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Tower of Babble

Review: The Tower of Babble by Richard Stursberg

Written for J-Source Website

The Tower of Babble, like Richard Stursberg, is a mass of contradictions. On the one hand Stursberg proves himself to be an incredibly astute observer of what was wrong with the CBC. Amazingly, he also comes across as a man whose bungled solutions to the CBC’s problems were in many cases wrongheaded – and worse – contradictory.

As I read the book I found myself constantly shaking my head. Sometimes it was in reaction to Richard Stursberg’s accurate insights into what needed fixing (the internal battles for funds, the lack of understanding of what is entertainment), other times it was in reaction to the incredible solutions he advocated (moving The National to 11 where it failed miserably before), sometimes in complete contradiction to his own stated goals. More important, though, than any of this, was the amazing chutzpa of a man who has obviously never been wrong and is not afraid to make this clear to everyone who reads his book.

Don’t get me wrong, The Tower of Babble is a good read. Stursberg has a way with words and sprinkles in enough humour to keep the proceedings light, even when the content drifts into a numbers game both fiscally and with audience research.

The best chapter in the book is about the lockout of CBC employees in 2005. Here he lays out the reasons for the lockout and fully explains how CBC management came to their decision. He points out that the lockout was necessary for two reasons: first, the technological changes, the move to on-line and the need for multi-tasking were essential for the CBC to survive in the 21st century. Second, it was vitally important to not allow the CBC unions to strike during the new TV season coming up in late September of ‘05 because Stursberg and company were unveiling the first of their new dramatic, comedic and reality based offerings; even more concerning, the CBC could not afford any disruption to the new hockey schedule, the National Hockey League coming off a lockout of their own that cost the corporation millions.

Thus rather than wait for the workers to strike, CBC management locked them out in August.

He crows about how the plan worked to perfection. The workers were out in summer when viewership is down anyways, and then settled long before the puck dropped on a new hockey season. His only regret, it seems, was that management got everything they wanted from the new contract but had to keep quiet when the union bosses claimed victory. Not being allowed to gloat is obviously a terrible sacrifice for Stursberg.

The other interesting chapter is the one he calls “Money.” Here we get a glimpse into how difficult it is to run a public broadcaster. When the economy took a dive in 2008 all TV networks in North America, probably the western world, were badly hurt. As businesses suffered they spent fewer dollars on advertising. Adding to this was the fact that tight money meant loans were close to impossible to secure. Stursberg points out that Global and CTV could pay less for U.S. shows, could cut stock dividends, could cut profits – in other words, there were all kinds of fiscal tools open to them. More important, they could act quickly. CBC needed approval of their board of directors, government committees, and the heritage department to do anything and that could take months or even years. Further, since CBC is a non-profit company, there were no fiscal tools open to them, and since they made or bought predominantly Canadian programs, there was no way to pay less for content.

Stursberg and his staff desperately tried to come up with schemes to make money. They wanted to run infomercials overnight but the board said the CBC was not allowed to run infomercials; they wanted to allow political advertising when no election was called, but the board nixed this idea too. It seems whatever plan Stursberg came up with, the CBC Board of Directors said ‘no’.

Most of the rest of the book is old hat to anyone who has followed Stursberg and his time at the CBC. The rants in favour of popular programming, the need for one million viewers for every show, the “wrongheadedness” of mandate programs…these are the views we have come to expect from him. Sure, he makes more arguments, but they all sound like the same ones we have been hearing since “King Richard” rode in on his high horse to save the damsel CBC in distress. I have no problem with Stursberg staking out his ground again. Where I object, is that so many of his arguments are just plain wrong, both factually and philosophically.

Here are some of the incredibly basic factual errors he makes: he says CBC has no programs that make the top 20 in Canada. Hockey Night in Canada is regularly in the top 20.

He says before him CBC never produced popular programs. What about Front Page Challenge, Kids in the Hall, SCTV, Road to Avonlea, heck what about Tommy Hunter and The Plouffe Family?

