I'm Mad as Hell

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and I can't do a thing about it

King Richard: in his own words

Having just returned from a marathon two month stay in South America and a side trip to Montreal, it came as a bit of a surprise to see that Richard Stursberg, the former grand poobah of all things English at the CBC is back too, and he’s back in a very big way.

It seems Stursberg has a new book out, “The Tower of Babble” that tells the inside story of his tumultuous tenure at the national broadcaster. It should be an interesting, perhaps maddening, look at the machinations of the folks who ran the corporation and a behind the scenes account of some of the most divisive time in CBC history.

As a sort of preview King Richard wrote what he and The Globe and Mail are calling an essay entitled “How to Save the CBC.”

If the book is anything like the essay it will be both a direct and indirect exercise in self-congratulations. Heck if Stursberg pats himself on the back at the same rate as in his essay, he will need shoulder surgery to correct the rotator cuff damage he inflicts on himself.

Stursberg’s essay in Globe starts with the amazing idea that he presided over the CBC’s Golden Age. He says audience numbers were sinking at the CBC since the 1970’s. By the time he took over they were at their lowest in history. This is sort of true. What Stursberg fails to point out however, is that CTV, Global, in fact all terrestrial broadcasters lost audience in those years. As new channels, cable and specialty came on board, audience numbers spiraled downward. In the 1970’s the worst rated network show in Canada still got a 20 audience share. By the time the new millennium started the highest rated network shows in Canada were barely able to get a share of 18. The falling numbers had more to do with the new 500 channel universe than the CBC’s failures.

He goes on to say that starting in 2006, when the CBC began to reinvent itself…code for: the Stursberg leadership years, the CBC had a rebirth in both numbers and interest. So much so that the CBC has never been stronger than it is today.

There’s more than a little hyperbole here. Never! What about the 50’s and 60’s when CBC was either the only network or one of two networks? Nevermind that. More important, let’s look at how CBC raised its ratings under Stursberg. First of all, the national network forgot it’s mandate. They stopped running arts programming. The arts on CBC was an important outlet for serious dance, music, and the like. Sure it got poor audience numbers but it served a community that had no other access on television to this sort of programming. The same for religious programs, remember “Man Alive?” Stursberg led a regime that rooted out and killed anything that didn’t meet his audience numbers expectations. So yes, if you remove a show with 100,000 viewers on ballet and replace it with a drama that gets 500,000 viewers overall numbers will rise, but at what cost to the services provided? An awful lot of important CBC support disappeared with the mandated shows.

Stursberg also takes credit for the success of CBC radio. He points out that Gian Ghomeshi’s “Q” gets more listeners than Peter Gzowski got in the good old days. The numbers data he is working from is correct. The context is AWOL.

CBC Radio is doing marvelously well. I suggest that the quality of the programs is an important factor, but a far more important reason is the fact that private radio has shot itself in the foot. Too many stations sound the same. Too many stations are programming to baby boomers who are not listening to as much radio as they did when they were teenagers and at the same time young listeners are having a hard time finding the music they want to hear. The only competition CBC Radio has is from sports talk and phone in shows. Luckily Stursberg and company never got around to fiddling with Radio One’s content or they might be in the same boat as private radio is today…leaky and sinking.

Stursberg takes credit for the CBC’s producing programs that according to him compete favorably with shows produced in the U.S. If that’s the case why is there not a single CBC show in the top 20 other than hockey? If that’s competing, I’d hate to see what losing looks like.

He claims CBC has beaten Global in prime time for the past four years. Huh? Yes the CBC beat Global the year of the writers’ strike in the U.S. when all Global was running was re-runs. Other than that I have never seen numbers that place CBC ahead of Global.

