I'm Mad as Hell

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and I can't do a thing about it

Another Prime Ministerial Love-in

Every year around this time I look forward to the annual CTV News and CBC News interviews with the Prime Minister. They have become as much a part of the festive season as Christmas trees, carols and indigestion. Each year I hope for the kind of interview I remember from the past, but as time goes by I wonder if these sit-downs were ever any good. Is this a case of false memory syndrome on my part? I wonder.

This year’s first Prime Ministerial gabfest was with the new anchor at CTV, Lisa LaFlamme. Anyone who is a regular reader of my blog knows I have been a fan of Lisa’s since long before she came to network television. I was looking forward to some real journalistic third degree. Lisa has always struck me as fearless, therefor I thought she would be all over Stephen Harper. Sadly it was not to be.

Look, I know it was head and shoulders better than last year’s anemic effort where Robert Fife and Lloyd Robertson tossed softballs at Harper and never asked a follow-up question when it was obvious the prime Minister was dodging or ignoring the original query. The two senior CTV reporters embarrassed themselves and their network by skipping many of the most controversial subjects of the year.

A year ago, Peter Mansbridge’s one-on-one with Stephen Harper was only slightly better. He got around to all of the important issues, but you may see a pattern developing here, he too missed every opportunity to ask a follow up question when the Prime Minister was fudging or refusing to get specific.

So this time it was Lisa LaFlamme’s turn. Her first. I knew it was going to be painful almost from the start. Her first few questions were about the economy, immigration and health. Every question was too long, most double-barreled, and each one contained a way out for Harper. LaFlamme seemed to be saying, before I ask this question, and please forgive me for asking it, understand I am a nice person and I won’t force you to get specific. She looked like she was there to please the Prime Minister, not the Canadian public. It hit bottom when she prefaced an economy question by pointing out how tough a time it is to govern before she moving on to say that Harper is seen as a strong fiscal manager by most Canadians. Hello, who wrote this stuff, the P.M. press aides?

Needless to say Harper’s answers were typically long on generalities and almost completely devoid of specifics. Also, needless to say, there were never any follow-ups and at no time was he asked to explain.

From here the interview got a little better. Peter MacKay’s seeming spendthrift ways, and the Arab Spring were broached. These were the kinds of subjects Fife and Robertson ignored a year ago. Here the questions were asked at least, even though Harper’s explanations were never questioned.

The came Kyoto and the environment, on this subject LaFlamme developed a backbone. When Harper tried to explain that he got out of Kyoto because the biggest polluters had not signed on, she asked if he was blaming China and India for the environmental problems. She also asked Harper whether it was incumbent on Canada to show a little leadership on the subject.

LaFlamme followed this up by pressing Harper on the Eurozone crisis and the global economy. There was good stuff here about selling Canada’s oil to China and India, the Keystone Pipeline and the Canada-EEC free trade talks. When Harper said the negotiations were proceeding towards an agreement, LaFlamme asked what the Harper Government had put on the table. She didn’t get an answer, but she did ask the pertinent question.

Then it was back to the love-in. Harper was congratulated for endorsing a state funeral for Jack Layton and was seriously let off the hook for his government’s handling of the Attawapiskat situation.

The final quarter of the interview was with Laureen and Stephen Harper together. This section was filled with the usual People Magazine material: Harper’s kids (they seem so normal), life in the age of Facebook (the kids can’t post there for safety reasons), Laureen’s ability to comment (Stephen is almost always right but we do talk at breakfast), Christmas shopping and who cooks the Christmas dinner.

All-in-all a very pedestrian interview that shed little or no light on the troubles of the past year or the government’s expectations for the year to come. To prove how un-newsy the interview was, on a night when re-gifting and the World Junior Hockey Championships took up a too large portion of the newscast, CTV couldn’t find a single clip or highlight for their national newscast.

We get so few opportunities, especially from this Prime Minister, to spend the kind of time it takes to do an in-depth interview, it seems criminal to me to waste it without asking the really tough questions and demanding answers, or at least pointing out when the answers are not forthcoming.

