Beyond Repair

CBC hoped its news renewal would revitalize the sputtering network, but how much can you do with the same broken engine under the hood? 

Tyler Harper
Summer, 2010 | Comments (1) - Report an Error

In the din of the newsroom, an orchestra of hammers struck the first note. Old sets were hastily torn down and replaced by transparent desks, luminescent backdrops and television screens. As the sound of buzz saws and workboots grew louder, so did the pressure to meet the on-air deadline. Newscasters rehearsed their standups on unfinished sets. Staff complained privately about increased work hours. In the days leading up to October 26, 2009, the music playing out at CBC News was a cacophony of anxiety and uncertainty. And when the orchestra finished, the performance began.

* * *

Peter Mansbridge stood on the new set of CBC News: The National, grinning into the camera as kinetic text and colours flashed behind him. Gone was the generic background. Instead, Mansbridge walked from screen to screen, story to story, reporter to reporter, in a bright, plastic space where everything seemed faster paced. Stories were sometimes introduced on different parts of the set. Some reporters delivered their reports and standups live rather than on location. Retired General Rick Hillier stood at a desk as he talked about his new book. To everyone involved, it was an excruciatingly choreographed production.

Mansbridge appeared to be playing a different role. Previously dignified as the rock of Canadian journalism, the 61-year-old anchor now looked uncomfortably jovial, as if he were trying to be younger, to keep stride, to be cool. In the middle of a Wendy Mesley piece on the H1N1 virus, Mansbridge looked at her and awkwardly asked, “What’s up with that?” Mansbridge wasn’t the only player who seemed out of place: London correspondent Adrienne Arsenault filed a piece on a poll concluding Canadians don’t care about the British monarchy, and Mesley dressed up in a haz-mat suit and asked for a book on swine flu at a local Chapters. It was a broadcast without bite.

When the show ended and the curtains closed, the actors retired for the night. There was a sense of momentary relief among the staff. They had produced a show that, because of the choreography between reporters and screens, was near impossible to direct. Part had been taped prior to broadcast because, as one former staffer recalls, there were concerns it would “blow up on television.” Though the show wasn’t as smooth as producers would have liked, there were few lineup glitches and reporters made no noticeable mistakes.

Despite the supreme effort, audience reaction to the October 26 revamp of The National did not sound like applause. Globe and Mail columnist Rick Salutin called it “talking down to dim, self-absorbed viewers, with weak attention spans who don’t care about complex issues or, yuck, details.” One viewer wrote to the Globe asking, “How stupid do they think the audience is?...[T]he banter between reporters is even worse on this new program and totally unreal. The stories are much too bitty and the whole program comes across as unprofessional.” Furthermore, viewers did not flock to the new version. Opening night audience numbers hit 704,000, according to an article television critic John Doyle wrote for the Globe—just over half the audience of that evening’s CTV National News—but as usual, dropped off 20 minutes into the broadcast to 573,000. Low numbers are nothing unusual; CBC’s main competitors, CTV and Global, typically dominate ratings.

The most common criticism, that reporters, anchors and guests now stood up on The National, was easier to defend than more valid concerns of fellow journalists: Why were the stories shorter? What had become of the long-form pieces that usually ran in the back half of The National? Why were CBC’s star reporters such as Arsenault and Mesley filing puff pieces? And, finally, why did everything seem sensationalist and populist—the type of flash news associated with CNN?

The uncomfortable truth about the network’s approach to news is that it had to change. It had become stale and predictable. It was a common joke that CBC Newsworld, renamed CBC News Network, took weekends off, and The National hadn’t had a major overhaul since the early 1990s. It needed, as Doyle observed, a “shot of adrenalin.” But had CBC gone too far?

The network is in distress. CBC must maintain its viewers under a perpetually thin budget. Its parliamentary appropriation, which in the last 20 years topped out at a little over $1.5 billion in 1991, took a cut in the late ’90s and hasn’t been adjusted annually for inflation. CBC/Radio-Canada’s revenue in 2008-2009, including advertising and other income, totalled just over $1.8 billion, about $16 million short of its operating costs. Last year, a $171 million budgetary shortfall forced CBC to cut approximately 800 jobs.

