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THE ANCHOR THAT TIME FORGOT

NICHOLAS KÖHLER October 23 2006
THE BACK PAGES

THE ANCHOR THAT TIME FORGOT

NICHOLAS KÖHLER October 23 2006

THE BACK PAGES

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THE ANCHOR THAT TIME FORGOT

media

In a land dominated by Anderson Coopers, Lloyd Robertson, North America's longest-serving newscaster, is an antediluvian success, clinging to the landscape by an outcrop of anchor desk

NICHOLAS KÖHLER

Lloyd Robertson is sitting at the anchor desk in CTV’s suburban Toronto studios flipping a Maclean’s reporter the bird: index and ring fingers bent at the joint, the middle digit, exhibiting a perfect combination of rigidity and cool, erect and weaving amidst the newsroom’s blue TV haze. As bird-flipping goes, Robertson’s form is good. “Do you see this?” says the 72-year-old, who on Oct. 18 marks 30 years as a CTV national news anchor. Robertson, the face of CBC’s The National for six years prior to his explosive departure in 1976, is North America’s longest-serving national anchor, last of a tribe made otherwise extinct by retirement (Walter Cronkite), corporate putsch (Dan Rather) and death (Peter Jennings). In a land now dominated by Kevin Newmans, Katie Courics and Anderson Coopers, he is an antediluvian success clinging to the landscape by an outcrop of anchor desk.

And today, at that desk but not yet in makeup—it’s a startling effect, a kabuki actor without face paint, his hair, still a grandfatherly mess, awaiting its aerodynamic treatment— Robertson is brandishing his middle finger. Why the obscenity (if such it is)? The anchor initially wanted no part in an article commemorating his anniversary. “I think 25 and 50 are the big years,” he says. “What’s the big deal with 30? If I make it to 50, we’ll really do it then.” Perhaps the digital gesticulation is a response to that generation of whippersnapper anchor, his competitors (Peter Mansbridge, Newman), whose ratings, despite his at times kitschy, Count Floydy manner, he consistently beats—801,000 average viewers a night between Feb. 6 and Aug. 27 to secondplace Global National’s 757,000. Robertson, after 50 years in the business, finds himself presiding over a 500-channel-and-counting fractured TV universe where viewer loyalty— the kind it takes decades to cultivate—has otherwise faded.

How has he lasted? He is, of course, very good at what he does. “He has the fundamental anchor’s skill of being connected to his stories and also of being very credible,” says Marsha Barber, a broadcast journalism prof at Ryerson University. “He’s your very sensible and well-informed and erudite uncle—and would your uncle lie to you?” Then too, sheer longevity has its own way of begetting staying power. “There’s something to be said for a comfortable pair of slippers,” says Cliff Lonsdale, a journalism prof at the University of Western Ontario. “There’s nothing like filling the shoes to fill the shoes.”

The man himself—off-screen a diminutive dude who delights in country and western music, catches the tail end of The Daily Show With Jon Stewart after his newscasts and ventures from his home in a Markham, Ont., gated community disguised in dark glasses and cap (it’s his voice that outs him)—remains notoriously elusive. “There are no dark shadows in Lloyd’s life,” says Craig Oliver, Robertson’s long-time CTV colleague. “This is not a guy who’s ever done anything immoderate in his life.” Robertson chuckles at his own blandness. Working nights, he says, “the only thing you can do is lead a disciplined life—which often means a dull life.”

Not entirely so. While he may have few foibles at home, some suggest it is at work that he casts his “dark shadows”—particularly over young comers up for his job. The perennial question in Canadian media circles remains that of Robertson’s retirement—when will it

happen, who will benefit. For years, he and former prime minister Jean Chrétien joked that they’d synchronize departures—exit the rigours of public office, the confines of the boob tube, together. Paul Martin orchestrated Chrétien’s leave; Robertson has had no such Brutus. Not since Keith Morrison, a one-time dauphin who, spurned, left CTV in 1995 for the U.S., has Robertson felt a nip at the heels.

