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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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Badly Served in Canada

My wife is constantly amazed that I read every page of the newspapers that are delivered to my door every morning…seven days a week. Of course I watch a lot of news on television too. That makes me a bona fide news junkie. According to the statistics I read in one of the newspapers, it can be difficult to differentiate when you are plowing through so much news, I am not an uncommon Canadian. It seems we are a country of news junkies in comparison to our American neighbors. The market for quality news coverage is still very strong here. So why are Canadian news outlets from print, TV and radio following the U.S. down the road to coverage of non-events, non-stories and celebrity garbage…I mean gossip?

Each day it feels like it takes me less and less time to read the papers. The Sunday Toronto Star is an empty shell that can be perused cover to cover in about ten minutes. I barely know who Lindsay Lohan is and what makes her famous yet I am bombarded with her brush with the law and her impending jail term. I’m sure Lohan’s incarceration will have little effect on the world economy other than to sell a few more newspapers.

When I was at CBC my bosses conducted a poll of news viewers; which station they watched, why they chose to watch a specific newscast, their age, education background and yearly earnings. The results were obvious. The CBC’s viewers were older, richer and better educated than CTV, Global and CITY viewers. CITY-TV viewers were the youngest, poorest and least educated. But put that way, it is highly misleading. The difference in average age from CBC to CITY-TV was about 5 years, 44 for CITY and just under 49 for CBC. CBC had the most university grads but most CBC viewers barely finished high school.

I remember thinking at the time that CITY’s rock and roll news was a great thing for CBC. Younger folks got hooked on the news watching Gord Martineau and his gang. They developed the news viewing habit in simple bite sized, picture stories. The way I saw it, when they matured and wanted more, they would graduate to CBC News. CITY was news with training wheels. CBC was the 18 speed racing bike.

The world of television and TV news is far more complicated today. It is as much about style as substance. There are far more choices. The internet and all-news channels provide way more options. A friend told me that watching network news in Canada today is like watching yesterday’s newscast. He has seen all the stories during the day on the net and has no time for the déjà vu provided by the TV newscasts.

Given all of the above I have to ask what CBC, CTV and Global are doing. Instead of creating a new kind of in depth version of a newscast with fewer stories and more context, they are still competing with CBC NN, CTV News Network and the internet. They are still trying to cover all the stories without getting down to what is important and giving those stories more time and effort. In Canada this is doubly stupid because the networks own the services they are competing with.

When Newsworld was first created I believed it would be the best thing that happened to national newscasts. It would free them from having to be everywhere covering stories large and small from across the country and around the world. I expected the news bosses to choose six or seven important stories and give them in depth coverage. Why not? The small stories about the snow storm in Calgary and the 20 car pile-up outside Chatham were now taken care of. There would be more time to look at the cost of the G-20 and whether we really need a census any more. (By the way, we still have not seen a single investigative report on how our government spent $1.2 billion on a summit that cost everyone else a tenth of that sum or less.) Alas, this has not happened. Today’s newscasts in Canada look very similar, in coverage, to what they looked like before Newsworld and CTV News Network. If anything, CBC especially, has taken many steps backward. They have done away, for the most part, with their excellent long form journalism and replaced it on most nights with fillers and fluff that should not have a place on a serious national newscast.

Why did I expect change? Because CBS, NBC, and ABC changed when CNN came along. They realized the futility of challenging CNN for speed. They understood that they couldn’t cover in half-an-hour what CNN had 24 hours to report on. Before CNN a typical network newscast in the U.S. packed 12 to 14 stories into their 30 minutes minus ads every night. Since the advent of CNN, the average American network newscast averages 6 to 8 stories and on many nights an investigative feature on an important subject is one of those stories.

In Canada we may be a nation of news junkies but we are not being well served by our national institutions. The CBC, Global and CTV are mired in formats that were out of date in the 90’s. The Globe and Mail seems to be providing less and less serious news coverage and little investigation into important stories, in some cases preferring to be touts for their own (CTV Globe Media) Olympic coverage or even stooping to stories on which dance team was eliminated from a CTV reality(?) show. CBC Radio is the lone exception but rumors abound that Richard Stursberg is coming to make radio news as inane as he has made TV news.

With new hosts coming to CTV and Global and a renewal process at CBC TV that is an abject failure, perhaps the time has come to take a long look at what network news is doing and look to the future rather than the past to bring about the kind of change that a news hungry population craves.

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Media News

This week I received three emails that I think are important to media people and people interested in the media. I’m passing them along here.

The first is from another long suffering CBC person who loves the national broadcaster but hasn’t always liked the way the news service has operated. I think this insider provides a fitting last word on Newsworld’s 20th anniversary.