What Canadians get, then, is a network that has to do more with less, and how much CBC spent on the relaunch hasn’t been made public. Most troubling, however, is that CBC is on the verge of losing its relevance. With stiff competition and an audience that has more news options than ever, Canada’s public broadcaster, a national and cultural institution since 1936, is struggling to remind viewers of its own importance. CBC’s answer, a massive overhaul of news and programming, has the network under tremendous pressure in one of the most turbulent years of its existence.

* * *

Although Richard Stursberg, executive vice-president of English services, has publicly said the news renewal began around 2006, its origins date back to 2003, when Tony Burman, the former head of CBC News, commissioned a study that explored the state of CBC News and how it needed to change. The 248-page document is extensive, a thick manifesto detailing everything from branding and presentation to a new system of newsgathering called “tri-media collaboration,” or “editorial engine,” that would integrate CBC’s different news platforms.

It made no concrete suggestions. The study pointed out that many viewers wanted more international coverage made “local.” It suggested CBC move toward flashier branding to attract a younger demographic, yet contradictorily noted the problems with the overly slick news associated with U.S. networks. One of CBC’s issues, according to the study, was the “superficial, cosmetic or style changes that seem out of character or, worse, compromise the core integrity of the brand.”

“It became the manual and the justification to do anything you wanted, because you could read anything into it,” says a former staffer. “Viewers wanted foreign news, they wanted local news, they wanted more weather, they wanted shorter pieces, they hated politics. You could read anything into it, so anytime anyone had an idea, management would say, ‘That’s what the news study says.’ The fact that something entirely different was said four pages later mattered not.”

Burman left CBC in July 2007 and in May 2008 became managing director of Al Jazeera English. The study died. But from its corpse, Stursberg had a clear field to implement his vision. “Richard doesn’t give a shit about the news. And this is completely about the news,” says a former CBC News producer. “All he gave a shit about was power between him and Tony.”

What Stursberg wants—a network that isn’t just surviving but thriving—is the dream shared by everyone at CBC, and it’s ironic that it was Burman’s study that opened the door for the news renewal, as Burman is revered while Stursberg is vilified.

Both Burman and Stursberg declined multiple requests to comment for this story, but some former CBC staffers believe Stursberg won a power struggle between the two. “He hated that Tony had an area of influence that he didn’t control, which was the news,” says one. “He probably also hated the fact that whenever you talk to anyone anywhere, they’ll tell you the news is what CBC exists for. And, as you know, what Richard wished it existed for is Little Mosque on the Prairie”—a reference to the fact that, since he arrived in 2004 and was put in charge of all English-language programming services in 2007,Stursberg has been criticized inside and outside the network for his populist vision.

Todd Spencer, executive director of news content, was given the task of reconfiguring the divided newsroom into a hub system, where television, radio and online assignments, plus planning, would be merged into one desk. Executive producer Mark Harrison and director Jonathan Whitten were charged with guiding The National through the extensive revamp, with Whitten planning the changes and Harrison keeping the show running in the meantime. (In March, Whitten took over the hub while Spencer was made executive director of CBC News Network, a shuffle not considered a lateral move.)

But Stursberg wanted a team capable of not just running CBC, but selling it as well. Jeffrey Dvorkin was a managing editor of CBC Radio before he left in 1997, after 21 years, to become head of news at National Public Radio in the U.S. He encountered Stursberg’s hiring preference in 2008 when he applied for the job of head of radio. He recalls Stursberg calling about 10 days later to tell Dvorkin he didn’t get the job. “You’re a good journalist and programmer and all that, but that’s not what we’re looking for.”

“What are you looking for?”

“Well, we’re looking for someone with experience in the music industry because we think CBC Radio is underperforming as a marketing agency,” said Stursberg.

“What do you mean?”

“Well, CBC Radio could do better in marketing for its products, like music.”

