I'm Mad as Hell

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and I can't do a thing about it

The more things change…

It never ceases to amaze me how big corporations can be so oblivious to what is happening on the streets just outside their fancy headquarters. We’ve all been disgusted by the big U.S. banks taking billions or trillions of dollars in bailouts and then turning around and handing out million dollar bonuses to their executives and top performers.

We are gob struck by hospitals in Canada who take all of their top doctors to meetings in Florida or Las Vegas rather than using the fancy boardrooms they have had built and furnished in their facilities.

All we can say is: what were they thinking?

So why are we surprised to learn that the CBC is sending twice as many people to a TV and media festival in Banff than any other Canadian network? That’s the way the CBC works. Some will go as a form of bonus or reward. Others will go to raise the CBC flag. A few will even go to Banff to do some valuable work. Heck, at the CBC they probably think they are saving money because they are likely sending fewer people than they sent in the past. While the profligacy boggles our minds, the CBC brass will be truly surprised by the mild uproar. It’s how they have always done their business. What’s new?

For years I traveled to conferences, markets and conventions all over the world. A few when I was with CTV, a few more at CBC, and regularly when I helped run a private company that produced television programs. Several things became obvious to me on my travels: first of course, was that CBC always had the largest contingent of any of the Canadian broadcasters or producers, most of whom were there for reasons that I, as a participant, could not fathom.

Further, except for a tiny group of people who were there to look for programs to buy or sell, it was a complete boondoggle. Most of the participants go to the conventions to see old friends, have fancy lunches and dinners with the same people they see at every convention, and to party…I know people, including CBC types, who never showed up at any of the serious convention events, in fact they were probably sleeping off last night’s party so they could be fresh for tonight’s party.

In truth, because the broadcast people already know most of the other participants, it would be far cheaper and way more effective to telephone the people they are meeting with or to travel to their offices, whether they are in New York, London or Paris. They would not have to pay huge entrance fees. They would not have to compete with hundreds of others for face time. Most important, they could do all their business in one quick meeting and then head home.

The problem with these organizations, like CBC, the big banks, hospitals, is that they have developed a culture that took years and years to grow and it is almost impossible for them to see beyond the way they have always done their business. You can see it in Richard Stursberg’s book, Tower of Babble. Here’s a guy who claims to have had massive money problems. He says he begged the CBC Board of Directors to allow him to create new sources of revenue to combat millions and millions of dollars in shortfalls. Yet, here’s King Richard, crowing about the results of studies that he personally ordered. He names at least three studies he called for. Each one probably cost over a million dollars. In all my years at Global and CTV I do not remember even one study bought and paid for by the broadcaster. That’s what they paid their execs to do: make decisions based on experience and intelligence. Yet to Stursberg it is normal. He sees it as part of his job. He never once puts two-and-two together to come up with the possibility of saving money for programming by shutting down the useless studies he is commissioning. To be fair, the CBC has been doing studies since long before Stursberg showed up. When I was at CBC local news we received the results of a study that said the viewers wanted more international news. There was another study that said The National should be moved to seven p.m. Yet another study told us that our viewers were slightly older than those of CTV, Global and CityTV. All of this was “cover-your-ass” information. It meant CBC bosses could say decisions were not based on their ideas, a study said they should do what they did. At CBC some expenses are never questioned.

I use the idea of studies as just one example. I could talk about the fact that although it is true that CBC programming dollars have been cut to the bone and production staffs are below the minimum needed to do the work in many cases, CBC management is still bloated. There are too many bosses for too few employees. I know of one unit at CBC news that has one producer and three bosses. I know the CBC documentary unit has over a dozen people to buy docs from independent and foreign producers, when it is a job for a maximum of three people at most broadcasters in the world. But hey, this is the way the CBC has always done its business.

The way for the CBC to survive the future cuts has little to do with the measures being taken today and much to do with a complete change in the culture and the way of doing business. I see no signs of this happening. I hope I am wrong. If you know of examples of changes in the culture that could save the CBC please share them. I for one would be ecstatic to hear about them.

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King Richard: in his own words

Having just returned from a marathon two month stay in South America and a side trip to Montreal, it came as a bit of a surprise to see that Richard Stursberg, the former grand poobah of all things English at the CBC is back too, and he’s back in a very big way.

It seems Stursberg has a new book out, “The Tower of Babble” that tells the inside story of his tumultuous tenure at the national broadcaster. It should be an interesting, perhaps maddening, look at the machinations of the folks who ran the corporation and a behind the scenes account of some of the most divisive time in CBC history.

As a sort of preview King Richard wrote what he and The Globe and Mail are calling an essay entitled “How to Save the CBC.”

If the book is anything like the essay it will be both a direct and indirect exercise in self-congratulations. Heck if Stursberg pats himself on the back at the same rate as in his essay, he will need shoulder surgery to correct the rotator cuff damage he inflicts on himself.

Stursberg’s essay in Globe starts with the amazing idea that he presided over the CBC’s Golden Age. He says audience numbers were sinking at the CBC since the 1970’s. By the time he took over they were at their lowest in history. This is sort of true. What Stursberg fails to point out however, is that CTV, Global, in fact all terrestrial broadcasters lost audience in those years. As new channels, cable and specialty came on board, audience numbers spiraled downward. In the 1970’s the worst rated network show in Canada still got a 20 audience share. By the time the new millennium started the highest rated network shows in Canada were barely able to get a share of 18. The falling numbers had more to do with the new 500 channel universe than the CBC’s failures.