King Richard even has the temerity to suggest that “Marketplace” and “The Fifth Estate” are doing better today. What the… The fact that those two shows are doing reasonably well is a tribute to the fine people that make those shows. Moving “The Fifth” to Friday night away from the larger audience night on Wednesday did hurt the numbers. They are now below one million viewers most nights. And what the CBC did to “Marketplace” is beyond disgusting. It has been moved all over the schedule and it has seen it’s season shortened. How do you do that to one of your most successful shows? The folks who produce those programs deserve a medal for overcoming the odds that were stacked against them by Stursberg and co.

Stursberg goes on to make some interesting points about the damage that’s being inflicted on the CBC by the government cuts. He even has some interesting, if very general and unexplained thoughts about how the CBC should proceed in the future, but make no mistake, Richard Stursberg is playing fast and loose with the facts to build up his own legacy. It’s not that he is completely wrong, it’s that he is manipulating the facts in the most self-serving of ways. Read his book. It is important to understand where he was coming from, but don’t be fooled by the rhetoric. The CBC is in trouble. The mandate is all but gone and forgotten. And contrary to what Stursberg says, too few Canadians care about the future of the CBC, and for that reason, he has more than a little ‘splaining to do.

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The Fifth’s Estate

Sometimes when I look at the CBC I just want to shake my head and ask what could these people possibly be thinking? CBC has some very successful programming. Hockey Night in Canada continues to roll along with more than 2 million viewers each week even though the presentation and style are deeply rooted somewhere in the last two decades of the last century. I believe it is a testament to Canada’s love of hockey and has nothing to do with what CBC Sports adds to the value of the production.

Dragon’s Den has captured a substantial audience. Over a million Canadians seem to love to watch new business ideas, both creative and crazy, being either praised or panned by a panel of so-called experts who we are told have the funds and the experience to bring a good idea to market. It’s reality TV that works, but for the record, it could just as easily run on CTV or Global and it is a bought “format.” This show runs as a local production in dozens of countries.

CBC has always done a great job of producing sketch comedy. This Hour has 22 Minutes, Rick Mercer Report and the late lamented Royal Canadian Air Farce.

Where the network has fallen down most is in producing high quality, high concept drama and situation comedy. Little Mosque on the Prairie manages to be mostly humorless and a throwback to 1950’s style situation comedy. In Security is just plain embarrassing, unfunny, unwatchable.

The Republic of Doyle just manages to be okay as it combines a 1980’s TV private detective idea with the beauty and zaniness of Newfoundland. Finally, shows like Being Erica and Heartland have never really drawn the numbers CBC needs and they have never managed to be special or Canadian in any way I can see.

The shocking thing for me is that CBC may have the very best Canadian produced program and they have buried it where few people can find it, and worse, where the potential audience is the smallest available in prime time.

Hello! Kirstine Stewart! Have you ever watched The Fifth Estate? If you have and you allow it to continue to run on Friday evenings you don’t deserve to hold the esteemed position you now have at the CBC. If you haven’t, shame on you for not caring enough about the kind of programming CBC has done best for six decades, the programs that built the CBC. From the days of This Hour has Seven Days, to Newsmagazine, to The Journal, to Marketplace, to Ombudsman the CBC has consistently produced some of the best current affairs programs anywhere.

The Fifth Estate is as good as journalism gets on TV and further it is as great a program as any produced in this country. Every week Linden MacIntyre, Hana Gartner, Bob McKeown and Gillian Findlay churn out excellent hour long documentary reports that never fail to engage the audience. Usually the stories open our eyes to events, people or ideas that we knew little about or they provide context and clarity to some of the most important stories in the news.

Last week Linden MacIntyre hosted a wonderful backgrounder on the rise and fall of Libyan strongman Mouammar Kadhafi. Not only was it a thorough and well produced backgrounder on a leading figure in the news, it brought international perspectives from the likes of Tony Blair and Condoleezza Rice. This was a show that all Canadians should have had the opportunity to see. With all eyes turned toward the uprisings in the Middle East the interest here among both news junkies and casual news viewers should have resulted in an audience of over 1.5 million. Too bad the show is buried. Even more heinous is the lack of publicity given to a program that is so important.

