I'm Mad as Hell


and I can't do a thing about it

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.


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

New Boss, Same Old Stursberg Manifesto

Now it’s my turn to change the narrative. The response to my last blog about the excessive nature of the coverage of the terrible death of Sgt. Ryan Russell has been overwhelming. Perhaps shockingly, there has been only one negative response. I was expecting to be bombarded with hate mail. Be that as it may, it is time to move on.

If there is an organization that is more screwed up than the CBC I would worry about its ability to continue to function. The CBC however, ambles along seemingly oblivious to its own shortcomings and failures.

When Kirstine Stewart was finally named to replace the Evil Emperor, also known as Richard Stursberg, it did, I admit, come as a bit of a surprise. In fact it raised a whole lot of questions. For instance, why did it take more than a half-a-year to replace Stursberg when the replacement was his sitting second in command? Did the CBC search for an outside replacement and fail? Was Kirstine Stewart the second, third or tenth choice for the job? Was there a fight about whether to promote her at the board level? We will never really know because once the die is cast the only story we get is how wonderful a choice Ms. Stewart is.

Even that statement raises questions in my mind. What we all know to be true, whether you thought Richard Stursberg a mad genius or the man responsible for the every mistake our national broadcaster has made in the last half a decade, was that the only opinions King Richard accepted were his own or those that agreed with his. The man accepted no opposition and heard no disagreement. In the end it was this attitude that led to his banishment. He refused to accept the CBC mandate and he especially refused to contemplate programming dealing with the 75th anniversary of the corporation. You didn’t have to be a palm reader or a psychiatrist to know that the result was that he surrounded himself with “yes” people. One senior CBC employee told me that the new boss at CBC News began every statement she made with “Richard says…”

That being the case it’s not a stretch to wonder what the heck Kirstine Stewart was doing when Richard Stursberg was in charge. On the surface one can guess that she was just another “yes” woman whose job was to agree with the Emperor and to do his bidding when he could not do it himself. Not the kind of thing I would want on my resume. It is possible she disagreed with the boss in private but based on my experience, people like Stursberg do not keep people who disagree around whether it’s in public or private. It’s also possible she disagreed but kept it to herself and her best buds, but what does that say about her character and leadership abilities?

So, I ask again, why did Kirstine Stewart get the job? What qualified her to run the largest and most important cultural institution in English Canada? Here’s what was written about her on her Wiki page, I’m guessing composed by a CBC flack:

…Stewart oversaw CBC’s fresh presentation style launch with such new hits as Dragons’ Den, The Hour with George Stroumboulopoulos, Test the Nation, The Greatest Canadian Invention, and The Next Great Prime Minister – all 2006/2007 green lit by Stewart in her first year, along with the critically acclaimed and highly rated show Little Mosque on the Prairie. The show’s ratings, averaging a million viewers weekly, were a first for CBC in more than 5 years. In 2009, new shows like Canada’s Super Speller and Battle of the Blades premiered on the network. In 2008, hits The Border, The Week the Women Went, and Sophie were launched by Stewart on CBC’s primetime schedule.
Prior to her current role at CBC, Stewart was senior VP at Alliance Atlantis overseeing eight channels, including BBC Canada, National Geographic Canada and Home and Garden Television. She also worked in the US as programming VP at Hallmark Entertainment, overseeing programming of 17 international cable and satellite broadcast channels.
Ms. Layfield began her career in international program distribution at Paragon Entertainment, rising to senior vice-president of the distribution division before moving to Trio/Newsworld, a CBC/Power Corp. joint venture. From there she joined U.S.-based Hallmark Entertainment as senior VP of programming, travelling the world to head up 19 international channels. In 2003 she joined Alliance Atlantis Communications, where she doubled the audience for its specialty channels such as Life Network, HGTV and Food Network Canada…

So what can we glean from this? She loves reality TV, no surprise having come from Alliance Atlantis where that’s about all they did. She does not even have a whiff of journalism, documentary, sports or current affairs in her background. Finally, that she has never run a major terrestrial broadcast network.