I will give Lisa LaFlamme another chance because it was her first solo try, but my expectations will be for a much better effort next year.

P.S. The production values left a lot to be desired too. The camera pointed at Harper was too high and therefor always looked down on him and the camera was placed so that Harper was always in ¾ profile. Lisa’s camera was pointed directly at her, they should have done the same for the Prime Minister. Also, as the interview went on Harper started to sweat, especially above the upper lip, and he became shiny in the TV lights. I’m certain they could have paused to powder his face. They didn’t.

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The Reporters that got away

I was talking with a few friends recently, most of them still hard at work in the media, and eventually the discussion focused on the quality of television reporting. In general we lamented the poor reporting that makes its way on to the country’s airwaves. There have always been great reporters, there have always been competent reporters, but for the most part poor reporters seldom lasted, especially at the national level. Today we see far more of the latter and way fewer of the former. The merely competent remain in place at all the national network shows.

After a while we disagreed as to what was the cause of so many bad reporters plying their trade. Some say it is the incompetence of the bosses who wouldn’t know a great report if it hit them square between the eyes. Some blame the lack of a local feeder system at CBC that at one time provided all of the networks with the best talent and more important, a place to train where quality counted and a support structure was maintained to train young journalists in the fine art of story telling and performance. Still others say the workloads preclude quality. Once you have to do two, three and even four hits per day, you will never have the time to make your primary story excellent. One person blamed the “journalism” degree. He said we are graduating students who know how to shoot, edit, write and perform but there is little or nothing behind it. These graduates have no degrees in politics, economics, science, literature, history, geography, etc. They only know how to be journalists. In the past, before the journalism degree was a prerequisite, reporters came with degrees in all of the above mentioned areas and more. They had a level of knowledge and learning they could bring to a story or an event. To be fair there are many exceptions…reporters who are doctors and lawyers, correspondents with Masters degrees who majored in something other than journalism and the odd few who somehow overcame the bias towards a degree in journalism.

In truth there are elements of all of the above in the problems being faced today by those attempting to produce the best newscasts.

While we disagreed about the causes we all concurred on one thing: there are too few really great reporters to fill three network news organizations. Having said that, the position CBC finds itself in is all the more puzzling. Considering the fact that they lost their feeder system how could they let so many really terrific correspondents get away? The joke is, if you want to see the very best CBC television news reporters watch Global and CTV.

The CBC has never in my lifetime had a more mediocre to poor reporting staff. Sure they still have some very excellent reporters, my list includes Terry Milewski, Paul Hunter, Adrienne Arsenault, Neil MacDonald and Wendy Mesley, your may differ. Beyond these few holdouts from better days, the pickings are mighty slim. So you have to ask yourself, what were the honchos at CBC News thinking when they allowed so many of their best correspondents to get away? It’s a real poser.

At CTV Paul Workman and Tom Kennedy are two of the finest television reporters in Canada. They both came from the CBC. The circumstances were very different, but the result the same. Kennedy was never given the opportunities he deserved at the corpse and he fled. Workman was pushed out by incompetent managers who insisted he leave Paris and Europe where he had been a stalwart for decades. CTV also has Martin Seemungal whose enterprise as a one man band in Africa for the CBC was doing groundbreaking work; and Kevin Newman who was mistreated at CBC and practically forced to go to ABC in the United States. Wouldn’t Kevin look great hosting a political program on CBC? While anyone would be better than Evan Solomon, Kevin could make that show must viewing for political junkies. He would also be really great to have in the fold as the heir apparent to Peter Mansbridge.

Over at Global, someone had the very good sense to grab up Patrick Brown, the best Asia correspondent we have ever had in Canada. Nobody is more knowledgeable or comfortable with that posting. One of the CBC’s greatest blunders was allowing him get away. Also at Global Eric Sorensen is doing a great job. He was never given an opportunity at CBC. I tried to hire him when I was at Global. I could see that he had what it took to become a fine reporter and I have been proven right.

