See how they run
No, ratings never killed anybody. But stay tuned
A few days after he was shuffled out of his reputed $100,000-a-year job as supreme commander of the new and much ballyhooed CTV Reports program, a despondent Michael Maclear sighed and said: “One hoped that Network was fantasy. If it isn’t, well, I refuse to commit suicide on the air.”
Whether Maclear’s unexpected flameout amounted to a case of life imitating art was uncertain, but it seemed that way in the uptight world of Canadian television and in what has become the year of the ratings war. In Network, Paddy Chayevsky’s savagely funny film about American television companies’ bloodlust for high ratings (i.e. large audiences), anchorman Howard Beale refused to commit suicide on the air, after promising viewers he would. So, his bosses murdered him, which is more or less what Maclear’s friends at CTV (and his rivals elsewhere) think happened to him earlier this month.
CTV president Murray Chercover denies that disappointing early season ratings for CTV Reports led to Maclear’s removal as executive producer of the show’s hour-long Sunday edition (he remains in charge of the halfhour Thursday segment and returns to his accustomed oncamera role as its host), but they certainly didn’t help Maclear’s case. The first two Sunday shows of October averaged only 470,000 viewers—disastrously low levels for a Canadian network’s current affairs flagship. According to Chercover, the CTV Reports format simply wasn’t working, despite its galaxy of on-air stars (Peter Trueman,
Bruce Phillips, Barbara Amiel, André Payette, Bill Stevenson) and a change in direction was essential. “Ratings had nothing to do with it.” Maybe not, but there is no doubt that this year ratings have become more important than ever before in the paneled offices of Canada’s TV executives. For one thing, audiences are being measured far more frequently (see box, page 24). For another, the unprecedented frenzy in New York, where the U.S. networks are enmeshed in cutthroat competition amid a panic-button atmosphere, is having an unsettling impact on pro-
gramming and viewing habits in Canada.
As CBS and NBC desperately try to cut into upstart ABC’S phenomenal prime-time dominance, shows are going on and off the air with bewildering rapidity (in one day this month the Betty White Show, Rafferty and Mulligan's Stew were among six new programs killed) and incredibly expensive specials and mini-series (The Godfather, Contract On Cherry Street, for example) are being offered. Programming executives’ offices in New York now appear to be fitted with revolving doors where before they simply had swivel chairs. “It’s incredible down there,” says Peter Jones, president of BBM Bureau of Measurement, Canada’s oldest rating service. “They’ve almost got impro-TV. They’re making overnight programming decisions.” Says CTV’S Chercover: “It’s fascinating to watch. CBS and NBC are hitting ABC with everything they’ve got.” So far, though, ABC, under the inspired guidance of master-programmer Fred Silverman, continues to bury its opponents, who frantically shuffle programs and executives in search of a winning combination.
The struggle among the Canadian networks—CTV, CBC and, in the important Ontario market, ambitious and growing Global—is less dramatic, but no less real. At stake: the more than $300 million Canadian advertisers are spending this year on TV commercials; corporate and employee pride; and, in the case of the CBC,
justification for the hundreds of millions of public dollars it consumes.
Once again this year, the most visible battlegrounds are news and current affairs, two fields in which Canadian television traditionally has achieved its greatest success. CTV appears to be gaining on the CBC in their long-running national newscast rivalry, but in the early weeks of the fall season CTV was getting clobbered in the current-affairs competition. Says Peter Hermdorf, the CBC’S vice-president for planning and the man who launched that network’s irreverent and often controversial current affairs show the fifth estate: “CTV made a very determined effort with CTV Reports to gain back some of the ground it had lost in current affairs, to recover some prestige and also to repatriate Sunday night... but the early figures show that Marketplace and Ombudsman (CBC’S Sunday night offerings) have extended the lead they used to have over W5.”
Aside from the obvious discomfiture of CTV in the current affairs field, there was little in the initial fall ratings to encourage the CBC, either. Hermdorf concedes that the fifth estate and 90 Minutes Live, Peter Gzowski’s five-nights-a-week gab-bag, were really delivering only about half the audiences expected of them. Moreover, after Chercover and CTV vice-president Don Cameron made the decision to restructure CTV Reports later ratings showed the program had already made a sharp re-
covery. In the last week of October, it attracted 1,120,000 viewers on the Thursday and 700,000 Sunday.