Two weeks ago The Fifth Estate deconstructed the shenanigans surrounding the police handling of the G-20 Summit in Toronto. I thought I knew that story inside out and was prepared to change the channel. I tuned in and I was hooked. The reporting was excellent and the insights were important. Once again I wondered if anyone knew this show was on.

This year The Fifth has covered stories ranging from the code of toughness to hockey to two episodes on Colonel Russell Williams. In the past The Fifth has blown the whistle on lottery cheating and even the sale of tainted tuna. Folks, the quality of The Fifth Estate is not hit and miss. It is consistently great journalism and even better, it is consistently great TV.

The time has come for the CBC bosses to recognize what they have. A prominent time slot on a Sunday or Monday evening is needed. More important, the powers that choose who gets the publicity dollars have to let Canadians know what’s on this program consistently and effectively. I guarantee that if Canadians knew about the content of The Fifth Estate and if it was aired at an advantageous time and day, the audience would soar to the numbers that Rick Mercer gets and more.

I should add that Marketplace needs the same kind of treatment. It should be on the air from September to May. It should have a decent time slot. It deserves to be publicized.

The CBC brass has shown its disdain for current affairs since the day Richard Stursberg showed up on their doorstep. Building a big audience has been the mantra spouted by everyone in charge. The result has been for the most part mediocre drama, bad sitcoms and a reliance on reality TV. What hurts most is that the tools were there to build audience all along. Shows like The Fifth Estate and Marketplace can be ratings winners. David Suzuki’s show still produces excellent science programming. These shows are cheap compared to drama. They have drawn big audiences in the past and they can do the same in the future. From where I sit they are the answer to the CBC’s problems. Too bad nobody in head office realizes this.

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Ding, Dong The Witch is Dead

I could hear, or should I say see, the collective smile from coast to coast to coast as the politicians say. After six years the demon of Canadian public broadcasting is gone. Richard Stursberg, the Vice President of everything English language at the CBC has been fired, or according to some resigned. Who cares, so long as he is gone? Stursburg has been the most disruptive and hated V.P. of CBC I can ever remember.

Richard Stursberg’s biggest problem as CBC boss was that he just didn’t get it. He never understood the CBC mandate. He never saw a difference between what CBC has to do and what CTV and Global have to do. He never understood that if CBC were to lose Little Mosque on the Prairie or Being Erica it would still be the CBC and that the brutal massacre of news and current affairs he oversaw could destroy the people’s network. All Stursberg ever cared about was ratings. He did not care about quality TV. He did not care about serving the Canadian public who were paying his salary. He certainly had no time for news and even less time for shows like The Fifth Estate and Market Place.

Ironically the good-bye letter from CBC honcho Hubert Lacroix cites the fact that Stursberg leaves the CBC in better shape than he found it. I can only surmise that refers to the overall ratings. In fact the CBC ratings totals may be better than six years ago but why? It seems to me that all of the numbers increases can be attached to Jeopardy, Wheel of Fortune, Hockey Night in Canada and The World Cup of Soccer. These are either non-Canadian or sports shows and in fact the numbers have been inflated by the new people meters that measure audience. Hey CTV and Global have also seen their numbers rise and in fact while the total CBC viewership is up, the actual audience share is down. Yes he had two real successes in six years: Dragon’s Den and Battle of the Blades, but shows like these can and do run on other networks, they are reality shows. As for the rest of King Richard’s offerings, the numbers range from mediocre to poor. Not much of a legacy when you consider that news ratings are down by about 40% and that current affairs ratings have dropped precipitously.

Oh, and let’s not forget the management tone Stursberg set. He never failed to let everyone know it was his way or the highway. He treated people poorly. He knew very few of the staff who worked for him. The stories are rampant about the on-air people he failed to recognize, especially if they came from news. CBC types were always asking whether he actually ever watched the CBC. His treatment of his staff may be an even bigger failure than his wrong-headed programming decisions.

