I'm Mad as Hell


and I can't do a thing about it

The Reporters that got away

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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Global gets Serious

Global’s national newscast has never been taken very seriously by anyone who works in the news business. Sure they got good numbers when Kevin Newman came on board, he was a terrific anchor. But who and what did Kevin have behind him? That was always the question. Could anyone name any of Global’s reporters? Did any of them make an impression?

The truth is that Global News has long been known for spending all its money on big name anchors. Kevin Newman and now Dawna Friesen are the latest of a long line of excellent hosts that date back to Peter Trueman, Thalia Assuras and Peter Kent. Unfortunately the people who ran Global, never saw the necessity of hiring excellent reporters, writers and producers to back up the fine news readers. They were all about the big splash, the advertising potential attached to the big name on air.

When I worked there, the folks in charge told the CRTC they had a budget of close to $13 million for the newscasts. That was a blatant lie. Close to half the news budget was appropriated by every other department at Global. It was a ruse to make it look like Global was spending big bucks on Canadian content. Somehow, they got away with it. It was so bad that the bosses refused to allow me, the News Director, to see a copy of my own budget.

Needless to say I did not last long at Global. After I was hired with loads of promises about improving the newscasts, it became abundantly clear that there was no truth to the promises. I had a plan to upgrade the staff, create beats, and solidify the reporting by bringing good people in from the outside and training the people on the inside. Every time I wanted to move ahead with my plan I heard another excuse as to why we couldn’t do it right now. First it was the union negotiations. Then it was the ownership fight. Finally, in my time at least, it was let’s wait until Izzy Asper completes his remake of the station.

In the end nothing ever got done because Global saw news as a distasteful obligation that had to be done to keep the license and CRTC approval. I was told to my face by one vice president, if I spend a dollar on news I will be lucky to get back seventy-five cents, if I spend a dollar on U.S. programming I would have to be an idiot to not get back two dollars.

Global News did not create stars or even good reporters for themselves. When they lucked into an excellent reporter or producer they tended to run to CTV or the United States at the very first opportunity. Global was seen by many young television news people as a way into the Toronto market where, if they did a great job, they would be seen and snapped up by the opposition who took news seriously and were willing to pay a decent salary for someone other than the anchor.

I know, I know, I am going to hear the argument about the relatively good ratings Global gets. It’s true. Global National does very well, and their local newscast is a strong second to CTV in many markets. I believe that has had more to do with smart scheduling, great lead-ins, and a long line of popular hosts. Ask viewers to name the reporters or react to which story drew them to Global and you would draw a blank stare.

A while ago the disastrous ownership of the Aspers came to an enforced end and Shaw picked up Global for a song. Nobody knew what that meant for the future of Global News. Today we may have heard our answer. Global announced that they are hiring two of the better journalists in Canadian Television history.

I have had the pleasure of working with Tom Clark at CTV. He has always been an excellent journalist and in any people’s opinions, including my own, a fine on air talent. I was sorry to see him leave CTV when he didn’t get Lloyd Robertson’s job and I am happy to see him back where he belongs with a national broadcaster.

More surprising however, was the announcement that Patrick Brown was hired to be the Beijing correspondent. Nobody in the business, at least anyone that I have ever spoken to, questions Brown’s ability as a fine foreign correspondent. He had a long and distinguished career with CBC and earned all the accolades he has received with excellent work. I have never worked with Patrick but I know he has reputation for being very prickly, very difficult to work with. I can’t say whether that too is well earned. What I do know is that a Beijing Bureau is a very expensive proposition and demands a lot of travel around China and Asia, this exactly the kind of expense that was unheard of during the past ownership of the network.

So kudos to Global for these two moves. Maybe we are about to see the long promised third option, with Global as a serious national television news source, actually come to fruition. I know everyone in the news business hopes so. We will all be watching closely to see if these hires are backed up with the kind of upgrades that Global News needs to be taken seriously.

