Media

Ready on the set

September 10 2001
Media

Ready on the set

September 10 2001

Ready on the set

Media

Anchor Kevin Newman counts down to Global’s new supper-hour newscast

This week marks the launch ¿^Global National, a supper-hour newscast anchored by Kevin Newman, who also serves as executive editor. Based in Vancouver, the halfhour show—an ambitious new initiative for CanWest Global Communications, run by the Asper family—is billed as an “alternative, less formal” approach to the news. Newman, 42, began his career at Global in 1983, and has since worked for CBC, CTV and ABC News, where he co-hosted Good Morning America. His diary of the days leading up to Global National s debut:

Aug. 13: Three weeks from launch and the carpenters need extra shifts to get everything ready on time. Those Aspers sure make some curious business decisions. Haven’t they seen the numbers? The ratings for national news in Canada are going steadily one way: down. Especially among viewers younger than 35. According to Nielsen ratings, CTV News has seen a decline of around 25 per cent over the past two years among young adult viewers. CBC’s The National on its main network has lost more than 50 per cent of its younger audience! On top of all that, national news at the supper hour has yet to prove itself an overwhelming success on the CBC. So what kind of astute businessmen double their investment in a product that is aging and oversaturated? Who in their right mind would want to work on it?

Aug. 15: I’ve been wary of TV audience research since the day a senior ABC News executive shared with me computer photorenderings of how I might look with different glasses, hairstyles, clothing and tie knots . . . and then how so-called focus groups responded to each version of “Kevin.” It set me off in a spiral of indecision and insecurity that took months to shake off. I think research can help you learn about your viewers, but should never be used to create elements of a broadcast. The creation ends up being a television Frankenstein—something pieced together that isn’t quite whole. So we’re trying to stay focused on a couple of core beliefs: that newscasts are a little too self-important, that in a television environment where Survivor seems more authentic than news we need to search for the truth more aggressively, and that too many newscasts report on things people don’t care about. Yet as we get closer to our first broadcast, doubt seems to grow. A few graphs or polls or five people in room with one-way glass picking us apart might be reassuring about now. Luckily it’s too late. Judgment and guts will have to get us to air. Then we’ll see how long they can hold out.

Aug. 17: The set carpenter looks at my hands with too few calluses and dismisses me as just another pretty-boy anchor. How do they know where everything plugs in? These engineers, technicians and carpenters seem to have some sort of psychic link to machines, allowing them to connect things out of reflex. They’ve put in 600 hours of work connecting 10,000 m of cable. What if one is in the wrong hole? Do we have to do without Saskatoon? Will my face turn purple?

Aug. 18: British Columbia—I was wholly unprepared for how this place affects you. You can smell Vancouver, and I mean that in a nice way. The sweet scent of cedar hits you even when you’re driving. The environment demands your attention because it is so imposing and impossible to ignore. I get asked a lot by reporters what it will mean to have a national newscast based in Vancouver— whether western issues will dominate. Which are what, exactly? How is what people in Kelowna worry about that different from the concerns of Canadians in Truro, Orillia or Brandon?

I’ve spent some time driving across Canada these months when I haven’t been on air, and I hear the same worries: why can’t I get ahead in life? why is it getting harder to find a doctor? will I be poor in retirement? Maybe I haven’t been here long enough, but I haven’t met many people stewing about western alienation. It seems so yesterday. There may be one benefit to broadcasting from here, though. I have this theory that the thing that links Canadians is the belief that we all see ourselves as outsiders. You can live 30 km from Toronto and feel as much of an outsider as anyone in Lethbridge. We are all outsiders to that great energetic society to our south. So if we are somehow able to capture the spirit of the outsider, maybe that’s the key to our identity as a newscast. And that’s where being in Vancouver may really help. Living in the last time zone in Canada ensures you keep your distance.

Aug. 19: What are the other guys up to? For weeks we’ve been hearing rumours CTV is trying to mount a national newscast to go against us and CBC’s Canada Now at the supper hour. We hear Lloyd Robertson is considering anchoring it, which may simply be competitive mischief-making. CTV seems to be taking the Global challenge seriously: they’ve been aggressively courting our on-air talent (and wooed a couple) and a friend at CTV tells me their news directors have been told that Global is the competitor to watch, not the CBC. The weekend papers say CTV has “an important announcement” in two days.

Aug. 21: Never mind. New morningshow hosts, and some foreign bureaus. No CTV national newscast in the supper hour. Yet.