I really enjoyed your Newsworld memorial, but you were too kind.

I don’t think they had unrealistic goals at all. I think they were lying about their goals from the start.

When they were applying for their license (I remember thinking at the time what a load of manure this is going to turn out to be) they promised a string of their own foreign bureaus, including Tokyo; and a vow that the new network would be self-sustaining and not leech off the main network; and it would all be decentralized and not Toronto imperialism.

It turned out there were zero new foreign bureaus.

Further, the assignment desk would tell national reporters to go and cover such and such … and you’d say that The National would never use this in a million years. They would say yes, but Newsworld might. So, national reporters ended up being used to feed Newsworld and Newsworld alone. It was the news to nowhere, as Craig Oliver used to say.

As for decentralization, the operations in Halifax and Calgary ended up being quickly closed, without a peep.

Newsworld’s meat and potatoes is not “news” at all, it’s talk and blather (“context” and “background”). They are so devoid of imagination and fresh air at CBC that they decided must-see news programming is giving new hosts hours to fill with talk.

It has all turned out to be a sham and a failure. It sucks energy out of the main network (which has little enough to spare) and contributes nothing journalistic plus, it has an audience so low you would need a magnifying glass to find it.

I like that old cockney saying: if bullshit were music, there’d be bands in every street.

The second is a story passed on to me that speaks to how low the people at Canwest/Global have sunk. Some of you may have missed this little story because it doesn’t affect a lot of people and it didn’t happen in Toronto. The company that had the money to buy Alliance/Atlantis and that keeps the money pit called The national Post going found an interesting way to save a few bucks: by punishing a few retirees.

News release via Canada NewsWire, Toronto 416-863-9350 -ME-
Attention News Editors:
CHCH TV retirees call on Canwest Global to approach the federal
government to resolve CHCH TV pension crisis
HAMILTON, ON, July 28 /CNW/ – Canwest Global Communications Limited has advised CHCH TV retirees that the company will be winding up the CHCH TV pension plan effective August 31, 2009. The company has also informed the retirees that the plan has an unfunded windup deficiency, and that Canwest Global has no intention of funding the deficiency. This means that CHCH TV retirees will have their pensions reduced when the pension is wound up. The amount of the reduction is unknown because Canwest Global has yet to provide retirees with this information.
“Retirees are concerned that the issue of pension plan windup will pit current active employees at CHCH TV against retired former employees,” said CHCH TV retiree Bob Ireland. “If Canwest lacks the resources to fund its commitments, then a better solution is to approach the federal government to seek regulatory relief. Regulatory relief would have the benefit of protecting the interests of both active and retired members.”
Ireland noted that other federal employers, both big and small, have been able to obtain regulatory relief from the federal government. “This year, both Canadian Press, a small employer, and Air Canada obtained regulatory relief that allowed them to preserve and continue their pension plans,” stated Ireland. “CHCH TV retirees believe that the interests of CHCH TV employees, retirees and other beneficiaries, as well as Canwest would be best served by this approach.”
CHCH TV retirees have organized themselves and have retained legal counsel, Hugh O’Reilly, of Cavalluzzo Hayes. O’Reilly worked on the restructuring of both the Canadian Press and Air Canada pension plans.
“Canwest Global has demonstrated that it has a great deal of influence with the federal government. Canwest Global obtained approval to receive carriage fees from cable and satellite carriers,” commented Ireland. “Given that the company is now in a position to receive these new revenue streams, a portion of those funds should be used to honour the pension promise to retirees.”
“CHCH TV retirees will be contacting their members of parliament to get support for their position and will be in contact with the federal pension and broadcast regulatory authorities to make their case clear,” added Ireland. “Retirees have also written a letter to the Honourable James M. Flaherty, Minister of Finance, to ask whether or not the federal government would be willing to consider regulatory relief if approached by Canwest Global and current and retired CHCH TV employees.”
CHCH TV retirees have received the support of the Communications, Energy and Paperworkers Union of Canada (CEP), the union representing CHCH TV active members. “We fully endorse the CHCH TV retirees in their efforts and will work with them to approach the federal government for regulatory relief,” said Bob Huget, CEP Vice President for the Ontario Region. “Companies cannot be allowed to walk away from their pension commitments and the CEP will be taking proactive steps to prevent this from happening.”
“Like all retirees in today’s economy, CHCH TV retirees are vulnerable and face a number of challenges. Some have mortgages and children attending university and college while others have high medical bills or are looking after their elderly parents,” commented Ireland. “After years of service, the one thing CHCH TV retirees thought they could count on was the pension that the company promised.”
Bob Ireland spent 20 years as CHCH TV Bureau Chief at the Ontario Legislature and covered local and regional politics for CHCH TV for 5 years. Ireland was employed by CHCH TV for more than thirty years and is one of approximately 108 CHCH TV retirees and other plan beneficiaries.

