REVIEWS

In the fight between CTV and CBC news, viewers are winning

DOUGLAS MARSHALL March 1 1970
REVIEWS

In the fight between CTV and CBC news, viewers are winning

DOUGLAS MARSHALL March 1 1970

In the fight between CTV and CBC news, viewers are winning

REVIEWS

TELEVISION

DOUGLAS MARSHALL

IN THE TOUCHY world of Canadian television, no single area is more neurotic about criticism than the CBC’s news department. Journalistic coverage is one of the main reasons why the corporation was called into being. Any suggestion that it is falling down on the job is like telling a hockey player he can’t skate very well.

Such a suggestion was contained in a somewhat inaccurate Time magazine report published a few weeks ago. The article said in effect that CTV’s terrierlike 11 p.m. newscast had not only bitten into its bulldog opposition, the CBC’s National News, but had achieved territorial supremacy in terms of Nielsen ratings. The figures backing up this statement had, of course, been supplied by CTV. The CBC reacted with predictable outrage and contradictory rating figures of its own. For a while it looked as though the National’s Warren Davis was about to sue CTV’s Harvey Kirck for alienation of audience affection.

One result of the dogfight was to focus attention on the network news services at a time when journalistic performance everywhere is undergoing critical analysis. Once the dust had settled on this particular issue, certain factors became clear. CTV has indeed captured about six percent of the CBC’s former National News loyalists this season. But the public network remains comfortably on top — by 1,630,000 viewers against 824,000 — in overall figures.

To me, however, the significant thing is not that

CTV is catching up. It’s the number of Canadians who are hooked to one or other of the 11 p.m. broadcasts. Add the ratings together and you get the startling average of 2,454,000 people watching the news each night. That’s more than one-tenth of the entire population, which must be a devilishly high percentage of everybody awake at that hour. It is fair to say that as a nation we depend to an astonishing extent on the network broadcasts for basic day-to-day information.

And they respond to our dependence excellently — excellently. In spite of our geographic problems, I’d argue that Canadian viewers are better informed about what’s going on in the world than anybody else.

Specifically, the CBC gives us the most balanced and comprehensive coverage of any network on this continent. Not only does the corporation maintain a string of trained foreign correspondents but frequently (sometimes too frequently) it provides us with the cream of the daily international film clips available from the U.S. networks. The chief fault is a continuing unevenness in news judgment and format, caused mainly by an organizational confusion that is a paradigm of everything else that’s wrong with the CBC.

The major weakness of the CTV newscast is a visible lack of money. But it has, in Kirck, the most polished anchorman Canada has developed in many a long year. And its reporting of national events is usually sounder, often livelier than anything the

CBC presents. All in all, CTV has a fine sense of style — particularly evident in the well-written Backgrounder to the News.

Neither network, then, has much to be ashamed about. Both are fulfilling their function more than adequately. The only mystery: why the sudden six-percent swing to CTV?

I’m convinced the reason lies in the CBC’s disastrous decision to meld the Saturday and Sunday newscasts into the now shattered Weekend format. “We are trying to wean people away from the 11 - clock - news -habit,” said Ray Hazzan, shortly before he ceased to be executive coordinating producer of Weekend during the latest shakeup. His ambition was misconceived. The evidence is that Canadians like the 11o’clock-news habit and they are prepared to switch allegiances of long standing if they don’t get what they want.

In fact, the Weekend experiment exposed the only major flaw I can find in our TV news services; namely, the illusion that world events adhere to the Anglo-Saxon five-day work week, that nothing much happens between noon on Saturday and Monday morning. That ethnocentric notion was shattered on the Sunday morning when the Japanese, with a fine disregard for Western convention, chose to bomb Pearl Harbor. Yet both networks still present abbreviated reports on Sunday night.

Since there are only two English-language Sunday newspapers in this country TV is missing a golden opportunity. I think the Sunday newscasts should be expanded to 30 minutes or even an hour of hard news, backed by a tightly edited recap of the main events of the previous seven days. Seven Days. That celebrated program began, after all, as a newsmagazine program, a Newsweek of the air. Perhaps when the CBC forgot that idea is the point at which everything started to go wrong. □