I'm Mad as Hell

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and I can't do a thing about it

The Dragonslayer

My old friend Bruce Dowbiggin is as usual, making waves in a big way. Bruce has always loved to poke holes in the generally assumed ideas of the majority. For those of you who can remember back that far, it was Bruce’s yeoman work that helped bring down Alan Eagleson. While most Canadian hockey people were either burying their heads in the sand or dismissing the charges coming from south of the border, Bruce took up the story with a vengeance. For many months he single-handedly took on the hockey mainstream and dug up the dirt that eventually made Eagleson the pariah he deserves to be.

It was a hard fight, but that’s the sort of thing Bruce revels in, sometimes leading to his own downfall. I saw the poobahs at CBC Sports shun him and pass him over for plum assignments. It was always my contention that CBC Sports is the most gutless of quasi-journalistic organizations. They feared harming their cozy relationship with the NHL. I saw it first hand twice. Once when they denied me hockey fight footage for a serious documentary to run on CBC, and a second time when I was denied figure skating footage because the CBC was trying to buy into the Olympics. Luckily for me, CBC News came through with the footage and I was able to complete two very important documentaries. In Bruce’s case it was the news department that came to his rescue too. He produced a series on Eagleson for the news department that won him a Gemini Award. A series that ran for a week on The National.

Now Bruce is taking on one of Canadian sports television’s biggest stars and perhaps it’s biggest assumption. In a column on Friday, December 2nd, Bruce questions the real popularity of Don Cherry. Looking at the audience numbers in a clinical fashion Bruce brings up a few pertinent facts that should serve to burst the belief in Cherry’s iconic status once and for all.

Bruce points out that while the first game on Hockey Night in Canada is averaging somewhere in the neighborhood of 2.4 million viewers, close to a million people turn away from their televisions between periods, including the time that Cherry is spouting off on Coach’s Corner.

The orthodoxy has always been that Don Cherry is as big a draw, if not bigger than the hockey game itself. People are always talking about the folks who run towards their TVs when they hear Cherry’s theme music. People who weren’t even watching the hockey game yet are mesmerized by the weekly Cherry rant, and truthfully, I actually know one person who does just that, .

I always assumed all this to be true. Wasn’t that what the CBC Sports bosses were telling me? Weren’t the sports writers and TV writers all saying the same thing? How could it not be true?

Since I mostly disagree with Don Cherry and find him a dinosaur and a bully on air I justified his popularity with the belief that viewers are just as attracted to people they hate as to the people they love on television. The only things an on-air personality can’t be is boring or bland. But hold on a minute, can it be possible? Sure there are a whole lot of Canadians who love Don Cherry. I guess they love the unbridled patriotism, the crazy suits, even the rah rah love of fisticuffs and punishing hits. Some I daresay may even like Don’s anti-European and anti-French Canadian diatribes because they themselves are more than a little ethnocentric. In his column though, Bruce proves all of our assumptions wrong. Almost as many hockey fans turn the guy off as stick around to watch him. Most hockey viewers are, surprise, surprise, tuning in to watch the hockey game.

Taken to its ultimate ends, the argument can now be made that Cherry, who has on tens of occasions not only embarrassed himself but also the national broadcaster, can and should be dumped. A guy like Cherry with the kinds of opinions he spouts should not have a place of prominence on a network that is paid for and thus represents all Canadians, including those born in Sweden, Russia, Finland, Slovakia, Moncton, Trois Rivieres and Portage La Prairie.

The truth is, and has always been, the people who tune in to watch the Toronto Maple Leafs, Ottawa Senators, Montreal Canadiens, Vancouver Canucks, Calgary Flames, Winnipeg Jets and Edmonton Oilers are there because they want to see a hockey game. I should have known that instinctively. I guess the pro-dinosaur hockey and television media had me convinced otherwise. For Cherry to be dumped though, I guarantee it will not come from the wimps at CBC Sports, it will have to be the people who actually run the network. And maybe, just maybe, the cuts coming to CBC in the next federal budget will be all the impetus that CBC brass needs to finally do away with Cherry, especially now that Bruce Dowbiggin has shown them and the rest of us that our presumptions about Cherry’s popularity are vastly over-rated.

If Bruce Dowbiggin were alive in the days of Beowulf he too would be considered a dragon slayer. In those days they knew a hero when they saw one.

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The Best TV Ever

For years I have been hearing the whining and complaining of a whole lot of old timers about how bad TV is today, or worse, that there is nothing to watch on television, “500 channels and nothing good to watch,” is a paraphrase of a comment I have heard time and again.