He goes on to say that starting in 2006, when the CBC began to reinvent itself…code for: the Stursberg leadership years, the CBC had a rebirth in both numbers and interest. So much so that the CBC has never been stronger than it is today.

There’s more than a little hyperbole here. Never! What about the 50’s and 60’s when CBC was either the only network or one of two networks? Nevermind that. More important, let’s look at how CBC raised its ratings under Stursberg. First of all, the national network forgot it’s mandate. They stopped running arts programming. The arts on CBC was an important outlet for serious dance, music, and the like. Sure it got poor audience numbers but it served a community that had no other access on television to this sort of programming. The same for religious programs, remember “Man Alive?” Stursberg led a regime that rooted out and killed anything that didn’t meet his audience numbers expectations. So yes, if you remove a show with 100,000 viewers on ballet and replace it with a drama that gets 500,000 viewers overall numbers will rise, but at what cost to the services provided? An awful lot of important CBC support disappeared with the mandated shows.

Stursberg also takes credit for the success of CBC radio. He points out that Gian Ghomeshi’s “Q” gets more listeners than Peter Gzowski got in the good old days. The numbers data he is working from is correct. The context is AWOL.

CBC Radio is doing marvelously well. I suggest that the quality of the programs is an important factor, but a far more important reason is the fact that private radio has shot itself in the foot. Too many stations sound the same. Too many stations are programming to baby boomers who are not listening to as much radio as they did when they were teenagers and at the same time young listeners are having a hard time finding the music they want to hear. The only competition CBC Radio has is from sports talk and phone in shows. Luckily Stursberg and company never got around to fiddling with Radio One’s content or they might be in the same boat as private radio is today…leaky and sinking.

Stursberg takes credit for the CBC’s producing programs that according to him compete favorably with shows produced in the U.S. If that’s the case why is there not a single CBC show in the top 20 other than hockey? If that’s competing, I’d hate to see what losing looks like.

He claims CBC has beaten Global in prime time for the past four years. Huh? Yes the CBC beat Global the year of the writers’ strike in the U.S. when all Global was running was re-runs. Other than that I have never seen numbers that place CBC ahead of Global.

King Richard even has the temerity to suggest that “Marketplace” and “The Fifth Estate” are doing better today. What the… The fact that those two shows are doing reasonably well is a tribute to the fine people that make those shows. Moving “The Fifth” to Friday night away from the larger audience night on Wednesday did hurt the numbers. They are now below one million viewers most nights. And what the CBC did to “Marketplace” is beyond disgusting. It has been moved all over the schedule and it has seen it’s season shortened. How do you do that to one of your most successful shows? The folks who produce those programs deserve a medal for overcoming the odds that were stacked against them by Stursberg and co.

Stursberg goes on to make some interesting points about the damage that’s being inflicted on the CBC by the government cuts. He even has some interesting, if very general and unexplained thoughts about how the CBC should proceed in the future, but make no mistake, Richard Stursberg is playing fast and loose with the facts to build up his own legacy. It’s not that he is completely wrong, it’s that he is manipulating the facts in the most self-serving of ways. Read his book. It is important to understand where he was coming from, but don’t be fooled by the rhetoric. The CBC is in trouble. The mandate is all but gone and forgotten. And contrary to what Stursberg says, too few Canadians care about the future of the CBC, and for that reason, he has more than a little ‘splaining to do.

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CBC: Fade to Black

Every time someone writes a blog condemning the new CBC, like the one last week by Tim Knight that caused a small stir, there seems to be less and less interest in it. There was a time when a piece like Tim’s would have caused a tremendous reaction. CBC backers would have taken to their computers and their writing implements to shout him down or to join him in the chorus of complainers. The fact that this is not happening speaks volumes about where the CBC is today in the conscious minds of Canadians. It is in fact not a pretty picture.

The CBC move to become ultra-light in an effort to woo younger viewers and boost its ratings has been a dismal failure. The age of the average CBC audience has not declined appreciably. The audience numbers have not risen, especially in comparison to the gains made by CTV and Global since the rating system was changed. Shows like Little Mosque on the Prairie and Insecurity have served to turn loyal CBC viewers away from the network. The National’s weak efforts since it was revamped have served to cut anywhere from 20 to 40 percent of the CBC News audience. The dismal treatment of current affairs mainstays like The 5th Estate and Marketplace have eroded both their numbers and their positive affect on how we view the work and importance of CBC TV. All of this is regrettable, and most important each small failure has led to the Corp’s biggest problem: too few people care enough anymore to fight for the CBC’s future.

I just returned from a trip to the east coast. When I lived there many years ago the CBC was a mainstay. It was top of mind if not top of ratings. The National’s news anchor was a star. There were programs that everyone watched and talked about. Yes, it was mainly in news and current affairs, but under brilliant people like John Kennedy the CBC was producing excellent movies and series that made a difference.
Today, I couldn’t find anyone who called himself or herself a CBC viewer. Most of the people I met don’t watch The National at all and seldom see anything on CBC. I know this is not a scientific survey, but I did see a lot of people in social group situations. The Maritimes, like Manitoba and Newfoundland were where the CBC picked up its biggest per capita audiences. That’s not true anymore for the Maritimes.

