I'm Mad as Hell

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and I can't do a thing about it

Monopoly…a Canadian way of doing business

A lot of you will look at the deal to buy Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment (MLSE) by Bell and Rogers as simply a sports deal. You may be questioning what this means for the future of your favorite sports franchise, be it the Toronto Maple Leafs, the Toronto Raptors, TFC (the soccer team), maybe even the Toronto Blue Jays or one of the other six NHL teams in Canada. If you are a sports fan in this country and whether you love the dismal Toronto franchises, or love to see them fail year after year, there are real sporting implications…the truth though, whether you like to hear it or not, is that the future of the Leafs success on ice is mostly irrelevant in this deal.

The sale of MLSE is about content rights, who will control the television, radio, internet, mobile, etc. rights to the sporting content generated by these teams. In those terms this is a very frightening deal. Bell and Rogers are already the two most powerful media conglomerates in Canada. They own and manage, some would say mismanage, 80 television stations including all of the major sports stations on TV. They own 88 radio stations including all of the major sports-talk stations. They will pick up an additional three television licenses that MLSE owns. Together they own the vast majority of Canada’s online and mobile services. You think that it’s just Bell and Rogers? Think again. They also own Virgin, Solo, ChatR and Fido, and of course the largest satellite and cable companies too.

It’s hard to believe that a few short years ago it was deemed illegal for a cable or satellite company to own a television station, let alone a network. Thank you CRTC.

This concentration of power will be bad for everyone. While Bell and Rogers are busy divvying up the nation, they leave little room for their competition. This means they can do with sports content what they have done with mobile technology and cable and satellite delivery. They can control access and they can control price. All you have to do to see the future is to look at what these to companies have done in the past. Canadians pay among the highest rates in the world for mobile service and internet access, and Bell and Rogers continually strive to keep competition out through influence on government and regulatory bodies and with unfair discount practices that disappear when the competition is wiped out. To quote Ellen Roseman in the Toronto Star, “Rogers and Bell bludgeon customers into accepting a flurry of extra charges for wireless phones. They hit them with unexpected bills for data roaming and third party text messages.”

Roseman goes to describe some of the dirty practices of Bell and Rogers that include discounts that evaporate before the subscriber ever sees them, raised prices that make the discounts offered moot, and of course, some 8000 complaints from Canadians to the government last year about how they are being treated by telecommunications companies like Bell and Rogers.

I expect to see access to Toronto’s sports franchises on radio and television to change in three ways, first, you will see far more games on Rogers Sportsnet and TSN and expect to see fewer games in which let’s say the Calgary Flames or Winnipeg Jets own the rights. Why pay the owners of a third party NHL club when you can pay yourself and fill the same amount of air time? Second, I see fewer opportunities for non-MLSE affiliated channels like CBC and Global to get the rights to the most popular sports entertainment. Finally, I see the possibility of a new pay channel that replaces Leafs-TV and Raptors-TV with a new sports channel that forces the public to pay big subscription fees to gain access to games that will no longer be available on any other channel, think MSG Network (Madison Square Gardens) or YES Network (Yankee Entertainment) two very profitable networks in the United States that control all of the most popular sports franchises in the New York City area.

Lastly I want to make a point about the way sports journalism will be affected. Since the owners of MLSE will now control virtually all of the sports broadcast media who will be left to criticize the missteps and worse the arrogance of this new sporting monster?

Will the guys at The Fan or TSN Radio take on their corporate bosses? Will they lose jobs and be punished for doing so? Does anyone see the conflict of interest here? Does anyone at the competition bureau or the CRTC care?

