I'm Mad as Hell

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and I can't do a thing about it

Another Prime Ministerial Love-in

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Bland on Bland

The other day I was reading an article in one of the newspapers that was basically an interview with the U.S. actor with the highest TVQ on television. TVQ is another name for star quality. An actor the viewers respond to positively. In this case they respond more positively than any other actor regularly seen on television. It was a big surprise to me, and unless you read the same piece, it will be a big surprise to you too. It’s Pauley Perrette. She plays the tall goth scientific investigator on NCIS. With her crazy clothes, spider web tattoos and huge platform shoes it is hard to believe that the character she plays, let alone the actor could be so popular in a country as right wing and closed minded as the United States.

Ms. Perrette’s popularity, and the popularity of the other stars of the show, especially Mark Harmon and Michael Weatherly, goes a long way to explaining why a show that has seldom had good reviews and is generally ignored by the entertainment media is on most weeks the most watched drama on American television.

A long time ago, a very smart television producer taught me that most viewers watch television in one of two places…either their living room or their bedroom. He went on to explain that nobody invites anyone into their home that they are not very comfortable with. He further pointed out, if you like someone you will have them back to your house more and more often. The lesson is obvious. If you want to produce a successful television show, the stars should be the type of people that the viewers want to spend time with.

A few years ago at the Cannes TV Market, MIP, I sat in on a discussion of how reality TV is produced. Some of the top reality producers explained how they draw in the big audiences. They explained that they send every day’s rushes back to focus groups to test the TVQ of all the contestants. What they found, and the way the show works, is that everyone on the show who is well liked gets to stay. They adapted the TVQ theory a little too because everyone the audience hates also gets to play longer. Their formula gets rid of the players who are bland, who do not create any response at all. How they get rid of the players they don’t want is grist for another story. Suffice it to say that they manipulate the cast to try to end up with a man versus a woman as the final pair, and if all goes right, one contestant the viewers will cheer for and another the audience will cheer against. Perhaps this explains the popularity of House.

So what does all of this have to do with television news in Canada?

It seems to me that the people who produce news and current affairs in this country have yet to learn the lessons that drama, reality and comedy programmers have known for years.

It’s not that News producers don’t know. Ask anyone who works at any of the major newscasts and they will tell you who their stars are. In most cases they will explain that their stars are great journalists, but if you let the conversation flow you will find they will begin to talk about the great performers. The people with personality that shine through the TV screen and brighten up a room. At CBC Adrienne Arsenault stands out today. She is immediately recognizable. Sure, she does a great job, but she also has high TVQ. In the past Mike Duffy was a star even greater than his ability as a journalist or his girth. At CTV I see more and more of Omar Sachedina. Yes he’s a talented reporter, but he is also a performer who is welcome in the homes of Canadian news viewers. Craig Oliver was one of the great reporting stars that CTV had. Everyone knew Craig in the same way they knew Mike Duffy. CTV has also had Harvey Kirck and Lloyd Robertson. You couldn’t walk on any street in Canada and not see immediately how people responded positively to them.

Look closely at CBC and CTV news however, and you will not be blown away by the personalities you see night after night. For the most part you would be hard pressed to recognize them on the street if a camera was not pointed at them. I sometimes wonder how some of the very bland people became on air television reporters. Was it by default? They were, like Mount Everest, there. What’s the process that allows such nondescript people to get these few and important jobs telling the stories of Canada to Canadians?

One incident speaks of the failure of Canadian news broadcasters more than any other to me. When Pamela Wallin was whizzed from CBC News one of the greatest opportunities to create audience for The National opened up. The person with the highest TVQ at CBC news at the time was Wendy Mesley. If ever there was a true news star at CBC it was Wendy. Add to that, she is a terrific journalist and a good interviewer. She was a natural to replace Pamela. Oh, and as if all that is not enough, she had just divorced Peter Mansbridge. The pairing would have earned audiences off the charts for news in Canada in my estimation. People would tune in just to see how the former couple got along on air. The great journalism would have been a bonus. But it was not to be. I have asked CBC people why it never happened and have heard all kinds of answers, none of which have made any sense. I do know, however, if it was NBC, ABC, or CBS Peter and Wendy would have certainly been co-hosting and perhaps, the ratings they created together might have saved The National from the changes that led to the predicament that CBC News faces today.