Those close to me, in fact anyone who has had this conversation with me, has to have heard that I think this a bunch of hooey. It is my belief that TV has never been better than it is today.

I don’t know whether the entire baby boom generation has false memory syndrome, but sometimes I suspect it.

All it takes is a look back at what was popular in the past. In the 50s, which some call “the Golden Age of Television”, the top rated shows were I Love Lucy , Ozzie and Harriet, Leave it to Beaver and Make Room for Daddy (The Danny Thomas Show). There were some great comedy shows like Sid Caesar’s Your Show of Shows, Ernie Kovacs and Milton Berle, but these were exceptions to the very thin norm. There were also some excellent dramas, especially the live dramas like Playhouse 90. Why do we always remember the good stuff and forget the garbage?

In Canada, the only shows I remember from that era are The Plouffe Family, Wayne and Shuster and the daily 6:00 O’clock news show, Tabloid.

More important, we had few choices. There was but one Canadian network, CBC, and if you were lucky to live near the U.S. border, you might have had access to CBS, NBC and ABC.

TV was so new to us that we watched whatever was on, good or bad. I know people who actually sat in front of their televisions staring at the Indian head card that was displayed before the broadcast day began.

In the 60s, 70s, and 80s we saw the growth of the one hour drama. Police and detective shows became a staple. Everything from The Naked City and Dragnet to Columbo and Hill Street Blues, you could see the growing power of great writing and directing. The acting was still less than stellar for the most part, and the stories didn’t always ring true, but TV was coming of age. Doctors and lawyers also became prime time stars with Ben Casey and The Defenders leading up to St. Elsewhere and L.A. Law. If you can wipe the nostalgia away from your eyes, you cannot help but see the progression.

Even the sitcom, which remained the staple for big audience numbers began to come of age. From shows like The Dick Vandyke Show, where the Petrie’s had to sleep in twin beds, we saw the growth in quality of TV and the television audience with programs like The Mary Tyler Moore Show, and eventually the sublime Seinfeld.

Let’s not forget, however, the top rated sitcom for a whole lot of that time was The Beverly Hillbillies, nobodies idea of a great program.

In Canada we saw little in the way of great series during that time. There were a few successes like Seeing Things, but we had to wait for Da Vinci’s Inquest and the highly underrated This is Wonderland to get an idea of what Canadian talent could produce when given the money and the airtime.

In Canada these decades were more well-known for the rise of some of the best current affairs in the world, starting with W5 and This Hour has Seven Days and culminating in The 5th Estate and The Journal.

For the most part though, CBC and CTV made their money and grabbed their audiences with American fare. When upstart Global Television became a third Canadian network it survived its early years becoming known as The Love Boat network.

During the last 20 years TV has become a writers’ medium. I have heard many television professionals, critics and producers extolling the quality of TV writing. Many, if not most, see TV writing as far surpassing the quality of writing in feature films, where the director, not the writer, has the most power.

Drama continues to be the staple. The ten o’clock time slot on network TV has given us some of the best drama ever seen on North American Television. The West Wing, Boston Legal, and now The Good Wife, have taken television to a higher plane. Certainly the broadcast networks have been pushed by the cable networks. The brilliance of The Sopranos, Mad Men, Boardwalk Empire, Treme, Damages, and Rescue Me have never been equaled in the 60 odd year history of television as a medium. This is the kind of quality we had never even dreamed of. Even the sitcom is making a comeback both on cable and broadcast with shows like Modern Family and Curb Your Enthusiasm.

And, to make matters even better, technology is making it easier and easier to enjoy all that TV has to offer today. First there’s that 500 channel universe that has created more choice than we have ever seen. Then there’s the PVR or DVR that allow the easy taping of programs when you cannot watch them live, or even if they are on one station while you are watching another station. There’s the time shifting that satellite and cable allow. You can’t be home for a show in prime time, no matter, you can watch it from Vancouver of Seattle later on in the evening. Finally, there is the web, where whether legally or illegally everyone has the opportunity to find any show they want to see.

So, from this comfortable seat in front of the television it is all too obvious that television programming, quality and technology have never been better. I hope to never hear another whine about TV today, the truth is: if you can’t find great television today, you are at fault, not the TV networks, producers and writers.

I’m sure I missed some your favorite shows, please let me know what you think I missed.

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Gifts from the CBC

I have always been amazed at the greed of the very rich. Occupy Wall Street and all the other occupy groups around the world are right to be more than a little upset at the folks they call the “1%” who now seem to own a large percentage of the world’s wealth and with a few exceptions, reject the idea of paying more taxes on their incomes even though our governments are building up huge debts.