“You mean like iTunes?”

“Exactly.”

Stursberg still found capable people. He hired John Cruickshank, a former chief operating officer of the Sun-Times Media Group’s Chicago portfolio, to replace Burman, making him publisher of CBC News. But Cruickshank soon left to become publisher of the Toronto Star. So Stursberg looked again, this time within CBC. He hired Jennifer McGuire as interim general manager and editor-in-chief of CBC News—same job, different title—in November 2008, then made the job official the following May. By the time she reached the top, McGuire had an impressive resumé at the network. She had been in charge of programming on CBC Radio and previously worked as a producer on television shows such as Foreign Assignment and Sunday Morning Live.

McGuire is considered by many to be a loyal, ambitious, competent employee. But some express concern that she speaks Stursberg’s language too well to ever really lead her staff, and that she is not Burman. The sentiment is unfair to McGuire: Burman’s legacy casts a long shadow over CBC, and McGuire took over at a time when her every decision was being scrutinized. For her part, McGuire says she didn’t think too much about it. “Tony’s held the reins in news for a very long time. He’s a big personality and he’s a journalist with great credentials. I’m not intimidated by that nor am I disrespectful of it. I think it’s wonderful; Burman had a great legacy, and on we go.”

Endless meetings and committees were scheduled, and it appeared that one major influence on what Stursberg did came from representatives of Frank N. Magid Associates, an American media consulting firm known for its “if it bleeds, it leads” mandate that found an ear at CBC around 2005 and has seen its influence grow since. The Magid approach emphasized crime, weather and traffic. Newscasts were to carry more stories with shorter run times, or stories cut up into segments scattered across the program, to keep viewers engaged.

Ian Morrison, spokesman for Friends of Canadian Broadcasting, says Magid’s reputation for “promoting sizzle rather than steak” doesn’t jibe with the ideals of a public broadcaster. “In the mainstream of the Western democratic tradition, public broadcasting has a distinctive something. It’s not something that follows, apes or mimics the private sector. It’s something that goes into more depth, covers things longer, tries to get behind the news to explain what’s going on and not chase fire trucks, sensationalizing, using news as entertainment, shock. Magid’s reputation is moving it in that direction and that is consistent with the current CBC management’s preoccupation with audience numbers and stylistically copying things that happen in the private sector in this country, and particularly in the United States.”

An access to information request for Magid’s contract and details of the company’s consultation with CBC was denied by the network on the grounds of journalistic exemption, and McGuire disputes the company’s perceived influence on the relaunch. “I think it’s ludicrous; it implies Magid somehow has a decision-making role here, and they don’t,” she says, adding that CBC made all decisions internally and that Magid’s consultations were specific to work flow, content analysis and local programming.

It can be argued that while hundreds of people took part in the relaunch committees, opposition to CBC’s new direction never had a chance to develop because so many experienced staff were taking themselves out of the game through voluntary retirement packages. CBC News senior correspondent Brian Stewart and Don Newman, host of Newsworld’s Politics, were among the biggest names to take the buyout, and newsroom morale was damaged by reassignments, layoffs and buyouts.

Stewart likens it to a troubled sports team being reinvented from the bottom up. Veterans are traded for rookies and draft picks in the hope that a fresh look can spark the team’s fortunes. But in a newsroom, that breeds anxiety. “People lose confidence,” says Stewart. “They wonder if they’re the mistake, if they’re the weak link. It had to linger as long as the rediscovery period went on. And I’m not sure how management could have soft-coated that in any way. They had to be honest and say a lot is going to change. Human beings can only live within that cycle for so long before they get kind of spooked. It happens with athletes, it happens in business, it happens in media.”

* * *

Under the hood, one of the biggest changes is the introduction of the hub, an assignment system meant to integrate television, radio and online editorial into one unit. Previously, assignment on each platform operated independently. A radio reporter and a television reporter might, for example, be sent to cover a protest unaware of each other. The hub is a way to do more with less in a clean, efficient manner. Theoretically, it should help CBC get ahead of the curve.