Robertson says he offered to step aside for Morrison—after hearing “rumblings” he would leave without a chance at the anchor’s desk—just as former National anchor Knowlton Nash had done for Mansbridge. “People wanted desperately to keep him in the house,” says Robertson. “And I believed that I was the only one who could effectively do that.” Robertson set a two-year timeline, which, he now admits, “was a little long.” He adds: “You know the result.” In some quarters, Morrison’s departure fostered a perception of Robertson as a throne-clinging Machiavelli—the nastiest geezer in Canadian television. “You know Lloyd is an elbows-up player, right?” one industry insider who knows him told Maclean’s. “There have been a number of pretenders

who’ve been killed by kindness and elbowed in the boards.” (Insiders say Robertson had little to do with Morrison’s ousting and that CTV brass, who saw the younger anchor as a “flake,” demanded that Robertson stay; Morrison did not return calls seeking comment for this story.) Now Robertson is “our anchor for life,” says CTV News president Robert Hurst, his retirement perhaps “five years away.” Hurst stops. “Maybe 10—this guy’s on top of his game.” Really? An 82-year-old anchor? Hurst pauses. “Yes,” he says.

Already, Robertson is old. His deep sonorous voice—on a cellphone it thrums the device like an amorous cat in a matchbox—is the product of a childhood ruled by radio, with its melodramatic vocal flourishes and thumping, diaphragmatic resolve. Born on Jan. 19, 1934, in Stratford, Ont., his father a mechanic with the Canadian National Railway, Robertson worshiped CBC news announcer Lome Greene decades before Bonanza, and the sportscaster Foster Hewitt, who still welcomed hockey fans in both “Canada and Newfoundland”—back before the Rock joined Confederation. Indeed, it was only at the close of the Second World War that Robertson found his calling, watching as a pair of radio announcers provided colour commen-

tary for the Perth Regiment’s march into Stratford. “Something snapped into my subconscious mind,” Robertson says. “Being at the centre of things.” Soon, he was spinning records at CJCS radio while still in high school, wrapping Stratford in the glad-hand of his voice hosting Uncle Lloyd’s Birthday Club.

His personal life began just as early. Still in Grade 12, Robertson asked a girl in his French class to the graduation dance. “I really didn’t want to go out with him,” recalls Nancy Robertson, his wife of 50 years. “I had my eye on another guy but he didn’t come across. So it was either go with Lloyd or stay home.” Before long, she was walking Robertson to the radio station after school and hustling home “so I could tune in at 5 o’clock and hear him on the radio.” (Nancy still watches her husband’s newscasts each night, sometimes pointing out that his handkerchief—“his poof,” as she calls it—clashed with his tie.) By the time Robertson was anchoring The National, he and Nancy, a one-time gradeschool teacher, had four daughters. His career—which began in Canada’s hinterlands and saw Robertson absent at night and sleeping late into the morning (“in a way it was a good thing he wasn’t up trying to compete for a bathroom with four teenagers”)—“grew very slowly,” Nancy says. Only after he arrived at the CBC’s Toronto headquarters did she realize how far he’d come from being Uncle Lloyd (though, with some, the nickname stuck). Then CTV came calling.

That defection is now so firmly a part of Canadian media mythology it’s hard to know what really happened. “There goes Lloyd—a million-dollar baby in a five-and-10-cent

store,” Nash, then Robertson’s boss but later

a successor, is said to have quipped—a refer-

ence both to his new salary and to CTV’s then

dismal production values. But

money wasn’t the only thing driving his departure from the Corp., where draconian union rules barred the anchor, considered merely an “announcer,” from shaping the news he read. Thirty years later, doubts about his journalistic ability persist. “He hasn’t had the kind of hard journalistic background that a lot of the modern successful anchors are expected to have,” one long-time broadcast journalist says. Hurst, CTV News president, demurs: “He’s a hard news guy—deep into his core.” Still, the defence he goes on to mount suggests that, like Shakespeare’s lady, Hurst doth protest too much—describing Robertson’s pre-election study sessions over voluminous briefing books, dissecting the

`YOU KNOW LLOYD IS AN ELBOWS-UP

PLAYER, RIGHT? THERE HAVE BEEN A

NUMBER OF PRETENDERS KILLED BY KINDNESS.'

country riding by riding. “This man treats election night like it’s the final exam,” Hurst says. “The last time he got an A—and this time he’s got to surpass his A.” Whatever his shortcomings, Robertson’s audience doesn’t seem to care. Hence his anointing, by CTV brass, as “anchor for life.”