Despite a clear lead in the current affairs ratings, morale among staffers on the CBC’S flagship, the fifth estate, was curiously lower than it was even on Maclear’s Titanic, where the staff was manning the pumps. At the fifth estate, ratings were down from last season, the news seemed to be breaking too fast to cope with (the program went so far as to lend its Mountie expert, Joe MacAnthony, to The National to help correspondent Brian Stewart report the developing RCMP scandals on a daily basis), and network gossips were breathless with their rumors of bickering.
On the front line in the ratings battle are the news anchormen, stars of the first magnitude by virtue of their ability as well as the fact that they are there, on the magic lantern, five nights a week. They are highly paid, cool, as recognizable as movie actors or hockey players, and their style and manner of presentation are considered crucial to the success or failure (i.e. ratings) of their programs.
Peter Kent, 34, of the CBC’S The National, a Calgarian who knocked around in
several reporting jobs (he has worked for CTV and Global, as well as the CBC) before he was tapped to read The National a year ago. Kent has done a workmanlike job. “Peter’s done well,” says Herrndorf. “Kent is the best anchorman,” says Trina McQueen, 34, executive producer of The National. One cause for front office concern: Kent himself agrees that he grows bored quickly in an assignment, that he prefers messing around on his tugboat Sagamore to working. Says McQueen: “There are things about Peter Kent you have to understand. First, he’s the most controlled person I’ve ever known. He really doesn’t care that much about anything. That’s why, when he’s ready to leave he’ll just leave.” If he does, he’ll be leaving a $60,000-plus job.
Lloyd Robertson and Harvey Kirck, of
The CTV National News. Robertson, 43, is still regarded as the best announcer in the country, even by the CBC brass he abandoned last year for a million dollars over a decade and the chance to report as well as
read the news. Teamed with veteran anchorman Harvey Kirck, 49, Robertson has helped CTV steadily add viewers, even though the massive channel-switching many expected when he jumped networks failed to materialize. Says Chercover: “The news is the most important program we do, and I’m very proud of it.” As for the success of the dual-anchor approach, he says flatly: “We’re outdrawing the CBC in every single market where we go head to head, where we have a transmitter and they have a transmitter.” Herrndorf counters: “We [the CBC] still have a comfortable margin overall,” and cites a different set of figures to prove it. But, he adds, “I suppose we all tend to stress the figures that make us look best.” Indeed.
Rao Corelli, 50, of Global News. A veteran Toronto Star reporter who is brandnew to television, Corelli was chosen to succeed Peter Trueman (who left to host CTV Reports) as the star of Global’s modest but much admired news operation. Dubbed the “blue-collar Walter Cronkite” by
Global news vice-president Bill Cunningham, 45, Corelli is as homely as Kent and Robertson are handsome. “I’ve created the 800-pound gorilla, but I can handle him,” laughs Cunningham. Although Global has only made an impact in Ontario to date, its dream of putting together a news and public affairs cooperative with four independent Western Canadian stations (CKVU in Vancouver, CFCA in Calgary, CITV in Edmonton and CKND in Winnipeg) appears to have at least a chance of coming true, which would mean that Corelli’s Kircklike creases and bear-like growl may become familiar in much of the country. Says Cunningham: “We’re the Viet Cong of Canadian TV. We’re gonna win the war eventually.” Says Corelli: “I kind of like the job, but I’m not too enamored of the on-air part of it. In fact, anyone who likes that sort of work better get himself checked—by someone with professional qualifications.”
Right behind the anchormen in the trenches are the hosts of the major current affairs shows—Adrienne Clarkson, Eric Mailing and Bob Johnstone of the fifth estate; Kent, again, for Newsmagazine; Gzowski; Joan Watson of Marketplace; Robert Cooper as The Ombudsman; Trueman, Phillips, Amiel, Stevenson, Tom Gould etc. of CTV Reports. While few if any of them are superstars on the scale of Mike Wallace, Dan Rather or ex-CBC correspondent Morley Safer of CBS’ 60 Minutes, nevertheless they are the cream of this country’s television talent and play a large part in the Canadian rating game.