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Anchors Aweigh

Kevin Newman sent shockwaves through the Canadian television news business when he announced he is stepping down from his job anchoring Global’s early evening national newscast. It came as a surprise for many reasons, the most important of which is the fact that the audience numbers are terrific, according to Global, the highest of any national newscast.

It’s also surprising that it came so early. Many in the business have speculated that Kevin will take either the CBC job from Peter Mansbridge or the CTV anchor position from the soon to retire Lloyd Robertson. The problem is neither job is officially open or coming open for months.

Kevin’s friends swear that he is saying he really has no plans to move to CBC or CTV. He is telling them that the new digital project he is involved with is serious and it is also an opportunity to help his son who is also part of the project.

Somehow, Kevin’s statements have not blunted the speculation. I admit I too find it hard to believe that the most sought after news reader in Canada is going to walk away from the kind of job only three people in English Canada ever get to fill at the same time. It takes a very big ego to push your way to the top of the news business. Kevin not only anchors the news, like Peter Mansbridge, he insists on being managing editor. When you are so involved in all the decisions and perhaps more intoxicating, all the business and politics of the nation, it is hard to walk away. No digital job will be able to fill that void.

I, for one, believe that Newman or his agent has already been contacted by CBC, CTV or both. I have no concrete information on this, but there has been so much talk for over a year that I have to believe where there is smoke there must be fire.

The truth is Lloyd Robertson is all but gone. After the Olympics he met with CTV brass to hammer out a timetable for leaving. I know he said he wasn’t going but if you parse his statements they only say he is not leaving directly after the Olympics and he will be there for the Budget. My sources tell me he went berserk when the information that he was leaving came out. He attacked his agent, lawyer Michael Levine, who Robertson believed to be the leak. This does not sound like a man who is sticking around. It points to someone who wants to go like Kevin Newman, on his own terms and in his own way. Lloyd Robertson will not be anchoring CTV News in 2011.

Lloyd’s departure leaves CTV in a bind. They don’t have an obvious successor and the wannabe’s at CTV create political problems for management. Choose one and you upset the others. They have even discussed a dual anchor of Tom Clark and Lisa Laflamme. Kevin Newman solves all their problems.

At CBC the problem is very different. The National has been playing second fiddle to CTV News for decades. When Knowlton Nash was pushed aside for Peter Mansbridge the thinking was that Peter would provide the star power that would propel The National into the number one spot in the ratings. It has long been an embarrassment for CBC that they spend more than double the dollars on news, they have more facilities, more bureaus, more correspondents, more writers and a way larger staff, yet they are continually bested by CTV. Peter never made a dent in CTV’s armor. The difference between CTV and CBC in the ratings has never changed very much, until this past fall that is. CBC’s numbers have been worse than dismal since they adopted their new younger, flashier, purportedly more populist newscast. It’s not Mansbridge’s fault the newscast is close to unwatchable, but everyone in the business knows that change has to come soon and if younger and flashier is what CBC wants, Peter is not the flavor of the day anymore. Is Kevin Newman the right person to replace Peter? Is there anyone else?

At Global, where news has always been more of an obligation than a choice, the jockeying for Kevin Newman’s position at the anchor desk is taking on a seriously Machiavellian tone. So far there are about twenty applicants for the job. The search to replace Newman is led by Kenton Boston. Boston was appointed VP of National News by Troy Reeb when Reeb was appointed Senior VP four years ago. Reeb got the Senior VP job after he DIDN’T get the job as Kevin’s backup anchor. (fyi Reeb was a former Global National correspondent in Ottawa and Washington.) Reeb has declared his interest in replacing Newman, and is now the leading internal candidate. CanWest isn’t wasting any time and plans to make the decision within a month. So here are the big questions being whispered in all the dark corners at Global’s headquarters: as Senior VP, what is Reeb’s role in choosing Newman’s replacement? Is Reeb about to choose himself? It is not unprecedented. The last time it happened at the national level was when Knowlton Nash searched the world for a new host for The National and somehow found he was actually the best man for the job.