Let’s look at just a few of his accomplishments:

*Stursberg got off to a bad start in his position by forcing a massive lock-out of CBC workers. What characterized that lockout was the refusal to negotiate and the refusal to recognize the input of the workers. There is still bad blood left over from that work stoppage in 2005. In past work stoppages management always took great pains to be cordial to the striking workers. They always understood that when the strike was over they would have to go back to working side by side with the staff. Stursberg didn’t get that. He had to be the tough guy.

*He gutted arts programming on TV and under his rule lost most of the classical music programming from CBC Radio 2. It’s true the arts did not generate huge audiences, but CBC was the sole serious purveyor of that programming in Canada. (Bravo had long since abandoned its commitment to the high arts.)

*He oversaw the changes in The National that have led to the most dramatic loss of viewership in CBC News history. At a time when the new rating system saw CTV and Global new audiences climb by 40% the CBC dropped by the same amount. The “renewal” saw American news doctors come in and advise the CBC to move to shorter stories, more human interest, less serious news coverage, more weather, more fluffy animal stories…i.e. “Eyewitness News.” This was supposed to raise ratings and make younger people want to watch CBC news. It never took into account that loyal CBC news viewers were used to quality and depth and would not put up with the changes and that young people are not news viewers in general, and the ones who are, are not idiots looking to watch the kind of fluff The National has opted for.

*He moved The Fifth Estate, probably the best current affairs show in Canada, to the dead zone of Friday night so that Being Erica could get a better time slot on Wednesday. He buried Marketplace and The Nature of Things and cut way back on the number of episodes they produce each year. The result: shows that reached close to a million viewers in years gone by barely attract half that today on their best days.

For the most part, Stursberg’s new programming was part of a dumbing down of the CBC. His new offerings were always light drama, inane comedy and reality. Gone were the serious movies and series that set the CBC above its rivals. In fact, CTV with shows like The Bridge and Flashpoint were tougher, harder and more provocative than any of the new fare that Stursberg championed.

It has been reported that Sturberg is gone because he didn’t like the new CBC “five year plan.” What does that mean? We have been given no explanation. Does the CBC want to worry less about ratings? Is management upset by what’s happened to its newscasts? Until we know the answer to these questions we won’t know who will take Stursberg’s job and in what direction he or she will be expected to take the CBC.

For my part, I would like the new boss to come from programming so that he or she can assess the quality of the new offerings. I want someone who will work in partnership with CBC staff rather than acting as a tyrant. I want someone who recognizes all of the kinds of programs that are important to a national broadcaster in order to serve all of its audiences, be they large or small…and that includes news, current affairs, the arts, drama, sports and comedy. Ratings are important but so is public service when you are being supported by tax dollars. Is this too much to ask? I think not when the future of our biggest and most important cultural institution is at stake.

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Playing with numbers

Everybody is right and everybody is wrong. It sounds impossible but in the crazy world of broadcast television anything is possible. Just ask the spinners at the Canadian networks about their ratings and watch the numbers fly.

Right now we are in the midst of a massive self congratulatory period where the Canadian nets are taking to the podia to proclaim the major successes they have had over the past year. The ratings are amazing, it’s true, almost everybody’s numbers are way up. But, and it’s a big but, does that mean that there are more people watching the fare offered by CTV, Global and CBC?

To me the answer is obvious. In a world where network TV audiences have been declining for a decade or more it is hard to believe that there has been anything broadcast in the 2009-2010 television season to change the trend. Sure there have been some hits, there always are. The real reason for the numbers rising is the new counting method. This is the first television year for the new PPMs (personal people meters). These pager-like devices are worn by people and report back to companies like Neilson on what viewers are actually watching. It is clear that this is a much better system than asking someone to fill in a questionnaire where he or she could lie, forget, not bother or just plain ignore their viewing choices. On the other hand, the PPM measures what’s on the TV if you are in the room, not whether you are actually watching it. For my generation that doesn’t mean much. Put a 60 year old in front of a television and we’ll watch color bars for twenty minutes. Young people, however, are a different breed. They can be on the computer, listening to an ipod and still have the TV tuned to the hockey game. What they are actually watching or listening to is anybody’s guess. So while I accept that the new numbers are more accurate, I don’t believe they are truly accurate.