In the past few months Rogers and Bell have been busy buying the services of dozens of the best print sports writers to fill slots on radio and television and to write for new magazines. Most have quit their print jobs like Stephen Brunt, some like Damien Cox keep a foot in both camps. It is my contention that just about every sports writer in Canada is at least partially beholden to either Bell or Rogers. Sure you may write for a local paper in Vancouver that’s owned by the Post group or an independent in Toronto like the Toronto Star, but you all supplement your income, your reach and your popularity with appearances on one of the Bell or Rogers sports television and radio channels. Do you want to blow your chances for more guest shots? I think not. So, when the Toronto Raptors decide to spend less money and refuse to sign a free agent that’s available and who might make the team competitive, or merely watchable, will you write about it or just keep it to yourself? When TFC charges more for tickets than Manchester United (this is already a fact) will you shout about it in your column or is discretion a better road to take? For those of you who haven’t seen it, The Globe and Mail, which should stop calling itself Canada’s national newspaper, barely noticed this story. Why?

Sports journalism is for the most part an oxymoron in Canada. The last bastions were the daily newspapers in the major cities. Bell and Rogers have figured out how to co-opt even this small amount of opposition. Now it can only get worse.

Canadians in general and sports fans in particular will be the big losers if this deal is allowed to go through. The only way to stop it is if all Canadians get up of their backsides and scream at their political representatives. There’s one thing more powerful than the money and influence Bell and Rogers can and do wield, that is the threat of losing the next election.

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Feasting on Death

If you were anywhere within a hundred miles of Toronto over the past few days you were inundated by the massive coverage of a police officer killed in the line of duty. Sgt. Ryan Russell was by all accounts an excellent police officer, a kind and thoughtful person and a wonderful family man.

Sgt. Russell was the victim of what appears to be a deranged or depressed man who stole an idling snow plow and went on a rampage. The alleged killer began his snow plow ride by hitting several parked cars before the police arrived on the scene. Eventually Sgt. Russell attempted to stop the destructive ride and was crushed between the plow and a police car.

It was a horrible event, tragic even. All thinking citizens have to feel sorry for a young father uselessly slain in the prime of his life.

BUT…yes it is a big but. Is it possible that the coverage of the events, the family and the funeral were more than a little excessive? The last two times I saw this much coverage of a death were the assassination of President Kennedy and the killing of Princess Diana. Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau’s death did not get this much coverage. Neither did the deaths of Lester Pearson and John Diefenbaker. Hundreds of our troops have died in Afghanistan fighting a deadly enemy in order to protect all Canadians. While they have all be recognized, none have been honored the way Sgt. Russell has. I could go on.

In Toronto the newspapers have had two to three pages of coverage every day. Today, the day after the funeral, the first four pages of the front section of The Star has no other stories. There’s more in the local section too. On television, every major news outlet in the city covered a large part of the funeral live.

Once again I ask, is this too much?

My cynical friends have opined that the massive funeral that closed down major thoroughfares with marching police officers and firemen from across the country and the continent was planned to take the heat off a force that has been beleaguered by months of charges of overzealousness at the G-20 Summit. With charges beginning to stick to many Toronto police officers, they say, it was time for the police brass to change the message. Along came the horrible death of fine officer that presented them with the opportunity to change the topic of conversation. All the stops were pulled. Forget a church funeral, only the Toronto Convention Centre which could hold several thousand would do. The march was planned to go through the heart of the city. For the second time in less than a year all the streets around the Convention Centre were closed down. For at least a week and who knows how long into the future, the story of the Toronto Police has changed. It’s no longer about police brutality and excessiveness, forgotten are the cops who removed their name tags and stormed innocent protesters. Now the story is about the brave men and women who put their life on the line for us, the citizens, every day.

There is truth on both sides. The complaint though, is that the media have allowed the police to change the narrative. They have chosen to buy into one story while they mostly underplayed the other. (Here I must give credit to the Toronto Star, they led the charge against the Toronto Police and were largely responsible for keeping the brutality stories alive and eventually bring justice for some of the victims.)

I don’t blame the cops for attempting to change the narrative. Hey we have a prime Minister that prorogues Parliament every time he doesn’t like the way the story is playing out. I do question the media glomming on to the narrative being foisted on them without question. I have not read or seen a single question about the story or the coverage coming from any media outlet. I’m not looking for questions about Sgt. Russell or his terrible death. I’m looking for questions about the excessive funeral plans and the overly excessive media coverage.