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End of an era at CTV?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Newman on the Block

There has been a steady flow of rumors floating around the TV news business in Canada for over two years about the future of both Lloyd Roberstson at CTV News and Peter Mansbridge at CBC News. If the scuttlebutt is to be believed, both networks are looking for a replacement host for their flagship newscasts.

Loyal viewers are sure to be surprised by this news, mainly because, as the research shows, most people watch just one major television newscast and having made that choice, are either satisfied with what they are getting or they don’t know what the other channels have to offer.

Let’s begin with the situation at CTV. For years now, people in the know have been asking when Lloyd Roberstson is going to retire. He’s well into his seventies now. I wonder why he would want to. He works about three hours per day for about four days per week. Sprinkle in the generous vacation times, a massive six figure salary and you have the Johnny Carson of Canadian news. He’s still popular with the audience and his ratings have held up for decades. So why change a good thing? The only obvious reason is that Lloyd will have to retire sometime and CTV would prefer to set the timing so they can be prepared with a replacement.

Peter Mansbridge, on the other hand, has never really been loved by the audience the way Lloyd is. He is respected but he is not an audience grabber. More to the point, before he signed a two year contract extension a year ago, CBC insiders were saying that a rift between Peter and Vice President and chief poobah, Richard Stursberg, would mean the end of Peter’s tenure at CBC. Within the newsroom there’s a list of grievances against Peter. The most frequently heard complaint is that he demands a say in every decision, especially about news content and hiring. Both lead to problems. Peter has an unhealthy love of Ottawa politics. He is fascinated by the minutia that the viewing audience could care less about and that hurts ratings. As far as hiring is concerned, he is said to surround himself with people who agree with him, any argument and you could find yourself sent to the Siberia of CBC News, Newsworld, or worse. I am not sure whether this is true, but I can vouch for the fact that some extremely talented newsroom staff have been banished, pushed and prodded off The National. Many of those people would be assets to a newsroom short on experienced assets.

While all of this is fascinating the real reason for dumping the icons of national news in Canada could be even more interesting. The real prize, it seems, is Kevin Newman the star of Canwest/Global’s First National. With no obvious replacement from within for their stars at the major networks Kevin is, or at least should be, everyone’s first choice to replace either Peter or Lloyd.

Kevin has been highly successful, garnering, if you can believe Canwest/Global’s publicity, a larger audience than both Peter and Lloyd, and, he does this at a time slot that is hardly traditional for national news in Canada. In Toronto he’s on at 5:30. Add to this the fact that he is host of a mediocre newscast at best, with a poor reporting staff and few international bureaus and his success is all the more amazing. Since nobody I know attributes the success of the newscast to the program that Canwaest/Global produces, it must, they believe, be Kevin.

Kevin Newman is a highly thought of journalist with arguably more field experience than either of the other options, a fact the audience doesn’t care about but is very important to news insiders. He is also considered one of the really good people working in news in Canada. Those who know Kevin, both like and respect him.

But why leave Canwest/Global? The argument is that any serious news person wants to work on a high quality newscast with good budgets, foreign bureaus, high-caliber reporters, and at a network that has shown a serious interest in news as something other than a CRTC requirement and loss leader for purchased U.S. programming.

The speculation today is about where Kevin Newman would prefer to go. Insiders say he was treated quite poorly by CBC when he was the host of Midday. Shortly afterwards he went to Good Morning America and later Nightline at ABC in New York. But CBC still offers the biggest most prestigious newscast in Canada, the prize any Canadian newsreader is supposed to covet. Is it big enough to let bygones-be-bygones and return to the network where he began his climb to stardom?

CTV seems to be the perfect solution. It is bigger and more prestigious than Canwest/Global. There is certainly a commitment to news, maybe even greater in the long run than CBC based on recent CBC cuts and maneuvering. There is just the one roadblock: Lloyd.

I don’t know where Kevin Newman will wind up. Will he jump to CBC or CTV or will he stay to help build a serious newscast at Canwest/Global? What I do know is that his contract has about a year left on it and both major networks will want to take a crack at getting him on board, if for no other reason, to keep him off the other guys’ team.

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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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