The system is organized into a desk in the middle of the CBC Toronto newsroom, with about 60 people working among three sections. At the planning desk, editors work out CBC’s future coverage. The daily desk assigns traditional stories, and the live-now desk feeds new information and footage to platforms—such as CBC News Network and the network’s website—that are capable of relaying breaking news. “Seventy to 80 percent of news can actually be planned for,” Spencer explained last January before he was reassigned to News Network. “You can’t plan for an earthquake in Haiti but you can plan for how you’re going to respond to an earthquake somewhere, so you can be a little bit ready. We can certainly be planning for most events that we end up covering.”

Spencer said the idea of a hub had been floated around the network even before Burman’s study, but that staff were skeptical because nothing had ever materialized. “When I had conversations with the staff they said, ‘Yeah, you know, we’ve been talking about this for years.’”

Spencer and McGuire began gathering suggestions in the spring of 2008. By the fall, they had enough information to assemble three small “blue-sky” groups that would come up with possible models for the hub. Then, for eight gruelling days at the end of January 2009, a work group tested each model and decided on how the hub would operate. The new system was unveiled in March 2009. A version of it was tested in Vancouver, then implemented in smaller newsrooms such as CBC Manitoba, where it fit with ease, though many regional newsrooms were already using their own versions of the hub. When the Toronto hub, which handles national coverage, launched last September, it ran 24/7.

Internally, the hub has met with plenty of complaints. Following the layoffs, there was grumbling that CBC should have been hiring reporters instead of adding a new layer of bureaucracy. A newsroom joke was that it took nine people to assign one reporter, though Spencer said there is little truth to this. He admitted it was challenging getting reassigned staffers, a mix from television, radio and online, used to new ways of working.

“We did a lot the last 12 months. People are very tired, and that leads to stressful situations,” he says. “But people are amazing and they’ve worked really, really hard.

“We’ve got at least another two years of work to refining, to making it work. This whole change of CBC News is a five-year project, in my view. You plan the work, you work the plan, and then you make sure it’s all working over the next few years.”

* * *

While the early months of 2009 were marked by the purging of the old guard and their old ways from CBC, the following five months—leading up to the October relaunch—can be defined by the network’s dash to reveal its reinvention. The public’s first look came in August when the previously 60-minute local broadcast expanded to three 30-minute segments. The network pitched it as a better way to serve its audience, but some speculated that it was an attempt to boost ad revenue. Thirty new minutes would mean more content, and recasting stories meant viewers would be less likely to miss the day’s top news. But in practice, the news seems diluted. Each 30-minute segment contains streeters almost identical to its incarnation in the previous block, often the only change being a different camera angle.

The local news reboot was, however, a mild precursor to the October relaunch, in which CBC changed its focus from delivering the news to connecting with the viewer. On The National, this can be seen in a number of ways. Reporters in the studio casually discuss their stories with Mansbridge instead of authoritatively delivering the news to the camera. Pieces are shorter. A typical long piece might run five or six minutes, down considerably from the 17- to 20-minute stories that used to air on the program’s back half. (Mansbridge attributes the shorter stories to a lack of resources and access. “That programming’s not as successful as it used to be. Long-form documentary programming has its home; we have lots of it on our network. There still is longer form on The National, but the documentaries have got to be worth it.”)Time is set aside to promote upcoming stories before commercial breaks. What the stories have lost in time, and therefore content, has theoretically been gained in keeping the viewers’ short attention spans throughout the program.

Derek Foster, an assistant professor at Brock University who has written several academic papers about the network, calls CBC’s attempt to establish a relationship with the viewer “a rhetoric of display. It’s a mode of presentation much like museums, which are constantly updating the way in which they try to appeal to their visitors. That’s the same thing CBC is doing. How can we encourage more visitors to come to our broadcast and how can we encourage them to stay through the half-hour and want to come back again? So they try to make it more homey.”

