what the rest of Canada cares about or wants to know. In fact they make Ottawa news very boring to the rest of us. I believe the fact that so few Canadians vote is at least partially due to the wrong-headed pack mentality that’s  exhibited by our Ottawa news people.

When I worked for Global News we did a study of what people wanted to watch in their newscasts and what turned them off. Ottawa news led the list of stories the public did not want to see or hear about. Is this because Ottawa news is inherently boring? I think not. It’s because our Ottawa correspondents make it uninteresting to the general public who are not political junkies who get excited when the latest copy of Hansard arrives in their mail.

I do have a suggestion that will never be followed, I so love a lost cause. Take all the reporters off Parliament Hill. Leave a few camera people and researchers to get quotes from the politicians on the hill. Cover the stories that come out of Ottawa all over Canada. If there’s a new energy bill, let the Calgary and Montreal reporters look at the implications. If there’s a new health bill, let a Vancouver or Toronto journalist look at what it means to the public. When a Minister screws up, as Lisa Raitt did in Halifax, let the Halifax reporter find out what the people of Halifax think the consequences to Ms. Raitt should be and let the health reporter dig into what the fight between the Health Minister and the Natural Resources Minister means to the possibility of getting radiation therapy any time soon in Canadian hospitals. These reporters will not be beholden to the politicians for their stories. They will not know what all the rest of the pack are going to cover and just follow suit. And, they will not be totally plugged into and mesmerized by the latest political polls.

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Introduction

Hello world indeed. Just what we all need another blog…or do we? Is anyone telling you the real story of what is going on in the media? Certainly not in any of the mainstream media. Well I intend to try.

It is my belief that there has not been a serious media writer or columnist in Canada since Joan Irwin left the Montreal Gazette decades ago. The writers and columnists depend on the media themselves for their insights. Some, like the Globe, actually question the media. Others tend to be toadies who accept and print whatever the media tell them just so they will continue to retain their contacts. None have the access or experience to know when they are being fed misinformation at worst and the fudging of the facts at best.

That’s my rationale and I’m sticking to it.

On this first blog I have to pin the tail on the donkeys at CTV and Global. They want cable and satellite companies to pay them for what is free, over the air broadcast rights. This is incredible chutzpah. Their licence is for free broadcast available to all Canadians. Now they want to be paid. Cable and Satellite are forced to deliver CTV and Canwest/Global to all their subscribers. They are called “must carry” by the CRTC.

I am no fan of Rogers, Shaw and Bell. There service is poor at best and their prices and profits are beyond ludicrous. But hang on a second, they won’t pay. They will pass the fees on to their customers, you and I, we were the ones promised free access by the TV  stations and the CRTC in exchange for the granting of those TV licenses.

In fact Cable and the CRTC are already helping CTV and Global in ways that are highly beneficial to them. They deliver their signal to just about every Canadian even where there is no Canwest/Global of CTV station thus building  ratings and increasing money from advertising. They do this for “free.”

They give them the best spots on the cable and satellite dials. This means they are better placed to grab the audience as they channel surf. Guess what? This also increases the audiences and thus the revenues.

Finally, there is the real plum, simulcasting. Have you ever tried to catch the U.S. feed of the Superbowl to see the great commercials? Good luck Canada. When you watch CSI, or Law and Order SVU if the Canadian network chooses to run the program at the same time as the U.S. network Canadians are forced to watch the Canadian feed. You want to talk about increasing audiences and revenues, this is the real secret to making money. And this is done at you guessed it, no charge to CTV and Canwest/Global.

So why are CTV and Global crying poor and threatening local TV? Here’s what they leave out of their sob story: For years they have been buying media properties. CTV has bought dozens of local stations to help increase market share. Every time they add bricks and mortar stations they add staff and buildings they have maintain. They have also added a huge debt load. All this so as to shut others out of the broadcasting marketplace.

It’s a similar story over at Global. They own a money pit of a newspaper, The National Post, and they recently bought Alliance Atlantis and all their TV stations. This only a few years after a buying spree of stations to create a national network. Add to this the fact they have a dreadful record of picking winning TV shows since their original TV guru, David Mintz, left the company years ago. The result a huge debt load.

The debt loads are not good, but when the recession hit and advertisers began cutting back they were left with big trouble, they can’t service their debt.  But let’s get this straight, it’s trouble they made for themselves through bad investments and greed and the attempt to create monopolistic circumstances for themselves.

So why should we pay for their mistakes? We shouldn’t.

What about the loss of local TV? Interestingly the biggest advertising push by CTV is in the big cities, Montreal, Toronto, Vancouver. Mark my words, these stations will never be cut. In smaller centers it is possible that CTV will be forced to sell. I think that’s a good thing. CTV has already cut these stations to the bone. If you live in a small city most of your news is about Toronto and Ottawa already. CTV never had any interest in local markets for local coverage. All they wanted were big numbers to add to their network ratings for national advertising and to cut others like Canwest/Global out of the picture.

I have one trade off I am willing to make. If I am forced to pay for CTV and Canwest/Global I want the right to not take those channels on my cable and satellite service. They have to lose the “must carry” designation from the CRTC. It’s only fair. I shouldn’t be forced to pay without a choice of whether I want the service or not. I also demand the end to similcasting. I will watch the Superbowl on CBS or Fox and be done with CTV.  I will finally get to see those great ads. It’s only fair.

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About the Author

Howard Bernstein is a former TV producer. He has worked at CBC,CTV, Global and has produced shows for most Canadian channels as an independent producer.

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