As if all this is not bad enough, at least three people questioned why the CBC should continue to exist and be funded by the taxpayers. One man from New Glasgow, a bookshop owner, went so far as to say he would not vote for any political party that would not sell off CBC TV. The general argument they make is that CBC TV programming is the same sort of stuff we see on CTV and Global. When I talked of Canadian content and jobs in the TV industry they laughed, saying if you can’t produce quality shows that I want to watch, you don’t deserve to have a job in the industry.

While many of these people’s feelings are extreme, what I see is a general malaise. People just don’t care anymore about the CBC and its future. When Parliament asked CBC to look for five percent in cuts to a budget that is already far to small to do the job, I didn’t hear a peep from anyone complaining about our cultural heritage or the need to have a national broadcaster. The silence was deafening.
CBC TV, it seems, has finally lost its standing as an important Canadian institution. Twenty-five years of budget cuts and six years of management dumbing down the content have worked their magic to make CBC TV just another station, and an unpopular one at that. The fact that the CBC costs Canadians a billion dollars per year only serves to make citizens care more about the money and less about what the network has to offer.

In the best of all worlds there would be a groundswell of opposition to what the current managers have done to a venerable institution. There would be a demand for watchable local news and a more serious National. There would be an outcry demanding a few high quality shows to counterbalance the froth. Alas, none of that is happening. What we are witness to is a slow fade to black at CBC TV. The very people who are responsible for a 75 year old legacy are either asleep at the wheel or have no idea what they are doing to the reputation and standing of the CBC.

Stephen Harper will not have to sell off the CBC, he won’t even have to do anything drastic. All he has to do is stand aside and let the CBC drift further and further into irrelevancy.

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Burying the Murdochs

I have to start off by saying that the troubles and scandals now threatening to bring down the Murdoch empire are both long overdue and well deserved payback for a decades of disreputable journalism, not just in the tabloids, but on television channels like Fox News as well. There is no excuse for breaking the law in order to ferret out a story. There is certainly never a reason to hack the phone line of a missing teenager and to delete messages that, by their absence, send false signals to her parents and the police.

I’m sure you are all waiting for the “but,” the turn in the story. Well here it is: I am sick of all the holier-than-thou folks out there who say the Murdochs and their Hench-people should have known about everything that was happening at The News of the World.

Yes the buck stops at the bosses. True the Murdochs are responsible in the end. They do own the newspaper in question. They did create and condone the sick milieu that gave birth to the journalistic atrocities that we are all now hearing about. But when the news analysts and irate journalism types say they can’t believe the Murdochs didn’t know what was going on when the phones were being hacked and the rules were being broken I have to take issue.

I believe it is entirely plausible. Hey these guys are running a huge enterprise with lots of newspapers all over the world, TV stations and satellite and specialty stations. I do not find it hard to believe that they may not have known exactly what was going on at The News of the World.

I was at CTV when W5 produced a story on Chinese students keeping Canadians out of Canadian universities. It was a crock, fabricated by a senior producer on the show. Chinese groups in Toronto organized and protested for weeks. The result was an apology and a lot of red faces at CTV. My point here is that I am certain Murray Chercover, then president of CTV had absolutely no idea that W5 was fabricating a story. Heck I am sure Don Cameron who was V.P. of the news operation had no idea. I even believe that Lionel Lumb who was the show’s producer didn’t know his story was based on lies and untruths. We’re talking about a pretty small network and an even smaller news operation, yet the bosses did not know what was going on. So why is it so hard to believe that Rupert and son didn’t know about the telephone hacking?

Does anyone think CBC President Hubert Lacroix knows everything that is going on at The National or local news in Vancouver? I think Hubert has bigger problems to deal with.

Is it possible that all of us journalism types are ready to throw the Murdochs under the bus because they are exactly the kind of people we have come to despise in news game? They run a company that is most famous for its right wing biases and its penchant for playing fast and loose with the truth. There is so much to condemn them for that there is no real need to attack them for their declaration of innocence.They say they didn’t know about the telephone hacking and the payoffs. So be it. There is no way to prove this one way or the other right now and I assume we all still believe in the principle that people are innocent until proven guilty.

This whole affair, not the wrongdoing, the virulent attacks on the individuals from within their own journalism community reminds me of how Canadian news people reacted to Conrad Black and his troubles. We didn’t like the way he treated the news, too right wing. We were upset by the way he treated his employees, anti-union and worse telling them what their opinions should be when they wrote for him. We hated the perceived arrogance of the man. All of the above meant he was guilty before any trial. All the proof we needed was that it was Conrad Black.

All of that being said, the Murdochs are responsible for the actions of their employees. They did set the tone that created the perceived need to illegally hack telephones so that their tabloids could scoop everyone else. They did create an empire that allows politics to overrule facts. Every day they allow Fox New to publish half-truths, lies and innuendo to further a political agenda. Let’s condemn them for what we know they did wrong and let’s act like the journalists we say we are and stick to the facts when we go after them. Stooping to the Murdoch’s level makes us as bad as they are.

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Quitting Solves Nothing

Okay, okay, enough already, for three days I have been getting calls, emails, posts and pleas to wade in on the Kai Nagata story. Kai’s the former CTV reporter who worked in, or should I say was, the Quebec City bureau. He has walked away from his job at the naïve young age of 24 but not before writing an impassioned essay on why he left and what is wrong with broadcast, no, all of journalism.