What though, does this have to do with broadcasting?

In the past few days I was shocked to hear that the CBC has joined the people who pander to the ultra rich. You all know of, or have at least heard the stories about very rich performers, athletes and celebrities being wooed by television awards productions with amazing swag. The producers arrange to have a room on site that they fill with expensive gifts and toys for the ultra rich who have everything. The gifts are supplied by the manufacturers at no cost to the production just to get them into the right hands. The right hands means the Madonnas, Paris Hiltons, Brad Pitts, George Clooneys and the like. The theory is that if we rabble see Brad or Paris with a certain shirt or bag, we will want one too.

When a celebrity shows up for an appearance, he or she is led to the swag room where they can pick out anything that they want. Generally that amounts to just about one of everything on offer, whether they need the items or not.

These are people who can easily afford to buy the products. Why buy when you can get the swag for free?

Well it seems that the CBC now has a swag room. It was created, as I understand it, just for George Stroumboulopoulos’ guests. I can only jump to the conclusion that this was considered by George’s producers as a necessary way to keep the big stars coming to his program. I just don’t know why. Most if not all the A-list guests George gets come on his show to publicize something…a new movie, a new CD or DVD, a new tour, a new book. The guests need George as much as George needs the guests. I believe they will show up whether George bribes them with swag or not. Perhaps they think the swag will put the guest in a better frame of mind for the interview. I suspect not. These folks are so used to the idea of free stuff I am not even sure they notice it. Just one more swag room in their world of never ending swag, the Christmas list taken care of without ever having to shop.

Is it just me or does this practice look more than a little unseemly for a network owned by the people of Canada, in fact a network that cries poor at every opportunity and is looking at a ten percent cut in their endowment from the government?

I know the swag probably doesn’t cost them a penny, well other than maintaining the room, stocking the shelves, getting on the phone to arrange for the swag and then the replacement products when the room begins to look a little bare. There must be a staff who are paid to maintain the room and the flow of products. You wouldn’t want to have an embarrassing swag room that has too little on offer or products that no respectable celebrity would want to be seen wearing. So there must be some cost.

Worse though is the message it sends to the folks who pay the CBC’s bills. The millionaires and the billionaires are welcome to get all the free things on offer. The taxpayer gets the benefit of an interview with Sting.

I suppose it’s not relevant, but all of this is going on for a show that has never caught on with the CBC viewing public. The numbers remain miserable even after years of the program being on the air and getting some of the best promotional time and money from the corporation.

I think we would all be a lot more forgiving if the swag was given out Oprah style. That is, openly and to the audience rather than the wealthy guest. But alas it isn’t so. George and his team, as well as CBC brass have done everything they can to keep the swag room a secret. They had to know it would not play well to the masses.

Oh, and in case you think CBC management may not like the idea or have second thoughts, not a chance. It seems among the first people to inspect the swag room, and by the way, leave with one of everything on offer, was none other then the boss, Kirstine Stewart. Her significant other Zaib Shaikh joined her at the trough. They, unlike the rest of us, didn’t even have to be a guest on George’s show to get their gifts.

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CBC 0: The Government 0

There is a strange, bordering on weird, fight going on in Canadian broadcasting. Interestingly, few Canadians seem to even know about the battles taking place between the CBC, the Federal Information Commissioner, the courts and a group of Conservative Members of Parliament.

In the past few years, since CBC has come under the purview of Freedom of Information (FOI) legislation the “corpse” has been deluged, their words not mine, with hundreds of requests for information. Depending on which side you listen to, the CBC is either dodging those requests, slowing the process deliberately, or attempting to keep up with an ever increasing number of FOI demands, most from the same source: the Sun media group owned by Quebecor.

It is completely clear to any sane observer that the producers of Sun TV and the owners of the Sun newspaper group are doing everything they can to harass the CBC at every turn. Most of the FOI requests are probably shots in the dark looking for any tidbit that may serve to embarrass the CBC. Somehow Pierre Karl Peladeau and his minions seem to think the best way to reduce funding for public broadcasting is to embarrass CBC so much that the government will find it hard to keep paying for CBC and Radio Canada.

The problem has grown to the point where the CBC has refused to open some of its books for the FOI requests forcing the Privacy Commissioner to get involved and demand the material being asked for be made available. So far the CBC has said no and have as a result of this been taken to court. They lost the original court battle but have now appealed to a higher court. The CBC says they are willing to take their fight all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada.

