I'm Mad as Hell

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and I can't do a thing about it

The more things change…

It never ceases to amaze me how big corporations can be so oblivious to what is happening on the streets just outside their fancy headquarters. We’ve all been disgusted by the big U.S. banks taking billions or trillions of dollars in bailouts and then turning around and handing out million dollar bonuses to their executives and top performers.

We are gob struck by hospitals in Canada who take all of their top doctors to meetings in Florida or Las Vegas rather than using the fancy boardrooms they have had built and furnished in their facilities.

All we can say is: what were they thinking?

So why are we surprised to learn that the CBC is sending twice as many people to a TV and media festival in Banff than any other Canadian network? That’s the way the CBC works. Some will go as a form of bonus or reward. Others will go to raise the CBC flag. A few will even go to Banff to do some valuable work. Heck, at the CBC they probably think they are saving money because they are likely sending fewer people than they sent in the past. While the profligacy boggles our minds, the CBC brass will be truly surprised by the mild uproar. It’s how they have always done their business. What’s new?

For years I traveled to conferences, markets and conventions all over the world. A few when I was with CTV, a few more at CBC, and regularly when I helped run a private company that produced television programs. Several things became obvious to me on my travels: first of course, was that CBC always had the largest contingent of any of the Canadian broadcasters or producers, most of whom were there for reasons that I, as a participant, could not fathom.

Further, except for a tiny group of people who were there to look for programs to buy or sell, it was a complete boondoggle. Most of the participants go to the conventions to see old friends, have fancy lunches and dinners with the same people they see at every convention, and to party…I know people, including CBC types, who never showed up at any of the serious convention events, in fact they were probably sleeping off last night’s party so they could be fresh for tonight’s party.

In truth, because the broadcast people already know most of the other participants, it would be far cheaper and way more effective to telephone the people they are meeting with or to travel to their offices, whether they are in New York, London or Paris. They would not have to pay huge entrance fees. They would not have to compete with hundreds of others for face time. Most important, they could do all their business in one quick meeting and then head home.

The problem with these organizations, like CBC, the big banks, hospitals, is that they have developed a culture that took years and years to grow and it is almost impossible for them to see beyond the way they have always done their business. You can see it in Richard Stursberg’s book, Tower of Babble. Here’s a guy who claims to have had massive money problems. He says he begged the CBC Board of Directors to allow him to create new sources of revenue to combat millions and millions of dollars in shortfalls. Yet, here’s King Richard, crowing about the results of studies that he personally ordered. He names at least three studies he called for. Each one probably cost over a million dollars. In all my years at Global and CTV I do not remember even one study bought and paid for by the broadcaster. That’s what they paid their execs to do: make decisions based on experience and intelligence. Yet to Stursberg it is normal. He sees it as part of his job. He never once puts two-and-two together to come up with the possibility of saving money for programming by shutting down the useless studies he is commissioning. To be fair, the CBC has been doing studies since long before Stursberg showed up. When I was at CBC local news we received the results of a study that said the viewers wanted more international news. There was another study that said The National should be moved to seven p.m. Yet another study told us that our viewers were slightly older than those of CTV, Global and CityTV. All of this was “cover-your-ass” information. It meant CBC bosses could say decisions were not based on their ideas, a study said they should do what they did. At CBC some expenses are never questioned.

I use the idea of studies as just one example. I could talk about the fact that although it is true that CBC programming dollars have been cut to the bone and production staffs are below the minimum needed to do the work in many cases, CBC management is still bloated. There are too many bosses for too few employees. I know of one unit at CBC news that has one producer and three bosses. I know the CBC documentary unit has over a dozen people to buy docs from independent and foreign producers, when it is a job for a maximum of three people at most broadcasters in the world. But hey, this is the way the CBC has always done its business.

The way for the CBC to survive the future cuts has little to do with the measures being taken today and much to do with a complete change in the culture and the way of doing business. I see no signs of this happening. I hope I am wrong. If you know of examples of changes in the culture that could save the CBC please share them. I for one would be ecstatic to hear about them.

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The News According to Richard Stursberg

A few weeks ago I received a surprise e-mail. Out of the blue, at least from my side, I heard from Richard Stursberg, the former V.P. of CBC English. He left a telephone number and an e-mail address and asked if we could get together to talk.

At first I thought I was being scammed. I have written some pretty nasty observations about the man’s management style and his programming decisions. I would have thought I would be last person he would want to sit down with.

After a few weeks of dancing around possible times to meet we finally got together last week.

Let me start the description of our meeting with a few caveats. I was not invited to interview him, he asked for the meeting to question me. At no point did Richard ask me to keep our meeting off the record and thus I made no promises of any kind. Since it was not an interview, hot seat or otherwise, it was not conducted as such. I am writing this because I think there are a lot of people who are interested in Richard’s post-CBC thoughts and observations. What follows is a neutral, straight- forward report on our get together.