I am also made to wonder what Kirstine Stewart deems a hit when most of the shows she takes credit for were anything but. The Hour with George Stroumboulopoulos has never been a ratings success, Little Mosque on the Prairie took no time to lose its audience when the audience realized how shallow it is, The Next Great Prime Minister, did anybody see that? Sophie! Does anyone remember it? Truth be told the CBC has three hit shows. Dragon’s Den which is a format show bought from abroad that has little or no actual CBC input, Hockey Night in Canada which has great numbers but nobody presently at the Corpse can take any credit for, and Battle of the Blades…congratulations, one home grown hit. As an old friend of mine used to say “even a blind squirrel finds a nut sometime.”

Until Richard Stursberg came to the CBC there was a tradition that the chief programmer would come from the journalistic side, Denis Harvey, Peter Herrndorf. It can be argued that drama and comedy were given short shrift. The truth is that drama and comedy are purchased from and produced by outsiders, independent producers who come up with ideas and sell them to the CBC. News and Current Affairs are produced in house. The bulk of CBC creative staff work in News or Current Affairs. The programming that once made CBC stand-out was once News and Current Affairs. I still believe the CBC is still the CBC if Little Mosque or Dragon’s Den disappear, but the CBC no longer needs to exist if The National and Fifth Estate no longer produce excellent programs.

Under Stursberg The National was reorganized into close to oblivion. The Fifth Estate was moved to the dead zone of Friday night. The CBC claims to be getting more viewers, a statement I reject, but does anyone believe that reality and mediocre sitcoms present a reason to spend a billion dollars on a national broadcaster?

From this perch it looks like more of the same at the CBC. The Stursberg manifesto lives on. Only the stewardship has changed. Sure Kirstine Stewart will be easier to get along with. She will probably pay her respects to the board and to the president. She will even pay lip-service to the mandate. But the soft, squishy programs that we have come to see as the new CBC will continue to be the present and future. Too bad. Especially at this time, when a 1,000 channel universe and a growing on-line viewership threaten our financial ability to produce real Canadian content. Now, when we need CBC the most it is being destroyed by reality and thin gruel.

Filed under: Media Commentary, , , , , ,

The Witch is Still Dead

It has been over a week since Richard Stursbeg was shoved off the gang plank at CBC. There is still no reason given or available as to why the man who ran the corporation for six years was so unceremoniously dumped. If you read the letters to the staff from Kirstine Stewart, the interim new boss, and Hubert Lacroix, the President of the CBC you get the idea that everything was just fine. Management loved the new direction the CBC was taking. ‘Hubie’ and ‘Kit’ are over the moon over the big ratings increase. Nothing is going to change they shout in unison. Just to make matters really surreal, news honcho Jennifer McGuire sends out a missive extolling the benefits of the changes brought in at CBC news and sends hero-grams out to the folks who covered a few of the stories that CBC news actually got to including sending hosts to the Vancouver Olympics and the Gulf of Mexico oil spill; in the past the coverage would have been a given, now it demands extra notice.

I have a question for Hubert Lacroix, Kirstine Stewart and Jennifer McGuire. If everything at the ‘corpse’ is so hunky-dory, why did the leader who brought us all this success have to spend the last week and a bit removing the knives from back? Stursberg was the unquestioned leader and catalyst in the changes that you all claim were so successful, so why dump the genius before he has finished the job?

The truth is there is an awful lot of “bull” being spread since the manure hit the fan. Guys like John Doyle who got most of it right from the get-go was way off the mark with his characterization of Stursberg as a strong leader the CBC needed and the whining troops were always destined to resent. Stursberg was not a strong leader he was a tyrant and a bully. The CBC needed change, it like any large organization always does. But change cannot be accomplished without the help of the staff. You are talking about 5500 union workers and maybe a thousand more managers. If you ignore them or push them around they will rebel and make your job a lot tougher. Good leaders have the ability to convince the people they lead that they have a plan that will work. They get the majority on side and the workers not only help make the changes happen, they come up with a few ideas for change of their own. When they feel like things are being shoved down their throats they fight back. If John Doyle was right many of the people who were the winners in the Stursberg shuffles would be coming to his defense. So far, I have heard nothing but joy coming from inside the CBC since Stursberg was fired. The folks who worked under him knew him and they didn’t like what they saw.