The hosts, in turn, are hired, fired, promoted, demoted, praised and damned by a smaller group of senior network executives, most of whom have made the transition from on-air performer to off-air boss, sometimes back again, and occasionally several times. “We’re the best-shuffled deck of cards you can imagine,” says Maclear of HIMSELF,CTV’S news boss Don Cameron and producer Don McQueen (husband of CBC’S Trina); Global’s Cunningham and Ken Mallette; CBC’S Knowlton Nash, Alex Frame, Robin Taylor; not to mention Trueman, Gould and so on. Most of the names have been familiar in the industry for years, although, as Cunningham puts it, “the names we’ve called each other have changed” as most of them shifted jobs, swapped networks and shafted each other.
The jobs of all of these men and women have been made more complicated by the U.S. ratings struggle this year. For one thing, the blockbuster-type programming being put on by ABC, NBC and CBS (much of it watched by Canadians) has tended to preempt Canadian shows and to frustrate efforts to get a fix on just how well or badly Canadian programs are performing. “There is no such thing as a typical week any more,” says BBM’S Peter Jones. “Every week is different.”
Also, this is the first year in which Canadian network executives have had con-
current weekly rating samples by both BBM and the A. C. Nielsen Co. of Canada. To make things more confusing, there have been sudden, inexplicable anomalies in the findings of the two companies. Says Chercover: “The data’s not valid, in some cases . . . The discrepancies are so significant that we’ve said it’s beyond statistical error.” Both rating companies reluctantly concede that they’re double-checking, although neither will admit having made any serious mistake.
Right or wrong, though, the ratings are crucial to the economics of the industry, which generally accepts their validity. Says John Bassett, the grandpère terrible of Canadian TV and the boss of Toronto’s rich and powerful CFTO: “Ratings are as important to me as circulation figures are to a magazine publisher.” The reason is simple: the more people who watch, the more a television outlet can charge for commercials.
The advertising industry obviously needs the ratings, too. Says Ian Campbell, media director for Cockfield, Brown & Co. Ltd., which has more than $25 million in annual TV billings: “We absolutely have to have ’em. We use them 100% ... Our problem this year is coping with all the extra information, but we’re learning. In the past we didn’t know until January what we were getting for our dollar... Still, it is so
much a sellers’ market.. . I’ve bought my TV time and now I’m told every week I’ve made a rotten decision.”
But ratings are less important in Canada from a programming standpoint, according to all three networks. Says Global’s Cunningham: “My feeling is that if you provide the basic service, sooner or later the ratings will look after themselves.” The CBC’S Hermdorf adds: “We don’t necessarily try to reach the biggest audience with everything we do, although we do set targets for most of our shows ... Anyway, we don’t make abrupt programming changes because of ratings. Some shows are late developers ... I suppose our friends would say we are judicious, our enemies would call us sluggish.” And CTV’S Chercover says: “Ratings are not the name of the game in Canadian television, not as related to most programming, anyway... We cannot afford the luxury of canceling a show after five weeks, the way they do in the United States.” He adds: “There may be a slight turnoff among current affairs viewers this year. It’s really too soon to say. But you’ve got to program for the ones who
don’t turn off, you know.”
Whether or not he was a victim of ratings, Maclear was left to ponder the abrupt reduction in his responsibilities at CTV Reports. After a few days of agonizing, he decided it made more sense to stay than go. Money was not a factor. He would have been paid his full salary for a year, even if he’d left on the spot. “I guess it just wasn’t time to grow potatoes,” he says. Having decided to stay with the team he put together over the summer, he is reluctant to discuss his bosses’ decision. But he makes it clear that “the changes were not ones I agreed with.” Again, while he won’t say so directly, he clearly feels Chercover and Cameron acted prematurely and were influenced by those early low ratings. Interestingly, even Maclear’s rivals think so, too. Says the CBC’S Knowlton Nash, for example: “It’s a new show and it should have been given a chance to prove itself.” Maclear acknowledges that the program made mistakes while he was in charge. Some of the shows devoted to a single theme (unemployment, the Middle East, tourism) obviously failed to excite viewers, and his fascination with live broadcasting—now considered an obsolete practice on current affairs shows—caused a welter of technical problems that gave CTV Reports an amateurish look. “I guess we were rusty, and it showed ”ö