For those of you who are interested, the CBC website had close to three hundred comments when I last looked. They were running just over 50% against the coverage and the reasons had nothing to do with a lack of feelings for Sgt. Russell and his family. Here’s one smart comment that sums up why some viewers are unhappy with the wall-to-wall coverage:

Spark_London wrote:Posted 2011/01/18
at 8:14 AM ET
I’m a bit tired of the pornographication of this man’s death and his funeral. Yes, he was a good officer and well respected by his colleagues. Yes he was a father of a young child. Yes he worked hard for the benefit of society. And yet, there are a myriad of others who have the same qualifications who will die this day and every day without any public recognition or celebration.

I resent the media feasting on this man’s death and I am not denigrating him or the extent of the loss of those close to him. I don’t need a live broadcast on radio or TV. It just isn’t necessary.

And for those who chose not to recognize the problems of authority I ask them only to look at the lines of thousands of officers in blue today. It is that same wall that defends the actions of the police when criticized. That thick blue wall is not an illusion – you will see it in all of its reality today. The funeral is not about the officer – the pomp and ceremony are about only one thing – the profession. Sorry.

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Badly Served in Canada

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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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Where’s the Scandal?

Woe Canada. Here we are in the midst of what should be the biggest political scandal since Jean Chretien and some of his buddies tried to woo the Quebec populace over to the federalist side with prime ministerial golf balls, oh yes, and tens of millions of the taxpayers’ hard earned dollars spent on untendered and questionable advertising contracts going to friends of the Quebec branch of the federal Liberal Party; yet there is an amazing lack of journalism going on.

Of course I’m talking about the billions of taxpayers’ hard earned dollars spent on pork disguised as the G-8 and G-20 summits.

To be fair the Leader of the Opposition has completely disappeared after a few poorly chosen questions in Parliament. Jack “I never met a camera I didn’t like” Layton has been un-Jack like on the massive government waste, saying very little and being heard even less. So why should I expect Canada’s media to take up the cause?

How about, because it’s their job?

CTV, CBC and Global have shown an amazing disinterest in the obvious pork barreling and huge waste of money. They have mostly limited their coverage to Question Period in the House and a few scrums. The Globe and Mail thinks coverage ought to consist of the odd story about security. The Toronto Star has been the best media outlet so far. They headlined stories about the road to nowhere in cottage country and the major airport fix-up to an air strip that will not be used by the summiteers but even they seem to be looking away from the waste as the summits approach and focusing on profiles of the leaders of our summit partners.

Everybody’s main focus of the coverage of the summits has been the security details, the fences that surround a large portion of downtown Toronto and Huntsville, the street closings and the charges and counter-charges from the protesters and the police about what each of the groups is preparing in order to greet our foreign visitors. There have been the inevitable think pieces and op-ed deconstruction of summits past and what they accomplished. University profs are cashing in pondering the usefulness and possible success or failure of this summit. Heck, Global TV is even doing a story on the legacy of the summit on the Muskoka region, who knew the G-8 was about helping out Ontario’s lagging tourist industry? This may be good public service information but it misses the point for all but a few Canadians who live and work in the fenced off parts of Toronto and Muskoka or are macro-economists and historians.

Canadians want to know about the fake lake, but as a symbol of the money being thrown away. Yes, the fake lake is a national, no international, joke and it truly is a waste of 56,000 dollars but it is such a small part of that waste. I still do not know how the government of Canada is going to spend over a billion dollars to do what the United States did in Pittsburgh last year for $30 million and what the British did two years ago in London, a much more difficult city to secure than Toronto, for a mere $50 million.