Then there’s all the spin about the ratings. What a hero Stursberg was because he raised the ratings. How only the CBC would get rid of such a successful boss. What a load. The rating of CBC went up for two reasons: the new people meters added 30 to 40% viewership across the board. CTV and Global saw their numbers jump even higher than CBC did. The second reason: reality programs and American quiz shows. In fact most of Stursberg’s “successes” get poor ratings. Little Mosque on the Prairie is typical. It got a huge starting audience of well over a million viewers. We never hear the end of those numbers. How come we seldom hear about the loss of over half of that audience? In fact of the new shows that came in under Stursberg’s reign, only Dragon’s Den and Battle of the Blades are genuine CBC hits. The dramas and the comedies, whether you like them or you hate them, are getting about the same numbers that the CBC got for dramas and comedies before Stursberg.

Interesting, the purveyors of the great ratings argument come from the right wing press. David Akin who is one of the people behind the new Fox-like news coming to Canada, and the Ottawa Citizen, part of the National Post chain who distinguished themselves by criticizing every CBC move during Stursberg’s tenure are among the leaders of the woe is CBC for dumping Stursberg cabal. Folks, these are the people who want to kill the CBC. These are the people who want the CBC sold off. These are the people who say the CBC is a communist plot against right-thinking Canadians. Yeah, let’s buy into their spin.

I don’t know what’s going to happen at the CBC in the coming months and years but I do know this: if things were really meant to stay the same, Stursberg would not be gone. There are changes coming, no matter what Hubie and Kirstine say. When a new permanent V.P. is chosen we will get a hint of the direction those changes will take. I will bet real money that the news will be the first place that returns to sanity. I believe there will be room for the odd serious drama to take its place among the fluff. I’m not holding my breath but I would like to see the arts make a re-appearance on the network. There’s no guarantee we will like the direction the new boss has in mind any better than we liked what Stursberg did but if the CBC is going to survive it will have to not only get new viewers but it will have to win back and retain the loyal audience that supported the network before the changes wrought by Stursberg and his gang. That’s how successful enterprises remain successful, they appeal to new consumers while keeping their loyal customers happy. Stursberg threw out the baby with the bathwater. He pissed off the typical CBC type while attracting too few new acolytes.

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

Ding, Dong The Witch is Dead

I could hear, or should I say see, the collective smile from coast to coast to coast as the politicians say. After six years the demon of Canadian public broadcasting is gone. Richard Stursberg, the Vice President of everything English language at the CBC has been fired, or according to some resigned. Who cares, so long as he is gone? Stursburg has been the most disruptive and hated V.P. of CBC I can ever remember.

Richard Stursberg’s biggest problem as CBC boss was that he just didn’t get it. He never understood the CBC mandate. He never saw a difference between what CBC has to do and what CTV and Global have to do. He never understood that if CBC were to lose Little Mosque on the Prairie or Being Erica it would still be the CBC and that the brutal massacre of news and current affairs he oversaw could destroy the people’s network. All Stursberg ever cared about was ratings. He did not care about quality TV. He did not care about serving the Canadian public who were paying his salary. He certainly had no time for news and even less time for shows like The Fifth Estate and Market Place.

Ironically the good-bye letter from CBC honcho Hubert Lacroix cites the fact that Stursberg leaves the CBC in better shape than he found it. I can only surmise that refers to the overall ratings. In fact the CBC ratings totals may be better than six years ago but why? It seems to me that all of the numbers increases can be attached to Jeopardy, Wheel of Fortune, Hockey Night in Canada and The World Cup of Soccer. These are either non-Canadian or sports shows and in fact the numbers have been inflated by the new people meters that measure audience. Hey CTV and Global have also seen their numbers rise and in fact while the total CBC viewership is up, the actual audience share is down. Yes he had two real successes in six years: Dragon’s Den and Battle of the Blades, but shows like these can and do run on other networks, they are reality shows. As for the rest of King Richard’s offerings, the numbers range from mediocre to poor. Not much of a legacy when you consider that news ratings are down by about 40% and that current affairs ratings have dropped precipitously.

