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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Boredom ‘R’ Us

Back in the olde days, when I was running Canada AM and that show was a serious news and information program, I had a boss and mentor, Don Cameron, who was easily the most brilliant television producer I have ever met. He had a visceral understanding of what made information television work. If he were alive today he would be shocked by what passes for current affairs in today’s multi-channel universe.

When I took over Canada AM, Don gave me a list of rules to follow. His first rule of great television still makes sense to me even though it is now broken dozens of times every day: never interview journalists or university professors. His point here was that television is an emotional medium. It is people who have strong views, who take a side or are somehow attached to the story, that make us sit up and take notice. Facts work in newspapers and magazines but emotion carries the day on TV. The viewer remembers the distraught parents, the beautiful child, the homeless man…the viewer forgets how many, how high, and how much soon after the story ends. With this in mind Don Cameron insisted on booking people who had a real stake in any story we covered. A cabinet minister has to defend the government’s viewpoint. A mother tells a personal story. A worker who lost a colleague has an emotional response.

Journalists and professors are very knowledgeable but by the very nature of their work they step back and look at all sides of a story and inevitably they deliver the dreaded, “on the one hand and on the other hand.” This is boring to all but other journalists and university profs. The proof is in the numbers: CNN is last among U.S. all news and information channels, CBC NN reaches fewer viewers than local news in Saskatoon and CTV Newsnet has fewer viewers than local news in PEI.

Don’s second rule banned all regular panels. He said if you have an Ottawa panel every Friday and the big Ottawa news breaks on Monday, do you not discuss it on Monday and save it for your panel? Or does the panel ignore what is now old news on Friday? Either way doesn’t work. Don didn’t like regular panelists either. He felt that over time their answers become predictable. I, for instance, hate seeing Richard Gwyn on TV. I know he knows his stuff but I also know every position he will take on every story because I have read and seen his take for over 30 years. No matter what he says, to me it is same old, same old.

Why do I bring this stuff up now? This week a new head of CNN was named, Ken Jautz. It will be Ken’s job to lift CNN out of its current doldrums and back into the game they originated. When interviewed by The Hollywood Reporter Ken all but admitted that CNN is now mostly boring, but especially in prime time. He said, “We need to make our prime time more compelling and engaging, sometimes more fun, you could even say. We are going to adhere to our basic programming strategy of nonpartisan information inclusive of all different points of view. But we need to be livelier and more engaging.”

Jautz intends to improve the numbers at CNN by changing the hosts. I for one will be glad to see Larry King gone, his expiry date was sometime last century and his softball approach and kissing up to his guests was never very palatable to me. Maybe more important, he wants to up the ante on opinion, “By the time you get to prime time, in today’s media environment, there are so many websites and outlets, people know basic facts. In addition to facts, they want analysis, they want context, they want perspective and they want some opinion. And yes, I think we should provide them with as many points of view as possible, but we should provide them from all different ends of the political spectrum and from newsmakers as well as pundits.” Newsmakers…a full spectrum of opinion…this is a language I understand and agree with. This sounds like the ghost of Don Cameron.

Now if we could only convince the people who produce current affairs television in Canada. In my opinion the failure here has grown out of fear and laziness. The fear is that the producers will not be able to fill all of their time slots. Panels and regular guests present the guest bookers with a guarantee that they will easily fill a large portion of their hour or half-hour. No chance of dead air or the host talking to himself. (In my 5 years at Canada AM this never happened to me and we had to fill two hours every day, but the fear persists.) Regular guests and panels can also be depended on to not cancel and they know how to make it to the studio on time. It’s safe…boring but safe.

The laziness grows out of the fear factor. Why search for good guests when you have a tame pack of regulars who provide all the content without any of the work? Regular guests provide their own research and one easy phone call gets them to the show. Why look for a new and exciting guest who may or may not freeze on air or not deliver the needed patter? Why try to coax a newsmaker to take part in your show?

International panels are a major bugaboo for me. Here we are in this amazing multicultural country with brilliant people from every corner of the Earth living in our midst and how do we discuss a crisis in Pakistan? We book Richard Gwyn and Janice Stein. There are dozens of wonderful Pakistani people who understand both Pakistan and Canada. They can relate to all sides of a Pakistani issue and they know how to explain it to Canadians. Gwyn and Stein read The Times of London and New York Times. They may even call someone in Pakistan but when it comes to an emotional attachment they are severely lacking. They provide information not entertainment.

