Media

Wall-to-wall news

There is more information than ever on Canadian TV

Anthony Wilson-Smith March 2 1998
Media

Wall-to-wall news

There is more information than ever on Canadian TV

Anthony Wilson-Smith March 2 1998

Wall-to-wall news

There is more information than ever on Canadian TV

ANTHONY WILSON-SMITH

Media

And now, for those who feel faint when they hear the words “Canada” and “constitutional debate” lumped together in conversation, some unwelcome late-breaking news: don’t touch that dial, because not even television provides surefire relief any more. At almost any time most days last week, anyone turning on the tube faced at least two and as many as four different stations offering reports on the subject. As the Supreme Court of Canada listened to legal arguments over whether Quebec has the right to declare itself unilaterally sovereign, two networks—the CBC’s Newsworld and its Frenchlanguage counterpart, the Réseau de l’information— carried the proceedings gavel-to-gavel. That programming, Newsworld head Tony Burman conceded dryly, “was appropriate to an event of great importance—but will probably not be a ratings bonanza.”

Meanwhile, the country’s newest all-news network,

CTVs N-l, reported on the subject as part of its fourtimes-hourly all day newscasts. And for Toronto-area viewers, CablePulse24, the fledgling all-news offspring of CHUM Ltd.’s City TV, had a reporter in Ottawa providing regular updates and interpretation.

“All news, all the time”: never in the history of Canadian broadcasting have so many stations made such a vow with such gusto. And soon, there may be more. The CanWest/Global television network, which serves most of the country outside of Alberta, is hoping to win government approval to operate five regional all-news stations, beginning in the fall of 1999. Like his counterparts at the other stations, Ken MacDonald, Global’s vice-president of news operations, sounds buoyant about the prospect. “There are many more stories to be covered,” he says, “and many more viewers eager to watch.” That optimism is shared by those at other stations that are either expanding their range—as is the case at nine-year-old Newsworld—or launching anew, as CTVs N-l did on Oct. 17. “Canadians have proven themselves to be particularly avid and sophisticated consumers of information,” says Henry Kowalski, vice-president of news operations at CTV.

In fact, on a per capita basis, a higher number of Canadians than Americans tune in to all-news channels. Consumers of all-news

television tend to be older—more than half the audience, on average, is over 50 years of age—as well as better-educated and more affluent than other viewers. Those last two qualities make them particularly attractive to advertisers. Still, a key question remains: is there a big enough market in Canada to allow all-news stations to generate sufficient revenue to make a profit? Even in peak hours, statistics show that out of 30 million Canadians, the total audience for all-news television seldom exceeds 200,000. “What we’re facing is micro-fragmentation of an already small market,” says Jeff Osborne, a managing partner with Toronto-based Media Buying Services, a company that works with advertisers in negotiating network airtime and ad costs. Adds Osborne: “The all-news television concept is getting perilously close to overexposure. It’s kind of like going to a magazine rack to get information about a specific issue: no matter how interested you are, there’s a limit to how many magazines you’ll buy.”

Until recently, ratings for all-news television stations were languishing at their lowest

levels since the Cable News Network (CNN) first began broadcasting in 1980—when it was disparagingly known by other outlets as the Chicken Noodle Network. MSNBC, the all-news subsidiary of the NBC television network, sometimes draws a nightly audience of as few as 10,000 viewers. All-news stations depend upon big—and usually bad—news for good ratings. That means that the best periods for all-news television have included the 1991 Gulf War—when CNN’s ratings hit an all-time high of 5.4 million viewers—the O. J. Simpson murder trial in 1995, and the aftermath of the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, last August. ‘We do not operate in a vacuum,” says CTV’s Kowalski. “Obviously, people are most likely to watch when they feel there is something specific to watch.”

While they agree on that, each of the people running Canada’s all-news stations use sometimes sharply divergent approaches to report news and woo viewers. The differences among the three existing Englishlanguage networks, as well as Global’s planned entry:

Newsworld. Though relatively young, the nine-year-old Newsworld is the grande dame of the business in Canada. It offers a blend of live programming of major news events, talk shows with heavy emphasis on politics and business, and documentaries. According to the terms of its broadcast licence, 90 per cent of Newsworld’s programming must be Canadian. It is also the only one of the networks to publicly reveal its budget—$55 million a year.