Oh, and let’s not forget the management tone Stursberg set. He never failed to let everyone know it was his way or the highway. He treated people poorly. He knew very few of the staff who worked for him. The stories are rampant about the on-air people he failed to recognize, especially if they came from news. CBC types were always asking whether he actually ever watched the CBC. His treatment of his staff may be an even bigger failure than his wrong-headed programming decisions.

Let’s look at just a few of his accomplishments:

*Stursberg got off to a bad start in his position by forcing a massive lock-out of CBC workers. What characterized that lockout was the refusal to negotiate and the refusal to recognize the input of the workers. There is still bad blood left over from that work stoppage in 2005. In past work stoppages management always took great pains to be cordial to the striking workers. They always understood that when the strike was over they would have to go back to working side by side with the staff. Stursberg didn’t get that. He had to be the tough guy.

*He gutted arts programming on TV and under his rule lost most of the classical music programming from CBC Radio 2. It’s true the arts did not generate huge audiences, but CBC was the sole serious purveyor of that programming in Canada. (Bravo had long since abandoned its commitment to the high arts.)

*He oversaw the changes in The National that have led to the most dramatic loss of viewership in CBC News history. At a time when the new rating system saw CTV and Global new audiences climb by 40% the CBC dropped by the same amount. The “renewal” saw American news doctors come in and advise the CBC to move to shorter stories, more human interest, less serious news coverage, more weather, more fluffy animal stories…i.e. “Eyewitness News.” This was supposed to raise ratings and make younger people want to watch CBC news. It never took into account that loyal CBC news viewers were used to quality and depth and would not put up with the changes and that young people are not news viewers in general, and the ones who are, are not idiots looking to watch the kind of fluff The National has opted for.

*He moved The Fifth Estate, probably the best current affairs show in Canada, to the dead zone of Friday night so that Being Erica could get a better time slot on Wednesday. He buried Marketplace and The Nature of Things and cut way back on the number of episodes they produce each year. The result: shows that reached close to a million viewers in years gone by barely attract half that today on their best days.

For the most part, Stursberg’s new programming was part of a dumbing down of the CBC. His new offerings were always light drama, inane comedy and reality. Gone were the serious movies and series that set the CBC above its rivals. In fact, CTV with shows like The Bridge and Flashpoint were tougher, harder and more provocative than any of the new fare that Stursberg championed.

It has been reported that Sturberg is gone because he didn’t like the new CBC “five year plan.” What does that mean? We have been given no explanation. Does the CBC want to worry less about ratings? Is management upset by what’s happened to its newscasts? Until we know the answer to these questions we won’t know who will take Stursberg’s job and in what direction he or she will be expected to take the CBC.

For my part, I would like the new boss to come from programming so that he or she can assess the quality of the new offerings. I want someone who will work in partnership with CBC staff rather than acting as a tyrant. I want someone who recognizes all of the kinds of programs that are important to a national broadcaster in order to serve all of its audiences, be they large or small…and that includes news, current affairs, the arts, drama, sports and comedy. Ratings are important but so is public service when you are being supported by tax dollars. Is this too much to ask? I think not when the future of our biggest and most important cultural institution is at stake.

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

A Failure to Communicate

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Playing with numbers

Everybody is right and everybody is wrong. It sounds impossible but in the crazy world of broadcast television anything is possible. Just ask the spinners at the Canadian networks about their ratings and watch the numbers fly.

Right now we are in the midst of a massive self congratulatory period where the Canadian nets are taking to the podia to proclaim the major successes they have had over the past year. The ratings are amazing, it’s true, almost everybody’s numbers are way up. But, and it’s a big but, does that mean that there are more people watching the fare offered by CTV, Global and CBC?