These six excellent correspondents alone could transform CBC news back into what it once was, a leader in the Canadian news business. They all came from CBC. They were all either ignored, pushed or mishandled. CTV and Global are richer for the blundering of CBC management. CBC is by far the poorer.

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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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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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Election Coverage: Bland Beats Boring

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Rape of Citytv

I have been intending to write about the rape and pillaging of Citytv for many months now. In what has to be a series of the most heinous crimes perpetrated on a network of successful television stations in Canadian broadcasting history, CTV and Rogers have systematically cut and chopped what was once the most distinctive service available in Canada.

Most Canadian TV aficionados are well aware of the pioneering little station that grew up in Toronto under the unusual but brilliant tutelage of Moses Znaimer. Citytv was always true to its name. An urban, downtown feel and a more than slightly cheeky presentation style characterized the station. As long as Znaimer was running the place and CHUM Ltd. were the owners the station had a youthful, multicultural approach that seemed to win a strong local audience that remained very loyal long after viewers hit middle age.

Long before CFTO in Toronto and Global abandoned what looked like a racist “all white” presenter policy, Citytv was hiring an eclectic mix of visible and non-visible minority reporters and anchors for their newscasts. When CFTO tried to get Gord Martineau to change his name to Gord Martin Citytv hired him away and insisted he go on air with his full name. Ann Mroczkowski, Jojo Chintoh, and Thalia Assuras were part of the ecumenical fabric of the station that dared to be different.

Sure anyone who was in Toronto in the mid-seventies remembers the “Baby Blue” movies, the first soft porn anyone I know had ever seen on broadcast television, but what really made Citytv stand out was the outstanding Canadian shows the station produced. The station claimed to produce more local television than anyone else in Canada, which I suspect was true. Some of those groundbreaking shows included Fashion Television, MediaTelevision, SexTV, CityLine, the amazing Speakers’ Corner that allowed citizens to record their thoughts for replay on the weekly program and my personal favorite, The New Music which I liken to a TV version of Rolling Stone Magazine.

In today’s broadcast world, it seems darn near impossible that just one little station could accomplish so much quality local programming.

Citytv didn’t just produce new and interesting content, it changed the way content was presented, and not just in Canada, but in the U.S. and around the globe. First came the hand held cameras that gave the newscasts a “street” feel while everyone else was insisting on using tripods and looking perfect. Then came the news videographers, one person acting as camera person, sound operator and reporter. That allowed Citytv to cover way more stories than anyone else who had to send out three and eventually two person crews. Then the in studio performance began to match the “in the streets” feel. The news desk disappeared. Gord and Ann were free to roam the newsroom live, to deliver the news standing or sitting on stools. It was groundbreaking, unconventional and most important, felt natural and interesting to watch. It only took CBC News thirty years to attempt something similar and they managed to thoroughly screw it up.

In news it was not only style that won audiences, it was Citytv’s famous speed. They developed the slogan: “Citytv, Everywhere,” and they were everywhere. I remember one crew at CBC local in Toronto coming back to the office flabbergasted when they were sent out to cover a fire right around the corner from our offices. They reported back shocked that Citytv had beaten them to the story even though they had to cross town to get it. We were in serious awe of Citytv’s ability to get to every story first.

I have to admit here that I was never a fan of the quality of Citytv’s journalism. Most often it was tabloid coverage that never dealt with context or answered the question why the event happened or was important. Pictures and style took precedence over story telling. But that’s what they were aiming for. It wasn’t a thoughtless failure to produce great journalism, it was a thoughtful decision by some very smart TV people.