Kai’s screed has been an internet sensation among those of us who call ourselves journalists. Not just because it was passionate and well written, but, because there are too many sorry truths to ignore in his ramblings.

Kai says he quit his job “…because the idea burrowed into my mind that, on the long list of things I could be doing, television news is not the best use of my short life.”

Nagata’s main criticisms of his former profession are all right on the mark. He decries the need for good looks as a television reporter and says that sometimes, perhaps many times, looks are more important than the ability to report, write and produce top quality stories. He felt he could not do the kind of reporting he thought was necessary. He especially thought reporting on the Harper Government was a non-starter because his bosses did not want to tackle what he saw as the flaws in policy, those include Harper’s foreign policy which Kai believes has diminished Canada on the world stage, the lack of funding for science and research which he calls a “war” on science, and the Harper plan to increase prison sentences at a time when the crime rate is falling.

It appears that Kai was especially upset by the wall-to-wall coverage that Will and Kate got for more than a week on their Canadian tour. The royal romp across Canada seemed to upset him for two reasons, first, that while so many major stories were percolating all over the world, TV journalist wasted their efforts and broadcasters wasted their air-time on what is after all a very unimportant story. Second, he was disappointed to see and hear some of televisions best journalists stoop to become breathless groupies gushing over the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge.

As I said, Kai was right on all counts. So I ask myself, why am I not as impressed with Kai as it seems most of the rest of my world seem to be?

First and foremost Kai answers my question by reporting that he had lots of journalistic freedom to cover the Quebec Assembly and Quebec politics. This was after-all his job and by his own admission he was allowed to do it and do it reasonably well. When he took the job in Quebec City he did not expect, or did he, to cover federal government policy.

Second, and probably most important, while it is true that broadcasters and newspapers sometimes abdicate their job, that of covering the most important stories, this so that there will be more room for the most popular stories of the day, the stories that will bring in many, many more eyeballs and perhaps help pay for the expensive services that journalists provide, it should be pointed out that over time journalists have done an excellent job of breaking extremely important news. On the 40th anniversary of the Watergate break-in, I should not have to tell people what kind of work journalists can and do accomplish. Ask the starving people of Ethiopia if Brian Stewart’s expose of the drought was effective journalism? What about the coverage of Chretien government’s sponsorship scandal that may have brought down a political party? From tasers to tainted tuna we have all witnessed some excellent journalism by broadcast journalists who didn’t let the coverage of Princess Diana or the Bollywood film awards get in the way of the vital news they had to deliver.

I see people like Terry Milewski and Craig Oliver continuing to hold authority up to scrutiny. I see a new young guard of people like Omar Sachedina and Adrienne Arsenault who deliver the kind of stories that Kai says he wants to see. I see what could have and should have been an opportunity for a bright young man to take on the system and make it better. Alas he quit. He walked away when there was work to be done.

This is a case where being right doesn’t mean you are doing the right thing, I know because I made the same mistake once. I was news director at Global TV when the Oka Crisis was happening just outside Montreal. My boss, the vice president pulled my crew out of Oka without asking or informing me. I was shocked. I stormed into his office and asked him how he could pull our news crew away from the most important story in Canada? His response: Howard, we don’t have to cover it anymore. We got our license renewal on Friday.

I went down to my office and wrote a letter of resignation leaving 75 people to deal with an ignorant boss and a new toadie who would take over the newsroom.

To this day I regret the rash decision because I was in the process of turning Global News into a serious force in Canadian journalism. My departure left the wolves in charge of the hen house and it took a decade and new leadership at Global before they could start to claw their way back to credibility.

Kai Nagata seems like just the kind of young journalist the industry and the profession need to survive and prosper. Nobody has ever changed things for the better by walking away. By leaving he has in fact, helped those that seek to trivialize broadcast journalism and ceased to be of aid to those who want to make it better.

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The CRTC Must Die

Every time you think the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission, the CRTC, has finally been chastised and in the process, learned a lesson, the bozos who run the circus come up with a new and silly act meant to help the broadcasters. And, as is usual with these folks, somehow ends up diminishing our choices as consumers and costing us more money in the long run.

Last time the genius’ at the CRTC had the brilliant notion that behemoths Rogers and Bell should have the right to tell their sub-buyers like Teksavvy what they could charge for internet use. This blew up in the CRTC’s face when most Canadians saw through the money grab by the big providers and began a protest that made the suggestion disappear faster than a Liberal leader in the 21st century.

At just about the same time the sages who run the CRTC suggested that the need to tell the truth by broadcasters should be somehow loosened so that less honesty and less truth could become the norm. This was at a time when Sun TV was on the drawing board. Either they, the CRTC, were too stupid to make the connection, which is highly likely, or they were attempting, as some suggested, to pander to the Tory government by making it easier for a Fox-north like entity to succeed. Either way, it blew up in their collective faces.