His stated purpose for the meeting was to talk about news. He gave no reason before or during the get together as to why he was interested in discussing news. I am still at a loss as to the purpose of the meeting. Having said that, I would characterize the time we spent together as cordial and frank. We shared our opinions easily and without rancor.

As you might guess there were a few things we agreed to disagree about and surprisingly, several areas on which we agreed completely.

From my point of view there were three main areas of discussion. We began by both lamenting the tragedy that the loss of local CBC newsrooms has been for the corporation. It has always been my view that the destruction of CBC’s local newsrooms in the mid-eighties that continued for over twenty years was a huge loss for CBC News that resulted in smaller and smaller audiences for all CBC programming. I was surprised to hear that he agreed completely. He believes that local news is the most important building block for a successful news operation and that when successful, as it was in the 80’s, it brings viewers to all CBC news broadcasts. I added that I thought it actually brought increased viewership to all CBC programs.

Mr. Stursberg is proud of the fact that he began to rebuild the local newsrooms and increased their airtime. I am not so sure. CBC local news ratings are still very, very poor and I believe that has a lot to do with the underfunding and lack of quality leadership with strong news experience. It’s not good enough to say here’s more time, but you will get no increase in funding or staff.

His second big point was about the general cowardice among his predecessors and some of the managers that have survived his tenure. He says he is a great believer in figuring out what shows are working and which shows are failing or at least beginning to fail. He feels the same way about on air personalities who are no longer meeting the audience’s needs and expectations. Stursberg believes CBC management that came before him should have cancelled programs that were no longer viable. He takes credit for doing just that, but he was never specific about which programs he was talking about. He believes that to be successful you have to be ruthlessly assessing your product at all times. At CBC it is far more common to say that everything is wonderful. CBC management (and I know this especially true of the news) is delusional. They think, or at least they say publicly, everything they produce is high quality and works well. They stand behind the work of all of heir on air people. Loyal yes. Smart, no.

Finally we got around to talking about The National. He claims he was not expecting the kinds of changes that were brought about two years ago. He says he wanted a newscast that was more serious. He wanted fewer stories with more depth. He was certainly not talking about current affairs. He meant longer news stories that explained in more context, the important events of the day.

So how did The National get filled with fluff stories that have so little connection to the real news of the day? I didn’t get a direct answer. I was just told it was not what he expected or wanted.

I asked why, as the boss, he didn’t get the kind of news he wanted. I never got a direct answer to that question, but I did get a long discussion about the people who run the newsroom. As far as Mr. Stursberg is concerned they are a kind of cabal that protects their own interests at the expense of the CBC. He claims he had a hard time having any influence over them. Worst of all, he said, they do not care about any show other than The National. They would happily undermine every other newscast the CBC produces to help The National. He feels the failures of CBC NN and local news can be attributed in no small way to the selfishness of the people running CBC News and The National.

There were other sidebar discussions that were illuminating. First I get the impression that Richard is not a fan of current affairs. He never said that, but the discussion always turned away from current affairs when I tried to bring it up. He did say he thinks Fifth Estate produces too few quality programs every year.

It is clear that Mr. Stursberg believes the best way to judge the success or failure of a television program is the ratings. To be fair, that’s the attitude of most TV execs in Canada and the U.S., but most who feel that way do not work for a crown corporation that has a mandate that goes beyond numbers.

Personalities aside, during the time I spent with him, he was charming and witty, but hey that’s easy when we don’t have a working relationship and neither one of us has anything to lose. What became crystal clear to me was that Richard Stursberg is a smart man who found himself in the wrong job. I suspect he would fit in beautifully at CTV or Global and would perhaps do an excellent job. At CBC he was fighting the mandate, the history and the idiosyncratic way things are done. I will even give him credit for recognizing many of the absurdities of CBC Television, but what he had to understand equally, and it appears he either didn’t get or refused to bend towards, was the special place and task that a public broadcaster has in a country like Canada.

Sorry folks, we never talked about his management style, the lockout he is accused of engineering or the quality of the comedies and dramas that now populate the CBC schedule. He said he wanted to talk about news and I kept my part of the bargain.

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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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CBC: Fade to Black

Every time someone writes a blog condemning the new CBC, like the one last week by Tim Knight that caused a small stir, there seems to be less and less interest in it. There was a time when a piece like Tim’s would have caused a tremendous reaction. CBC backers would have taken to their computers and their writing implements to shout him down or to join him in the chorus of complainers. The fact that this is not happening speaks volumes about where the CBC is today in the conscious minds of Canadians. It is in fact not a pretty picture.