Okay, while I agree that Quebecor is acting distastefully or worse, they are acting within their rights and within the law. The CBC, on the other hand, is handling this case very badly. Look, it’s a Crown Corporation that gets billions of taxpayer dollars and that alone should be enough reason to be completely transparent. Further, CBC journalists themselves are regular users of FOI to gather facts on the government and other Crown Corporations. How can you deny what you ask for on a regular basis?

The CBC’s argument is that there is proprietary information being asked for that puts them at a competitive disadvantage. Nonsense. First of all, if they give the information to the Privacy Commissioner, they could ask her for an exemption if the information is detrimental to their competitive situation. But so far they will not even trust the Information Commissioner. More important, the TV business is a small one in Canada, almost more of a club than a business. Most of us have worked for more than one network. Many CBC employees have come from CTV or Global and the reverse is true, many Global and CTV employees once worked at the CBC. Everyone works in similar ways and we all know how a television show is financed and put together.

The real story is that CBC is afraid some of its bungles will come out. They are afraid of how the information will then be used to portray them as bunglers.

This is a big miscalculation on the CBC’s side. By withholding information the CBC already looks guilty. They look like they have something to hide. Also, since we don’t know what CBC is hiding the management at the national broadcaster has no way to explain away the perceptions. Those who don’t like the CBC have all the ammunition they need without a single fact coming to light.

The CBC should just come clean, open its books, and then take the time to explain to the public when Sun TV takes a fact or a number out of context and attempts to blow up its significance (as we all know they will).

Every large corporation stubs its fiscal toe on occasion. The public will be willing to understand and forgive if there are explanations that make sense to them and actions are taken to correct the error.

Further, airing some of the internal mistakes and financial errors will make it easier for management to actually fix those problems. When I worked at the CBC I saw misspending being swept under the rug time and again. This led, most commonly, to a repeat of the mistakes and very little being done about the institutional problems that lead to inefficient and sometimes illegal use of CBC funds. For a corporation that in its news department demands transparency and clarity from everyone else, the CBC has been most efficient at burying its own skeletons.

Now add to all of this turmoil, the fact that a group of Tory Members of Parliament are attempting to take sides in an action that is still before the courts. The Standing Committee on Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics have taken it upon themselves to take the CBC to task for refusing to succumb to the requests of the Privacy Commissioner and Quebecor. Is this the most important use of their time and efforts considering the fact that the Canadian Government is near the bottom worldwide in providing information about itself to its citizens and its media? Here are a group of people who are prime players in one of the most secretive institutions in Canada, our government, belittling the CBC for not being completely open. Can they not see the hypocrisy? Can they not see that we see the hypocrisy?

The issue is before the courts, thus it is being handled. Why pile on? One can only jump to the conclusion that going after the CBC is good Tory policy. It plays to their voting base. Any chance to hurt the dreaded left-wing CBC cabal cannot be passed up. Oh, and it doesn’t hurt to help a strong supporter like Pierre Karl Peladeau.

Add this all up and it is easy to see this as comedy of errors. The unwittingly silly CBC falling into a trap constructed out of their own fears and the Keystone Kops from Parliament Hill chasing the perceived bad guys that they hope to find.

Welcome to Canada in the 21st Century…the land that leadership forgot.

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The News According to Richard Stursberg

A few weeks ago I received a surprise e-mail. Out of the blue, at least from my side, I heard from Richard Stursberg, the former V.P. of CBC English. He left a telephone number and an e-mail address and asked if we could get together to talk.

At first I thought I was being scammed. I have written some pretty nasty observations about the man’s management style and his programming decisions. I would have thought I would be last person he would want to sit down with.

After a few weeks of dancing around possible times to meet we finally got together last week.

Let me start the description of our meeting with a few caveats. I was not invited to interview him, he asked for the meeting to question me. At no point did Richard ask me to keep our meeting off the record and thus I made no promises of any kind. Since it was not an interview, hot seat or otherwise, it was not conducted as such. I am writing this because I think there are a lot of people who are interested in Richard’s post-CBC thoughts and observations. What follows is a neutral, straight- forward report on our get together.

His stated purpose for the meeting was to talk about news. He gave no reason before or during the get together as to why he was interested in discussing news. I am still at a loss as to the purpose of the meeting. Having said that, I would characterize the time we spent together as cordial and frank. We shared our opinions easily and without rancor.

As you might guess there were a few things we agreed to disagree about and surprisingly, several areas on which we agreed completely.

