I'm Mad as Hell

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and I can't do a thing about it

The Corpse

Two events in the past few weeks have made me wonder about the future of the CBC.

The first is the U.S. House of Representatives vote to stop funding NPR (National Public Radio). NPR is my primary source of information whenever I am in the United States. Outside of New York, Washington, Los Angeles, and maybe Boston and Chicago, it is very difficult to find a decent newspaper that covers major national stories, never mind international news. NPR does all of that and does it well.

The stated thinking by the Republican dominated House is that public, non-profit radio should not be funded. There are better uses for taxpayers’ money. We all know the real reason has more to do with the Republican’s perception that NPR leans far to the left, especially when it comes to national U.S. issues and politics.

As an irregular listener and a Canadian it seems to me that NPR is hardly left wing. By my great white northern standards NPR seems pretty centrist, leaning somewhat to the right on international stories, especially those that involve the United States.

According to Jeffrey Dvorkin, who should know, he headed the news at NPR and went on to become the NPR ombudsman, the big stations in places like New York and L.A. will be able to carry on with listener, corporate and charitable donations. In smaller centers the stations could disappear. In other words, where there is an alternative to NPR it will still function, where there is no alternative it may disappear leaving hundreds of millions of people with only extreme right wing shock jocks, religious programming and centrally programmed music stations.

As first world countries go, America looks to me to already have the most ignorant population when it comes to politics, both internal and international. This decision, if it stands will surely make the problem worse, leaving no radio alternative to the Rush Limbaughs of the broadcast world who peddle lies and half-truths on the important issues facing Americans.

CBC Radio is basically NPR in Canada. Sure there are differences, but it gets the same sort of listeners, albeit a heck of a lot more than NPR by percentage of the listening audience. Is it possible, could a Stephen Harper majority government look south and say to themselves, what a great idea? We could save a bundle of dough by cutting CBC. A few years ago I would have laughed at the prospect. Even when CBC TV was going through major problems, strikes, Stursburgian leadership issues, the radio service was being hailed as an example of how the CBC gets it right. That was before the dismantling of Radio 2 as a classical music station that resulted in the loss of up to 50% of the audience and a move by CBC Radio One to broaden its musical and content horizons to get more youthful listeners. Radio One has managed to hold most of its audience because of shows like As It Happens which have been around for decades. But there is much unhappiness with CBC radio among the people I talk to. They still listen, maybe not as much as before, but there is little else to listen to if you are a news and information junkie.

The numbers say that the changes have not drawn in new young listeners. So with less enthusiastic listeners and dropping numbers could Stephen Harper get away with major cuts that spell doom for CBC? I’m not sure, but it does worry me.

The second event that got to me was an appearance on a panel discussion about media and topical events that I took part in on CTS. The show is called Behind the Story and is deftly hosted by Richard Landau. You should have a look at the program if you get an opportunity, you may be pleasantly surprised. In any case, one of my fellow panelists was National Post Columnist Lorne Gunter. His columns are thoughtful, provocative and generally make excellent arguments, even when I disagree with them. Lorne is based in Alberta. At one point in the show he said that the CBC was irrelevant to anyone outside southern Ontario and Quebec. He said he looked forward to the end of the CBC under a Harper government .

He surprised me for two reasons. First, I always thought the success of CBC was stronger in rural Canada and I do know that historically the CBC gets its best numbers in Manitoba and Newfoundland. I spent four years in Nova Scotia and CBC radio dominated. My wife is from New Brunswick and she grew up listening to only CBC radio and watching CBC TV.

The second reason is that CBC, even at just over a billion dollars per year is highly underfunded and frankly costs each Canadian a pittance for a service that has the ability and mandate to bring Canadians together and showcase Canadian talent. I’m sure Lorne believes like many in the Tory party that CBC is a left wing cabal. That doesn’t make it true, and more to the point, I like reading columnists I disagree with and hearing what politicians and opinion makers on the right and the left have to say. As a journalist and a broadcaster I have always believed the more outlets available and the more money being spent on getting the best stories and angles the better off we all are.