Newsworld is only now breaking away from its internal image as the unwelcome kid brother of the main network. CBC anchor Peter Mansbridge concedes that “in the past, I used to fight to keep big stories and projects on the main network, away from Newsworld. Now, we’re learning to work together.” The network averages about a one-percent share of the TV audience, and sometimes reaches 1.5 per cent. That means on an average weeknight about 70,000 Canadians are watching at any one time, although that figure climbs to more than 100,000 at 9 p.m., when Newsworld airs The National one hour before the main network. Another top draw is Pamela Wallin, while the four p.m. weeknight Politics with hosts Don Newman and Nancy Wilson is a must-see in Ottawa and provincial capitals.

Newsworld’s blessing and curse, notes Burman, is that as a public broadcaster it does not have to worry as much about ratings. “Our mandate is to help Canadians see themselves reflected in our programming,” he says. On the plus side, that means provocative offerings that few private networks would dare—such as the critically acclaimed Rough Cuts and The Passionate Eye. On the minus side, that includes the cumbersome business of co-ordinating programming out of three production centres—Toronto, Calgary and Halifax. That produces needless duplication: too often there are too many talk shows featuring the same guests talking about the same topics. And even if ratings are not a priority, the morning show’s numbers—peaking at about about 90,000 viewers versus some 330,000 for CTV’s Canada AM—are abysmal. Burman, who became Newsworld head on Feb. 1, says fixing that is one of his priorities.

CTV N-1. “When we made it onto the air so quickly, that was a miracle in itself,” says CTV’s Kowalski with a sigh. That emotion is understandable: Kowalski, who became head of CTV news last spring, had only six months to hire a staff, carve out space at CTV’s existing studio in Toronto, and go to air. That took place in the midst of a takeover of CTV by Baton Broadcasting—which has resulted in an uneasy blend of corporate cultures.

So much for the good news. “It is not too early to say that this network could face extreme trouble in the market,” says Osborne of Media Buying Services. “Their ratings are dismal, and the question is whether Canadians want a headline service.” And, says Vince Carlin, the director of journalism at Ryerson Polytechnic University and former head of Newsworld: “CTV has great on-air journalists, but they’re not using them well.” Ratings average a 0.1-per-cent audience share—meaning that during prime time, there are seldom more than 40,000 viewers and often less than a quarter of that.

Among N-l’s problems are the terms of its CRTC licence: it has severe restrictions on the use of live programming and is supposed to operate in a 15minute “wheel”—meaning that there is little chance to cram detailed reports into the four newscasts required every hour. As well, N-l is using new technology that allows news anchors to tape their spots in advance. Editors then cut and reorder those items—a process much like shuffling a deck of cards. The result saves N-l money in staff costs, but critics say the final product lacks the necessary immediacy for a news service, and N-l lags well behind on breaking stories. Says Carlin: “They’re too hung up on technology.” Kowalski acknowledges some problems and is defensive about others. On the ratings issue, he says: “By definition, headline news is something that people only tune into for a few minutes, so it’s very hard to rate us by conventional means.” Of late, he has been rejiggering the lineup, trying to find a way to introduce more live coverage of events while staying within the terms of N-l’s licence. And, he promises, “we will use our top-drawer talent whenever possible.” That means people such as main news anchor Lloyd Robertson and Ottawa bureau chief Craig Oliver are likely to appear more often.

CablePulse24. One of the favorite mantras of Moses Znaimer, the head and founder of hugely popular City TV in Toronto, is: “Think globally, act locally.” To that, City TYs vicepresident of news, Stephen Hurlbut, adds his description of how City’s all-news operation will present stories: “Main Street meets Bay Street.” Although CP24 will not formally launch until March 30, it is now on the air with a preview mix of live programming and other shows. Typically, its flashy, high-tech, interactive style will set it far apart from other news stations in Canada and anywhere else. It will have a strong daytime emphasis on business, working in collaboration with The Financial Post.

As well, CP24 will be relentlessly regional in focus. For example, coverage of national political stories, says Hurlbut, “will focus heavily on how they affect Toronto.” At any given time, an “enriched” screen will offer viewers as many as half a dozen different pieces of information: in addition to the main programming carried on about half the screen, other boxes will feature news bulletins, sports scores, traffic and weather conditions, and in daytime, a constant update of market results.