To me the answer is obvious. In a world where network TV audiences have been declining for a decade or more it is hard to believe that there has been anything broadcast in the 2009-2010 television season to change the trend. Sure there have been some hits, there always are. The real reason for the numbers rising is the new counting method. This is the first television year for the new PPMs (personal people meters). These pager-like devices are worn by people and report back to companies like Neilson on what viewers are actually watching. It is clear that this is a much better system than asking someone to fill in a questionnaire where he or she could lie, forget, not bother or just plain ignore their viewing choices. On the other hand, the PPM measures what’s on the TV if you are in the room, not whether you are actually watching it. For my generation that doesn’t mean much. Put a 60 year old in front of a television and we’ll watch color bars for twenty minutes. Young people, however, are a different breed. They can be on the computer, listening to an ipod and still have the TV tuned to the hockey game. What they are actually watching or listening to is anybody’s guess. So while I accept that the new numbers are more accurate, I don’t believe they are truly accurate.

For CTV and Global the results are just about money. The more viewers they have, the more they can charge for commercial time. That’s great. Even without the new TV tax it should mean a windfall in ad revenues for this year and in the future. The Olympic numbers were staggering. On some occasions there were close to 15 million Canadians watching. Put in perspective, Canada’s best ever rated shows before this year were in the 5 to 6 million range. Over at Global shows like Survivor and House are doing gangbuster business. If we are lucky, and I wouldn’t hold my breath, maybe a few of these extra dollars might find themselves funneled into new Canadian content…in prime time.

The CBC, as usual is a different story, Kirstine (Layfield) Stewart and company are fighting for both the future of the people’s network and for the proof that the choices they made back in 2007 are the right ones.

The critics, and I am one of them, claim the CBC has dumbed down. They have dropped cultural programming, they have stopped producing gritty, real drama, and they have clearly begun a love affair with reality and fluff. Most upsetting to me is what they have done to news and current affairs. The Fifth Estate has been relegated to the dead zone of Friday night. The National has become the national joke for its lack of content and its ridiculous new set. The Nature of Things and Marketplace have been shuffled around more than a deck of cards on poker night. There is, it is clear, no backing for anything that could be deemed serious.

I am not the only one saying these things. In a Globe story Ken Finkleman and others have gone out of their way to question the direction of mother corp. These are people who in past times depended on the CBC for their livelihood.

The answer according to Ms. Stewart: check out the ratings. The CBC is thriving with Little Mosque on the Prairie, Dragon’s Den, and 18 to Life.

So here is where it is true and it is wrong at the same time happens. Yes the numbers are up. Six CBC shows have over 1 million viewers (one of which is Jeopardy). Thank you PPMs. It is also true that the corp doesn’t have a single show in the top 20 in Canada. The hockey playoffs will nudge Hockey Night in Canada into the top 20 but that will be it. Battle of the Blades and Dragon’s Den are certifiable CBC hits. But even with the PPMs, The Ron James Show, 18 to Life, Being Erica, Kids in the Hall and Little Mosque can be described as ratings losers. None reach much over half a million viewers with the best ad campaigns and the best time slots. The Fifth and Marketplace are in the same audience range without any ads and in schedule purgatory.

So when Ms. Stewart finishes patting herself on the back for her brilliance, remember that CTV is doing much better with Canadian programming and even Global is overpowering the CBC numbers. You see everything is relative in the world of TV ratings and people like Stewart are the first to use the numbers to their own advantage even when they are meaningless.

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

Humpty Dumpty News

An observer of Canada and especially the CBC would be forgiven if they thought all the drama in the country was taking place at CBC News and CBC News Network. Being Erica can’t compete and Dragon’s Den doesn’t come close to the reality TV nonsense swirling around Peter Mansbridge, Richard Stursberg et al at Canada’s national network.

A few weeks after the disastrous launch of the new National and the unwatchable programming on CBCNN, the drama continues. From the outside it looks like Stursberg and his happy band of naysayers are attempting to build a wall around the Corpse that will keep out all the negative reactions. So far they do not, at least publicly, admit that there are any problems with the new direction that CBC News has attempted to sell to a dwindling audience.