The folks behind “Fox News North” are right about one thing, our all news television in Canada is boring. If they were to comment on our talk shows, it is my guess they would have the same comment. For the most part I agree with them. There are remedies for our boring talk TV. Heed the words of Don Cameron and get off you fat, lazy asses and do some hard work finding great guests who will surprise, engage, entertain and inform us.

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A Failure to Communicate

I don’t know why but I am always amazed when media executives feel the need to tinker with a program or a format that is doing well and has a loyal audience. I have heard all the excuses: the audience is too old, we need to grow the audience, and my favorite, and the worst of all reasons, the show needed to change, it was looking rather tired.

The truth is there are no good reasons to make wholesale changes in any program that is holding its own other than money. If the costs rise above what the budget allows a producer has no choice but to deal with the financial realities. But when change comes via the whim of an exec it is time to change the exec, not the program.

There are countless examples on both sides of this equation. CBC Radio 2 is one of my favorite examples. Take a national channel that has a large and devoutly loyal audience, that in most of the country is the only provider of serious classical music and change it so that classical is moved away from the highest listening periods and replace it with a mishmash that is impossible to describe or to explain and watch the ratings go down the drain.

In an age where everyone is desperate for a niche that guarantees audience, CBC Radio threw the niche they had away. It is beyond stupid. The biggest winners in this one were the NPR border stations and classical music stations in Buffalo, Seattle and Detroit.

The same kind of story took place at CBC TV’s The National. Wholesale change for what appears to be no strong reason. The result: the ratings are in the toilet and not a single viewer I have spoken to or heard from likes the new newscast.

For me the most egregious and radical change comes from a network that doesn’t usually make these kinds of mistakes, CTV. Canada AM is a show that is close to my heart. I worked on the show for six years, including close to five years running the place. In the day, with hosts like Norm Perry, Helen Hutchinson, Keith Morrison, Valerie Pringle and Carole Taylor Canada AM was one of the most important news programs in Canada. Every day the top politicians and newsmakers involved in the biggest news stories of the day felt they had to appear and explain their role in whatever was going on. Not a week went by when the daily newspapers across the country didn’t quote from an interview seen on Canada’s first morning news and current affairs program. Most weeks the AM crew actually broke stories.

Yes, there were entertainers and quirky stories, but these were reserved for the final 30 minutes and only if there wasn’t a breaking news story that needed more coverage.

For those of you who love the celebrity gossip and interviews this may sound dreary, but in fact it was exciting TV. Every interview was live and every issue discussed totally current. The proof was the huge and loyal audience. On average the show had 750,000 viewers in homes. On many days it was over a million. All of this without counting audience members in hotel rooms, restaurants and offices.

Today few people are watching what can only be described as a long version of E-Talk. Celebrity after celebrity spit out the same hackneyed tripe that they spouted two days ago on the endless celebrity gossip shows that dominate early evening TV fare. The interviews are mostly on tape so there is no real excitement generated. The news is mostly relegated to the newscast. And to make matters worse, almost all the personality on the show comes from the weatherman, Jeff Hutcheson. Canada AM has become a great advertisement for morning radio.

Today Canada AM still calls itself the highest rated morning show in Canada. Big whoop. With an audience that hovers around 250,000 viewers it barely makes a dent. When was the last time a Canada AM interview was quoted in The Globe and Mail? I suspect many of you were too young to read The Globe when that happened. I know what you are going to say, there’s a lot more channels and competition today. You’d be right. But other morning shows have held their own in the ratings and more important, there are few new morning current affairs shows that didn’t exist during the heyday of AM. The competition is no more fierce.

Nobody I have talked to knows why Canada AM changed. It took a few years so there is no one person to point a finger at. There is no corporate memory of the great show that Canada AM was. There is only this impostor that has stolen the name and fills the time slot.

Here’s where the lesson comes in. If you are going to change a program or a format there is actually a secret to doing it successfully. You must find a way to keep your loyal viewers happy while attracting new viewers. Therefore the answer is evolution not revolution. The changes have to be imperceptible. The best example here is CTV News. If you were to poll the audience they would tell you the show hasn’t changed at all in decades. In fact that isn’t true. Look at old tapes and you would not recognize the program. There have been lots of changes. They have been brought in slowly. The folks at CTV News seem to understand that they cannot upset their loyal viewers in order to grow their ratings.

There are other examples: 60 Minutes and Law and Order stand out because they both lasted more than 20 years and they both have large and loyal audiences all these years later. I know Law and Order was canceled recently, but it tied Gunsmoke for the longest running TV drama in the U.S. television history.