From my point of view there were three main areas of discussion. We began by both lamenting the tragedy that the loss of local CBC newsrooms has been for the corporation. It has always been my view that the destruction of CBC’s local newsrooms in the mid-eighties that continued for over twenty years was a huge loss for CBC News that resulted in smaller and smaller audiences for all CBC programming. I was surprised to hear that he agreed completely. He believes that local news is the most important building block for a successful news operation and that when successful, as it was in the 80’s, it brings viewers to all CBC news broadcasts. I added that I thought it actually brought increased viewership to all CBC programs.

Mr. Stursberg is proud of the fact that he began to rebuild the local newsrooms and increased their airtime. I am not so sure. CBC local news ratings are still very, very poor and I believe that has a lot to do with the underfunding and lack of quality leadership with strong news experience. It’s not good enough to say here’s more time, but you will get no increase in funding or staff.

His second big point was about the general cowardice among his predecessors and some of the managers that have survived his tenure. He says he is a great believer in figuring out what shows are working and which shows are failing or at least beginning to fail. He feels the same way about on air personalities who are no longer meeting the audience’s needs and expectations. Stursberg believes CBC management that came before him should have cancelled programs that were no longer viable. He takes credit for doing just that, but he was never specific about which programs he was talking about. He believes that to be successful you have to be ruthlessly assessing your product at all times. At CBC it is far more common to say that everything is wonderful. CBC management (and I know this especially true of the news) is delusional. They think, or at least they say publicly, everything they produce is high quality and works well. They stand behind the work of all of heir on air people. Loyal yes. Smart, no.

Finally we got around to talking about The National. He claims he was not expecting the kinds of changes that were brought about two years ago. He says he wanted a newscast that was more serious. He wanted fewer stories with more depth. He was certainly not talking about current affairs. He meant longer news stories that explained in more context, the important events of the day.

So how did The National get filled with fluff stories that have so little connection to the real news of the day? I didn’t get a direct answer. I was just told it was not what he expected or wanted.

I asked why, as the boss, he didn’t get the kind of news he wanted. I never got a direct answer to that question, but I did get a long discussion about the people who run the newsroom. As far as Mr. Stursberg is concerned they are a kind of cabal that protects their own interests at the expense of the CBC. He claims he had a hard time having any influence over them. Worst of all, he said, they do not care about any show other than The National. They would happily undermine every other newscast the CBC produces to help The National. He feels the failures of CBC NN and local news can be attributed in no small way to the selfishness of the people running CBC News and The National.

There were other sidebar discussions that were illuminating. First I get the impression that Richard is not a fan of current affairs. He never said that, but the discussion always turned away from current affairs when I tried to bring it up. He did say he thinks Fifth Estate produces too few quality programs every year.

It is clear that Mr. Stursberg believes the best way to judge the success or failure of a television program is the ratings. To be fair, that’s the attitude of most TV execs in Canada and the U.S., but most who feel that way do not work for a crown corporation that has a mandate that goes beyond numbers.

Personalities aside, during the time I spent with him, he was charming and witty, but hey that’s easy when we don’t have a working relationship and neither one of us has anything to lose. What became crystal clear to me was that Richard Stursberg is a smart man who found himself in the wrong job. I suspect he would fit in beautifully at CTV or Global and would perhaps do an excellent job. At CBC he was fighting the mandate, the history and the idiosyncratic way things are done. I will even give him credit for recognizing many of the absurdities of CBC Television, but what he had to understand equally, and it appears he either didn’t get or refused to bend towards, was the special place and task that a public broadcaster has in a country like Canada.

Sorry folks, we never talked about his management style, the lockout he is accused of engineering or the quality of the comedies and dramas that now populate the CBC schedule. He said he wanted to talk about news and I kept my part of the bargain.

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Diagnosis: Shoddy Journalism

As a born and raised Quebecker I always felt I had a better understanding of that province than most in the ROC (rest of Canada). I predicted the first PQ victory when all the English Canadian experts were saying that was impossible. I understood the angst felt by Quebecois in both referenda. While I am a federalist, I have a soft spot for Rene Levesque and his crusade to clean up Quebec politics.

That being said, I am truly amazed at the drivel that is being egested by the press in the province of my birth.

Here in Ontario, and I suspect in all of English Canada we have been told about a strange story that is making some headlines in Quebec. Andre Picard and Lysianne Gagnon, journalists I have admired in the past, are ranting in The Globe and Mail that Jack Layton should have come clean about his cancer before the campaign. They say he should have told the public he was in much more serious medical trouble so that we, the public, could have decided whether we wanted to vote for a man who may not be able to serve us in Parliament, and his party as leader.