The CBC move to become ultra-light in an effort to woo younger viewers and boost its ratings has been a dismal failure. The age of the average CBC audience has not declined appreciably. The audience numbers have not risen, especially in comparison to the gains made by CTV and Global since the rating system was changed. Shows like Little Mosque on the Prairie and Insecurity have served to turn loyal CBC viewers away from the network. The National’s weak efforts since it was revamped have served to cut anywhere from 20 to 40 percent of the CBC News audience. The dismal treatment of current affairs mainstays like The 5th Estate and Marketplace have eroded both their numbers and their positive affect on how we view the work and importance of CBC TV. All of this is regrettable, and most important each small failure has led to the Corp’s biggest problem: too few people care enough anymore to fight for the CBC’s future.

I just returned from a trip to the east coast. When I lived there many years ago the CBC was a mainstay. It was top of mind if not top of ratings. The National’s news anchor was a star. There were programs that everyone watched and talked about. Yes, it was mainly in news and current affairs, but under brilliant people like John Kennedy the CBC was producing excellent movies and series that made a difference.
Today, I couldn’t find anyone who called himself or herself a CBC viewer. Most of the people I met don’t watch The National at all and seldom see anything on CBC. I know this is not a scientific survey, but I did see a lot of people in social group situations. The Maritimes, like Manitoba and Newfoundland were where the CBC picked up its biggest per capita audiences. That’s not true anymore for the Maritimes.

As if all this is not bad enough, at least three people questioned why the CBC should continue to exist and be funded by the taxpayers. One man from New Glasgow, a bookshop owner, went so far as to say he would not vote for any political party that would not sell off CBC TV. The general argument they make is that CBC TV programming is the same sort of stuff we see on CTV and Global. When I talked of Canadian content and jobs in the TV industry they laughed, saying if you can’t produce quality shows that I want to watch, you don’t deserve to have a job in the industry.

While many of these people’s feelings are extreme, what I see is a general malaise. People just don’t care anymore about the CBC and its future. When Parliament asked CBC to look for five percent in cuts to a budget that is already far to small to do the job, I didn’t hear a peep from anyone complaining about our cultural heritage or the need to have a national broadcaster. The silence was deafening.
CBC TV, it seems, has finally lost its standing as an important Canadian institution. Twenty-five years of budget cuts and six years of management dumbing down the content have worked their magic to make CBC TV just another station, and an unpopular one at that. The fact that the CBC costs Canadians a billion dollars per year only serves to make citizens care more about the money and less about what the network has to offer.

In the best of all worlds there would be a groundswell of opposition to what the current managers have done to a venerable institution. There would be a demand for watchable local news and a more serious National. There would be an outcry demanding a few high quality shows to counterbalance the froth. Alas, none of that is happening. What we are witness to is a slow fade to black at CBC TV. The very people who are responsible for a 75 year old legacy are either asleep at the wheel or have no idea what they are doing to the reputation and standing of the CBC.

Stephen Harper will not have to sell off the CBC, he won’t even have to do anything drastic. All he has to do is stand aside and let the CBC drift further and further into irrelevancy.

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A Royal Pain

Here we are on the eve of what could be one of the most momentous elections in Canadian history, an election with two incredible possible results, either one of which could change the very fabric of the country. And where are our top journalists? They are sitting thousands of miles away in London covering an event that has nothing to do with journalism and everything to do with star power and gossip.

As Canada prepares to elect a Tory majority that could swing the country further to the right than it has ever been, or failing that, to make Jack Layton the first social democratic Prime Minister supported in an alliance or even a coalition with the floundering Liberals, Peter Mansbridge, Lisa Laflamme and Dawna Friesen are off covering the royal wedding Of William and Kate.

I suppose I should make my personal beliefs known here. I don’t like the royal family. I despise the monarchy. I don’t believe anyone should have the right to their government backed job by virtue of who their parents are or were. Further I believe the British royals to be an inbred and stupid family who never fail to do the wrong thing or say something stupid. I know, I have heard all the stories about the Queen and how great she is. It’s a crock. This is a woman who never understood the importance of Diana and had to be forced into taking part in her funeral. She is the mother of a man who once professed that he wanted to be a tampon so that he could be that close to his lover. Her daughter is a joke in Britain for everything but her ability to ride horses. Both her children have divorced. Elizabeth is one of the richest women in the world but that doesn’t stop her from squeezing millions and millions of dollars out of the British taxpayers annually…even in a recession, even when the British economy is in terrible trouble.

Okay even without all of that bitterness, I have to wonder what the heck is going on when in the middle of an election campaign every major network in Canada is sending some of their best political and reportorial talent to cover an event for which there is little to say other than nice dress. I think the folks who host the Santa Claus Parade, or the nightly entertainment shows would be the best able to cover the events in London. They know how to comment on the clothing of the bride and her bridesmaids. They revel in the pomp and circumstance of the rich and famous. They marvel at the bejeweled guests. They love to gossip about who was invited and who was left off the invite list. I ask you, is this really a job for Peter Mansbridge?