Oh, and let’s not forget the plan to allow CTV and Global to charge cable and satellite companies to rebroadcast what is by license and by law a free service. Somehow this notion was approved but has disappeared from the landscape. It was left to the broadcasters and the distributors to somehow work out the charges. My guess is that Rogers said no way, we won’t pay and the entire issue went poof. If it had any legs after that I suspect the acquisition of CTV by Bell and Global by Shaw doomed the concept. Now the broadcasters are the distributors too. Funny the CRTC didn’t see these events coming even after they broke their own rules years ago by allowing cable and satellite companies like Rogers and Bell to own TV stations. It was inevitable. Only the egg-heads at the CRTC didn’t see the end of competition coming.

So, now that all their recent plotting has failed miserably, the brainiacs at the CRTC have come up with a new plan to strengthen the oligarchies that run broadcasting in Canada while at the same time diminishing the viewers’ options. This time the CRTC is asking interested parties, there will be no public hearings so interested parties mean those who are stakeholders, the people who will make more money, to comment on how new media should and could be forced to provide Canadian content and contribute to those people who provide Canadian content.

On the surface this sounds so sensible. Who’s against more money for Canadian shows and who wouldn’t like to see more and better Canadian TV? Apple pie and ice cream right?

Wrong! When looked at more closely the CRTC is attempting to regulate an industry that it has no right to regulate. Sure I can see why CTV, Rogers and Global want to make it more expensive for Netflix and Apple to do business. If Netflix has to charge more for their service, there is less likelihood that my fellow Canadians will sign up. In the end this means more customers for the broadcasters and distributors. Why not ask? I would if I owned CTV or Global.

Instead of looking at the apple pie and drooling, think of it this way: Netflix and Apple are really no different than your local video store. They provide access to content that is not delivered by cable, satellite or over the air. Their content, like the video store is mostly TV series’ and movies, the stuff you can buy at Walmart or rent at Blockbuster. Interestingly, Rogers provides this rental service in big video stores and Bell and Rogers both offer pay-per-view movies. Ask yourself whether Blockbuster or your corner video store should be forced to provide Canadian content or help pay for Canadian production? Obviously, this is a ludicrous idea. Well the concept is no more ludicrous at the Netflix store.

The latest argument by the broadcasters is that Apple and Netflix have begun to fund and buy programming that will go directly to their service and bypass TV, cable and satellite. Please, someone, explain what the difference is between this and videos that are made to be sold directly to the public without ever being broadcast? There are thousands of them. Disney is a big producer of this sort of content. Perhaps we should go after Disney to provide Canadian content and money for Canadian production. Hell, you can buy the Disney videos in Canadian stores. It’ll never happen. I can hear the guffaws coming from the Magic Kingdom just at the suggestion.

Seriously folks, I think we can all recognize a protectionist scam that is being devised by the broadcasters in Canada along with the CRTC. Hurt the new guys and you help yourself. Luckily the Tory government has already come out against the idea. Tony Clement has said, “…it is a way to strangle the competition.”

The time has come to scrap the CRTC. They are tools of the oligarchs who own and run broadcasting and telecommunications in this country. They have succeeded in providing Canadians with one of the most expensive mobile phone systems in the world, one of the highest cost internet systems in the world, and a national television system that is ruled by three owners who have steadfastly fought every initiative to make Canadian programs and play them in prime time. All they, the networks, really care about is their bottom line. Fair enough, they are businesses. But isn’t that why we created the CRTC? To regulate those businesses so that they serve Canadians. So far all I see is a CRTC that wants to regulate Canadians in the service of Rogers, Bell and Shaw.

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Debate This!

I know I’m not the first person to say this, but the time has come to take election debates out of the hands of broadcasters and the political parties. There are just too many impediments to organizing a fair and workable set of debates that would serve the electorate as opposed to the party leaders and the broadcast schedulers.

I have been a delegate in the discussions of two political debates in my time in the news. What I saw from the inside is what I expect is still going on, that is: the party leaders dictating acceptable format based on their own needs, good debaters want more chance to debate, poor debaters want to limit direct discussion between the leaders, incumbents want as few debates as they can get away with, everyone wants to exclude the weakest parties, especially if they have an excellent debater as a leader (Elizabeth May being the obvious example). It is all extremely self-serving and the voter’s needs have never in my experience, ever been a factor in creating the rules.

Worse still, the party leaders never object to using blackmail to get their way. If you don’t provide the limits they want they threaten to not take part. In a sane world this would be ignored by the broadcasters. They would hold the debates exactly as they want because they are paying the freight. But television executives are basically cowards. They live in fear of losing access to one or more of the leaders. The CBC fears the loss of funding. They fear a public backlash from supporters of a leader who refused to take part. They chase after the idea of fairness and balance which can only be proven by having all the leaders attend. So inevitably they give in to every demand by every party leader. This is a recipe for the blandest of debates and the least amount of light and electricity. Canadian political debates are designed by the sitting Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition to provide the least amount opportunity for failure, the least amount of opportunity for real debate and the smallest chance of getting into any substantial discussion of the important issues. Oh, and you are never allowed to call out a leader for refusing to answer the question or fudging his or her remarks.

As if the party leaders don’t go about screwing it up enough, the broadcasters for their part, show little or no interest in developing any real debate. When I have been a part of the discussion almost ninety percent of the meeting time has been taken up by finding the absolute right time to hold the debate. For the networks, that means staying away from their top shows. Global would rather not lose a new episode of House, CTV can’t possibly lose an episode of Canadian Idol, CBC will not allow the debate to interfere with the hockey playoffs. I never heard any discussion about the best time for the voters.