After three decades of success in Toronto, City finally expanded to Vancouver, Calgary, Edmonton and Winnipeg. It also picked up affiliates in Western Canada and provided its Canadian content to stations in the Maritimes. The CHUM-City group was actually making money in 2006 when everyone else in Canadian broadcasting was complaining of losses and blaming the 200 channel universe. True City was not making as much as they had in the past, and perhaps they saw the writing on the wall because in that year they sold all their stations to CTV Globemedia and that’s when the rape and pillaging began. On the very same day that CTV announced it was buying the Citytv stations, it was announced that supper hour, late night and weekend newscasts would be cancelled in Vancouver, Edmonton, Calgary and Winnipeg. This meant that hundreds of news staff could be laid off almost immediately.

The CRTC did not allow the sale to go through as is, because they deemed that CTV should not be allowed to own two broadcast stations in Toronto, Vancouver, Calgary, Edmonton and Winnipeg. So a deal was quickly made to sell the City stations to Rogers. I guess the fact that Rogers already owned Omni stations in Toronto and Vancouver was overlooked by Konrad von Finckenstein and his colleagues at the CRTC. Oops, that’s fodder for another blog.

It didn’t take long for Rogers to wreck what was left of the old Citytv. Rogers blamed the global economic meltdown in January of last year (by the way, at a time when the economy was already beginning to make a strong comeback) and announced the cancellation of Lunch Television in Vancouver, CityNews at Noon in Calgary, Edmonton and Toronto, Your City in Calgary and Edmonton, City OnLine and CityNews at Five in Toronto, The CityNews List in Vancouver and Citytv’s national and international newscast, CityNews International. That meant another 60 CityNews people could be laid off, most shockingly, including long time anchor Ann Mrocskowski.

The obvious questions have never been answered. How can huge money making conglomerates like Rogers or CTV Globemedia justify the massive cuts? How could these TV giants take a small network that was making money and turn it into a failing asset so quickly? Why did Rogers buy City if they had no intention of keeping what was so special about it? How can the CRTC sit on their hands when two of the broadcast giants in this country dismantle something that was so special?

Citytv still has the gall to use the slogan “Everywhere.” How can you be everywhere when you are not on the air on the weekend? The news looks tired and its ratings are dwindling. All those great Canadian shows I talked about were either taken by CTV or are gone. Citytv is just another Canadian broadcaster now, or should I say just another American rebroadcaster. U.S. sitcoms, reality and dramas make up the entire prime time schedule. It’s a more than a shame, it’s a crime.

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CBC and the talent deficit

“So it appears Laura di Battista will be the next “outside the CBC hire.” She’ll take over the afternoon show on radio, probably early in the new year.

“So in the past few months the powers-that-be have hired Dwight Drummond (City) and Anne-Marie Mediwake (Global), Tony Parsons (BCTV) – never mind the stream of City people over the years (Stroumboulopoulos, Richler, Laurie Brown).

“Does anyone else see a strange pattern of CBC News dismissing the competition with contempt, and then turning around and hiring their on-air talent? Why doesn’t the CBC have these people in its system if it’s so important to them – or is the CBC’s system so flawed that it doesn’t have people with the type of on-air experience/talent/look that is what management believes it needs to compete?

“Our news programs on TV and radio are now so close in content and look to the private stations that there’s almost no difference – even editorially … especially editorially.

“Funnily enough the woman that hosts the extremely popular Cityline (Tracy Moore) was a reporter at CBLT who was continually turned down for a full-time job.”

This was an email I received recently from a very concerned and highly respected CBC employee. It made me think about the history of mistakes the bosses at CBC have made in dismantling local news.

Let me start with a little bit of history. In the ‘50s CBC Television was the only game in town. Many call it the golden age of CBC-TV. It was a time of experimentation. New shows, new kinds of programming, live dramas and of course the building of local news teams in markets from coast to coast. The network and the medium were growing. Personalities were being created…Wayne and Shuster, Juliette, Percy Saltsman, heck even the actor who played the Esso dealer on Hockey Night in Canada, Murray Westgate, became a big star across the country. Wherever CBC opened a local station they created a local news program and a local news team.