During the last CBC lockout I was having a lunch discussion with a CBC staffer who lamented the lack of public interest into the loss of CBC programming on both radio and television. He said that if the strike had happened 10 years earlier many in the public would be demanding an end to the strike or at least would be upset by the loss of programming.

There is a lesson in all this. The CBC is losing its place in the Canadian broadcast scene. It may be the programming, it may be the underfunding, it may even be the pointless chasing of younger ears and eyeballs. I suspect it is all of the above. But with a Harper majority government a strong possibility it behooves the CBC to take a hard look at itself. I suggest that the corporation go back to basics: a news service that is respected and viewed; journalism that sets the standard in Canada; a leadership role in documentary production; excellent drama that enlightens and informs; coverage of things that no one else will cover because of cost or interest like the arts and amateur sports. First the CBC has to become indispensable again…then it can grow and prosper.

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A Failure to Communicate

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Weekend Update

The Olympics start today and that’s great news for anyone who has attempted to watch CTV for the past three months. Hopefully when the coverage starts the endless repetitious promos stop. CTV has managed to make me tired of the Olympics before they have even started.

More good news, CTV News and The Globe and Mail actually covered what could be called negative, and dare I say newsworthy, Olympic stories this week. There was one item on the search for doping athletes and another item on the possibility, or as some may think, the probability, of more cheating by figure skating judges.

Let’s not get too excited though. CTV News and The Globe have not stopped shilling. Page three in The Globe still belongs to the interminable in-house torch relay. CTV stars and management along with Globe reporters still get their cute white uniforms and moment in the sun while former Olympic gold medalists like Kerrin Lee Gartner are still shut out. Heavens, Lloyd Robertson found five minutes on a heavy news day to interview his co-hosts for the opening ceremonies, Brian Williams and Catriona Lemay Doan. The special insights they offered were that Canadian athletes are ready to win some medals and that our days as genial Olympic hosts are over. That took up more than 20 percent of a national newscast.

Jeffrey Dvorkin, who was an important player at CBC News for years before going to the states to head up NPR (National Public Radio) News, reminds us that CBC also oversold the games when they had the broadcast rights. I was at CBC for the Calgary games and at CTV for the Montreal games but I don’t remember this much over the top, unabashed and unashamed selling ever going on.

Is it only me and cynical types like me that are turned off by so much hype? I hope not. I’d like to think my reaction is fairly representative of the audience at large. In any case, now that the actual games have started we can all cheer for our favorites and begin to forget the excesses of the Canadian Olympic broadcast consortium.

As if the end of the Olympic promos was not enough good news, CBC this week finally acted by chopping half of Mark Kelley’s abysmal CBCNN program, Connected with Mark Kelley. While I am certain that most Canadians would have far preferred complete cancellation, we will have to make do with the show being cut from two hours to one hour. A new producer was hired to run the show and perhaps to make sense of ludicrous format that depended on news nobody else cared enough about to air. It is my guess that CBC will eventually kill Connected when they can figure out a way to walk away from the show without losing too much face. The CBC brain trust also has to figure out what to do with the likable host who is responsible for creating the worst news and current affairs show on Canadian television.

In the meantime I hope the brass are going back to the same focus groups who told them they didn’t care for Connected to find out that CBCNN’s morning fare needs a lot of help. Heather Hiscox, Anne-Marie Mediwake and Suhana Meharchand are not helping viewership with their rehashes of yesterday’s news coupled with rip and read wire copy stories. If you are sick in bed and have run out of the kind of cold medicine that makes you drowsy, mornings on CBCNN are the perfect way to induce sleep.

People, CBC types, I don’t, or at least shouldn’t have to tell you: a television program needs content to attract viewers. Three or four hours of the next best thing to dead air doesn’t sell TV’s.

So incrementally it’s been a darn good week, meaning that progress has been made. It’s not time to celebrate yet but it is time to be optimistic that some sense may be beginning to return to Canadian broadcast journalism. At least I hope that’s the case.

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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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