Just so you know, I produced the coverage of the last royal wedding for CTV, you know, the one with Charles “the tampon” and Diana. Let me tell you from experience, journalism is all but banned from the coverage. Most of the cameras covering the events will be BBC pool cameras. The BBC camera operators will be working under strict rules that ban them from shooting anything other than the official events. There will probably be demonstrations against the royal family, British involvement in wars in the Middle East and even the possibility of ant-poverty groups demonstrating against the massive waste of money that could be put to better use. You will not see these events, no matter how large they get. Even if they interrupt the proceedings, the cameras will look the other way.

The U.S. nets will probably have some of their own cameras on the streets in case there is a real story, but the Canadians are not likely to want to cover anything but the lovely nuptials. The other stories will be saved for later, much later, when The National or CTV News come on the air more than half a day later.

The truth is that a royal wedding is a tourist event in Britain. It’s a way of separating the rubes from their hard earned dollars. The British government, in cahoots with the royals, try to plan at least one event a year, preferably in the tourist season, to draw big crowds of tourists to London and Britain. That’s okay, we would do the same if we had Liz and her family living in Ottawa. The question I have is: how does this wedding festival morph into a journalistic story that takes up half of our daily newspapers, a large percentage of our television news coverage and more importantly, detracts from the real news of the day?

Interestingly I have never met a Canadian journalist who wanted to cover a royal wedding. It is akin to being assigned to cover the Easter Parade. There’s no story. It’s just pretty pictures. The news bosses are less upset about coverage because they believe it will bring in big audiences and help to sell their news packages and news stars. In the past this was a given. The good news today is that recent polls suggest that most Canadians don’t care. A majority say they would rather watch a political debate than a royal wedding. Congratulations Canada, perhaps we are growing up as a free and democratic country. Maybe if enough of us ignore the wedding this time, we won’t be subjected to this crass spectacle the next time one rolls around.

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2015: The CBC’s Impossible Dream

It’s taken me a while to try to figure out the CBC’s new five year plan. It’s called 2015: Everyone, Every Way and it is rife with platitudes about where CBC is going, but extremely short on details. And as we all know, the devil is in the details.

It’s not that I think CBC President and CEO Hubert Lacroix is pulling a fast one. From all reports he seems like a good guy who cares not only about public broadcasting but about the people who will have to make the changes he foresees. My problem is that I don’t get what he and Kirstine Stewart are actually trying to accomplish.

In broad strokes, they are talking about the CBC English service becoming more Canadian, more local and more digital. Sounds okay so far, but except for the digital part it is nothing we haven’t heard for the past few years. The CBC is already almost totally Canadian in prime time. Yes, in summer, late at night and during holiday periods U.S. films and series pop up to fill out the schedule. Does this mean that next summer we will get Canadian films and re-runs of Canadian series? I suspect the audience would have liked it better the old way but hey, they’re going back to their mandate, a word that was lost during the Stursberg era. It also looks like Jeopardy and Wheel of Fortune are toast on the CBC. While the nationalists in the crowd will cheer, I am left to wonder where the big money these two shows generated will come from and what effect that will have on Canadian production in prime time. While I am totally in favor of the CBC being 100% Canadian, I’m afraid I have to live in the real world. Money, not platitudes is all that counts in broadcasting today. It takes millions of dollars to produce a new drama or sitcom. Since we all know that Stephen Harper is not inclined to give the CBC more than it gets today, and since based on all previous experiences we can guess that the loss of American movies and series will result in fewer viewers and that fewer viewers mean less advertising revenue, I have to ask the question: where Mr. Lacroix do you intend to get the money to produce your all Canadian programs?

Looking at what details we have it actually gets worse. Mr. Lacroix and Ms. Stewart are also talking about beefing up local television, especially in areas that are under-served or not served at all by CTV and Global. He says the lack of local news and stories is actually an opportunity for the CBC to reconnect with Canadians. I sure hope this works because it is both necessary and overdue. But again, let’s not kid ourselves, the CBC went back into local news in, what is for them, a big way in past couple of years. They reopened newsrooms and added 30 to 60 minutes to local newscasts. What goes unsaid is that CBC local newscasts are embarrassingly bad. A handful of hard working folks try to cover big cities or vast provinces without the resources to succeed. The result has been dismal ratings. So few people are watching CBC local news it would be cheaper to send out CD’s rather than bother to air the program. Even in B.C. where the CBC hired the biggest name in west coast news history the ratings have been terrible. Without the money and the staff, as the CBC has proved, there is no point in making the effort. I would be all in favor of a well financed return to local TV. It was a huge error to allow local TV to flounder since the mid-80’s, but if you can’t fund it, don’t do it. The money can be better used elsewhere.