Aug. 23: Something else to converge. The wires are alerting everyone that Can West Global Communications CEO Leonard Asper will have an important announcement to make within the hour. Usually this means one of two things: he’s selling something, or he’s buying something.

Well, he bought... or swapped ... or something. The National Post is now wholly owned by Can West, and we have yet another newsroom to harvest for ideas and good reporting. This convergence idea, however, is proving to be a lot harder in practice. It’s not for lack of willingness . . . it’s just the size of this company now makes finding out what more than a thousand print journalists are chasing every day an enormous task for our five editorial producers, who have 80 Global journalists to keep track of already. We have a plentiful journalistic buffet before us, but we’re full at the macaroni salad.

Aug. 26: The switches are finally flipped. We’ve started playing with the new toys. I spent the day standing in place while technicians practised moving robotic cameras, shifting anchor desks, rolling videotape, and making sure the right things happened when a button was pushed. We’ve spent the better part of a year preparing for this moment: the first time we put stuff together and see whether it works on television. It took us five hours to practise about two minutes, but that’s the economics of television: a great deal of time is spent producing very little. And it didn’t fit together too well. Monitors didn’t fire up, I couldn’t see or hear anyone and most things sputtered to life. There’s a saying in theatre that if dress rehearsals go poorly, the opening performance will be stellar. I hope it holds. Aug. 27: Where are you from, exactly? It took me the better part of three years to learn how to pronounce things like an American. I spent hours in a voice coach’s Manhattan apartment practising my “White Hahw-ses” so I wouldn’t be conspicuous as a Canadian. It’s a little bit of humiliation most American networks put their northern-born reporters through, and I suppose we put up with it because if someone with a southern drawl called Montreal’s magnificent Notre Dame Basilica “Nowter Daym” we’d be irked too. Now I have the opposite problem. I’ve been left with a trace of the nasal pronunciations of “about” and “house.” They’re mixed with a few “ehs” again ... but my accent reabsorption may take longer than I thought. And “zed” is having trouble coming out of my mouth.

Aug. 28: The blitz begins. My anonymity has ended. Again. It’s weird how quickly you become someone people recognize, and also how quickly that vanishes. The promotional campaign for Global National has been running a week, and I have the vague feeling that people are staring at me in grocery stores trying to figure out who I am. When I started co-hosting Good Morning America, the velocity of fame was extraordinary. Within weeks, people were honking their horns as I passed; a woman actually squealed. I was so stunned at all the buses in New York with my mug on the front of them that one almost hit me. I suppose identifying the body would have been easy. Yet within two weeks of leaving the ABC morning show I could shop in peace. I’ll admit I suffered a tinge of loss over the special feeling that comes with people always being happy to meet you. The danger is in believing it’s because of you, when it’s mostly because you work on TV. This time the introduction to a more public life has been gentler, which probably says a lot about how Canadians view fame. I am only vaguely in some peoples consciousness, so they’re not sure whether I’m someone they went to high school with or the guy who works at the bank.

Aug. 29: After four months of being at the centre of planning this little endeavour, I find myself largely irrelevant now. We now have a staff, and my role is shrinking to more traditional anchor territory. There are two extremes of anchor behaviour known in the industry as the “800-lb. gorilla,” who is overbearing, and the “teeth and hair,” who says whatever someone else writes for him or her. And no, I will not name names. The successful anchor, in my view, is the one who finds a place between the two extremes: engaged enough to care, but not so active that they stifle creativity. There is usually, however, a process of getting to that point of balance, a process Dan Rather once described to me as his “Five Phases of Anchor Delusion.” They are:

Phase 1 : “I can’t believe they asked me to anchor! They must be mistaken.”

Phase 2: “Any minute now they’re going to realize they’ve made a huge mistake and fire me!”

Phase 3: “Maybe I can actually do this job.”

Phase 4: “Why don’t people seem to care about this as much as I do?”

Phase 5: “Why am I the only one who seems to know everything?”

Aug. 30: Seventy-two hours from our first broadcast and finding time to write a diary has become a luxury I can’t afford.

The technical bugs seem to be multiplying, so we’ll be working until midnight every day over the Labour Day weekend either swatting them back one by one or scaling back our ambition. We’ll make it one way or the other; the real test is farther ahead. I have worked on other broadcasts that have come out of the gate with a flourish only to retreat within weeks. The money dries up or resistance wears down the creative people or we simply lose our nerve and retreat to a more comfortable place. I have also worked on courageous broadcasts that find ways around obstacles and maintain their curiosity and energy and thirst for ideas over many years. Which will we become? Stay tuned. ESI