In a bid to use social media and get even cozier with viewers, CBC has placed a greater emphasis on The National’s Facebook page. Along with providing a space for comments, CBC also invites viewers to suggest the stories they want to see. And if you ever forget about it, Mansbridge is there at the end of The National to remind you CBC is online.

Such cross-promotion was given a greater focus after the relaunch. On local news, sports stories were sometimes replaced by plugs for upcoming sports programming. On The National, the cross-promotion was more shameless. When Battle of the Blades, a ratings hit for CBC in 2009, ended its final episode, one of the stories on The National following the broadcast was an interview with one of the show’s executive producers, Sandra Bezic, that included her speculating on future spinoffs. Increasingly, it seemed as though CBC treated The National as a billboard rather than a sacrosanct news program. That’s because CBC no longer had viewers; it had fans.

“This is part of their new identity,” says Foster, “that they’re not necessarily going to educate or service people in the way that has been traditionally understood as the mandate of public service broadcasting.

“So CBC is now on Facebook and they’re saying, ‘Tell us what you’d like covered.’ Like they’re literally saying, ‘If you express enough interest in this story, maybe we’ll put it higher up on the actual nightly coverage.’ It’s quite fascinating, the degree to which they are trying to actually not just become more of a public broadcaster but more of a popular broadcaster.”

* * *

When Brian Stewart looks back on his 45-year career as a journalist—37 of which he spent at CBC—he uses words like “fun” and “lucky” to describe his time in the ’70s and ’80s. Before he became one of CBC’s star foreign correspondents, Stewart was having a gas in ’70s Montreal covering city politics, protests and the FLQ crisis. Like many current and former CBC staffers, Stewart recalls that period with nostalgic fondness. Canada was eager to bolster its status in the world, and CBC was one of only a few networks worldwide that had the resources to bring the story home. For his own part, Stewart made his name in 1984 reporting on Ethiopia’s famine with daring footage of dying children and terrible living conditions. “There was a very good backup to our efforts abroad,” says Stewart. “If we could sell them on the importance of a story, there was much more the atmosphere or the attitude that, fine, we gotta be there and let’s beat the world.” It was a gutsy time for a network that could afford to show some swagger. CBC had little domestic competition and rarely worried about ratings. It also had The Journal

When The Journal went to air in 1982, hosted by Barbara Frum and Mary Lou Finlay, it represented a ballsy gambit: A 38-minute current affairs program tacked onto the back half of The National with no male host and densely reported stories with run times that often exceeded 20 minutes. It was expensive, relevant and critically acclaimed.

Then Frum died in 1992. Soon after, CBC management decided to roll The National and The Journal into one seamless program called Prime Time News, which many agree was a negative turning point for the network.

“The decision to kill The Journal was a grave mistake. A very grave mistake. It had tremendous potential to move on, like 60 Minutes, like Panorama on the BBC. But to kill it off a decade after it was launched, it was only 10 years old and it was one of the major names,” says Stewart. “Probably for 10 years people would still refer to The National’s back end or any other manifestation as The Journal.”

In the face of a new rival in CNN and stronger domestic competition from CTV, CBC hoped Prime Time News would revitalize the network. Hosted by Peter Mansbridge and Pamela Wallin, the show combined the current affairs aspects of The Journal with the news stories of The National in a 9 p.m. time slot.

“The idea at the time was that it would be a unique newscast,” says the Globe’s Doyle. “It would not necessarily lead with the biggest hard news event that happened that day. It would lead with the most interesting story of the day. If there was a big political story that day, it might ignore that and lead with a long report on some new research on breast cancer. It was a very experimental CBC program. Highly unusual for its time. Possibly ahead of its time.”

It was also a disaster. Prime Time News competed against American rating monsters such as Frasier, Seinfeld and Melrose Place, and viewers weren’t interested in watching news earlier than 10 p.m. The new format lasted less than three years before CBC quietly slumped away from the changes.