The five year plan also talks about the return of culture. Does anyone who watches the CBC remember culture? There was a time when ballet, modern dance and opera actually appeared on the CBC. It cost a truckload of money to produce and provided tiny but loyal audiences. I miss this programming and wish it were still a part of the mandate. If the CBC doesn’t produce it, it will not get done. CTV and Global are not in the habit of making expensive shows that produce audiences of less than 200,000. So while I love the idea, I ask once again, Mr. Lacroix, where will the money come from?

It’s a whole new digital world out there. I am glad the CBC brass recognizes this, people now download and watch TV shows when they want to, not when the network schedule says they have to watch it. The CBC is talking about doubling its spending on digital services. More big bucks spent on non-TV and radio product.

The new plan even talks about new CBC channels for sports, kids and arts and entertainment. It mentions new local weekend and morning news programs. It promises new “micro” news websites for large local communities, naming Hamilton and the Montreal suburb of Longueuil. All of the ideas cost real dollars. Dollars the CBC doesn’t have.

Everyone, Every Way leaves me with more questions than answers. There is no mention of increasing local news staff and budgets. In fact the plan calls for streamlining staff, I read that as cuts. Will the new morning and weekend news programs have dedicated staffs or will the already overburdened local news teams be expected to stretch even more? Will the digital web sites be staffed and funded? Will new channels have original programming or just be places to rerun network shows? If there is to be new programs how will they be paid for, subscription? Will we be forced to buy more channels we have no intention of ever viewing?

The truth is, and we all know it. The money is not there to do everything, some might say anything in 2015: Everyone, Every Way. So what is this really about? Is this a PR stunt? Is this meant to show that the Stursberg era is past? If so, I have a few better ideas. Fix up The National and CBC NN. Make them relevant again by producing quality stories we actually care about and lose the pap and thin gruel that fill your airwaves and erode your audiences. Begin to produce dramas and comedies with some heft that tackle serious issues in an adult way. Little Mosque on the Prairie and Being Erica are okay, but they are what we expect from any broadcaster, they do not speak to the needs of a national broadcaster. Not all programs have to be heavy or serious, but the odd one or two each week would be a pleasant change.

In other words, it’s time to fix what you do now before you spread your dollars even more thinly. Mr. Lacroix, I have no beef with your ideas, I just don’t believe they are real.

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CBC and the talent deficit

“So it appears Laura di Battista will be the next “outside the CBC hire.” She’ll take over the afternoon show on radio, probably early in the new year.

“So in the past few months the powers-that-be have hired Dwight Drummond (City) and Anne-Marie Mediwake (Global), Tony Parsons (BCTV) – never mind the stream of City people over the years (Stroumboulopoulos, Richler, Laurie Brown).

“Does anyone else see a strange pattern of CBC News dismissing the competition with contempt, and then turning around and hiring their on-air talent? Why doesn’t the CBC have these people in its system if it’s so important to them – or is the CBC’s system so flawed that it doesn’t have people with the type of on-air experience/talent/look that is what management believes it needs to compete?

“Our news programs on TV and radio are now so close in content and look to the private stations that there’s almost no difference – even editorially … especially editorially.

“Funnily enough the woman that hosts the extremely popular Cityline (Tracy Moore) was a reporter at CBLT who was continually turned down for a full-time job.”

This was an email I received recently from a very concerned and highly respected CBC employee. It made me think about the history of mistakes the bosses at CBC have made in dismantling local news.

Let me start with a little bit of history. In the ‘50s CBC Television was the only game in town. Many call it the golden age of CBC-TV. It was a time of experimentation. New shows, new kinds of programming, live dramas and of course the building of local news teams in markets from coast to coast. The network and the medium were growing. Personalities were being created…Wayne and Shuster, Juliette, Percy Saltsman, heck even the actor who played the Esso dealer on Hockey Night in Canada, Murray Westgate, became a big star across the country. Wherever CBC opened a local station they created a local news program and a local news team.

For the next three decades the local news became the training ground for some of the finest television journalists that this country has known. People like Mike Duffy, David Halton, Peter Kent, Eric Malling, Peter Mansbridge, Wendy Mesley, Craig Oliver, Steve Paikin and Paul Workman to name just a small fraction. From the ‘50s to the mid ‘80s if you wanted to know who the reporting stars of the future were going to be you had to tune into the local CBC Newscasts in Toronto, Winnipeg, Regina, St. John’s, Vancouver and the rest of the country. So what happened?

In 1984 and 1985 the federal government began to cut the CBC’s budgets. What followed was a massive blunder. The Vice President of CBC English, Denis Harvey, decided that in order to save the budget of the CBC’s national news service, he would take a butcher knife to the budgets of the local news. He misunderstood two very important facts at the time. The first was that local news had double the viewers of The National. Yes it was spread across more than a dozen CBC stations, but hey, The National’s audience came from all those same stations plus the affiliates. Harvey was cutting the successful newscasts in order to save a service that was rapidly falling behind CTV.