Of the remaining ten percent of the discussion, most of the time is spent on venue and who will be the host broadcaster. As if that makes a difference to anyone. Global, CTV, CBC can all provide studios if needed. They all have excellent crews and directors to pull the debate off. Since the costs are shared, I say who cares. Time discussing this stuff is wasted time. You could choose the broadcaster and the venue by lots and it would make no difference to any of us.

This time the broadcast consortium claims to have decided that Elizabeth May should not take part. I wonder. Since the deals were done behind closed doors we’ll never know. I saw the party leaders in my time claim that they had no say in a decision that was forced on the broadcasters. The broadcasters had to keep mum and the leaders took the high road. Who’s to say whether this was the case with the Green Party in this election?

The time has come to take the rules, the timing and the venue of the election debates out of the hands of the broadcasters and the party leaders. They have too much at stake to make decisions that are beneficial to the electorate. It would be great if we had a U.S. style commission to make the decisions. I loved it when the League of Women Voters ran the debates in the United States.

An independent group should be charged with creating the rules free from political interference. The rules should be set long before an election is called. When the rules are announced and the dates are chosen, the networks will have the option of covering the debate or not. I bet they will all be there no matter the rules and the time slot. The party leaders can opt out I suppose, but once again I will bet that no party leader will ever not join the debate, the political fallout would be far too costly.

Maybe then, we could actually have serious debates (I mean several during every election period) with rules that serve us all: rules that allow the leaders to take each other on; rules that allow for rebuttal and argument; rules that allow deeper discussion of the most important issues.

I can dream, can’t I?

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The Fifth’s Estate

Sometimes when I look at the CBC I just want to shake my head and ask what could these people possibly be thinking? CBC has some very successful programming. Hockey Night in Canada continues to roll along with more than 2 million viewers each week even though the presentation and style are deeply rooted somewhere in the last two decades of the last century. I believe it is a testament to Canada’s love of hockey and has nothing to do with what CBC Sports adds to the value of the production.

Dragon’s Den has captured a substantial audience. Over a million Canadians seem to love to watch new business ideas, both creative and crazy, being either praised or panned by a panel of so-called experts who we are told have the funds and the experience to bring a good idea to market. It’s reality TV that works, but for the record, it could just as easily run on CTV or Global and it is a bought “format.” This show runs as a local production in dozens of countries.

CBC has always done a great job of producing sketch comedy. This Hour has 22 Minutes, Rick Mercer Report and the late lamented Royal Canadian Air Farce.

Where the network has fallen down most is in producing high quality, high concept drama and situation comedy. Little Mosque on the Prairie manages to be mostly humorless and a throwback to 1950’s style situation comedy. In Security is just plain embarrassing, unfunny, unwatchable.

The Republic of Doyle just manages to be okay as it combines a 1980’s TV private detective idea with the beauty and zaniness of Newfoundland. Finally, shows like Being Erica and Heartland have never really drawn the numbers CBC needs and they have never managed to be special or Canadian in any way I can see.

The shocking thing for me is that CBC may have the very best Canadian produced program and they have buried it where few people can find it, and worse, where the potential audience is the smallest available in prime time.

Hello! Kirstine Stewart! Have you ever watched The Fifth Estate? If you have and you allow it to continue to run on Friday evenings you don’t deserve to hold the esteemed position you now have at the CBC. If you haven’t, shame on you for not caring enough about the kind of programming CBC has done best for six decades, the programs that built the CBC. From the days of This Hour has Seven Days, to Newsmagazine, to The Journal, to Marketplace, to Ombudsman the CBC has consistently produced some of the best current affairs programs anywhere.

The Fifth Estate is as good as journalism gets on TV and further it is as great a program as any produced in this country. Every week Linden MacIntyre, Hana Gartner, Bob McKeown and Gillian Findlay churn out excellent hour long documentary reports that never fail to engage the audience. Usually the stories open our eyes to events, people or ideas that we knew little about or they provide context and clarity to some of the most important stories in the news.

Last week Linden MacIntyre hosted a wonderful backgrounder on the rise and fall of Libyan strongman Mouammar Kadhafi. Not only was it a thorough and well produced backgrounder on a leading figure in the news, it brought international perspectives from the likes of Tony Blair and Condoleezza Rice. This was a show that all Canadians should have had the opportunity to see. With all eyes turned toward the uprisings in the Middle East the interest here among both news junkies and casual news viewers should have resulted in an audience of over 1.5 million. Too bad the show is buried. Even more heinous is the lack of publicity given to a program that is so important.

Two weeks ago The Fifth Estate deconstructed the shenanigans surrounding the police handling of the G-20 Summit in Toronto. I thought I knew that story inside out and was prepared to change the channel. I tuned in and I was hooked. The reporting was excellent and the insights were important. Once again I wondered if anyone knew this show was on.

This year The Fifth has covered stories ranging from the code of toughness to hockey to two episodes on Colonel Russell Williams. In the past The Fifth has blown the whistle on lottery cheating and even the sale of tainted tuna. Folks, the quality of The Fifth Estate is not hit and miss. It is consistently great journalism and even better, it is consistently great TV.