He says that CBC didn’t produce “any” programming in the 70’s and 80’s. Has Stursberg ever heard of Seeing Things, Street Legal and some of the above named programs.

He says Newsworld was launched in the early ‘80s. In fact it was started in 1989.

He mentions “Sunday Morning” in 2004. It had been cancelled and replaced by that time (with Sunday Edition).

He says Global television never produced any sports. In fact they produced Leafs games for several season in the early ‘90s.

For heaven’s sake, he calls Traders a CBC drama. It was on Global.

He constantly claims he miraculously turned around CBC-TV’s audience numbers and adds claims that he brought them to their highest levels ever. Barry Kiefl, who was the best audience researcher the CBC ever had, maybe the best any broadcaster had in Canada, disagrees. Kiefl points out that CBC’s audience share is 8.7. It has been between 8 and 9% for eight years. Yes there was a bad year before Richard came to the CBC but that was directly attributable to the NHL lockout. Before the NHL lockout the CBC had an 8.9 share. In fact before Stursberg arrived, in the early Robert Rabinovitch years, the corporation actually reached a 10 share. The ratings were never at an all-time high in Stursberg’s time at CBC.

Here’s a quote from Barry Kiefl’s blog, mediatrends-research.blogspot.ca:

Then, why is it that CBC seems to have more viewers for some individual programs today than a few years ago? Well, and this is a fact that few in the TV industry want to address, it turns out that three years ago, in fall 2009, the definition of who was to be counted as being in the audience was changed dramatically by the ratings system. The majority of programs on all networks for the past three years have had a much larger audience as a result. Audience share wasn’t much affected because almost every station’s audience went up. But audiences really didn’t increase, just as the temperature is not affected when one switches from Centigrade to Fahrenheit degrees.

Mr. Rabinovitch and Mr. Stursberg both began their careers as Ottawa bureaucrats and learned, as so many in Ottawa have, that if you repeat something often and loud enough, the press (and their readers) will come to believe that it must be true.

Philosophically, the problems may even be worse than the factual errors. He argues that the industry demands plots finish in one show so that viewers don’t disappear when they miss a program. He doesn’t deal with the fact that some of the most successful shows on TV are Madmen, The Wire, The Sopranos, The Good Wife, and 24, all of which have ongoing story lines. Has Richard ever heard of recording shows, of downloading programs? This from the man who wants CBC to be on top of the new technology.

He goes on about the “new” direction for news. He talks about how important local news is. However, when he expanded local news from 30 to 60 minutes, he didn’t add staff or funds to make it possible for local to do a credible job (perhaps taking it from The National, which he felt is over staffed and over funded). Further, he talks about how he wanted The National to be a place to go for depth and explanation of the days events, yet he doesn’t explain getting rid of perhaps the best news documentary unit in North America. Nor does he explain the contradiction in turning to television doctors Frank Magid and Associates. Remember, these are the people responsible for “Eyewitness” news, if it bleeds it leads. Stursberg never sees the contradictions.

The truth is I have skimmed the surface of the errors and contradictions presented by Stursberg. Anyone who reads his book will add dozens more to my list. So why read The Tower of Babble? It is a rare opportunity to see inside CBC management. It is an amazing look at one of the most controversial, confrontational characters to work in media in Canada. And it actually does provide many examples of what’s wrong with our national broadcaster and the difficulties inherent in trying to keep it running.

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The Dragonslayer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The 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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The Cherry on Top

He knows suits. He knows dogs. He knows hockey. But he doesn’t know a thing about mortgages. He doesn’t mention that he knows very little about politics, the military, Europe, and a host of other subjects. Unlike mortgages however, it doesn’t stop Don Cherry from fulminating at great length on these subjects.

The time has come to ask the CBC what the heck they are doing allowing Cherry to go on-and-on on any subject other than hockey. I presume he makes the gigantic bucks because of two things: his massive popularity and his knowledge of hockey. So why are hockey fans subjected to his maudlin rants about the military and his ludicrous, bordering on racist, comments about the nature and personality of European and French Canadian hockey players?