Gagnon writes further that La Presse Columnist, Patrick Lagace, “didn’t mince words.” She quotes him as writing, ““Mr. Layton ran for the highest office knowing that the crab was gnawing at his bones. We should have been told. This would have changed the vote of thousands of people, that’s clear. And it’s someone who voted for the NDP who’s telling you this.”

This is what Andre Picard had to add via Gagnon, “the public was owed “full disclosure” and that hiding the kind of cancer affecting Mr. Layton constituted “unacceptable fudging.” Mr. Picard noted that, in those cases where prostate cancer metastasizes, “it tends to move to the bones – the pelvis and hips in particular.” Then, he said, “the survival rate drops below 10 per cent.”

Gagnon, Picard and Lagace are calling for a U.S. style full disclosure that would open up party leader’s medical files to the public before election campaigns.

Hey these people are from the same province that wants to register those they consider real journalists and card them, thus keeping the “fake” journalists out of their media conferences. So why am I surprised?

First let me point out the obvious. Gagnon, Picard and Lagace do not, that I know about, have medical degrees. And, even if they had, no serious medical doctor would or should ever diagnose a patient that they themselves had not personally examined. In fact I am certain that 99% of the complainers in Quebec, the ones who voted NDP and now feel cheated, do not have medical degrees.

So the question is obvious. How do they know Layton’s cancer was evident and diagnosed before the campaign started? Heck how do they know Layton’s cancer returned even before the campaign ended?

They don’t. This is the kind of journalism that should give all journalists a black eye, and shame on The Globe and Mail and La Presse for publishing these, so far, baseless accusations.

It seems obvious to me that unless you have hard facts from credible sources that prove otherwise, you have to believe Olivia Chow and Jack himself, that the cancer he died of was neither diagnosed nor evident before or during the election period.

If Gagnon, Picard and Lagace have that evidence, why have they not published it? If they don’t have the proof they should just shut up. That’s how journalism used to work. That’s how journalism is supposed to work. Based on what I have seen so far, it is clear that Picard, Gagnon and Lagace will not qualify for their shiny new Quebec Journalist I.D. cards and neither should the publishers of The Globe and Mail and La Presse.

I am going to give the last word to a comment on the Globe and Mail website by R. Carriere: “As to the column title ” What if Quebeckers had known the whole story about Jack?”..’.what if’ is a game anyone can play and the almost demonization without pure and credible fact is unbecoming of any responsible columnist.

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Global gets Serious

Global’s national newscast has never been taken very seriously by anyone who works in the news business. Sure they got good numbers when Kevin Newman came on board, he was a terrific anchor. But who and what did Kevin have behind him? That was always the question. Could anyone name any of Global’s reporters? Did any of them make an impression?

The truth is that Global News has long been known for spending all its money on big name anchors. Kevin Newman and now Dawna Friesen are the latest of a long line of excellent hosts that date back to Peter Trueman, Thalia Assuras and Peter Kent. Unfortunately the people who ran Global, never saw the necessity of hiring excellent reporters, writers and producers to back up the fine news readers. They were all about the big splash, the advertising potential attached to the big name on air.

When I worked there, the folks in charge told the CRTC they had a budget of close to $13 million for the newscasts. That was a blatant lie. Close to half the news budget was appropriated by every other department at Global. It was a ruse to make it look like Global was spending big bucks on Canadian content. Somehow, they got away with it. It was so bad that the bosses refused to allow me, the News Director, to see a copy of my own budget.

Needless to say I did not last long at Global. After I was hired with loads of promises about improving the newscasts, it became abundantly clear that there was no truth to the promises. I had a plan to upgrade the staff, create beats, and solidify the reporting by bringing good people in from the outside and training the people on the inside. Every time I wanted to move ahead with my plan I heard another excuse as to why we couldn’t do it right now. First it was the union negotiations. Then it was the ownership fight. Finally, in my time at least, it was let’s wait until Izzy Asper completes his remake of the station.

In the end nothing ever got done because Global saw news as a distasteful obligation that had to be done to keep the license and CRTC approval. I was told to my face by one vice president, if I spend a dollar on news I will be lucky to get back seventy-five cents, if I spend a dollar on U.S. programming I would have to be an idiot to not get back two dollars.

Global News did not create stars or even good reporters for themselves. When they lucked into an excellent reporter or producer they tended to run to CTV or the United States at the very first opportunity. Global was seen by many young television news people as a way into the Toronto market where, if they did a great job, they would be seen and snapped up by the opposition who took news seriously and were willing to pay a decent salary for someone other than the anchor.