For the next three decades the local news became the training ground for some of the finest television journalists that this country has known. People like Mike Duffy, David Halton, Peter Kent, Eric Malling, Peter Mansbridge, Wendy Mesley, Craig Oliver, Steve Paikin and Paul Workman to name just a small fraction. From the ‘50s to the mid ‘80s if you wanted to know who the reporting stars of the future were going to be you had to tune into the local CBC Newscasts in Toronto, Winnipeg, Regina, St. John’s, Vancouver and the rest of the country. So what happened?

In 1984 and 1985 the federal government began to cut the CBC’s budgets. What followed was a massive blunder. The Vice President of CBC English, Denis Harvey, decided that in order to save the budget of the CBC’s national news service, he would take a butcher knife to the budgets of the local news. He misunderstood two very important facts at the time. The first was that local news had double the viewers of The National. Yes it was spread across more than a dozen CBC stations, but hey, The National’s audience came from all those same stations plus the affiliates. Harvey was cutting the successful newscasts in order to save a service that was rapidly falling behind CTV.

His second error was in not comprehending the inherent value of local news. Study after study in the U.S. has shown that strong local newscasts build ratings that create strong local stations. Those high ratings for local news result in bigger audiences for network programming throughout the evening. They got this at CTV and in the United States. Their networks are built around strong local affiliates that build in their turn around highly rated local newscasts. CBC was throwing out their babies with their bathwater. There is an argument to be made that the ratings of The National were actually undermined by the cuts in local news.

The rapid decline of CBC local news continued unabated. It was a vicious cycle: staffs were cut, ratings plummeted, money became scarcer, so staffs were cut further, rating fell even more and ad revenues all but disappeared. Soon many local news operations were shut down and the idea of regional news raised its ugly head. Can Edmonton and Calgary share a newscast? Apparently not. By the new millennium local CBC news was all but non-existent. In Toronto audiences fell from highs of over 300,000 viewers in 1985 to under 40,000. The results were similar in Calgary, Vancouver, Halifax and Montreal. People were not watching because CBC was not providing a serious newscast.

Today we are left with the legacy of those times and those decisions. Sure, local newscasts are sort of back. Ninety minutes of information that repeats more than my mom’s garlic burgers. Staffs that are one-third the size of those who produced just sixty minutes in the past. Worst of all, rather than follow CBC’s historic striving for quality news coverage, they are emulating the worst of the privates’ local news coverage. They are chasing ambulances, fire trucks and police cars with hardly an attempt to look at local issues.

Under the circumstance it should come as no surprise that CBC has to go outside to find talent. It should also come as no shock that the talent they are hiring fit the CITY-TV mold far more that they resemble what we used to expect on CBC.

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The Female Anchor

It’s been a relatively quiet week in the TV and television news business. While I was contemplating what to write about this week I got a phone call from a friend who is one of the top journalists in Canada. He was incensed at a couple of things that I barely noticed. Perhaps it was the afterglow of watching my daughter get married last week, but I failed to make the connections he had made.

The first thing that rankled was the reaction to Global and CTV announcing female anchors for their national newscasts. Two things here are wrong. Every newspaper we saw had at least one commentary that suggested that CBC would have to get rid of Peter Mansbridge so that they could hire a female anchor too. It was as if CBC was left out of the party.

Look, I think it is time for Peter to think about leaving his anchor post, but not because CTV named Lisa Laflamme to take over from Lloyd Robertson and Global hired Dawna Friesen. After more than a decade of failing to grab very good ratings and a year of dreadful response and massive audience loss, it is obvious that Peter Mansbridge is not connecting to the majority of news viewers. Since Walter Cronkite anchored the CBS Evening News there has been a simple test for the success or failure of a news anchor. When an anchor’s name becomes synonymous with the newscast you have a winner. Nobody in the 60’s or 70’s said they were going to watch CBS Evening News. Few even knew the real name of the program. It was just ‘Walter.’ I’m watching ‘Walter.’ Let’s watch ‘Walter.’ Did you see ‘Walter’ last night? The same is true at CTV. It is as if the name of CTV’s national newscast is ‘Lloyd.’ I watched ‘Lloyd’ last night. ‘Lloyd’ had a great story on the G-20 summit. I have never heard anyone call The National ‘Peter.’