Unfortunately for the CBC they have accomplished only one goal: yes, they have united Canadians, created consensus. Everybody hates the new news. Forgive me if I exaggerate, I have seen two articles from people who mildly like the new direction, but I have yet to speak to a single person who has anything positive to say about CBC News as it appears today. I have had conversations with people of all ages from many different parts of Canada. Not one likes what he or she is seeing.

What’s worse, whenever two media people get together, or whenever a CBC News staffer meets a news viewer, the dreadfulness, is that a word, of the changes is still the main topic of conversation. Rather than going away, it is growing. The viewers are as pissed off at CBC management as the news staffs are. Really, the entire episode is a great embarrassment, or at least it should be.

The most damning result of the changes to CBC News is playing out in the ratings. CBC made the changes to combat poor news numbers. Most nights the CBC peaked at about 600,000 viewers. CTV and Global generally got over one million viewers for their national newscasts. Now the CBC is barely breaking the 400,000 viewer mark. That’s a drop of one third of the audience. If rumours are to be believed, the back half, where the documentaries once ran, is losing viewers at an even greater pace. Failure has been swift and clear cut. In the meantime numbers at CTV and Global are rising. The damage is actually worse than the last CBC disaster when they tried to move the news to nine p.m.

So what can the CBC do to deal with the self inflicted wounds before they become fatal? The first step, it would seem obvious, is to admit there have been big mistakes made. You cannot begin to make changes if you don’t admit change is necessary. Step back. Have a look at the programming. Remove the rose coloured glasses. Look at CBC News for what it has become, not what you predicted, attempted or wanted. News viewers, especially CBC News viewers, want depth, context, serious reporting. They want interviews and documentaries that engage and inform. They want the news content as it was before. As far as style is concerned, they are willing to accept change that is motivated by bringing better quality coverage. They don’t want standing for the sake of standing and moving graphics because a U.S. TV doctor says that’s what you need to be young and modern. If you can’t answer the question “Why is Peter standing?” then he shouldn’t be standing.

I repeat, all of this is predicated on the CBC bosses admitting they goofed…big time. The way the CBC works I can’t see that happening. Last time CBC goofed Ron Crocker and Tim Kotcheff were run out of the CBC. They took all the blame even though they were mainly there to implement what the entire braintrust had created. Sure they played their part in the changes but they were no more responsible than the rest, the ones who took over and changed the news back to 10 o’clock and the old format. This time that will be more difficult. Many of the old bosses, the ones who know what they are doing, have been shuffled off the news if not out of the CBC entirely. The new bosses come from radio, from current affairs. It is questionable as to whether they know what they are doing and further whether they even know how to put the news back together. There are no possible scapegoats that are not directly tied to Uber boss Richard Stursberg. If Stursberg were to fire Jennifer McGuire it would reflect directly on him personally and his poor judgment. I don’t know Stursberg, but I know people who do know him, and they tell me this is not going to happen. They tell me according to King Richard, he doesn’t make mistakes.

In the meantime, as viewers drift away and the credibility of the news service suffers, major cracks are starting to appear inside the newsroom. Insiders tell me the news team is finding it almost impossible to fill the hour. The news desk is begging all the units to send them stories, any length…even long docs of 20 minutes or more. Many of the best reporters are beginning to revolt. They want to produce better stories but feel the desk has no understanding of what that takes in time and energy. They also feel they are being made to look bad. Their reputations are suffering. I think they are right. The editors are saying the new young producers don’t understand how news works. They are generally unprepared and don’t understand the editing process. Fingers are being pointed in all directions. Everyone is looking for someone to blame and Richard Stursberg and Jennifer McGuire are the names I hear most often. We are talking about massive breakdown at all levels.

Humpty Dumpty has fallen down. Predictably, all King Richard’s horses and all his men so far cannot put Humpty together again.

Filed under: Media 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.

Recent Comments

barbara pedersen Aha… on A Failure to Communicate
evilstew on The Rape of Citytv
Raymond Hietapakka on The Rape of Citytv
Jason on The Rape of Citytv
theeuprise on The Rape of Citytv