Finally, I will let Stuart Bayens speak for himself. He runs a website out of Edmonton and he has a story that we all should know about.

I run a website out of Edmonton called The Last Link on the Left.

It covers matters of local interest, particularly crime (after all, Stats Can recently called us the murder capital of Canada).

I caught wind of your website via the insidethecbc blog. Your tagline caught my interest: “The real story about media that you won’t find in the mainstream media.”

Have I got a story for you.

It concerns a veteran reporter (30-years experience) getting pulled off a murder case because he refused to co-operate with a police search warrant. He was later fired by the radio station he worked for.

His boss, still at the station, openly raises funds for the police and takes on-going credit for them being able to buy a helicopter.

It concerns a man convicted by the media, who failed to report key problems with police evidence.

One reporter covering the trial, working for the area’s top-rated TV station, is married to a police officer.

A lawyer for the man accused, and later convicted of the murder, had to resort to instructing the media to correct a myth they perpetuated — that he had led a search party to discover his wife’s body.

It’s a long story, revealing not only how the reporter developed a relationship with the accused but how press-release journalism followed and supported a police theory — that given the details revealed in the reporter’s story — should not have held up in court.

The case is of Michael and Liana White. The reporter is Byron Christopher.

The story, released on the web on July 26th, can be read here:

http://www.lastlinkontheleft.com/e2005whiteuntoldstory.html

If you have the time, it’s an amazing read.

Thanks to all my readers for these stories.

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Newsworld at 20

It’s the 20th anniversary of Newsworld and try as they might at the CBC they can’t get anyone to celebrate with them. Oh sure, there have been a few “puff” pieces in the newspapers over the weekend, but even those were mostly buried deep inside the paper.

The worst article I saw was by Oakland Ross in the Saturday Toronto Star. I remember Mr. Ross as a fine foreign correspondent for The Star. Either he’s a terrible feature writer or he couldn’t be bothered with this assignment. Not that I blame him. It was a lousy assignment. How to you turn the sow’s ear of Newsworld into a silk purse?

Oakland Ross writes “If sheer survival is among the abiding themes of Canadian history…then Newsworld must be defined as a success.” Whoa, is that a load of manure. Newsworld has been a cash cow for the CBC. Even if nobody watched the network, Newsworld would make a fortune for CBC. Every Canadian who has cable TV or satellite television has to pay a subscription fee of over a dollar a month. For twenty years we have had no choice in the matter. That’s millions of dollars every month going to support a network that few Canadians watched. There was no way it would be taken off the air. The CBC couldn’t afford to.

A few years ago my partner, Lon Appleby, and I were doing a series of specials for C-Pac. We got paid peanuts but we enjoyed the cinema verite coverage they allowed us to do of conventions and elections. The people in charge of C-Pac at the time loved our work so much they brought us in to train their staff. What they were most proud of at the time was that their audience was usually larger than Newsworld’s. That’s C-Pac, hands up those of you who are regular C-Pac viewers.

At the time we joked that it would be far cheaper for Newsworld to go off the air and send video tapes to anyone who was interested in their programming. But then they would have to forgo the CRTC mandated millions they were collecting.

The old timers interviewed by Oakland Ross love to talk about the good old days when Newsworld was on top of the Meech Lake Accord or the Wars in Iraq. The truth is the best rated shows on the network were programs like Antiques Road Show. Does that even belong on an “all news” channel?

As Newsworld heads towards a new beginning, a fresh look that aims to be newsier, faster, using the CBC’s words, more like CNN, I wish them all the luck in the world. The changes are an admission that what they have been doing hasn’t worked. But they’ve chosen a steep hill to climb. Especially when the CBC doesn’t have the resources to cover very much outside our major cities, let alone the rest of the world. When a crisis happens in Mumbai will viewers tune to CBC or CNN? In the past Canadians have voted with their channel changers. They have tuned into CNN and the U.S. networks in droves. Do you want to watch people reporting from the scene or from a desk in Toronto? I know CBC got a reporter to Mumbai, luckily a CBC staffer was on vacation in the region. But while CBC News was getting its first reports back CNN was coming live from the streets of Mumbai.

I don’t blame CBC News for this. CBC is a small underfunded network that on the main channel at least, seems less interested in the news service than Being Erica and Little Mosque on the Prairie.