Further, I don’t think CBC has to get a female to replace Peter. I think CBC has to get an excellent communicator that can create a bond with the Canadian news audience be it a male or a female.

In fact the comments about Peter are actually demeaning to both Dawna Friesen and Lisa Laflamme. From where I sit they earned their new positions the hard way. They worked for them. They were both first rate reporters who climbed the journalistic ladder with solid work. They didn’t get their jobs because they are female. It wasn’t some kind of publicity stunt to attract viewers. They were chosen by their news bosses as the best qualified for the job. The writers who perpetrated this farcical angle should be ashamed. So should the editors who published this nonsense.

On a far darker note, newspapers, TV newscasts and radio news also went way over the line in trying to create a story where none exists and perhaps ignored an important story in the process. Last week Michael Ignatieff began a cross country election style bus tour of Canada. He is hoping to make personal appearances in hundreds of communities across the country. So far so good. Unfortunately his bus broke down on the first day of the campaign style tour.

That’s when the knives came out in the most unfair way possible. Ignatieff’s leadership was blamed for the breakdown.Instead of reporting on the stops Ignatieff made that day, rather than comment on what he had to say or the relative size of the crowds he attracted, people who call themselves journalists reported on the bus breakdown and how that breakdown is an example of Ignatieff’s failure as Liberal leader.

I am no fan of Ignatieff’s leadership so far. He has shown little political skill, he has not connected to voters, and he has seemed weak in the parliamentary give and take. But I do not think the fact that his rented bus broke down has anything to do with his abilities or failures as a potential Prime Minister. So far as I know he didn’t build the bus, he wasn’t the mechanic that sent it out on the road, heck, he wasn’t even the bus driver. What does the mechanical failure of a mode of transport have to do with anything and why is every political journalist connecting the broken down bus to Ignatieff’s leadership. Worse still why dwell on what is at best a symbol without actually covering the real story.

Isn’t it interesting that although Ignatieff was able to get to his next meeting and in the days since he has successfully made his way from town to town and from event to event, the Canadian media has once again gone back to ignoring the political story here: a desperate leader of a floundering party is desperately looking rehab his image and connect with Canadians. Is he succeeding? I guess the press will never let us know. How can that story compare to a broken down bus and all that we can learn from it?

It is becoming more and more difficult every day to apologize for the faltering journalism standards in this country. There was a time when I was proud of the work we did. Now, more often than not, I am embarrassed

Filed under: Media Commentary, Political Commentary, , , , , , , , ,

Lloyd and Lisa

While we are waiting for Global to announce their new anchor and looking at CBC and wondering what they will do to first to fix a badly battered newscast and a new formula that is obviously not working as far as the viewing public is concerned, and second deal with the future of Peter Mansbridge, I want to take the time to discuss Lloyd Robertson and Lisa Laflamme.

I remember quite vividly the shock of Lloyd coming to join Harvey Kirk on the CTV anchor desk. At the time I was at CTV producing Canada AM. Harvey was the most popular newsman in Canada. He was a big lovable bear of a man who was most popular with his co-workers and contrary to what has been written in the past few days, still the star of CTV News in the minds of the public. Harvey didn’t work very hard at it, but when he was called upon he proved to be a very good writer and journalist. He sat in on Canada AM a few times when Norm Perry was on vacation and quickly endeared himself to my staff and the audience. He was actually a very good interviewer.

At the time Lloyd said he was leaving CBC because the union rules didn’t allow him to take part in the writing and producing of the news. He was only allowed to be an announcer. At CTV we were expecting Lloyd to come in pumped up for his opportunity to write and take a full part in the preparation of the broadcast.That never happened.

Lloyd wasn’t taking any chances, however. He was not going to play second fiddle to Harvey. He brought his own producer to run the show, Tim Kotcheff, and together they worked to minimize Harvey and maximize Lloyd.