It would seem to me that these questions should be the fodder and the lifeblood of everyone who calls him or herself a journalist in Canada. So far we have not seen or heard of any of the investigation and the resulting reportage that I for one, expected from our fourth estate. Until now we’ve got the obvious. Tony Clement’s riding being the recipient of millions of dollars of summit cash for fake summit projects to beautify towns that are nowhere near where the world leaders will be. Mr. Clement won his riding by a mere 38 votes in the last election so Prime Minister Harper is buying him enough votes to get re-elected in the next election. But even that is a drop in the bucket of the over a billion dollars. Do the fences cost that much? Is police overtime the issue? Are the transportation and hotel costs of police from across Canada driving up the cost? Why isn’t the army being used more? I don’t think we have to pay them overtime. Why are the costs more than twenty times more than in London? Where is the money going? Are there partisan political connections to where the dollars are being spent?

These are the kinds of questions Canadians are asking and not getting the answers to. From coast to coast citizens are asking how a government that preaches belt tightening can throw away billions on a five day palaver about the world economy. Yes it is Stephen Harper’s job to explain, but when he doesn’t it is a journalist’s job to poke and pry and get to the bottom of what is all too clearly a boondoggle.

For those people in the PMO and the folks behind Canada’s new right wing news and talk channel who claim a left wing media bias I say look at the coverage of the summits: the Tory Prime Minister and Tony Clement are getting away with a big one and the mainstream media have been giving them a pass.

Is it because of summer holidays? Is CBC’s investigative unit tanning at the lake? Are the CTV reporters still tired from Olympic torch relay? Is Global so caught up in their sale they have no time to actually cover major events? Where’s “Canada’s national newspaper”?

I am embarrassed by the lack of strong, relevant coverage. How about you?

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Poor Sports

For a sports fan there is no better time of year. In hockey the Stanley Cup playoffs, especially the first two rounds are as usual, a sight to behold. Need I mention the Memorial Cup and the world championships? The basketball playoffs are underway too. Baseball has started. Soccer is winding down in Europe, heating up in North America and the World Cup is on the horizon. The football drafts have just passed and fans are looking ahead to their favorite teams’ prospects in the upcoming season. Tiger is back patrolling the greens and fairways. Horse racing’s “triple crown” has begun. Heck even the lacrosse playoffs have started for those who are interested. I believe it can be described as a cornucopia of sports stories, events and action, certainly enough to more than fill the one hour sportscasts produced by TSN and Rogers’ Sportsnet.

Then why am I so turned off by both productions? I am a huge sports fan. As proof I offer up the fact that I still buy tickets to the Jays and the Argos. That should prove I am more than a fan, I’m a glutton for punishment. But I can no longer take most of the punishment dished out by Canada’s two biggest sports broadcasters.

Based on the great ratings and the huge profits TSN and Rogers’ Sportsnet are raking in I must be in the minority. Nevertheless, I cannot believe the viewers that are over 18-years-old are impressed with what is being aired. Yes, both networks are adept at producing highlights. Thankfully, at this time of the year there are plenty of those. I think they are what keep the fans tuning in. If I watched the hockey game, the baseball and basketball highlights give me an opportunity to see the best plays I missed and keep me up to date on scores and injuries.

What turns me off, though, among other things, are the incessant panels that fail to tell me anything new. Listening to the same guys drone on and on making the exact same points they made last October and have repeated ad nauseum throughout the hockey season is a waste of my time and I would hope a waste of your time to. Panels are a poor excuse for journalism. Opinions are interesting when they are fresh, when they tell me something I don’t know or haven’t heard, but when it boils down to predicting who will win the series, who will score the winning goal in overtime, and TSN’s ludicrous, “the quiz”, can anyone pretend there is any journalism or real value in what is being spouted?

The question all sports fans should be asking is: where is the journalism? Where are the reporters seeking out the stories? Where are the great stories about the interesting characters in the games? ABC’s Roone Arledge brought this concept to television more than 35 years ago. On any given day the sports sections of The Globe and Mail and The Toronto Star have more real stories and journalism than six months of SportsCentre on TSN. I understand that TSN is basically a highlights show, fine, but they claim to be a newscast too, so other than the recaps, where is the news? I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, sports journalism is an oxymoron on television. The newspapers do a great job, The Fan radio and radio stations like it across the country, especially Bob McCown’s show, does a good job of trying to find the whys and wherefores. The print and radio guys actually try to speak to the sources, the people making the news. They get interviews and quotes from and with the newsmakers themselves. TSN and Rogers’ Sportsnet have panel discussions.