I know, I know, I am going to hear the argument about the relatively good ratings Global gets. It’s true. Global National does very well, and their local newscast is a strong second to CTV in many markets. I believe that has had more to do with smart scheduling, great lead-ins, and a long line of popular hosts. Ask viewers to name the reporters or react to which story drew them to Global and you would draw a blank stare.

A while ago the disastrous ownership of the Aspers came to an enforced end and Shaw picked up Global for a song. Nobody knew what that meant for the future of Global News. Today we may have heard our answer. Global announced that they are hiring two of the better journalists in Canadian Television history.

I have had the pleasure of working with Tom Clark at CTV. He has always been an excellent journalist and in any people’s opinions, including my own, a fine on air talent. I was sorry to see him leave CTV when he didn’t get Lloyd Robertson’s job and I am happy to see him back where he belongs with a national broadcaster.

More surprising however, was the announcement that Patrick Brown was hired to be the Beijing correspondent. Nobody in the business, at least anyone that I have ever spoken to, questions Brown’s ability as a fine foreign correspondent. He had a long and distinguished career with CBC and earned all the accolades he has received with excellent work. I have never worked with Patrick but I know he has reputation for being very prickly, very difficult to work with. I can’t say whether that too is well earned. What I do know is that a Beijing Bureau is a very expensive proposition and demands a lot of travel around China and Asia, this exactly the kind of expense that was unheard of during the past ownership of the network.

So kudos to Global for these two moves. Maybe we are about to see the long promised third option, with Global as a serious national television news source, actually come to fruition. I know everyone in the news business hopes so. We will all be watching closely to see if these hires are backed up with the kind of upgrades that Global News needs to be taken seriously.

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Blatchford’s Timing

So there I was, it was supposed to be a nice lunch with two friends, both nationally known working journalists, and wouldn’t you know it, an argument breaks out. It was just 36 hours after the death of Jack Layton and I found myself in the middle of a heated discussion about Christie Blatchford’s article, you all know the article I’m talking about, the one that questioned Jack, especially his letter. Blatchford created a storm of controversy because she did not fall into line with the adoration that Layton was receiving by friend and foe alike.

On one side of this noon hour confrontation was one of the best news and documentary television producers in Canada. He felt that Blatchford went far overboard in her criticism and further, maybe most important, her timing was terrible. Writing that kind of stuff while the body was still warm was beyond acceptable.

On the other side a thoughtful newspaper columnist who insisted that not only was Blatchford correct in almost everything she said, but more important, what better time to write this column than when it was most newsworthy and therefore most relevant?

Reading the reaction to the Blatchford column since that lunch, it appears that most journalists, even those on the right, seem to agree that the timing was poor. Certainly the public reaction was almost completely against Blatchford, at least the published reaction I have read in dozens of newspapers, blogs, commentaries and the like.

At first I was onside with the generally accepted opinion. Now I’m not so sure.

First let me make it clear that I am no fan of Christie Blatchford and her writing. I find her to be knee jerk and predictable. No cop or right wing politician can ever be wrong and no left leaning person can ever have a valid point of view. Hers is a black and white world that can only exist in her fantasy world of courts and controversy.

That being said, I have come to appreciate what Blatchford did and to accept the principle that as a columnist it is not only her prerogative, but her duty too, to write what she thinks. It is not her job to self-censor so that the public will feel less queasy. In many ways she was the only national newspaper writer with the guts to tell us exactly how she felt about Jack Layton, the letter he wrote to Canadians from his deathbed (along with the help of his wife and at least two NDP functionaries), and her honest reaction to the media love-in that followed the announcement of Jack’s death.

While I don’t totally agree with the Blatchford column, I have to admit it was an important statement that was written and published at an important time.

What made me change my mind was thinking back to the death of Richard Nixon. I was working at TVO at the time and was disgusted by the media whitewashing the life and times of Tricky Dick. I was nauseated by the columns and commentaries that talked about what a great president he was. How he opened relations with Communist China (Canada had had relations with China for over a decade when Nixon traveled to Beijing.), his mastery of foreign affairs, and his success in passing dozens of bills through Congress.

In fact Richard Nixon was a crook and a racist. Nixon not only aided in the Watergate break-in, he lied about it and covered it up for years, in fact never truly admitting his part in the affair. This was a man who harassed his opponents using the power of his office illegally to go after those he disagreed with. Richard Nixon was a thoroughly unpleasant character who should never have been rehabilitated by the press, even in the days after his death.

I railed about the positive stories about Nixon at that time.

So now, these many years later, how can I object to Christie Blatchford’s column?