So far, some viewers complain that CP24’s screen is dizzying to the point of overload. But within the TV industry, competitors have a healthy regard for City TVs savvy. “This station is one to watch,” says MBS’s Osborne. Predicts Ryerson’s Carlin: “These guys will give Newsworld the biggest problems in audience share.” Several years ago, U.S. television mogul Barry Diller—regarded by many as the industry’s shrewdest operator—visited City and met with Znaimer. Recently, Diller announced plans to convert some of the American stations he owns to regional all-news vehicles—along similar lines to CP24.

Global. If its CRTC application is successful, Global will enter the regional allnews market with self-contained stations in the Atlantic provinces, Quebec, Saskatchewan, Manitoba and British Columbia. “Ground-level regional news is where the market is going,” says vice-president MacDonald. In that regard, Global’s approach will be similar to that of City TV. Otherwise, however, it will be much more white-bread and middle-of-the-road in its approach—reflecting the successful nature of Global’s present news programming. Many of the precise details of Global’s plans remain confidential, pending submission of its application to the CRTC this fall.

For now, the most obvious winners of the all-news sweepstakes are broadcast journalists, many of whom regard the new competition—and job market—with delight. “If you’re good, you’re never afraid of a little competition,” says Mansbridge. “And if there’s a lot of competition, that’s even better.” The same holds true for news junkies, who can now see more news presented more times and more ways than ever before. “This all should be a lot of fun for everyone,” says City TVs Hurlbut. Perhaps, but one key question remains: with so much news to choose from, will Canadians turn on and tune in—or drop out?

At the TV news peak

Kelly Crichton never planned on being a journalist. When she applied at CTV for a full-time job in 1965, the attraction, she says, “was that they wanted a writer, and I thought I was pretty good at that.” But she found herself writing blurbs promoting crime shows and comedies, and, frustrated, seized a chance to move to a job with the then-fledgling public affairs show W5. So, she says, with a selfmocking laugh, “a career was born.” Thirty-three years later, Crichton has reached the pinnacle of Canadian television as the newly appointed executive producer

of the CBC’s The National. That puts her in hands-on charge of the network’s flagship nightly news and public affairs program. To do so, she stepped down the CBC’s corporate ladder from her previous post as head of English-language television news. There were two reasons for doing so, says the 54year-old Crichton. “First, this is arguably the best journalistic job in Canada. And being an administrator was never my idea of what I wanted to be when I grew up.”

Crichton replaces Tony Burman, who has become head of CBC Newsworld. He leaves her a program in much better shape than when he took it over in January, 1993: in the turmoil-ridden previous two years, The National changed its name and time slot while enduring cuts that reduced staff and budget by 45 per cent. But in the past five years, The National has won a string of national and international awards for both overall content and specific programs. Ratings of late— buoyed by coverage of the Olympic Games —have gone as high as 1.8 million. Says Crichton: “My short-term mandate is to keep things running just the same way.”

In the long term, some changes are likely. Crichton is known as an activist with firm ideas of what she wants—and the credentials to implement them. Notes anchor Peter Mansbridge: ‘Take a look at Kelly’s résumé —there isn’t a better-qualified person to take over.” She has worked as a reporter, assignment editor, run the CBC’s London bureau, and produced the investigative program the fifth estate. In her personal life, Crichton has been married to Mel Watkins—a retired professor and longtime New Democratic Party activist—since 1971, and has three adult children.

Another reason why change is likely is the CBC’s internal politics, which can be as time-consuming and intriguing to insiders as the stories they cover. The National, says one staff member, is “a place where big egos have big dreams—and bigger fights.” The program endured a public relations fiasco in January when the CBC ran print ads describing it as “Canada’s most-watched newscast”—a claim made by including viewer totals of two nightly repeats of the program on Newsworld (without those, k CTVs newscast is the leader). d There is also a long tradition of i fights between members of the i documentary section of the show d —the Magazine—and the team that “■ produces the newscast. In a lament common to news shows, there is grumbling that anchor Mansbridge wields too much power. And pressure is mounting to replace Mansbridge’s co-host, Hana Gartner, who appears overly emotional and out of her depth in her job.

A.W.-S.

But in that hothouse environment, most expect Crichton, with her cheery but nononsense personality, to thrive. “I can’t think of a thing Kelly does badly,” says Vince Carlin, a former head of Newsworld who now runs Ryerson Polytechnic University’s journalism program. “Even those who disagree with anything she says have to acknowledge she has earned the right to say it.” As she takes over a program that takes huge selfdeclared pride in its credibility, that may be Crichton’s most important quality of all.