I hate the glib insider talk and repartee that passes for hosting at both networks. The hosts kid each other, they banter, they fill air space. The talk is seldom relevant, it’s supposed to pass for show business and it is almost always juvenile. Guys, when you kid each other about your Alberta roots or the losses of your favorite teams, I don’t care.

I’m not crazy about the fact that most TV sportcasters seem to think the hockey fights are as important as the goals scored and the results, Rogers’ Sportnet being the worst offender.

Finally, a particular pet peeve of mine. The hockey game goes into overtime. It ends at 10:14 pm. TSN begins SportsCentre at 10:17 with tease: “Can the Habs continue to roll against the dominant Caps? Can the Caps finally put away the upstart Habs?” Hello! Is there a single person who tuned to TSN at exactly10:17 just to watch the sports news? Hasn’t every single viewer seen the game winning goal in overtime? You look stupid when you treat the audience stupidly. I don’t know if is sheer laziness, you produced the opening an hour ago and you don’t want to change it, or you just don’t care. I suspect the former.

Sports news on television plays to teenage boys. Sure adults watch too, but I find it hard to believe they, the adults, are anything more than casual observers who don’t have anything else to watch until CTV news comes on at 11.

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CBC News is Revolting

You know, you can’t take your eyes off the CBC for even a second. Anytime it looks like there is going to be peace and quiet and an opportunity to sit back and enjoy the hockey playoffs without having to be annoyed by their ever weaker TV newscast, the staff and management of the Corpse somehow find the time to air their dirty laundry.

The latest is an internal survey of 24 CBC Radio national news reporters. The survey was done by a few of the reporters themselves without the okay of management and the results are startling. In all my years in broadcasting, newspapers and on the outside looking in I have never come across a more clear condemnation of the direction that management is taking.

For those of you who don’t know, the same new CBC direction that produced the dreadful new National has had an effect on all of CBC News. Radio and TV reporters now all report to the same desk through what CBC calls “the hub.” The hub is a news desk that was supposed to centralize and make more efficient the assignment process. Thus one reporter and one crew showing up to a media conference rather than one from local TV, one from national TV and two more from local and national radio. It’s a good concept that is used by many successful news organizations and should have saved the CBC both money and manpower, but somehow management has botched the organization of the hub and managed to turn off the news staff. The hub, I am told is too large, too unwieldy and more often than not, bereft of ideas. Worse, it is not taking direction from the reporters in the field across Canada who are in the best position to lead and inform on what stories are interesting and possible.

Here are a few of the amazing responses to the survey:

When asked to compare morale in the national news service 95.2% said it was “lower than ever during my career.” The other 4.8% just said it was low.

When asked if there was a strong commitment to journalism at the moment, only 4.8% agreed. 76.2% disagreed.

Asked to compare the new hub to the old system 83.3% said it was “more difficult/complicated and 79.2% said there is less communication and more unpleasant surprises.

97.5% disagreed with the statement “I feel involved in decisions that influence my work as a national reporter.”

Perhaps most interesting, considering the hub was created to stop conflicts 0% agreed that it has done so and 81% say the integration of TV and radio has not benefited radio news programming.

Not surprisingly, based on the numbers you have seen so far, 100% say “state of radio culture compared to a year ago,” is worse and all but one reporter disagree that radio news is on the right course.

It is hard to believe that there could be a more damning indictment of CBC news management and the direction it has taken. I had one CBC news employee call me to say that if the TV reporters were polled in the same way the results would be the same. That person went on to say that if the news and current affairs staff behind the scenes in both radio and TV were asked the same questions they too would be similarly disaffected and upset.