Internally that created some small problems. It turned out that Lloyd really couldn’t write and he backed off doing that very quickly. The newsroom staff had far more respect for Harvey’s abilities than Lloyd’s. The boss, however, always favored Lloyd with the best assignments. It took a few years but Tim and Lloyd created a process to rid the staff of Harvey loyalists and of Harvey himself. The problem here being that CTV had by far the best newsroom staff in Canada at the time and over the years it has had to be trebled and quadrupled to accomplish the same amount of work that a brilliant pre-Lloyd newsroom could do.

But as it turned out Lloyd was not without an abundance of talent. With Harvey gone he made the news his own. Not with writing or journalism, but with star power and trustworthiness. Lloyd shone as an anchor. He had the ability to speak to everyone in the audience as individuals. People responded to him, in my opinion, because he was honest. What you saw on air was what you saw in person. He was a good man who enjoyed what he was doing and cared about the quality of his work and his show.

For his co-workers there was another talent that was only revealed when Lloyd began to host specials like elections, budgets and live events. He was masterful. He had the ability to control the feel and pace and content of events that were coming at him from all sides. In the parlance of TV news, he was the best “traffic cop” in the business. He had a prodigious memory for facts and he always did his homework. Perhaps most amazing was his ability to listen and talk at the same time. When I produced the Royal Wedding of Charles and Diana, Lloyd had both an ABC and a BBC feed beaming into his headset and further he had me interrupting him telling him where we were going next. He could listen to all three, actually hearing and repeating important information and never miss a beat talking to the audience. He was truly a savant.

Lloyd speaks to ordinary Canadians because he is deep down, after the seven figure salary, an ordinary Canadian. He’s a good family man. He is serious about his religious beliefs and he is not afraid to let his feelings and basic people instincts show. He will be a hard man to replace and he will be missed in the Canadian news business.

I never worked with Lisa Laflamme but I have admired her work for a long time. I remember when she was a local reporter in Kitchener and I was running CBC News in Toronto. On many, many occasions I asked the people around me who was this young local small town reporter who was producing pieces to equal most of the work being produced on CBC and CTV at the national level? A few years later I watched as began to do a lot of anchor work in Kitchener. She took to it naturally. She was comfortable behind the desk from day one and had the ability Lloyd had to talk to her audience like she was one of them.

When I went to Global to be news director I thought, wow, here’s an opportunity to hire Lisa away from CKCO. Unfortunately I had the dumbest and worst VP of news that I have ever had the misfortune to work for or even hear about. We needed a reporter who could fill in on the anchor desk on weekends and holidays. Lisa was doing a spectacular job in Kitchener so the fit seemed perfect. I went to Doug Bonar (ah, what an apt monicker) and told him I was going to offer the job to Lisa. He asked to see her audition tape. I showed it to him. He refused to allow me to hire her. Why? Did he not like her reporting skills? Truth be told, he wouldn’t know a good reporter from a can of cream soup. Did he not like her anchoring skills? He knew as much about anchors as he knew about astrophysics. No, I couldn’t hire Lisa Laflamme because Doug Bonar did not like her hair!

It worked out for the best for Lisa. I know she has the talent and ability to be a fine replacement for Lloyd Robertson. Her biggest problem will be that Lloyd is a mighty hard act to follow.

Filed under: Media Commentary, , , , , , , ,

Looking for Bias

Over the past several weeks the CBC has once again come under fire from Conservative politicians and conservative rabble rousers for their perceived bias. This has been a regular occurrence for decades. I was with The Journal when Brian Mulroney became Prime Minister and quickly began attacking the CBC. He hired a former CTV newsman and executive to look into the pro-Liberal leanings of the staff and management of the national broadcaster. Since there was never any action that resulted from the inquiry I have to guess that the powers in Ottawa could not find what they were looking for.