I will admit that I’m not a Cherry fan. I tend to disagree with most of what Don Cherry stands for on the ice. He is a dinosaur from a time in hockey and sports that has not existed for many years. His pro-fighting and murderous hitting opinions would be quaint were it not for the number of like minded hockey old timers who still have a major say in the game and if it were not for the frightening number of concussions and major injuries that plague the sport. That said, I recognize the fact that Cherry is very popular. I have seen people stop what they are doing to watch his weekly rants on Hockey Night in Canada. Even people who disagree with him as much, if not more than I do, seem to be drawn to Cherry’s weekly pronouncements. So I understand the CBC’s need to keep him around.

Here’s what I don’t understand. Why does the “People’s” network allow him to go off on tangents that have nothing to do with the game? He was hired to analyze games. He hasn’t done this for a decade or more. He throws in the odd “beauty” play or lesson for the kids, but for the most part his schtick has become an ill-informed civics lesson from a self-declared regular guy.

I am not just against Cherry’s rants. I don’t think any one person should be given a regular platform for their opinion on a network that is owned by the people of Canada. I believe it is the CBC’s duty to allow all kinds of opinion from as many sources as possible. I do not believe Rex Murphy should be allowed his rants on The National, again, just one man’s opinion. I think the national affairs panel on The National should be changed every week to allow different opinions and a more of a cross-section of ideas from across Canada. But at least Murphy and the national affairs panel talk about things they know something about. Cherry?

After a month of Cherry hitting the political trail with PC Candidate, now Member of Parliament, Julian Fantino and then showing his support for Toronto’s new mayor Rob Ford, a good friend of mine put the whole thing in perspective for me. If a “regular guy,” a fan say, got a job on Hockey Night in Canada analyzing the game, how would Cherry react? It is our guess that Cherry would rant long and hard about his half-century or more in organized hockey. He would tell us how people who haven’t played and coached the game of hockey have very little understanding of the decisions that the professionals have to make. He would then go on to make minced meat of the decision by his bosses to add a know-nothing fan to the mix. It would be even worse if the fan disagreed with him.

Let us say, for the purpose of argument, that we agree with Cherry. Then why should we have to listen to what a no-nothing fan of the political system, one who has never run for office, let alone held office, has to say about politics? Further, what are Don’s credentials when it comes to making military decisions? How long was he in officer training school? How many years did he spend on the battlefield?

Perhaps, my friend said, this should be pointed out to Cherry by his bosses at Hockey Night in Canada. This is the argument that needs to be pressed upon him to get him back to talking about hockey and just hockey. Do the producers have the guts to do this? I suspect not. If they do they would have exerted some control on hockey’s biggest blow-hard by now.

So where do we go from here? It’s my guess that Cherry is there, doing what he feels like doing, for the duration. That is, until CBC loses the hockey franchise to another network or Don gets too sick or too old to continue. And while Cherry’s popularity goes without question I do often wonder whether he is worth the pain to the CBC. Canadians love their hockey. If Cherry weren’t there would any hockey fan cease watching the Leafs play the Habs? Cherry is good for the ratings of the first intermission. I suspect he has no affect on the numbers for the actual game. On that basis alone I would like the CBC to act. If Cherry doesn’t like it he can move on into the land of TV commercials and all-sports radio. I for one, would be thankful for his loss.

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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.

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Another Inconvenient Truth

A remark by John Doyle in The Globe and Mail this week got me thinking about the value of promotion to the success or failure of a television program. Doyle was knocking CBC and Global for the poor job they do in promoting their content, especially Canadian content. Global for failing to even mention anything Canadian and CBC for its general inability to promote shows, he points out an episode of The Republic of Doyle that starred Gordon Pinsent and the CBC failed to mention Mr. Pinsent in any of their promotional material.