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Election Coverage: Bland Beats Boring

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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CTV embarrasses itself

CTV called it “A Conversation with the Prime Minister.” I have a few alternate names for the program. How about: A Cure for Insomnia? Or even better: An Hour of My Time Wasted. Just a few weeks after my return from India where I noted the toughness and preparedness of the Indian interviewers and hosts, CTV has managed to make my point better than I ever could. Robert Fife, CTV’s Ottawa Bureau Chief, and Lloyd Robertson, the soon to be former anchor of CTV National News hosted a snooze-fest with the Prime Minister at Christmas.

Stephen Harper rarely makes himself available to journalists and has continuously shown his disdain for them during his time in office. So, when the opportunity arrives to grill the man it must be taken seriously. This has not been an easy year for our P.M. At a time when the Leader of the Opposition is proving to be a difficult if not impossible choice for most Canadians and Jack Layton is losing ground, Stephen Harper has managed to lose support. We can argue back and forth about why Harper can’t find the votes to secure a majority. We can even disagree about some questionable political moves like getting rid of the long gun registry and playing politics with the census, but there is no question that there are an abundance of issues to tackle when you get a chance to interview the Prime Minister. CTV missed that boat…they had a ticket, but couldn’t make the departure time.

For an hour Fife and Robertson lobbed softballs at Stephen Harper and the P.M. in turn batted them out of the park. In the first section on the economy Harper said his government was doing a great job. He even mentioned that “the deficit continues to fall.” I don’t know what universe the Prime Minister lives in but it is clear from his own Finance Minister that the government debt is still expanding and the Canadian economy has slowed to a crawl. Flaherty has even had to extend measures to support spending and job creation. Yet there was not a single rebuttal, not a query about the pronouncements. Hello! Robert, Lloyd, time to wake up.

The interview continued in the same way through the second segment on Canada’s relationship with the U.S. and the “Continental Security Perimeter.” Whatever Harper said was accepted at face value; never a follow up, not even a difficult question. When the P.M. was asked whether there was a chance the government could fall on the issue his answer was, “I don’t go around making threats.” Perhaps a question about past Harper behavior might have been in order here. Never happened.

To be fair, Fife did try to ask a few tough questions about Canada’s involvement in Afghanistan. Are we supporting a crooked regime? Isn’t the Taliban getting stronger? Are we wasting our troops and our money on a war we cannot succeed at? These are old questions that Harper can easily handle and in any case, they were not followed up on. It’s not good enough to ask the tough question, you must then question the answer if you have information that doesn’t jibe with the answers you are getting. Either Fife and Robertson didn’t do their homework or they chose to give Harper a relatively free ride.

The interview with Harper ended with a series of questions about the possibility of an election in 2011. This was the most egregious portion of the program. On several occasions Harper talked about an “opposition coalition.” He made it seem like the NDP, Liberals and Bloc were in cahoots to bring down his government. He went out of his way to question any deals that included those nasty separatists in the Bloc Quebecois. Was this not the perfect opportunity to finally question, among other things, Harper’s past working with the Bloc when he was in opposition and his attempts to unite the opposition parties at that time? Hey, and what’s wrong with a coalition? It is a perfectly legal tool used in the parliamentary system. I might have mentioned that Great Britain is currently being ruled by a coalition government. Harper has railed on-and-on about the terrible possibility of a coalition government. He always seems to make it sound illegal or at least un-parliamentary. It is neither, and a good interviewer should not allow him to get away with the characterization. Heck a poor interviewer should catch this one.

Okay, so those are the things that were actually discussed. This interview was more disheartening for the issues that were never brought up. Stephen Harper was never asked to explain his government’s stand on the Canadian census. The long gun registry was not used as ammunition for debate, but for me there were three issues that demanded tough questions and an effort to get real explanations. Why is Canada now rated last of the industrialized powers in dealing with the environment? Canada’s handling of that issue has embarrassed Canadians of all political stripes.

Nobody in the federal government has been asked to explain the fiasco that was the G-8 and G-20. The huge waste of money for which there has been no explanation. The choice of downtown Toronto as a venue. The disappearance of civil rights. Harper has a lot to answer for here. He can’t answer if he is not asked to.