For CTV and Global the results are just about money. The more viewers they have, the more they can charge for commercial time. That’s great. Even without the new TV tax it should mean a windfall in ad revenues for this year and in the future. The Olympic numbers were staggering. On some occasions there were close to 15 million Canadians watching. Put in perspective, Canada’s best ever rated shows before this year were in the 5 to 6 million range. Over at Global shows like Survivor and House are doing gangbuster business. If we are lucky, and I wouldn’t hold my breath, maybe a few of these extra dollars might find themselves funneled into new Canadian content…in prime time.

The CBC, as usual is a different story, Kirstine (Layfield) Stewart and company are fighting for both the future of the people’s network and for the proof that the choices they made back in 2007 are the right ones.

The critics, and I am one of them, claim the CBC has dumbed down. They have dropped cultural programming, they have stopped producing gritty, real drama, and they have clearly begun a love affair with reality and fluff. Most upsetting to me is what they have done to news and current affairs. The Fifth Estate has been relegated to the dead zone of Friday night. The National has become the national joke for its lack of content and its ridiculous new set. The Nature of Things and Marketplace have been shuffled around more than a deck of cards on poker night. There is, it is clear, no backing for anything that could be deemed serious.

I am not the only one saying these things. In a Globe story Ken Finkleman and others have gone out of their way to question the direction of mother corp. These are people who in past times depended on the CBC for their livelihood.

The answer according to Ms. Stewart: check out the ratings. The CBC is thriving with Little Mosque on the Prairie, Dragon’s Den, and 18 to Life.

So here is where it is true and it is wrong at the same time happens. Yes the numbers are up. Six CBC shows have over 1 million viewers (one of which is Jeopardy). Thank you PPMs. It is also true that the corp doesn’t have a single show in the top 20 in Canada. The hockey playoffs will nudge Hockey Night in Canada into the top 20 but that will be it. Battle of the Blades and Dragon’s Den are certifiable CBC hits. But even with the PPMs, The Ron James Show, 18 to Life, Being Erica, Kids in the Hall and Little Mosque can be described as ratings losers. None reach much over half a million viewers with the best ad campaigns and the best time slots. The Fifth and Marketplace are in the same audience range without any ads and in schedule purgatory.

So when Ms. Stewart finishes patting herself on the back for her brilliance, remember that CTV is doing much better with Canadian programming and even Global is overpowering the CBC numbers. You see everything is relative in the world of TV ratings and people like Stewart are the first to use the numbers to their own advantage even when they are meaningless.

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No News is Bad News

At the end of the year it’s traditional to look back at what occurred during the past twelve months and pick out the highs and lows. Most years there are a few examples of each. 2009, however, has proved to be one of the most dismal years for news and current affairs in Canada ever. I can’t think of a worse period in my lifetime.

Everybody has already noted the disaster that is the new National at CBC: thin gruel masquerading as news, the worst reporting staff in CBC Television history, the inability to fill sixty minutes with relevant stories, and this doesn’t even refer to the ludicrous and totally unmotivated standing around to read the news and do interviews. The good news is that the audience numbers are way down. Perhaps this will induce the CBC bosses to see the error of their ways. I’m not holding my breath.

The CBC’s last great journalism show has also been diminished. The Fifth Estate has been moved to the dead zone of Friday night where it is almost impossible to garner decent ratings. The reason for the move: a better night to run Being Erica. Now I’m all for Canadian drama but why do the schedulers at CBC need to promote Canadian drama at the expense of their flagship current affairs program?