His second error was in not comprehending the inherent value of local news. Study after study in the U.S. has shown that strong local newscasts build ratings that create strong local stations. Those high ratings for local news result in bigger audiences for network programming throughout the evening. They got this at CTV and in the United States. Their networks are built around strong local affiliates that build in their turn around highly rated local newscasts. CBC was throwing out their babies with their bathwater. There is an argument to be made that the ratings of The National were actually undermined by the cuts in local news.

The rapid decline of CBC local news continued unabated. It was a vicious cycle: staffs were cut, ratings plummeted, money became scarcer, so staffs were cut further, rating fell even more and ad revenues all but disappeared. Soon many local news operations were shut down and the idea of regional news raised its ugly head. Can Edmonton and Calgary share a newscast? Apparently not. By the new millennium local CBC news was all but non-existent. In Toronto audiences fell from highs of over 300,000 viewers in 1985 to under 40,000. The results were similar in Calgary, Vancouver, Halifax and Montreal. People were not watching because CBC was not providing a serious newscast.

Today we are left with the legacy of those times and those decisions. Sure, local newscasts are sort of back. Ninety minutes of information that repeats more than my mom’s garlic burgers. Staffs that are one-third the size of those who produced just sixty minutes in the past. Worst of all, rather than follow CBC’s historic striving for quality news coverage, they are emulating the worst of the privates’ local news coverage. They are chasing ambulances, fire trucks and police cars with hardly an attempt to look at local issues.

Under the circumstance it should come as no surprise that CBC has to go outside to find talent. It should also come as no shock that the talent they are hiring fit the CITY-TV mold far more that they resemble what we used to expect on CBC.

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The Cherry on Top

He knows suits. He knows dogs. He knows hockey. But he doesn’t know a thing about mortgages. He doesn’t mention that he knows very little about politics, the military, Europe, and a host of other subjects. Unlike mortgages however, it doesn’t stop Don Cherry from fulminating at great length on these subjects.

The time has come to ask the CBC what the heck they are doing allowing Cherry to go on-and-on on any subject other than hockey. I presume he makes the gigantic bucks because of two things: his massive popularity and his knowledge of hockey. So why are hockey fans subjected to his maudlin rants about the military and his ludicrous, bordering on racist, comments about the nature and personality of European and French Canadian hockey players?

I will admit that I’m not a Cherry fan. I tend to disagree with most of what Don Cherry stands for on the ice. He is a dinosaur from a time in hockey and sports that has not existed for many years. His pro-fighting and murderous hitting opinions would be quaint were it not for the number of like minded hockey old timers who still have a major say in the game and if it were not for the frightening number of concussions and major injuries that plague the sport. That said, I recognize the fact that Cherry is very popular. I have seen people stop what they are doing to watch his weekly rants on Hockey Night in Canada. Even people who disagree with him as much, if not more than I do, seem to be drawn to Cherry’s weekly pronouncements. So I understand the CBC’s need to keep him around.

Here’s what I don’t understand. Why does the “People’s” network allow him to go off on tangents that have nothing to do with the game? He was hired to analyze games. He hasn’t done this for a decade or more. He throws in the odd “beauty” play or lesson for the kids, but for the most part his schtick has become an ill-informed civics lesson from a self-declared regular guy.

I am not just against Cherry’s rants. I don’t think any one person should be given a regular platform for their opinion on a network that is owned by the people of Canada. I believe it is the CBC’s duty to allow all kinds of opinion from as many sources as possible. I do not believe Rex Murphy should be allowed his rants on The National, again, just one man’s opinion. I think the national affairs panel on The National should be changed every week to allow different opinions and a more of a cross-section of ideas from across Canada. But at least Murphy and the national affairs panel talk about things they know something about. Cherry?

After a month of Cherry hitting the political trail with PC Candidate, now Member of Parliament, Julian Fantino and then showing his support for Toronto’s new mayor Rob Ford, a good friend of mine put the whole thing in perspective for me. If a “regular guy,” a fan say, got a job on Hockey Night in Canada analyzing the game, how would Cherry react? It is our guess that Cherry would rant long and hard about his half-century or more in organized hockey. He would tell us how people who haven’t played and coached the game of hockey have very little understanding of the decisions that the professionals have to make. He would then go on to make minced meat of the decision by his bosses to add a know-nothing fan to the mix. It would be even worse if the fan disagreed with him.

Let us say, for the purpose of argument, that we agree with Cherry. Then why should we have to listen to what a no-nothing fan of the political system, one who has never run for office, let alone held office, has to say about politics? Further, what are Don’s credentials when it comes to making military decisions? How long was he in officer training school? How many years did he spend on the battlefield?

