It began as a bold experiment and it ended as a high-profile failure. Last week, the board of directors of the CBC announced that next fall Prime Time News, the network’s top news and current affairs program, will be moved from the 9 p.m. time slot it has occupied since November, 1992, back to the 10 p.m. spot of its popular predecessors, The National and The Journal. The move had seemed inevitable as ratings fell and critics questioned the show’s content and format. But, for many Canadians, the biggest problem with Prime Time News was simply the time slot. David Harrison, president of a Toronto company that purchases millions of dollars worth of television time each year for advertising clients like Labatt’s, Honda,
Nike and American Express, said that as a parent of two young children he simply hasn’t got the time to watch a 9 p.m. newscast. “I know from experience that it really doesn’t fit into people’s lives,” says Harrison. “As a viewer, I watch CTV’s Lloyd Robertson at 11 a lot more than I used to.”
So do many other Canadians. The private network’s nightly newscast attracts an average audience of 1.3 million, compared with Prime Time’s 860,000 viewers—roughly the reverse of the figures before the CBC made its time and format changes. Many ob-
servers view the CBC’s move as a significant retreat from the highly publicized repositioning strategy that accompanied the new program. Under that plan, the evening prime time began with family-oriented viewing until the 9 p.m. news, then concluded with two hours of programming aimed at an adult audience. The failure of the flagship program to draw viewers put the entire plan in question. “It had been clear for some time that the experiment hasn’t worked,” said Prime Time co-host Peter Mansbridge. “We’ve alienated a lot of people and it’s going to take hard work to get them back into the tent.” Some critics maintain that if the CBC is pursuing higher ratings for its news show, it must do more than simply move it back to 10 p.m. They contend that the program badly needs a new format. Mansbridge and co-host Pamela Wallin take turns presenting news items in the first 20 minutes, then conduct interviews or introduce feature reports in the remaining 40 minutes. Mansbridge hinted that he, Wallin and the show’s senior producers will be discussing format and a number of other issues over the summer. But CBC insiders, who requested anonymity, said that network executives have already suggested reverting to the National/Journal formula, with a much clearer break between
With the CBC news back at 10, what else will change? the hard news and background segments. They apparently want Mansbridge to present the news off the top, while Wallin would host an interview and feature segment.
For some viewers, a new format would solve many of the problems they had come to associate with Prime Time News. Ian Morrison, spokesman for the 40,000-member lobby group Friends of Canadian Broadcasting,' says the program is unduly dominated by news about political and business elites, and suffers from a lack of reflective and analytical material. Peter Swain, president of Toronto-based Me dia Buying Services Ltd., which purchases advertising space for companies such as Eaton’s and BMW, says that news and current affairs segments have become so blurred that both viewers and advertisers are con-
fused about the show’s objective.
Other critics contend that Prime Time's shortcomings are symptomatic of much deeper problems that the CBC board has avoided. Michael Nolan, an associate professor at the University of Western Ontario graduate school of journalism, says the board and senior management have failed to develop a strategy to ensure that the CBC can survive the competition from direct broadcast satellites, which will make hundreds of channels available to Canadians within a couple of years. Wayne Skene, a Vancouver communications consultant and author of the 1993 book Fade to Black: A Requiem for the CBC, is even harsher in his assessment of the corporation’s leadership. “These guys are just going from crisis to crisis,” said Skene, a former CBC TV manager for British Columbia. “They have no vision of what a public broadcaster should be.”
Other observers maintain that the repositioning strategy at least addressed the need to make CBC television distinct from commercial alternatives. Ivan Fecan, who as a CBC vice-president was widely credited as the prime architect of the repositioning, says it was designed to showcase Canadian talent and programming that was not available elsewhere. Fecan, now senior vice-president of Toronto-based Baton Broadcasting Inc., says that such shows as Adrienne Clarkson Presents, Witness and Cinema Canada provided reflective and provocative alternatives to the American-made entertainment that dominates prime-time television. “If you set out to be an alternative, then by definition you’re not going to be Number 1,” said Fecan. “Maybe the CBC has decided it would rather be popular than different.” Either way, Canada’s leading public broadcaster is still looking for its way in a highly competitive and increasingly fragmented industiy.
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