How do you respond to something like this? Good old Jennifer McGuire, the General Manager and Editor in Chief of CBC News, still living in her bizzaro world that seems to have no resemblance to the one the rest of us live in had this to say in a memo to staff:

First of all, by all measures of success – in terms of audiences and journalism – our radio programs are meeting audience needs. It doesn’t mean there isn’t room to make them better, but they are not broken. They are performing well, to record audiences in fact.

Secondly, if you were to follow the blogs and columns (including some from disgruntled former employees), it reads as if CBC News has abandoned the cornerstone of its mandate: doing quality journalism. Nothing can be further from the truth. The truth is that quality journalism is still our biggest priority. As part of news renewal, we began a discussion about what defines quality journalism, how should it be showcased, and how we make sure it meets the needs of all Canadians in 2010 and beyond. But make no mistake: the quality is still ever present. We have had numerous examples of original, enterprise, exclusive and investigative stories on all our platforms in recent weeks, the most recent being Dave Seglins’ dogged pursuit over the weekend of the investigator linked to the Jaffer-Geurgis story.

My final point is about the culture we want to create here in CBC News. Some of the comments made public about colleagues are not attributed, unsubstantiated and unconscionable.

This is damaging. And let’s be clear, it damages us all in the public’s mind, including the authors and participants in the survey. It embarrasses us all. And all of you are working incredibly hard and deserve accolades.

So, while I totally understand the motivation of former CBC’ers with an axe to grind, I am more perplexed as to why people who are invested in CBC News would not engage in conversations through channels that would actually make things better.

My point is not to censor what you have to say, nor hide the fact that there are still things to fix and work to do, but rather to encourage you if you have concerns or feedback to engage in the process of making it better and moving us forward.

Jennifer, Jennifer please. Pay attention to your employees. They are trying to tell you that the plan is not working. Radio numbers may be holding but TV news numbers are at historical lows even with the new rating system that’s inflating numbers at CTV and Global. I have yet to meet a single person who thinks, as you seem to, that quality journalism is still a goal at CBC News. In fact most people I talk to lament the disappearance of quality journalism. The example, by the way, of the Jaffer-Guergis story being a highlight of CBC journalism is kind of humorous. I guess Jennifer either doesn’t read the Toronto Star or worse she doesn’t even know where her own stories are coming from. CBC News has been following every lead the Toronto Star digs up. If there is something that has appeared on CBC News before the Star reported it I must have missed it.

As one CBC staffer told me you have to feel sorry for the reporters and news staffs they didn’t cut 2 minutes out of World Report, fire the host, change the staff…(then) do the same thing at World at Six…they didn’t add 30 minutes to local TV news, shift them into an afternoon dead zone…told them to follow everything the consultants said to the letter…instead of interesting, informative journalism we have the same drek stories you find on any local station…

CBC management as it stands today has lost their news and current affairs staffs. Nobody is buying the bull. In baseball or hockey when a manager or a coach loses the room they have to be fired. That time has come for the CBC.

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The Olympic Muzzle

There’s a new Olympic sized media brouhaha that’s popping up at CTVglobemedia. It appears that CTV and The Globe are so fearful of criticism of their Olympic coverage that they are willing to muzzle their own people.

A few days ago I asked Bruce Dowbiggin, The Globe’s sports media columnist, why his column has disappeared. He did not really answer my question instead changing the subject. This is not the Bruce Dowbiggin I know who is one of the straightest shooting media people in Canada. He tells it like he sees it no matter what the circumstances. Just ask Don Cherry.