The time has come for the CBC bosses to recognize what they have. A prominent time slot on a Sunday or Monday evening is needed. More important, the powers that choose who gets the publicity dollars have to let Canadians know what’s on this program consistently and effectively. I guarantee that if Canadians knew about the content of The Fifth Estate and if it was aired at an advantageous time and day, the audience would soar to the numbers that Rick Mercer gets and more.

I should add that Marketplace needs the same kind of treatment. It should be on the air from September to May. It should have a decent time slot. It deserves to be publicized.

The CBC brass has shown its disdain for current affairs since the day Richard Stursberg showed up on their doorstep. Building a big audience has been the mantra spouted by everyone in charge. The result has been for the most part mediocre drama, bad sitcoms and a reliance on reality TV. What hurts most is that the tools were there to build audience all along. Shows like The Fifth Estate and Marketplace can be ratings winners. David Suzuki’s show still produces excellent science programming. These shows are cheap compared to drama. They have drawn big audiences in the past and they can do the same in the future. From where I sit they are the answer to the CBC’s problems. Too bad nobody in head office realizes this.

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2015: The CBC’s Impossible Dream

It’s taken me a while to try to figure out the CBC’s new five year plan. It’s called 2015: Everyone, Every Way and it is rife with platitudes about where CBC is going, but extremely short on details. And as we all know, the devil is in the details.

It’s not that I think CBC President and CEO Hubert Lacroix is pulling a fast one. From all reports he seems like a good guy who cares not only about public broadcasting but about the people who will have to make the changes he foresees. My problem is that I don’t get what he and Kirstine Stewart are actually trying to accomplish.

In broad strokes, they are talking about the CBC English service becoming more Canadian, more local and more digital. Sounds okay so far, but except for the digital part it is nothing we haven’t heard for the past few years. The CBC is already almost totally Canadian in prime time. Yes, in summer, late at night and during holiday periods U.S. films and series pop up to fill out the schedule. Does this mean that next summer we will get Canadian films and re-runs of Canadian series? I suspect the audience would have liked it better the old way but hey, they’re going back to their mandate, a word that was lost during the Stursberg era. It also looks like Jeopardy and Wheel of Fortune are toast on the CBC. While the nationalists in the crowd will cheer, I am left to wonder where the big money these two shows generated will come from and what effect that will have on Canadian production in prime time. While I am totally in favor of the CBC being 100% Canadian, I’m afraid I have to live in the real world. Money, not platitudes is all that counts in broadcasting today. It takes millions of dollars to produce a new drama or sitcom. Since we all know that Stephen Harper is not inclined to give the CBC more than it gets today, and since based on all previous experiences we can guess that the loss of American movies and series will result in fewer viewers and that fewer viewers mean less advertising revenue, I have to ask the question: where Mr. Lacroix do you intend to get the money to produce your all Canadian programs?

Looking at what details we have it actually gets worse. Mr. Lacroix and Ms. Stewart are also talking about beefing up local television, especially in areas that are under-served or not served at all by CTV and Global. He says the lack of local news and stories is actually an opportunity for the CBC to reconnect with Canadians. I sure hope this works because it is both necessary and overdue. But again, let’s not kid ourselves, the CBC went back into local news in, what is for them, a big way in past couple of years. They reopened newsrooms and added 30 to 60 minutes to local newscasts. What goes unsaid is that CBC local newscasts are embarrassingly bad. A handful of hard working folks try to cover big cities or vast provinces without the resources to succeed. The result has been dismal ratings. So few people are watching CBC local news it would be cheaper to send out CD’s rather than bother to air the program. Even in B.C. where the CBC hired the biggest name in west coast news history the ratings have been terrible. Without the money and the staff, as the CBC has proved, there is no point in making the effort. I would be all in favor of a well financed return to local TV. It was a huge error to allow local TV to flounder since the mid-80’s, but if you can’t fund it, don’t do it. The money can be better used elsewhere.

The five year plan also talks about the return of culture. Does anyone who watches the CBC remember culture? There was a time when ballet, modern dance and opera actually appeared on the CBC. It cost a truckload of money to produce and provided tiny but loyal audiences. I miss this programming and wish it were still a part of the mandate. If the CBC doesn’t produce it, it will not get done. CTV and Global are not in the habit of making expensive shows that produce audiences of less than 200,000. So while I love the idea, I ask once again, Mr. Lacroix, where will the money come from?

It’s a whole new digital world out there. I am glad the CBC brass recognizes this, people now download and watch TV shows when they want to, not when the network schedule says they have to watch it. The CBC is talking about doubling its spending on digital services. More big bucks spent on non-TV and radio product.

The new plan even talks about new CBC channels for sports, kids and arts and entertainment. It mentions new local weekend and morning news programs. It promises new “micro” news websites for large local communities, naming Hamilton and the Montreal suburb of Longueuil. All of the ideas cost real dollars. Dollars the CBC doesn’t have.

Everyone, Every Way leaves me with more questions than answers. There is no mention of increasing local news staff and budgets. In fact the plan calls for streamlining staff, I read that as cuts. Will the new morning and weekend news programs have dedicated staffs or will the already overburdened local news teams be expected to stretch even more? Will the digital web sites be staffed and funded? Will new channels have original programming or just be places to rerun network shows? If there is to be new programs how will they be paid for, subscription? Will we be forced to buy more channels we have no intention of ever viewing?