The problems go deeper of course. If the people running the networks don’t get it, how can the folks they hire understand what to do? Every time I speak to a network boss I am amazed at the level of incompetence and the lack of understanding. Money is everything and creativity is ignored.

Maybe it’s just me but from my perch it sure looks like the folks who run television today don’t come close to understanding how to make shows the audiences love. When I was selling shows to networks all I ever heard was: I want a show just like… If a forensics show is a winner, in three years there will be ten on the air. The CBC buys formats like Dragon’s Den rather than take a chance on coming up with something new and unique. Thankfully there are some very smart producers and writers selling shows to the bozos who run the networks. These smart, creative people somehow manage to get the odd show by the buyers who have no understanding of the history and the craft of television making. Usually it is pure luck. Modern Family and Corner Gas are the exceptions. Sure, the nets take credit for their successes, but ask them to explain how the shows got on and you will get a lot of ums and ers. There was a time when men like Don Cameron was running CTV News and John Kennedy was buying drama at CBC that quality and creativity ruled. These men were masters of their profession. They were not followers, they were leaders and we were all better off for their leadership.

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End of an era at CTV?

Every once in a while I hear something that’s impossible for me to confirm. Last week someone who works with CTV told me something that will be big news in Canadian television if it is true. It took me dozens of calls to many of the people I know and trust to attempt to confirm the story. I totally trust my initial source but I needed a second source to be able to publish. In the end I was told a similar story by two more people but nobody could confirm the details. So here goes, I am publishing the story as a very trustworthy rumor not a certain fact.

It seems the CTV Olympic coverage has resulted in a major casualty for the network. Lloyd Robertson has gone to CTV brass and told them the workload is too onerous. It seems he would have preferred not to travel to Vancouver and not to anchor the Olympic news coverage. At 76 years old, even though Lloyd seems to be in great shape, he’s finding the travel and the workload difficult.

I am told he has called for a meeting with the CTV bosses that will take place on March 3rd. At this meeting he is expected to resign his post as the CTV News anchor.

CTV is preparing for the loss of “Canada’s most trusted news anchor.” Insiders say the network will replace Lloyd with a two-person desk. It seems they cannot make up their minds as to whether Tom Clark or Lisa Laflamme should be Lloyd’s replacement. So the two will share Lloyd’s duties for the foreseeable future. The way it was described to me it will be a sort of contest. The news reader that the audience responds to will eventually take over the sole anchor position, the loser will go back to reporting.

Lloyd Robertson, Peter Mansbridge and Kevin Newman all signed two year contracts at about the same time a year and a half ago. Lloyd’s early departure could take CTV out of the Kevin Newman sweepstakes. Rumors have been around for years that both CBC and CTV want Kevin Newman as their replacement. Kevin is doing a great job at Global but let’s face it, there is little room for growth there and the new owners, if the sale of Canwest Global goes through, Shaw, are known more for saving money, than spending money. The end of the Asper era could be just impetus needed to have Kevin jump ship. Unfortunately for CTV though, Lloyd would have to stay on until Kevin’s contract runs out. Can they convince Lloyd to stay until the fall?

So if the plan goes ahead as described to me, Lloyd will be gone very soon.

Let’s look at the two in house contenders. Lisa Laflamme was a wonderful reporter in a small newsroom in Kitchener before she joined CTV. I knew her work well. In fact I tried to hire her when I ran Global News only to be rebuffed by an idiotic Vice President who didn’t like her hair. CTV got her instead and she has flourished. She has covered major events around the world doing the same excellent work that she was known for in Kitchener. She has also been a better than adequate fill-in news reader for Lloyd and Sandie Rinaldo. A few years ago she was considered Lloyd’s heir apparent but something happened to change CTV’s opinion. Well it seems Lisa has recovered enough to be considered again.

Tom Clark came from CFTO in Toronto where he was John Bassett’s chief political reporter. This meant he had to take a strong Conservative line to keep his job. For many media insiders his excellent work was overshadowed by his politics. When CTV took over the station Tom was freed from his political straightjacket. He too has flourished. He has reported mainly from Ottawa and Washington where his work has been excellent. He has also been a regular fill-in for Lloyd and has done that anchoring job well too.

So why is CTV so hesitant about these two fine journalists? I guess the feeling is Lloyd is a tough act to follow. It takes years to develop the kind of audience loyalty Lloyd has been able to deliver. The fear of making the wrong choice seems to be greater than the ability to make the right choice.

Over the years there have been other favorites to replace Lloyd. I remember when everyone thought Keith Morrison was the obvious successor. He was the weekend anchor and hugely popular. He went on to host Canada AM and The Journal before leaving for a reporting career at NBC.