But what does that really mean? “What? Is he still going to be doing this when he’s 80?” asks Susan Robertson, his daughter, a director at a local Toronto news station. “I mean, he’s 72. There’s got to be a window in here of some time where he’s going to stop.

But when?” Robertson himself claims not to know: “I have no timeline.” His wife, who is normally asleep by the time Robertson gets home after the newscast, has stopped asking. “I used to be on his case—‘When are you going to retire?’ ” she says. “Now, I realize he may not be happy as a retired person. He’s at the top of his game. So, honey, just keep working. I don’t want you round the house if you’re going to be Cranky Old Man.” Indeed, his daughter wonders whether, like any hardworking pro contemplating the end, Robertson—with his regimented days and the adrenalin high of breaking news—doesn’t fear retiree’s ennui, particularly with Liberal leadership conventions, elections and the Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympics (which, Susan believes, will be his last hurrah) just ahead. “Maybe you want to do all these last

big events—because it may be the last big event that you do,” she says.

Peter Trueman, Global’s anchor for 15 years, admires that stamina. “I got out of television because I was terrified I was going to drop dead in the anchor desk,” he says. A long-time print reporter before moving to television, Trueman compares anchoring to “putting frames around other people’s pictures.” He adds: “I’ve got nothing against framers—that’s a skill too. But I wouldn’t want to be a framer of other people’s watercolours.” Many do. “We have people now who are ready,” says Robertson. “They’re

OFF-SCREEN HE’S A DIMINUTIVE DUDE WHO VENTURES FROM HIS HOME IN A GATED COMMUNITY DISGUISED IN DARK GLASSES AND CAP

probably sitting there,” he adds, fingers drumming the table in mock anxiety, “When is this guy going to go?” Hurst refuses to speculate on potential successors, a subject Susan Robertson calls “taboo—nobody wants to talk about it.” Says Hurst: “Is it something we work on and we have a plan for? Of course. But it’s not for public consumption.” Confronted with the usual suspects—Lisa LaFlamme, Tom Clark, Global’s Kevin Newman—he bristles, opting for the provocative. “We will be able to choose whoever we would want—including Peter Mansbridge,” he says. “Has it ever happened that a big network has gone to another network and hired away their lead anchor because the lead anchor was frustrated?” (For the record, Mansbridge told Maclean’s he’s not frustrated—and not interested.)

There’s no question Robertson has slowed down. No longer, on vacation, does he yearn

for work. He spends summers at a cottage outside Haliburton, Ont., with his seven grandchildren, who call him “dad dad.” “He was putting worms on my kids’ hooks last summer,” Susan says. “Which was like—wow, he’s really changed. Because we didn’t see a lot of that.” And he has taken up horseback riding, a pursuit shared with CTV stalwart Oliver—a man just this side of legally blind. “I always ride ahead of him,” says Robertson. “And I warn him about the branches. ‘Craig, look out, branch coming.’ ” Robertson, meanwhile, is under strict instructions to keep his retirement plans from Oliver. “I told him a long time ago: if you ever set a date, I don’t want to know,” he says. “I’m a reporter. I can’t keep a secret.”

Fifteen years ago, Robertson, shut up in a hospital waiting room, gazed at his daughter Susan, just diagnosed with cancer. “He just looked across the room and I saw an emotional side—T wish this was me instead of you.’ ” It was the same face that had looked

out upon viewers for three decades—decent and trustworthy. According to Oliver, it can be no other way. “You can lie to the camera for a little while—anybody can,” he says. “But not for long. It’s really searing, the camera. It’s an X-ray machine. It’s a real bullshit barometer.” At work, Robertson buys ice cream for the crew on Fridays and has a way, around the desk, of jabbing an index finger at an assignment editor, intoning a mantra of praise: “She’s the best, she’s the best, she’s the best.” Now—from the vantage of the anchor desk—that middle finger, raised at a Maclean’s reporter, still beckons. “Do you see this?” he asks. Is it really communicating meanness? On closer inspection, perhaps not. “Have you ever done that?” asks Robertson. The fingernail—the one on that middle finger—is a kaleidoscope of blacks and browns. It is the aftermath, it turns out, of having caught it in a car door. “It hurts” he adds, grinning, still blithely waving the upstretched finger. If the gesture, delivered unknowingly, innocently— endearingly—suggests Robertson, in the flesh, is out of touch, from the opposite side of the TV screen he is as connected to his audience as ever. M