Then I saw this blog by William Houston. He is the former sports media columnist for The Globe and Mail and perhaps has an insight that is unavailable to the rest of us. Here’s what Houston had to say:

Where’s the Globe’s media critic?
“Curiously, Bruce Dowbiggin, the sports broadcast columnist for The Globe and Mail, has not written a word of analysis about Vancouver Olympic TV coverage.
Chris Zelkovich, who writes on sports television for The Toronto Star, has been filing daily columns. I’m writing for Yahoo! Canada in addition to filing to this webpage. There seems to be interest in what CTV and NBC are doing.
But Bruce? He’s cobbling together quotes about the Winter Games from the international media. His Feb. 18 collection consisted of seven quotes from sources such as an NBC news release and newspaper stories in the United States and Britain.
Why isn’t Dowbiggin critiquing the coverage of CTV and NBC? I emailed him and asked, but he didn’t respond. So, let’s guess:
Bruce decided to take some time off and just enjoy the Games on TV. Or the Globe didn’t feel it necessary to analyze the CTV telecasts. (Saturday’s edition includes a short feature by sports writer James Christie on Brian Williams and announcer Rod Black.)
Or perhaps it was decided Bruce would be in an untenable conflict of interest by being required to critique the Olympic coverage of a network (CTV) that is owned by the company (CTVglobemedia) that also owns the Globe.
But, that can’t be the reason. After all, he writes about TSN and TSN2, which are owned by CTVglobemedia. Other media writers comment all the time on the work of outlets owned by the company for which they work. Phil Mushnick, the sports broadcasting columnist for The New York Post, comments on Fox Sports. Both Fox and the Post are owned by News Corp. Howard Kurtz writes on media for The Washington Post and regularly critiques his own newspaper. It can’t be a conflict of interest issue, can it? The mystery continues.”

There’s really no mystery is there. CTV is afraid of a little honest commentary. I am led to believe that while Bruce Dowbiggin is collecting quotes, John Doyle was supposed to be critiquing the coverage. Well John is missing in action on that front. Oh, like Bruce he’s in the newspaper every day but I guess he doesn’t think Olympic coverage is worthy of a column or two. Give me a break. It is all too obvious that the muzzles are on and the journalism, on this subject for sure, has been shut down.

The bigger point is that it is a nutty decision. CTV and the Olympic consortium are doing a very good job. The network, along with TSN, Rogers Sportsnet, APTN and the internet have covered the Olympics better than they have ever been covered before, anywhere. Brian Williams is doing his usual masterful job of staying on top of everything and keeping the viewers well informed, I wish CTV used Brian more often and all year round.  On Sportsnet and TSN they are doing a very credible job covering events live. The internet coverage has been excellent providing both live action and add-on information never before available at an Olympic event.

There have been some surprise stars too. James Duthie has proven to be an excellent host whose wit and presence has brightened our screens. Sale and Pelletier are the best figure skating analysts I have ever heard. Their honesty and friendly family bickering have been a breath of fresh air. Jamie Campbell has been a revelation. For several years the far too stoic voice of the Blue Jays, he has come alive at the games. His call of Canada’s first gold medal will be most memorable for years to come.

Importantly, while the Canadian athletes have “blown the podium” the CTV coverage has been as close to flawless as can be expected. These Olympics are a huge enterprise. The technology and the partnerships have made almost total coverage possible. The consortium has put it all together in a way that will spoil us for anything less in the future. Will Canadians ever settle for single channel coverage of high-lights with the odd bit of live action thrown in again? We have seen the future and we like it. No, we demand it. All you have to do is tune in NBC to see the old style coverage. I guarantee you will be back to our Canadian channels very quickly.

The consortium gets a gold medal. CTVglobemedia gets a DNF (did not finish) for their fearfulness.

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Dropping the Ball

A few years ago I was a guest on a Hamilton radio station discussing the proposition that sports journalism on television is an oxymoron. Brian Williams, who was still with CBC Sports at the time, was my opposite number on the debate. He took great umbrage at the proposition. His proof being his own excellent work on several Olympic games including the coverage of the Ben Johnson scandal and Ross Regabliatti’s near disqualification for having traces of marijuana in his blood among others.

