I'm Mad as Hell

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and I can't do a thing about it

Mourning TV

So here I sit in Buenos Aries after week long stays in Mendoza and Salta Argentina and a quick stopover in Santiago Chile and I must say, even though my Spanish can at best be described as rudimentary, I am more than a little envious of the South Americans for their amazingly strong early morning television. Unlike Canada where only the all news stations bother much with news in the morning, CBC network does do an hour from 6 am to 7 am too, in South America, or at least these parts, they start their broadcast day with hours of serious news content…live newscasts, live news interviews, even live cameras out on the streets.

It is truly impressive to see three or four stations competing for news viewers with the latest reports and live coverage of events from six am until at least nine am (it may start earlier and end later, I have to admit I haven’t been in front of a TV before 6 or after 9). In every hotel they blast their favorite, sometimes two favorite newscasts out into the breakfast rooms and everybody seems to be glued to the news, even those in large group. Sure, there’s some recut footage from yesterday’s newscasts, but it makes up maybe 25 or 30 percent of the coverage. Most of the reports are either live or live interviews.

Contrast that with Canada.

Look, I startd out in morning television on Canada AM in the early to mid-seventies. AM was a serious part of CTV News. Every morning we produced a live two hour show with interviews with the top newsmakerws of the day. The interviews were seldom booked more than a day in advance and in many cases were booked overnight when a story broke. I remember redoing entire shows at 2 am when Pope John Paul I died and when, thank you Larry Leblanc, John Lennon was killed. Canada AM got the first ever interview with Jimmy Carter after he became president, even before the U.S. networks. Politicians, business people, lawyers, sports stars, you name them, clamoured to be interviewed live first thing in the morning. Norm Perry, Helen Huthinson, Gale Scott, Pam Wallin…they were all serious journalists and took little or no joy in the odd feature interview we produced. Oh for the day…

Today Canada AM isn’t even a shadow of its former self. Beverly Thompson is too busy dealing with the latest paint trends, dressing your lettuce and the top fitness apps to even notice a big news story. The newscasts are just rehashes of last night’s CTV National and the odd international piece that AM can grab from an American network.

Global is the newest kid on the block in the early morning, and while I applaud what seems to be a serious attempt at Global to compete with CBC and CTV for a national news audience in the evening, their morning show is a dog’s breakfast, at least the timing is appropriate. At Global morning television is a cross between “The View” and CITY-TV’s “Breakfast Television”. Liza Fromer leads a band of four people who all seem to want to talk about every subject that comes up no matter whether they have anything of note to add. It’s nuts, all four, or sometimes only three interview the guests who’s subject matter is scarily similar to Canada AM and Breakfast Television, and everyone seems to have the right to interupt the newscasts with comments on the stories. The most frightening part is that Global News Director Ward Smith had the gall to call it a “groundbreaking new format.” I guess he has never seen “The View” or “Breakfast Television.”

Breqakfast Television is what it has always been so I will give it a pass. The format was created to be the anti-Canada AM. That was a smart way to compete and at the time it was pretty original. The format lives on even though the folks in the chairs have changed.

Finally, I want to note that the only game in town for news is CBC. CBC News Morning and CBC NN’s morning shows do try to bring Canadians a serious look at what’s going on in Canada and the world. Unfortunately there are a galaxy of hosts, seven the last time I counted, and the budgets are miniscule, so except for the odd interview, it is last night’s news again with some new footage grabbed from the U.S. nets when a big story breaks.

What happened? Are Canadians that uninterested in news? I suspect it is easier to fill with cooking, gardening and Kardashianalia than to work at finding guests to discuss the government’s latest cost cutting measure or how the cops nabbed another 60 in a child porn ring. Based on what I have seen in South America, it isn’t news that’s turning people off, it’s networks turning off the news.

There is one glimmer of hope though, CBS’s new morning show is once again trying to do serious news coverage. All I can hope for is major success for CBS so that everyone else will copy the idea.

PS…there is a rumor afoot that Canada AM is soon to be cancelled and replaced with local morning shows across the country. If that’s true, will they be more like what I’m seeing in Argentina or will they be more like “Breakfast Television clones?

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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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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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