Perhaps, my friend said, this should be pointed out to Cherry by his bosses at Hockey Night in Canada. This is the argument that needs to be pressed upon him to get him back to talking about hockey and just hockey. Do the producers have the guts to do this? I suspect not. If they do they would have exerted some control on hockey’s biggest blow-hard by now.

So where do we go from here? It’s my guess that Cherry is there, doing what he feels like doing, for the duration. That is, until CBC loses the hockey franchise to another network or Don gets too sick or too old to continue. And while Cherry’s popularity goes without question I do often wonder whether he is worth the pain to the CBC. Canadians love their hockey. If Cherry weren’t there would any hockey fan cease watching the Leafs play the Habs? Cherry is good for the ratings of the first intermission. I suspect he has no affect on the numbers for the actual game. On that basis alone I would like the CBC to act. If Cherry doesn’t like it he can move on into the land of TV commercials and all-sports radio. I for one, would be thankful for his loss.

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Self-Censorship: The real failure of Canadian journalism

I have just recently returned from working in India for over a month. I won’t go into what I thought of the world’s biggest democracy, this blog is not a travelogue. I did get the opportunity to watch quite a bit of Indian television. You won’t be surprised to hear that there are quite a few English channels in the country, at least two of which are all-news, all talk stations. While I did dip into BBC-International and CNN-International, these stations were not readily available on my travels, so I found myself trying to find any news that was available.

I struck it lucky on two counts. The first being the visit by President Obama to Mumbai and Delhi while I was India. The Indian stations provided an interesting take on the president’s visit. I got to see a range of opinion that I never would have seen or heard at home. The bottom line in the coverage, as it would have been in Canada if Obama was visiting Toronto and Ottawa, was what is in it for us. How are the U.S. promises going to affect India? Parochial? Not really. It amounts to serving the viewers with information that is important to them.

The second stroke of luck was to be in India during both an election campaign and the aftermath of the Commonwealth Games. It was here that Indian TV revealed itself to be far different to the Canadian and American mold we have become so used to. I was shocked and pleasantly surprised to see interviewers and panels that were hard-nosed, tough and sometimes incendiary. I don’t mean unfair, I mean pointed.

On one occasion I saw an election panel made up of one sitting cabinet minister and seven other men running for parliament. Each guest was a member of a different political party. The subject of the interview was primarily public works, buildings, bridges, but in fact the real crux of the conversation was corruption. In Canada you might expect the opposition candidates to attack the cabinet minister and in India they did too. But here was the difference, the host went after the cabinet minister with a gusto I have never seen in North America. He pointed out the scandals. He pinpointed the lies. He called the minister out by explaining what he said in the past and what he had done. There was no Canadian style pussy-footing. He finally asked the minister why anyone should ever believe a word he says and further why would any sane voter choose him or his party? This is the party in power, remember.

I was glued to the television. It was great theatre but more important it was great journalism. It left me feeling empty and despairing however about the brand of political interviewing and the level of polite political discourse practiced by Canadian interviewers and TV hosts. Anyone who has watched CBC NN or CTV News Channel, let alone The National, Global National, or CTV News would feel the same way I felt. The comparison to the beige news and current affairs we are treated to was stark. Anyone who has ever seen Evan Solomon and one of his panels hem and haw through a nice polite discussion would be embarrassed by the difference.

A few days after that discussion, on a different channel I saw a news program eviscerate the two most important men, both politicians, behind the Commonwealth Games. They had, it seemed been going after these guys for months. They had interviews with them done over the course of those months. They chronicled the changing stories of the Commonwealth Games’ leaders. The shone a bright light on the lies being told throughout the process. They investigated the funding and the waste. In the end they took full credit for the fact that they were responsible for the firing and political downfall of two more corrupt Indian political leaders.

There is a fearlessness in Indian TV that is remarkable. In Canada, journalistic organizations seem to be afraid to take on the government. Not so in India. In Canada I have heard important interviewers say they can’t go after their guests because if they offend them they won’t come back and perhaps neither will anyone in their political party. In India this excuse doesn’t play. It is time for Canadian journalists to understand that they are in no way beholden to our political and business leaders. When the government has a story they want to get out they will come calling. When business has a new product to sell they will be available for comment. Politicians and business people need the media more than the journalists need them. When did we forget this fact?

Canadian media has lost its mojo, its power. Not because of what is being done to them, but because of what they are doing to themselves. Canadian journalism is for the most part too timid and too worried about the backlash from the people they cover. In today’s media world there is no place for the tough investigator, the crusaders are all but gone. It is a polite world of you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours. I saw this happening at the CBC in the Mulroney years when we backed off stories that might affect our budget. CTV was once led by men like John Bassett who wore his political views on his sleeve for all to see. You didn’t have to agree with them, they didn’t care.