Concerning himself, he was right. Brian Williams has made a long career of trying to actually practice sports journalism on TV. His recent Olympic and CFL mini-docs for CTV and TSN are no exception. Brian has proved to be a fine story teller and a prime example of how it should be done. But Brian could not name another television reporter who was doing the same. CBC did eventually produce an excellent weekly sports journalism show but today that’s long gone. Bruce Dowbiggin won a well deserved Gemini Award for his work on the Alan Eagleson scandal, but CBC sports refused to run his work so it ran on CBC News. Bruce is no longer a TV reporter, he’s a Globe and Mail columnist.

Now, name another sports journalist on TV today. I dare you. Rogers Sportsnet and TSN produce hours and hours of what purports to be sports “news” every week. A viewer is warned not to hold his or her breath waiting for journalism. For the most part, say 80 percent, the coverage consists of highlights from earlier action. On earlier shows there’s the odd preview of upcoming action. The rest of the show is filled with banter and lists of the top plays, best fights, whatever can be scrambled together from the archives to fill out the hours. But journalism, as in WHY an event or situation occurs and where it’s going, you won’t find it here.

It seldom existed on local television newscasts either. When you have only five or six minutes to recap the day’s events there is little room on the sportscast for actual journalism.

The one place I would expect some enterprising sports reportage in Canada is on hockey broadcasts. Now that games come in at just over two and one half hours there is a 30 minute hole to fill, and that’s on top of two 15 minute between period segments. So where are the stories? Where’s the field work? Where’s the old “up-close-and-personals” that we see on the NFL coverage and even NBA coverage. The same sportscasters that lament the lack of star power in hockey are doing nothing to alleviate the problem.

Hockey Night in Canada is truly a wasteland. The first intermission is always Coach’s Corner with Don Cherry and Ron MacLean. I will be the first to admit that it’s an entertaining segment. It’s like waiting for a train wreck. When is Don going to say something stupid about fighting or foreign born players? How will Ron get a word in and when he does what silly pun will the viewers be treated to? Between Don’s “I told you so’s” and Ron’s slavish support of the dinosaurs of hockey it is all too predictable and lacks any semblance of information.

Cut to the second intermission and the viewer is treated to a panel of rumor mongers led by Al Strachan. Has anyone kept tabs on how many times Al’s insights turn out to be correct? I suspect they are few. In any case this is inside hockey talk that speaks to a small minority of Canadians. If you want to sell the game and increase the ratings it’s time to go back to story telling. When I was a youngster there were actual feature stories on players, coaches, owners, referees, etc. They created interest in the people around hockey. They introduced us to the personalities that make any sport more accessible.

It’s not any better at TSN. The same panel returns intermission after intermission with the same predictable opinions. No depth. Nothing new. Cheapo TV that fills minutes rather than enterprising reporting and journalism that could really wow an audience. On TSN they even use the same formula for football, but at least on CFL coverage they do have the Brian Williams stories.

It is frightening to see how low game coverage has sunk to in Canada. Interestingly this has come at a time when sports journalism has been growing by leaps and bounds in this country. The newspapers are doing a great job. The Globe and Mail in particular has a fine group of writers and columnists. You seldom pick up a sports section without seeing great stories, interesting commentary and real insight into what is happening in the sports world. Writers like Stephen Brunt, Dave Shoalts, and Bruce Dowbiggin in the Globe and Damien Cox and Doug Smith in the Toronto Star never seem to fail in finding new stories and new angles that make one think about sports in new and interesting ways. They engage their readers with new information and new insights.

Even on radio, where sports radio has talk shows like Bob McCown’s show on The Fan 590, to delve into the issues by going to experts and people in the know. Sure, they have panels too, but they don’t stop there. McCown and the other radio hosts get interviews with general managers, coaches and players. They talk to Jim Balsillie and his lawyers. They get legal experts and business experts to help us understand the underlying decisions being made by leagues and teams. There is a strong attempt to answer the only real journalistic question: WHY.

At a time when sports is as much about the legal and business affairs of players, teams and leagues Canadian television is dropping the ball.

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Newsworld at 20

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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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