What I do blame CBC News for are the unrealistic goals being set. Wouldn’t it be far better to aim for a network that provided context and depth to major stories in Canada and around the world? Forget about CNN Headline News Channel. Look at the panels and discussion shows that are also successful at CNN. Look at TVO’s The Agenda with Steve Paikin which gets a better audience in Ontario than Newsworld gets coast-to-coast by staying within their means and doing what they can do well. Sure, let us know when a story breaks, that’s what all-news is about, but just as important, help us to understand what is happening and why. Canada, and especially Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver, are a perfect venue for panels and discussions. No matter where an event happens in the world we have experts living right here. People who understand the foreign context and the Canadian context and can bring the two together. And guess what? We can do this extremely well with the money and resources at our command.

The last word has to go to a former CBC News chief editor, Cliff Lonsdale, who I am quoting from the Oakland Ross story, he said, “Across journalism, we need more in-depth coverage. In a world of Twitter, what we desperately need is context.”

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Still Shuffling at “the Corpse”

Last week I told you all about how Newsworld wants to be the Northern CNN. Well guess what? So does The National. They want to be more about news and they want to eliminate current affairs as we’ve known it.

This should come as no surprise to anyone who knows the personnel at the top of CBC News. Most are hard news people with little or no background in current affairs. Others are just “yes” people for the Vice President, Richard Stursberg, whose only qualifications for their jobs seems to be that they will have no opinion at worst and Stursberg’s opinion at best.

About two weeks ago all of the current affairs staff at The National were given their new marching orders. Some are going to “health”, some to “arts” and some to the “investigative” unit, and still others to who knows where. None will be left to produce the longer segments that made CBC News different from CTV News or the U.S. networks. We’re talking about Gemini, Michener, and RTNDA (Radio and Television News Directors Association) award winners. The most experienced and perhaps the best long form news producers in Canada. Why? Because “the powers that want to be” at CBC have decided there is no place on the news for a longer story. Why they think that is anyone’s guess.

I have always felt that CBC News had to be more news oriented and less feature driven, but I never thought it was about the length of the segments. I thought the problem was that too many features had little to do with the day’s events. I was taught that a daily news program should reflect what is happening in the world on that day. The wonderful stories that blew the lid off the RCMP Taser fiasco are a great example of what CBC News should do. They ran close to thirty minutes and won the CBC a coveted Michener Award just a few days ago. Guess what? There is no place for that kind of story anymore.

This is ridiculous on several counts. I have seen 30 minute stories that are so riveting they feel like they are three minutes long, and I have seen three minute items that feel like a half-hour because they are so incredibly boring. A story should run for whatever length it takes to tell it properly. The length should only be an issue if it doesn’t fit into the time slot. In fact on The Journal, you all remember that show, many segments ran over two, three and even four days. I don’t remember any complaints when Terrence McKenna was winning awards for the CBC for his in depth coverage of Islamic terrorists in Canada or Brian Stewart was alerting the world to the impending humanitarian disaster that was the Ethiopian famine or Bruce Dowbiggin was opening Canadians’ eyes to the scandal that was Allan Eagleson.

Where is the context going to come from at CBC News? At any TV news service in Canada? It was the long backgrounders that provided context to the news. Without them television news is nothing but a headline service. And CBC News was the only television news service in Canada to provide contextual information that allowed Canadians to make informed decisions on some of the biggest news stories since the creation of Newsmagazine in the mid ‘50s. It’s especially frightening today when we know most Canadians get all their news from TV. That’s a 60 year legacy you hear being flushed down the toilet.

Maybe, as some believe, the CBC hopes to save money by eschewing longer segments. I’ve heard the argument that CBC news no longer has the funds to produce documentaries. That may be true. But is the answer to produce three seven minute pieces to replace a 20 minute piece? Anyone who knows anything about television production knows that a seven minute item costs just about the same amount as a 20 minute segment. So this argument has no basis in reality. The new regime at CBC News will be more expensive than what it is replacing.

Finally, the most cynical explanation for the idiocy at work at the CBC may be the best. I have been told by several staffers they believe the new The National is being set up to fail. They argue that when news viewership begins to fall Richard Stursberg will have all the ammunition he needs to cut the news budget. He will also cut the news back to just a half-hour. The history of current affairs following the news that began with The Journal will come to an unremarkable end thus putting more money into the CBC’s hands for yet another reality show and perhaps even another drama, the kind of thing we can watch on any other channel in Canada.

The CBC as we knew it is being ransacked by the Barbarians and we will all be sorry when we realize what we lost and what the CBC could have, no, I mean should have been.

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The CBC Shuffle – Not a new dance show.