Today self-censorship may be the biggest roadblock to good journalism. If you don’t believe me, watch Indian TV.

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Bad News – Good TV

The G-8 and G-20 summits have come and gone and I dare any news organization to ask Canadians what the world powers accomplished in Toronto. I do not believe that 1 percent of Canadians know what was in the final communiqué. But, ask Canadians what happened on the streets of “Hogtown” during the weekend and you are sure to get in depth responses. There is no better magnet for airtime than violence, destruction, fire and mass arrests. I say this because it highlights the incredible failure of our police forces and politicians.

Based on what I saw on TV and what credible reporters are saying it is patently obvious that the security plan was flawed at best and really, let me be clear here, it didn’t serve the people of Toronto and Canada.

The police missed the boat on Saturday. They were so busy worrying about the politicians behind the security fence that they forgot about the citizens outside the barrier. The result was widespread destruction along several major shopping streets in the city, police cars trashed and burned, media trucks vandalized and televised pictures of the rioting taking over the airwaves. Free access for the “Black Bloc” looked to me like it was part of the police plan…I’m not saying they wanted or condoned vandalism, I’m saying they didn’t care to stop it. Keeping the protesters away from the fence was their only priority.

So then comes a Saturday night where journalists quite rightly question the police tactics and frankly make the security people look unprepared for the reality on the streets. The mayor of Toronto was questioned. The Toronto police chief was grilled. The federal minister in charge of security was dragged into the mess even though he never left Ottawa. The police failure was denied by everyone in charge. The pictures and reports made liars of all the officials.

The criticism worked. Only it worked too well. The security forces reacted to the criticism by going overboard on Sunday. On a day when it sure looked to me like all the protest was generally peaceful the police began rounding up anyone and everyone who hit the streets. Among the arrested were TV camera operators, yup the police claim they couldn’t tell who was a protester and who was a rioter, fair enough. But did they think a guy carrying a $40,000 dollar camera with network decals was a rioter? They arrested reporters. They arrested teenage schoolgirls. They arrested dentists. They arrested anyone wearing black clothes. It was beyond stupid and undemocratic.

As the arrested were let out, one-by-one they told their stories of police brutality and of putting people in small cages and keeping the handcuffed for hours and hours. One man was refused treatment for a broken arm. Another was ignored when he explained he was diabetic and needed insulin. For one strange afternoon Toronto became Tehran and you know, the politicians and police sounded a lot like their counterparts in Iran.

There is no excuse for the vandalism and rioting that took place in Toronto on Saturday. The folks in black should have been stopped arrested and had the book thrown at them. If the police were where they should have been, protecting citizens and property, they would have been able to do just that. Their claim that they couldn’t find the rioters who were using tactics to mislead the police do not hold water. The TV cameras found them. The radio and newspaper reporters found them.

Which brings me to some excellent and some not so excellent work done by the media in covering the events on the streets. First kudos go out to local reporters and crews from CTV, CITY and CBC-Toronto who did a credible job of telling the story while the network reporters were all but invisible. The Toronto Star had the best coverage of events all weekend and the best take on the events after the weekend was over. CBC Radio did an excellent job.

The losers in the coverage this weekend were CBC and Global. When Peter Mansbridge arrived to cover the events live, late Saturday afternoon and he was saddled with nothing but old tired shots we had seen for hours on CBC NN and only one national reporter, Susan Ormiston who seemed overwhelmed and was reduced to using the pictures gathered by local crews. The coverage was better before the network arrived. By Sunday night’s National the CBC was left in the dust. CTV was all over the mass arrests, the police overreaction, the scene at the detention center. CBC was still rehashing Saturday’s events using the same old pictures. The National was a day late and as the saying goes, a dollar short. CTV was terrific.

I only mention Global because they did what they do historically. They didn’t compete. Global never made it to air Saturday afternoon. I guess a second rate golf tournament could not be interrupted. I remember when I was at Global and got a major scoop. We received a leak of the federal budget. The powers at the network refused us airtime because we were running “Wiseguy.” The more Global changes, the more it stays the same.

Much of the discussion today has turned to citizen journalism. Everyone with a mobile phone is now a news source. Better get used to it people, this trend will not go away it will only grow. I’m not sure what to make of it. As far as pictures are concerned I am supportive, but when it comes to commentary I worry about the sources.

One outstanding use of the new technology came from Steve Paikin. He used Twitter to inform faster than any TV, radio or newspaper could. His tweets were informative and right on the money. It was some of the best journalism of the weekend. Great work Steve.

Late addition: Mea Culpa. It seems that Global did break into their golf coverage at least twice for about 15 minutes each time. Not the kind of coverage CTV, CITY and CBC NN were providing but Kevin Newman anchored the short hits.

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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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