CBC fell further under the leadership and thrall of the evil emperor, Richard (Darth) Stursberg. He and his hand-picked minions of “yes” people seem to be doing the best they can to wreck CBC News and Current Affairs. Under his rule we have seen the degradation of national news, the moving of The Fifth and local news to dead zones, the virtual disappearance of the once popular program Market Place (it finally reappears after New Years), the now almost non-existent documentary, and I haven’t mentioned the terminally unwatchable CBCNN. There are those within the network, the cynics I guess, who believe Stursberg wants to see news and current affairs fail miserably so he can take the money and spend it on new drama, comedy and reality. If that’s the case the man has not looked at the history of television. News has been, and still is, one of the best ways to build an audience for your entire schedule. Hello, Dick, is the CBC still the CBC without Little Mosque on the Prairie and Being Erica? Is the CBC still the CBC without The National and The Fifth Estate?

CBC Radio has fared a little better but those in charge there believe it is purely a case of benign neglect and they fear that neglect is coming to an end. One producer of a flagship current affairs program on radio told me that Stursberg and company are beginning to look at radio. Scary. Ratings are good, but they can better if the shows are “dumbed –down” like over in CBC-TV land, at least that’s the idea the radio producers are getting from their bosses.

Over at CTV and Global the news is not much better. The bulwarks of “Capitalist Broadcasting” are coming to the government cap-in-hand begging for money in the form of cable and satellite fees. Their hook: they want to save local TV. Local TV, isn’t that the part of their empire they have abused and chopped going way back before they had a small financial dilemma? To prove how much they care about local TV they have been closing local stations even before they find out whether the CRTC will grant them their millions in unearned cash and they have steadfastly refused to guarantee that the dollars they squeeze out of cable and satellite subscribers will go to local TV. Save our shareholders! I guess that doesn’t sound so good in a television ad.

In the meantime CTV still runs W5 but buries it by running it against hockey on Saturday evening and if and when they invest in a documentary, it always airs in the W5 timeslot.

Over at Global, they bury their current affairs in their schedule too. Hands up anyone who has seen or heard about a Global documentary. I saw one on the rise of religion in Canada but that was only because a friend produced it and was kind enough to let me know when it was going to air.

CTV and Global news do a much better job of appealing to Canadians than CBC News does. For proof of this I only have to point out that both get over a million viewers regularly while CBC has trouble reaching half-a-million. Both are better produced and slicker than CBC’s effort but there is little room for celebration. Neither makes any attempt at depth or context. In a world where ABC, NBC and CBS have long understood that fewer stories told more completely is the best way to compete with all-news TV; CTV and Global are still doing newscasts the same way they were done pre-CNN and the internet. Here too CBC News’ failure may be a key. CTV and Global have always done a better job when they were pushed by excellent coverage at CBC. Now that the “Corpse” news has sunk below CTV and Global’s level there is no need for the privates to try harder.

In the U.S. we have witnessed the disintegration of the CNN audience with the odious Fox News being the main recipient of new viewers. Serious stories go unreported south of the border while the balloon boys, disappearing politicians and “birthers” dominate the airwaves. Sensationalism is winning and stories like Copenhagen are losing. Worse still the all news folks are challenging each other to see who can distort or get the facts more wrong. Any coverage of the health care debate by Fox or MSNBC is sure to make a Canadian’s eyes roll.

The good news? Well 60 Minutes somehow continues to tell excellent stories and surprise, surprise, gets a big audience too. The Fifth Estate still has the ability to do the best research and find the best stories. PBS’ new Newshour format is even better than it was before. CTV’s reporters, as a group, are as strong as any reporting team I can remember; perhaps that’s because they took their best and added some of CBC’s best to create a kind of dream team of news reporting. The Agenda with Steve Paikin gets better every year and deals with the kind of topics that only PBS and TVO tackle; oh, and surprise, surprise, they get pretty good numbers doing it in the middle of prime time against the toughest competition. CBC Radio has so far stayed the mostly fine course (we can only pray that lasts). And finally, Lou Dobbs is gone from CNN, this alone could be reason to celebrate the New Year.