It never ceases to amaze me how well a strong promotional campaign can work wonders with audience numbers. I have seen shows literally double their audience size with strong ad campaigns. CTV are the masters of this. I produced a doc on Sale and Pelletier for them a few years ago. The on air ads were excellent. The number of ads astounded me. The great result: at seven pm on a Saturday night opposite Hockey Night in Canada we scored 1.5 million viewers (that was before the new rating system went in, so today it might be 2.1 million adding the 40% that most CTV programs have risen since the changeover).

Of course the best advertising cannot save a poor show. You may attract millions to see the first episode of a particularly boring series but the folks are not coming back to see the rest if you turn them off in episodes one and two. The proof for this is the CBC’s Canada: A People’s History. One of the most expensive ad campaigns in CBC history drew over 2 million viewers to the first program. A huge success that is touted to this day. Unfortunately, the series was not very compelling. I would call it a politically correct waste of money and air time that failed to capture the imagination of the viewing public. The series went on to average about 200,000 viewers per episode. I believe a test pattern would garner 200,000 viewers on CBC, CTV or Global. Perhaps a test pattern would be less irritating; it would surely be a lot less expensive.

This leads me to a conversation with a former head of documentary production at CBC. I sat there in his office while he lamented that Canadians have no interest in documentaries. His proof: whenever he puts a documentary on CBC the audience doesn’t watch. He said he has trouble getting 400,000 viewers and he sometimes feels he is wasting his time and the CBC’s money. I was astounded. With that attitude how could he do his job? In fact he was there a good long time.

I tried to reason with him. First I explained that CTV was getting over a million viewers the rare times they aired documentaries. Then I pointed out the recent successes of documentaries in the theaters. People were paying 25 dollars a couple to see what he said Canadians wouldn’t watch for free on his network. I asked if he ever saw Harlan County, March of the Penguins, An Inconvenient Truth, Roger and Me and The Thin Blue Line. Of course he had, but it was easier to blame the audience for his and the CBC’s failures.

I told him that first of all CTV was not as chintzy with their money. While he was handing out about 300,000 dollars for an hour, CTV was offering up well over half a million. I know money isn’t everything, but it sure helps to get the best research, the best camera people, the best editors and the best directors, oh, and to give them the time to do their jobs well. But more important still I pointed out a far simpler fact: the CBC never promotes documentaries. I dare anyone to try to find a documentary on CBC or CBCNN. It’s not that they are not produced or aired by the “Corpse”, it’s that the CBC prefers to sneak them onto the air with the least possible fanfare. When was the last time you saw an ad for a documentary on CBC? Sure, Mark Starowicz gets some of his shows promoted, but what about the rest? You can’t go ten minutes on air at CBC without seeing promos for their dramas and comedy shows. Reality shows are well promoted. It wouldn’t surprise me if someone told me that CBC doesn’t produce documentaries any more. How could they know?

Some very fine documentary filmmakers do some excellent work for CBC. It’s a pity that CBC doesn’t understand or appreciate this. Documentaries are relatively inexpensive, costing as much as 75% less than a drama for an hour. CTV has proven that documentaries can be ratings winners. Heck movie theaters wouldn’t display them if there was no audience. The Cove and anything by Michael Moore do far too well to ignore.

And it’s not just CBC, Omni makes documentaries, Vision TV makes documentaries, History and Discovery make documentary series and one-offs. I wonder if their documentary buyers and producers feel the same way as that guy at CBC? Do they produce them as a CRTC obligation? Do they care? If so it isn’t showing up in their ad campaigns and promotion. Fewer and fewer docs are being produced for TV in Canada at a time when they have never been more popular in the theaters. There’s an obvious disconnect here. At least it’s obvious to all but the TV honchos who decide where to spend their money and what to promote.

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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.

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Dropping the Ball

A few years ago I was a guest on a Hamilton radio station discussing the proposition that sports journalism on television is an oxymoron. Brian Williams, who was still with CBC Sports at the time, was my opposite number on the debate. He took great umbrage at the proposition. His proof being his own excellent work on several Olympic games including the coverage of the Ben Johnson scandal and Ross Regabliatti’s near disqualification for having traces of marijuana in his blood among others.