At the time I had only been at CBC for a short time and I was surprised by what I had found. I too believed there was a liberal bias, that is, until I arrived and started working with the CBC. Sure there were Liberal and NDP supporters on staff. There were also many Conservative supporters working at The National and The Journal. And guess what, the conservatives were actually the people in power, the decision makers. Barbara Frum would never admit to it, but she was always pushing the conservative viewpoint. In fact she would call her husband, a devout Conservative, and ask his advice before most political interviews. I never asked Mark Starowicz who he voted for but he always struck me as leaning to the right. There were similar stories at The National. As any reasonable person should suspect, there are people of all political stripes working throughout the media and all we should care about is there ability to do their jobs as professionals, not who they may vote for if an election were held today.

More to the point though, I was generally impressed with the fact that the stories that got to air were not particularly affected by any personal bias of the reporters, producers and writers. The staff were, in fact, professionals who were attempting to get their stories right with no time for the political games that politicians or fanatical viewers want to perceive. There have been the odd exceptions but those exceptions have popped up on all the networks and on all sides of the stories.

Now along comes Stephen Harper and his hatchet man Doug Finley along with Conservative Party President John Walsh to renew the CBC bashing when the going gets a little tough for his party. I suppose attacking the CBC might make a few people ignore Afghanistan and Guergisgate, but I suspect that CBC news has slipped far enough from the consciousness of Canadians that the ploy won’t do the Tories any good.

The Harperite attacks should have been ignored by the brass at the “corpse.” They were not. In fact CBC management has over-reacted big time. The CBC’s defensiveness will do more harm to their cause than anything the Harper minions could accomplish themselves.

The first big response was President Hubert Lacroix commissioning a study. How Canadian. Lacroix announced that a team of outside experts would conduct an independent review of its news gathering and delivery. How’s that for a vote of confidence in your staff? The results are due in the fall. How does one measure such things? If the CBC covers Helena Guegis are they being anti-Tory? What about covering a Liberal policy conference? Is that pro-Liberal? It’s a mugs game that will provide the answers that Hubert Lacroix wants or needs. If he needs an excuse to hammer his people into being easy on Harper, the panel will find a pro-Liberal bias. If he wants to back his peeps, guess what? There will be no bias at all. I can’t imagine anyone accepting the results of the study unless it agrees with their preconceived notions.

For 25 years in news I was called too far left by conservatives and too right wing by liberals. I always considered this a badge of honor. Nobody likes the coverage when they are dealing with a negative story about themselves. In the case of Parliament, the party in power always takes more hits than the opposition. Heck, they are making the policy and thus they are open to criticism. Lacroix should understand this and not respond in any other way than to show confidence in and watch the backs of his professional team of journalists. Any other response only leads to more charges and the growing of the story.

Unfortunately the CBC did not stop at a study. In response to the charges that CBC is using a Liberal pollster, Frank Graves, someone at the CBC went really overboard and opened the corporation to far more questions from both within and without. They went out and hired former Harper aide Kory Teneycke just weeks after he left the PMO. Inquiring minds have a question about Kory Teneycke’s new job…NDP MP Charlie Angus’s question to the Ombudsman was how CBC justifies hiring him when there is supposed to be a 2 year “cooling off” period. This is indeed the question that is raised most with the people I know.

But there is another question…who exactly hired him? Nobody I spoke to at CBC ever heard of one person being hired on what we can only presume is one contract to do a multitude of appearances on SEVERAL different programs. Did all the news and current affairs producers just happen to get together and try to entice him to accept such a deal. The ones I spoke to had not been contacted about the hiring. Or, as seems more likely, did CBC management hire him, and then proceed to ram him down the throats of CBC executive producers? Once upon a time, program producers decided who would be guests on their programs.

The CBC is being run by “the gang that couldn’t shoot straight.” Every move they make seems to result in another hole in their feet. If Hubert Lacroix really wants to fix the CBC he should begin with a long and hard look both in the mirror and at the folks running the place and leave the politics to the politicians.

Filed under: Media Commentary, Political Commentary, , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

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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