Finally, the government’s Middle East policies. Whether you agree or disagree with Harper, you have to ask the questions. Is the P.M.’s support for Israel counterproductive in getting a deal between Israel and the Palestinians? I think President Obama would think so. That doesn’t make it right or wrong, but it sure makes it ripe for questioning, especially after Harper went on at length about better relations with our American partners.

By now you get the point. I hated the interview for the waste of an important opportunity and for, in the end, contributing to Canadians lack of interest in politics. It was beyond boring, it was just plain bad. CTV News and Robert Fife should be embarrassed. Lloyd Robertson was never an interviewer of any note and shouldn’t have been there. Let us all hope that when Lisa Laflamme, a real journalist, takes over the anchor position and when the new news bosses settle in at CTV that abominations like this one can be avoided.

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Rick Sanchez: “The Uninformant”

I have been inundated with questions about Rick Sanchez since he went after John Stewart and the Jews who run broadcasting and was subsequently fired last Friday. The most common question I’ve been asked is: “Would you have fired him.” I think the bigger question one should ask is whether I would have hired the man.

John Stewart easily proved that Rick Sanchez is a know nothing boob who did not have the knowledge necessary to do his job. Lisa de Moraes, in The TV Column writes: One example of Stewart’s derision came on March 2, when Stewart’s show ran clips of Sanchez anchoring CNN’s live coverage of a Chilean earthquake and the accompanying fears of a tsunami. In the clips, Sanchez is seen mistaking the Galapagos Islands for Hawaii and asking an expert to explain to him what nine meters means “in English.” Stewart called CNN “the most trusted name in overcaffeinated control freaks,” and Sanchez’s photo was shown above an identifier that read “The Uninformant!”

How does a guy who doesn’t know what a meter is or where America’s 50th state is located get an anchor job on a U.S. national network? Further, you may ask, doesn’t anyone at CNN ‘vet’ the hires? Don’t they check the background, knowledge and prejudices of the people they foist on the public and describe as journalists and news people?

The obvious answer is that they don’t do their due diligence and they don’t seem to care unless the guy or girl loses their cool and blurts out a racist remark. Sanchez was fired for his comments about Jews, not his ignorance of basic facts. I for one, find that a frightening proposition because it demeans all journalists, all journalism and certainly everyone involved with broadcast news. All we have is our authority and the trust of the audience. If we lose that we will cease to matter.

The anchor position in a newscast has undergone many changes in the past few decades. There was a time when all you had to do is read what others wrote and look good doing it. Good hair and smart suits were more important than good news judgment and smarts. Thankfully, that began to change in the era of Walter Cronkite, Chet Huntley and David Brinkley. These guys were authority figures. We knew we could trust what they said because we knew we could trust them to know what they were talking about. They weren’t what we later called “meat puppets,” they were newsmen, journalists.

Eventually that rubbed off on local news. It took decades, not years, but we finally reached the point where if you want to be an anchor in Calgary, Dallas, Halifax or Minneapolis, you had better have reporting experience. Sure there are a few old time announcers hanging in, although at the national level Lloyd Robertson is likely to be the last, but they should all be gone sooner rather than later.

Authority and trust, I thought, had become the most important attributes in choosing a new news anchor. That however, is beginning to change and it’s the all-news channels in the U.S. that are leading the movement towards blow-hards and shock-jocks. Fox may be the worst offender, but as Rick Sanchez and CNN have proved, they are not the only ones. Jeffrey Dvorkin wrote a terrific analysis in his blog, Now the Details http://www.nowthedetails.blogspot.com, he said, I do blame CNN: it allowed Sanchez (and others like him) on the air and seems unable to find its role, squeezed by the bloviators on Fox and the more thoughtful journalism to be found elsewhere on TV and radio. He also points out that in the U.S. there is actually nothing new in this trend: There is also a long tradition in American broadcasting of extreme opinions going back to Father Coughlin in Detroit in the 30s and 40s. Walter Winchell became equally paranoid in his later career and was one of the more effective red-baiters in the Cold War. Sanchez, Beck, O’Reilly and Limbaugh are entirely within that tradition.