Concerning himself, he was right. Brian Williams has made a long career of trying to actually practice sports journalism on TV. His recent Olympic and CFL mini-docs for CTV and TSN are no exception. Brian has proved to be a fine story teller and a prime example of how it should be done. But Brian could not name another television reporter who was doing the same. CBC did eventually produce an excellent weekly sports journalism show but today that’s long gone. Bruce Dowbiggin won a well deserved Gemini Award for his work on the Alan Eagleson scandal, but CBC sports refused to run his work so it ran on CBC News. Bruce is no longer a TV reporter, he’s a Globe and Mail columnist.

Now, name another sports journalist on TV today. I dare you. Rogers Sportsnet and TSN produce hours and hours of what purports to be sports “news” every week. A viewer is warned not to hold his or her breath waiting for journalism. For the most part, say 80 percent, the coverage consists of highlights from earlier action. On earlier shows there’s the odd preview of upcoming action. The rest of the show is filled with banter and lists of the top plays, best fights, whatever can be scrambled together from the archives to fill out the hours. But journalism, as in WHY an event or situation occurs and where it’s going, you won’t find it here.

It seldom existed on local television newscasts either. When you have only five or six minutes to recap the day’s events there is little room on the sportscast for actual journalism.

The one place I would expect some enterprising sports reportage in Canada is on hockey broadcasts. Now that games come in at just over two and one half hours there is a 30 minute hole to fill, and that’s on top of two 15 minute between period segments. So where are the stories? Where’s the field work? Where’s the old “up-close-and-personals” that we see on the NFL coverage and even NBA coverage. The same sportscasters that lament the lack of star power in hockey are doing nothing to alleviate the problem.

Hockey Night in Canada is truly a wasteland. The first intermission is always Coach’s Corner with Don Cherry and Ron MacLean. I will be the first to admit that it’s an entertaining segment. It’s like waiting for a train wreck. When is Don going to say something stupid about fighting or foreign born players? How will Ron get a word in and when he does what silly pun will the viewers be treated to? Between Don’s “I told you so’s” and Ron’s slavish support of the dinosaurs of hockey it is all too predictable and lacks any semblance of information.

Cut to the second intermission and the viewer is treated to a panel of rumor mongers led by Al Strachan. Has anyone kept tabs on how many times Al’s insights turn out to be correct? I suspect they are few. In any case this is inside hockey talk that speaks to a small minority of Canadians. If you want to sell the game and increase the ratings it’s time to go back to story telling. When I was a youngster there were actual feature stories on players, coaches, owners, referees, etc. They created interest in the people around hockey. They introduced us to the personalities that make any sport more accessible.

It’s not any better at TSN. The same panel returns intermission after intermission with the same predictable opinions. No depth. Nothing new. Cheapo TV that fills minutes rather than enterprising reporting and journalism that could really wow an audience. On TSN they even use the same formula for football, but at least on CFL coverage they do have the Brian Williams stories.

It is frightening to see how low game coverage has sunk to in Canada. Interestingly this has come at a time when sports journalism has been growing by leaps and bounds in this country. The newspapers are doing a great job. The Globe and Mail in particular has a fine group of writers and columnists. You seldom pick up a sports section without seeing great stories, interesting commentary and real insight into what is happening in the sports world. Writers like Stephen Brunt, Dave Shoalts, and Bruce Dowbiggin in the Globe and Damien Cox and Doug Smith in the Toronto Star never seem to fail in finding new stories and new angles that make one think about sports in new and interesting ways. They engage their readers with new information and new insights.

Even on radio, where sports radio has talk shows like Bob McCown’s show on The Fan 590, to delve into the issues by going to experts and people in the know. Sure, they have panels too, but they don’t stop there. McCown and the other radio hosts get interviews with general managers, coaches and players. They talk to Jim Balsillie and his lawyers. They get legal experts and business experts to help us understand the underlying decisions being made by leagues and teams. There is a strong attempt to answer the only real journalistic question: WHY.

At a time when sports is as much about the legal and business affairs of players, teams and leagues Canadian television is dropping the ball.

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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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