The CBC and especially CBC Newsworld are in the midst of shuffling their staff, both on air and behind the scenes. I have spoken to half-a-dozen news and current affairs staffers at “the Corpse” and cannot find a single person who can figure out what’s going on. In fact, they are being told by their bosses that they too have no idea what the plan is. What everyone seems to agree on is that the CBC has discovered CNN and now wants to recreate itself as some sort of northern reincarnation.

Why CNN? Because they’ve had great ratings for their “all news” channel for well over a year. As always at the CBC, there is no point in creating something new when you can steal ideas from someone else. It feels like almost every new CBC show for almost a decade has been purloined from successful British or American formats, think, The Greatest Canadian, Triple Threat, Antiques Road Show, do I have to go on.

This plan, CNN North, is doomed to failure if ratings are the sole reason for the changes. First let’s look at why CNN has had such a great eighteen months: it’s been the best damn news year since 1945. Obama versus Clinton, Obama’s presidential campaign and the collapse of the economy have kept even those least interested in the news glued to their televisions. CNN was going to have a great year whether they did a wonderful job or not. In fact CBC News had a great year, so why change?

CNN’s other success has been in putting together one of the strongest “all news” on-air rosters of talent anywhere, what they like to call “the best news team on television.” Stars, whether we think they deserve to be or not, like John Roberts in the morning, Lou Dobbs in the evening, and Anderson Cooper and Campbell Brown at night, CNN has hosts you love or you love to hate. Either way you want to watch them.

Who does the CBC have? Does Carole MacNeil really have the kind of star qualities it will take to win viewers away from House or CSI? I think not. Is Evan Solomon going to be “must see TV” from Parliament Hill? I hope so, but I fear not.

From my perspective there are only two on air hosts with the ability to be stars who are left at CBC: Wendy Mesley and Linden MacIntyre – and so far neither are being mentioned as Newsworld stars and further, both have other jobs they seem to like and excel at. You may disagree. You may even have a few more – or different  – on-air ideas that appeal to you but you have to agree the CBC does not have a lot of bench strength.

It would have been very different a decade and more ago when the CBC was crawling with talented interesting news people. Mike Duffy immediately comes to mind. He had what people in the business call “TVQ”: star quality. Joe Schlessinger was a reporter you could trust. Jason Moscovitz was memorable and unique. Brian Stewart had gravitas. Don Newman made himself one of the deans of Ottawa journalism. They also had Wendy Mesley, Linden MacIntyre, Pamela Wallin, and even Knowlton Nash. Not to be hard on Carole MacNeil and Evan Solomon who are talented hosts, but compare them to the names I came up with. Right! No comparison.

How did this happen? How did CBC News become so devoid of exciting and interesting people? In fact, where are the great or even good reporters?

Take away Terry Milewski today and few of the remaining CBC reporters would have even been considered for a national reporting job, let alone a hosting job, just a few years back. Today’s CBC reporters go from the incompetent to at best, adequate. Personality is no longer a prerequisite, it seems CBC News sees being interesting and exciting to watch as a detriment. Where are the Dan Bjarnasons and Patrick Browns? The guys you knew as soon as you heard their voice or saw them on TV.

Finally, the CBC shuffle is about speed, they say, about getting the news on the air fast, whether on Newsworld or the main network. This is a great thing to aim for. It’s something other networks have always done.

When I was at CTV News in the ‘70s and got the first interview with the just inaugurated Jimmy Carter for Canada AM it ran on the National News first. When Craig Oliver broke the story of the Canadians hiding the American Embassy staff in Teheran and helping them to escape Iran it ran on Canada AM, the first available news program. We are told that at CBC you have to save your scoop for The National thus taking the chance that another network will get the story on the air first. Consider, this is decades after Newsworld has been created.

In any case it’s the CBC’s intention to end this lunacy at least. Okay, that’s good.  But, being CNN and acting and reacting with speed takes money. CNN has reporters, stringers and deals with international reporters all over the world and the United States. How will CBC cover a breaking story in a place they have no reporter? I’m afraid they will do it the way they always have: get someone on the phone, buy some BBC footage and get a reporter to the scene within three days. That’s not speed. If you want to be CNN you have to be everywhere. That takes big bucks by CBC standards. Are the powers that be prepared to increase the CBC News budget? On the contrary, they are looking for cuts. They are nickel and diming the flagship service at the same time they are talking about a grandiose shuffle.

Don’t bet the farm on the success of the changes at CBC News and be prepared in six months or a year for the same-old-same-old. You all remember Prime Time News. Perhaps you don’t. It lasted a minute or two before the news moved back to ten and a few sacrificial lambs were axed.

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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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