This is where you are thinking that the recent hires at the national networks in both the U.S. and Canada have been experienced news people who take their roles seriously and for the most part, that’s true. But I remember the days, and it wasn’t that long ago, where newscasts were filled with solid news content and nothing but solid news content. Paris Hilton couldn’t buy her way onto a newscast and to get the results of last night’s American Idol, if it had existed, you would have to watch American Idol. Then came shows like A Current Affair and eventually Entertainment Tonight. They blurred the boundaries. I met people who said yes, they saw the news, and it turned out they were watching A Current Affair. I have seen that style infect serious newscasts and grow to be an everyday part of what we now consider news.

Is it possible that Glenn Beck will eventually infect the role of the anchor? I hope not, but it is possible. Have you seen the ads for Dawna Friesen on Global? The marketing people at Global go out and hire a serious news woman with all the right credentials and then try to sell her to the public as a soccer mom. Where’s the authority? Where’s the journalist? Were Cronkite or Brinkley sold to the public as dads? Is it because she is a woman? It makes you wonder to what lengths Global will go to sell their news. Perhaps if Friesen doesn’t work out they will follow Fox’s lead. It seems far-fetched today, but then if I had told anyone in the news business 30 years ago that clips from Survivor would make it to a newscast they would have laughed and said it could never happen.

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Tom Clark

I was saddened to read in today’s newspapers that Tom Clark is leaving CTV. I met Tom a few times years ago when I worked for CTV and he was with our Toronto affiliate, CFTO. I met him again while planning for provincial election coverage and debates in Ontario elections and for leadership contests while I was at CBC. What I remember most vividly was that Tom was not the guy that I expected. For some reason I had preconceived notions about what Tom would be like based solely on the fact that he seemed to be the on air political mouthpiece for John Bassett, the then owner and president of CFTO television.

At that time, in the late 70’s and early 80’s John Bassett demanded that all political coverage on CFTO be as pro-Tory as he was. Tom Clark was the chief political correspondent at CFTO and thus had to take the Bassett party line in his reports and interviews. His reputation therefore, became that of a right wing mouthpiece. We all knew that Tom was smart and exceedingly knowledgeable politically, but could he do his job at the national level where he would have to be much less partisan? I am embarrassed to say that with his blond hair, boyish good looks and right wing persona he earned the nickname, never to his face mind you, ‘the little Nazi.’ Nobody has ever said that newsrooms were kind places.

Having met Tom I soon realized I, or should I say we, were completely wrong. Tom is a class act. We were right about how smart he was and his depth of political knowledge. We were wrong about his ability to perform at the national level. When Tom went to CTV I like to believe that we saw the real Tom Clark for the first time. Without John Bassett controlling him he blossomed into one of the best political reporters in Canada. He could be depended on to deliver excellent stories from Ottawa and Washington. He was always well informed and never once did he seem out of his depth. I never again felt that I could see his personal politics entering his reports. In fact I can now say I do not know what his personal politics are.

On top of all that excellent work, I always found Tom to be kind, helpful and respectful of the people he worked with both at CTV and at the competition. He seemed to get along well with everyone he met and used his personable qualities to great effect in getting stories and networking. This led to many scoops and inside stories during his fine career at CTV.

I understand that Tom was upset that he didn’t get Lloyd Robertson’s job. After more than three decades of hard work, it had to have come as a severe blow to see someone else get the job he had coveted and felt he had worked so hard for.

I don’t know why Lisa Laflamme got the job. I do know that CTV’s original plans were for Lisa and Tom to co-host the news. Where that went awry I don’t know. I have heard some people speculate that with Katy Couric and Diane Sawyer taking over U.S. newscasts, CTV decided to make a splash by hiring a woman. I have also heard speculation that some considered Lisa’s age (she’s much younger than Tom) the deciding factor. I think Lisa was a great choice. I believe it is unfair to bring gender into the discussion. Lisa did everything the network asked and more. She is a fine journalist and a credit to CTV News. Would Tom have done just as well? We’ll never know. I do know that Tom would have worked just as hard and been a credit to the job. Would audiences have responded to Tom as they seem to be responding to Lisa? I’d like to think so.

I hope Tom Clark lands on his feet somewhere. He’s too good a journalist and a broadcaster to disappear. If I had my druthers he would take over from the obviously over-matched Evan Solomon at CBC NN. Tom would have the guts to ask the tough questions and he would have the contacts and personality to attract more politicians and fewer reporters as guests on what has become the most vanilla political program on Canadian TV.

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The Female Anchor

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lloyd and Lisa

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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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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