Just because I may like Jack Layton more than I liked Richard Nixon doesn’t give me the right to be upset when someone does exactly what I did. I guess, having given it some thought, I realized my initial reaction to Blatchford had more to do with my heart than my head. I was wrong and I believe so are the majority of people who are responding to Blatchford. Not the ones who are arguing about the nuances of Jack’s personality or policies, but the ones who believe it was crass and unacceptable to write so negatively about the man on the day of his death.

Look, I think Jack Layton’s death was a tragedy of Shakespearean proportions. A leader on the cusp. A man who may have changed the country in ways that we can only imagine at this time. But that doesn’t mean his ideas and his life are beyond question. Surely we are free and open enough as a country to accept those who ask the tough questions and have a different point of view.

If your only objection is the timing, then I have to ask you when is the right time? One day later? After the funeral? Let’s be honest here, there is no way of picking a time that would be acceptable to everyone. We would each and every one of us choose a different time.

*I just want to add a short note about the death of Ron Haggart. Ron’s loss is a great one for Canadian journalism. He was a shining star in the world of television journalism. A man who never lost sight of the importance of his profession and held us all up to his high standards. He will be greatly missed.

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TV doesn’t know Jack

Anyone can be a great manager, boss or journalist when everything is going right and one is able to plan for the events of the day. It’s when the manure hits the fan that the real management and journalism stars  begin to shine.

This has been an amazing week of news in Canada and abroad. There was a terrible plane crash in Nunavut, a devastating tornado wiping out large parts of Goderich, Ontario, the end of the line for the cruel and criminal Ghadafi regime in Libya, and as if all of that is not enough to fill the plates of our national newscasts and newspapers we were all shocked and surprised by the announcement of the death of Jack Layton.

That’s an awful lot of important news to consider.

Any journalist worth his or her salt lives for this kind of news week. It is always better to deal with too much to cover rather than be stumped on how you are going to fill your newspaper or newscast.

In other words, this week was an opportunity to shine.

For my money the brightest star on the block was the Toronto Star. I don’t see the local dailies from across Canada so forgive me if I missed some excellent work from outside Toronto. (Let me know what I missed.)

The Star was all over the Jack Layton story. They had it covered from almost every angle. The best story of any I have seen was a touching description of the bond between Jack and his wife Olivia Chow by Linda Diebel. But there were many terrific stories in the paper about the man, his politics, the future of his party, and the future of Canada. It was a great effort that proved to me that The Toronto Star editors are on top of their game, thoughtful and thorough, even in the face of a fast breaking story at a particularly busy time.

The Globe and Mail did a pretty good job too. They too had most of the angles covered but their material felt more institutional. The Globe stories were on target but failed to get personal or capture the sadness that Layton’s passing brought to Canada and Canadians. I must admit, had I not read the Star’s coverage I would have been impressed with the work of The Globe.

That all being said, where the heck was television? Are too many people on summer vacation? Was the staff sunning itself on a downtown patio sipping lattes?

You knew it was going to be a terrible day at CBC when the best guest that CBC NN could get in the morning was Peter Mansbridge. My first question was why isn’t he hosting the thing? My second, why is an announcer being interviewed when the city and the country is filled with people who were close to Jack Layton and knew him intimately?

Neither CBC News nor CTV distinguished themselves. Both networks resorted to the cheapest and easiest form of reporting, I won’t call it journalism, talking to people in the street and trying to coax reactions from them. I’ve always hated this. It’s unthinking, uncreative, unjournalistic.

Both networks did the big obituary, and both did it well. Heck the material was all there. The story line was obvious.

The CBC especially took a turn that showed how unprepared they were and how little thought they put into their coverage. If all you can come up with is a commentary by Rex Murphy that was as usual for him, long on words and short on insight or emotion, I worry about their commitment to their work. Then, to add the political panel of regulars, people I like by the way, to discus the subject of Jack Layton’s death as if it were another political turn in the never ending twists that politics take in Ottawa, what were you thinking? Where was your imagination?

CTV and CBC News should be forced to read this morning’s Toronto Star. Perhaps they will begin to understand the possibilities that were open to them, the personal and the political.

It was a sad day for all Canadians, whether you voted for the NDP or one of the other parties. Jack’s loss is greater than his position as Leader of the Opposition. It is the compelling story of a man who was just beginning to make his mark on the history of his country. A man with a seemingly great future, lost at far too young an age. His loss deserved far more than the formulaic response that I saw on CBC and CTV. Jack deserved coverage that matched his thoughtfulness and humanity. On TV at least, he didn’t get it.

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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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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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