The truth is, and we all know it. The money is not there to do everything, some might say anything in 2015: Everyone, Every Way. So what is this really about? Is this a PR stunt? Is this meant to show that the Stursberg era is past? If so, I have a few better ideas. Fix up The National and CBC NN. Make them relevant again by producing quality stories we actually care about and lose the pap and thin gruel that fill your airwaves and erode your audiences. Begin to produce dramas and comedies with some heft that tackle serious issues in an adult way. Little Mosque on the Prairie and Being Erica are okay, but they are what we expect from any broadcaster, they do not speak to the needs of a national broadcaster. Not all programs have to be heavy or serious, but the odd one or two each week would be a pleasant change.

In other words, it’s time to fix what you do now before you spread your dollars even more thinly. Mr. Lacroix, I have no beef with your ideas, I just don’t believe they are real.

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Selling CTV

Was it Casey Stengel or Yogi Berra who said it was déjà vu all over again? Well here we go with BCE buying CTV again and the inevitable and recurring attempt to create convergence in the Canadian media. What a crock. My best advice: if you own shares in BCE, sell.

Ever since Izzy Asper died and left his media empire to his embarrassing offspring, CTV has dominated the Canadian TV market. On any given week they have as many as eighteen of the top twenty viewed programs in Canada. Based on those numbers you have to ask yourself why CTV has been for sale since long before the current recession hit. The answer of course is simple. CTV manages to lose money no matter how well they do on air. You can blame the internet. You can blame the 500 channel universe. You can even blame the economic downturn. I’m sure all of these play a role. But that doesn’t account for the fact that CTV was losing a bundle before the huge growth in cable and specialty channels. CTV saw no profits before we could watch television on our telephones and computers. CTV was hurting financially before the great recession of 2008. That’s why BCE ran away from CTV almost a decade ago when their first foray into the Utopian world of convergence took place. They ran away almost immediately selling large portions of their shares to the Ontario Teachers’ Pension Plan and Torstar. In fact I could make the argument that the only thing keeping CTV going today are the terrific profits it makes from the 500 channel universe through its own cable stations.

How did this situation come to pass? In my view you can lay much of the failure of CTV directly at the feet of the man who has made his reputation from running CTV, Ivan Fecan. Sure, if you are reading all the bunk that’s been plastered all over the newspapers for the past two days you have to believe the man’s a genius. His programming acumen supposedly made CTV the great success it is today. But what about the facts? They have been buried in the myth of the boy genius.

When Fecan came to CTV, Global was king of the Canadian TV hill. He understood quite correctly that he had to knock off the champs by adding new audience. He then went on a buying spree. He bought up dozens of stations across the country. He wanted his fingers in every market that Global was reaching. That sounds like a good idea on the surface but he missed the point. Global was beaming across Canada with a minimum of stations. Global reached all of Ontario with just one station in Toronto. The Maritimes were served from Halifax. Manitoba was served from Winnipeg. Ivan didn’t, in my view, understand this. He bought stations all through northern Ontario, he bought Kitchener and Ottawa. It wasn’t his money. He added bricks and mortar and a huge workforce. He also added millions, maybe billions in debt that had to be serviced. He brought 1950’s and 60’s style entrepreneurship to a business that had to face up to new realities of a changing media scene. (In the process he helped to kill or at least badly wound local television and especially local news, but I’ll leave that for another blog.)

Ivan Fecan also got a lucky break or two. Global’s ownership feud resulted in the loss of its best programmers, men like David Mintz who continually outsmarted the people at CTV and to this day has never been adequately replaced; and Izzy Asper, whose death resulted in the loss of anyone with a clear vision to run the network. While Global floundered Fecan took advantage by buying some of the best Hollywood properties. Okay he gets credit for that, but when you look closely, the insiders say, he spent way too much money for the shows, especially considering, and he didn’t get this, Global could not afford to pay much for programming so he was in essence bidding up the prices against himself. Some genius.

Now Ivan Fecan is leaving CTV. He’s taking his multi-millions in salaries and stock options into retirement. The network is still a money loser and even after lots of cutbacks, still has too many stations and too many people. So why the heck does BCE want in? According to their boss, George Cope, it’s all about convergence and “captive” content. If you missed David Olive’s excellent column in the Saturday Toronto Star on September 11th, I have a few juicy tidbits for you:

As a captive supplier, CTV will not be able to command top dollar for its highest rated programs, instead fetching only what owner BCE is willing to pay.
As for BCE, it will be obliged to broadcast CTV’s flops and hits alike.
It’s worth noting that Shaw is not looking to Global as a convergence play, and will retain the ability to buy programs elsewhere for its smartphone and other “platforms.”
…The only clear winners I can see in this deal are the Ontario Teachers’ Pension Plan and Torstar Corp….

Convergence is a neat idea that has never worked. It’s like Communism and the Toronto Maple Leafs, it looks far better on paper than in reality. Somehow real people and real life situations always bring it down.

In any case I have trouble believing George Cope’s reasons for buying CTV. I believe that it has more to do with keeping up with the Jones’. In this case the Jones’ are Shaw, Quebecor and Rogers. They are all buying broadcast platforms, so we have to have our own too. It seems to me to be one of those situations where it is more important to the prestige of BCE than it is to their bottom line, but you can never admit this to your shareholders. So while the deal is fresh and investors are drinking the Kool-Ade, get out. Sell your BCE stock. You will thank me later.

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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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