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There’s no I in Team

It’s not very often that a new CBC idea makes me chuckle but the good folks who are reinventing CBC News have done it to me. Now I know I have a different sense of what’s funny so humor me for a little while anyways.

Back in the late seventies and throughout the eighties big city newscasts fell in love with the idea of “investigative” journalism. Every local station had to have an “I Team.” These were the serious journalists who were going to uncover the scandals at city hall and keep state and provincial politicians on the up-and-up.

At sometimes great cost to the local broadcaster they sat around waiting for a serious scoop. More often than not they delivered stories about minor infractions to the town’s by-laws and the sleazy practices of a few local businessmen. I don’t remember a single major story coming from an “I Team.” It didn’t take long before the investigative units became a financial strain and worse, a joke. They soon disappeared from newscasts across North America, usually to the great sighs of relief of the investigative teams themselves who were tired of wild goose chases and the pressure to produce the scoop. Mostly they have been replaced by a consumer reporter who tracks down the misdeeds and rip-offs that affect the local viewers.

Now flash forward to 2009. The CBC has decided to create an investigative unit reporting to their new news hub. These “investigative” journalists are going to do what exactly? Investigate? What the heck have they been doing all along? Is it not a journalist’s job to look into a story, corroborate the facts, see if there’s more to the story? That’s the basic job of a journalist. What makes that journalist an investigator as well as a journalist? If you are a journalist and you are not investigating what exactly are you doing?

A long time ago a brilliant newsman, Don Cameron, the man who created Newsmagazine, Canada AM, and W5 to name just a few of his accomplishments, told me that any high school student could identify the who, what, when and where of a news story, it was the journalist’s job to identify the why. Why is the real question that must be answered by any good news story no matter what the medium. That’s what we call journalism…investigation.

Has the lack of an investigative team hurt the CBC up to now? How did they prove that Tasers are more dangerous than the RCMP are willing to admit without an “I Team?” How does The Fifth Estate keep churning out blockbuster stories like the rip-offs of lottery winners by store owners? How do they do it without…never mind, the answer is too obvious, they have some excellent journalists who do their jobs the way they are supposed to and voila, they break big stories that help change Canada and win awards for CBC.

So how do big stories get broken? In almost every case the scoop you see, read or hear in the media has come from a disgruntled employee or do-gooder who passes a manila envelope to a journalist, phones a television station or writes a letter to a trusted journalist or program or newspaper. In other words, they get a tip.That tip becomes the starting line in the race to a great story.

Another way to get a tip is to hear directly from a citizen who has been wronged and is looking for someone to turn to for help. All the searching in the world by a team of the best journalists will not dig up a single great story without a tip. From the tip the investigation begins.

And what’s the best way to get tips. There are two ways. The first is to be out on the street. If you meet enough people and keep your eyes and ears open you will eventually get a tip that will lead to a scoop. That’s why I always believed in giving reporters a “beat.” Crime reporters will meet lots of cops and lawyers. They will build a level of trust and eventually they will be on the receiving end of a great story. The same holds true for medical reporters, labor reporters, city hall and legislative reporters. What “beat” exactly does an investigative journalist have? Who do they talk to in order to find a story or elicit a tip?

The second way to get great scoops is to produce great stories. I’m sure many of The Fifth Estate’s stories come to them because the program has a terrific reputation for exposing wrongdoing. If you saw the tainted tuna story they did a few years back and you have a similar situation at your place of work you know you can trust these people with your story. Fifth Estate and W5 are magnets for whistle-blowers.

So why take some of your best journalists out of the day-to-day news mix and exile them to an investigative unit? Only the CBC News bosses can answer that. I will tell you now that this will not work. It never has. The “I Teamers” will soon be back where they belong, producing whatever story that comes up in the hope of stumbling across the great scoop. As Sonny Bono said, “…the beat goes on. “ And I can go on laughing at some of the strange ideas coming out of our national broadcaster.

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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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