* * *

In the months since the October relaunch, The National has in many ways returned to a calmer format. The new set remains, but the stories and nightly lineup have strengthened. The choreography has largely been done away with in favour of the camera focused on Mansbridge standing behind the desk. This can be credited to the show’s leadership under Harrison and Whitten, both of whom Stewart says kept the show functioning during the relaunch. Plus, they have succeeded in breaking away from what Whitten calls the traditional newscast format of intro, item, repeat. The National has been flashy, yes, but it’s also been consistently interesting.

Harrison and Whitten are both sensitive to the impact on the audience, but they also feel the show had to respond to the times if it were to continue. Whitten points to The National’s website and 10-minute downloadable podcast (updated every weekday at 6 p.m. ET before the main broadcast) as examples of the show’s attempts to adapt to the times. “It’s recognizing that, 10 years from now, are people really going to be still sitting waiting for 10 o’clock at night to get the news? And The National is a hugely important brand for CBC, so why have people wait until 10 o’clock at night?” Whitten says. “This was a pretty wide-ranging change in the way we do things. It didn’t really involve the set and whether Peter stood or not. And I think that gets kind of lost in a lot of the hubbub.”

All of this may be too little, too late for CBC. Doyle thinks these changes should have come 20 years ago, during the rise of CNN in Canada, and that it cost CBC an opportunity, in particular with Newsworld, to be effective. “They knew there was a huge interest in the kind of live, on-the-spot reporting that CNN was doing. I think CBC was caught completely unaware. They failed to use Newsworld to respond to the existence of CNN in Canada.”

CBC’s troubles today are a far cry from the network’s glory days. In January, Spencer conceded CBC isn’t necessarily the first choice for Canadians anymore. “No one really loves anyone in Canadian news,” he says, adding the relaunch was informed by viewer feedback. “There’s no big winner. This myth that, Don’t worry, when it’s really hitting the fan people will go to CBC News. That isn’t true anymore. They go to whatever they’re going to on a regular basis more and more. So the audience was telling us, You’re not as important as you think you are.

“Numbers are really important to us and ratings are really important to us, because that’s the only way we know if we’re actually making a difference with Canadians.”

Still, CBC is undeniably a ratings underdog, though according to Mansbridge, it’s also a network “that survives on the strength of our journalists and what they deliver for us. We don’t survive on the strength of the lead-ins to our program. We never have. We’re not CTV at 11 o’clock coming out of viewers watching CSI. We’re The National coming out at 10 o’clock, which is the heart of prime time, against the heaviest competition, which isn’t news. And our lead-ins are usually very small in TV prime-time numbers.”

But that a public broadcaster would measure itself in terms of viewers, Foster says, is inevitably going to anger part of CBC’s audience, even though healthy viewer numbers lead to more advertising revenue. “Then you can continue to put more money into these things that will build and drive increasing future audiences.

“That is really problematic for some people, the traditional cultural nationalist public that says the CBC should not be servicing this master of advertising. That they’re serving dual masters: the public interest and commercial interest.”

In an ideal world, CBC would provide the stories Canadians need, not what they want. In reality, CBC must labour to convince the audience and federal government that a public broadcaster is still necessary.

CBC News then walks a tightrope of expectations between two types of audience: the one that thinks CBC as a public broadcaster has a duty to give Canadians vital content without pandering for advertising money, and the other that wants CBC to maintain its quality while providing a return on taxpayers’ investment. CBC News can either continue, underfunded and struggling to compete for shorter attention spans, or be burnt to the ground.

“Public opinion, public interest and public expectations. All these things are wrapped up in this idea of what a public broadcaster can do,” says Foster. “And the CBC as a public broadcaster almost inevitably is going to fall short.”

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COMMENTS (1)
Ishmael Daro
Public broadcasters everywhere are having to ask themselves tough questions about their place in the media landscape. I continue to hope that the CBC will see its funding not only increased but also ensured for the long term. If the CBC doesn't have that financial buffer between them and advertisers, the quality of journalism will continue to decline. However, the CBC's online operations are stellar, including TV and radio. CBC Radio 3, for example, is an important cultural institution to many young Canadians.

A very interesting article. Well done.
Posted on 06/09/2010
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