In Toronto many assumed that Ken Shaw would replace Lloyd. Ken is probably the most successful anchor in local Toronto television history. The Toronto audience loves him the way the country loves Lloyd. His newscasts have always led in the ratings. But I have never heard a serious discussion that Ken would take over at the network. In fact I don’t remember a single time that he has ever hosted a national program.

In the end there is only one thing for certain at CTV, the next CTV News anchor will not be an announcer like Lloyd Robertson. Lloyd’s replacement, or replacements will have a background in journalism, and this at least, will be a good thing no matter who gets the job.

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There’s no I in Team

It’s not very often that a new CBC idea makes me chuckle but the good folks who are reinventing CBC News have done it to me. Now I know I have a different sense of what’s funny so humor me for a little while anyways.

Back in the late seventies and throughout the eighties big city newscasts fell in love with the idea of “investigative” journalism. Every local station had to have an “I Team.” These were the serious journalists who were going to uncover the scandals at city hall and keep state and provincial politicians on the up-and-up.

At sometimes great cost to the local broadcaster they sat around waiting for a serious scoop. More often than not they delivered stories about minor infractions to the town’s by-laws and the sleazy practices of a few local businessmen. I don’t remember a single major story coming from an “I Team.” It didn’t take long before the investigative units became a financial strain and worse, a joke. They soon disappeared from newscasts across North America, usually to the great sighs of relief of the investigative teams themselves who were tired of wild goose chases and the pressure to produce the scoop. Mostly they have been replaced by a consumer reporter who tracks down the misdeeds and rip-offs that affect the local viewers.

Now flash forward to 2009. The CBC has decided to create an investigative unit reporting to their new news hub. These “investigative” journalists are going to do what exactly? Investigate? What the heck have they been doing all along? Is it not a journalist’s job to look into a story, corroborate the facts, see if there’s more to the story? That’s the basic job of a journalist. What makes that journalist an investigator as well as a journalist? If you are a journalist and you are not investigating what exactly are you doing?

A long time ago a brilliant newsman, Don Cameron, the man who created Newsmagazine, Canada AM, and W5 to name just a few of his accomplishments, told me that any high school student could identify the who, what, when and where of a news story, it was the journalist’s job to identify the why. Why is the real question that must be answered by any good news story no matter what the medium. That’s what we call journalism…investigation.

Has the lack of an investigative team hurt the CBC up to now? How did they prove that Tasers are more dangerous than the RCMP are willing to admit without an “I Team?” How does The Fifth Estate keep churning out blockbuster stories like the rip-offs of lottery winners by store owners? How do they do it without…never mind, the answer is too obvious, they have some excellent journalists who do their jobs the way they are supposed to and voila, they break big stories that help change Canada and win awards for CBC.

So how do big stories get broken? In almost every case the scoop you see, read or hear in the media has come from a disgruntled employee or do-gooder who passes a manila envelope to a journalist, phones a television station or writes a letter to a trusted journalist or program or newspaper. In other words, they get a tip.That tip becomes the starting line in the race to a great story.

Another way to get a tip is to hear directly from a citizen who has been wronged and is looking for someone to turn to for help. All the searching in the world by a team of the best journalists will not dig up a single great story without a tip. From the tip the investigation begins.

And what’s the best way to get tips. There are two ways. The first is to be out on the street. If you meet enough people and keep your eyes and ears open you will eventually get a tip that will lead to a scoop. That’s why I always believed in giving reporters a “beat.” Crime reporters will meet lots of cops and lawyers. They will build a level of trust and eventually they will be on the receiving end of a great story. The same holds true for medical reporters, labor reporters, city hall and legislative reporters. What “beat” exactly does an investigative journalist have? Who do they talk to in order to find a story or elicit a tip?

The second way to get great scoops is to produce great stories. I’m sure many of The Fifth Estate’s stories come to them because the program has a terrific reputation for exposing wrongdoing. If you saw the tainted tuna story they did a few years back and you have a similar situation at your place of work you know you can trust these people with your story. Fifth Estate and W5 are magnets for whistle-blowers.

So why take some of your best journalists out of the day-to-day news mix and exile them to an investigative unit? Only the CBC News bosses can answer that. I will tell you now that this will not work. It never has. The “I Teamers” will soon be back where they belong, producing whatever story that comes up in the hope of stumbling across the great scoop. As Sonny Bono said, “…the beat goes on. “ And I can go on laughing at some of the strange ideas coming out of our national broadcaster.

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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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