When you consider that the average half-hour newscast contains about the same number
of words as a page and a half of The Globe and Mail, it is clear, as Walter Cronkite has suggested, that the TV anchorman is holding a one-pound sack into which he’s trying to stuff 100 lb. of raw material. Fifteen years ago, when I first moved to television from newspapers, I used to tell myself that if we did TV news the right way, we would stimulate our audience, pique its interest and drive it to documentary film, information radio, the daily press, periodicals and books to obtain the information we weren’t able to fit into our newscasts. The sad thing now is that I can no longer kid myself by thinking that we’re motivating people to turn to print.
For one thing, the traditional purveyor of daily information, the newspaper, is losing credibility. Too many newspapers are trying to meet the challenge of television by aping TV newscasts—shorter stories, bigger type, more pictures, more punch—rather than by supplementing them and providing the depth and detail that TV cannot supply in one-pound formats. The diminishing importance of newspapers in peoples’ lives was made clear when the Kent commission on newspapers revealed some interesting facts about Canadian preferences. The respondents to one of the commission’s surveys chose television overwhelmingly, over newspapers and radio, as the best medium with which to keep informed about international and national events. Fifty-five per cent said that television was the best source for keeping abreast of world news (30 per cent chose newspapers). Fifty-three per cent chose TV as the best source of news about the country as a whole (32 per cent opted for the papers). It was only as the subject matter got closer to home that newspapers maintained their old supremacy.
But it was the answer to the question— which medium will become more important to you in the near future? — that was most revealing. Fifty-four per cent said television; only 25 per cent said newspapers; and radio was down to 18 per cent. For me, it has the ring of self-fulfilling prophecy.
In effect, we’ve been warned that the average Canadian is going to depend more and more on television. And we must face the fact that, as presently constituted, television news is not able
to supply, in 30 minutes or an hour, even the minimal information people need in order to make intelligent decisions about our increasingly complex world. What this says to me is that responsible news producers must find ways to do better.
Some of us are trying. The new CBC hour at 10 p.m. is perhaps the first serious and adequately funded attempt in Canada to raise the level of daily television information. But it is not enough. What this country needs and what this country will eventually get, dependent in some measure on the length of the current recession, is an all-news, or perhaps more accurately, all-information network: a channel that airs nothing but newscasts one after the other; on the hour or half-hour; with documentaries interspersed; and with live coverage of important events.
I would not expect to have an audience watching such a channel all day,
News is the only kind of programming that Canadians consistently prefer to the imported variety
or even for long periods, except during times of crisis. But those of us who have looked at the idea feel that Canadians would welcome the opportunity to throw off the chains of conventional news programming which compel us to take delivery at 6 or 11 or, now, 10 p.m. Instead, we could turn on our sets and get the latest local, national and international news at our convenience.
Television news is already perceived as a growth industry in the United States. There is talk of expanding the major network newscasts to one hour (too late for Walter Cronkite), and network news programming is moving into the late evening slot and even to the middle of the night. Atlanta entrepreneur Ted Turner’s station beams allnews programming to a satellite that delivers it to cable systems across the United States. After two years of operation, Turner is on the verge of making money. Certainly, ABC sees all-news as a potential source of revenue: a joint ABC-GroupW Satellite Communications venture, the United States’ second round-the-clock, all-news network, went on the air on June 21, while the
world waited for news of the impending royal birth in London. Why did ABC go into all-news TV? “Because if we don’t do it, someone else will,” ABC executives say. “And there are bucks to be made.”
The arguments against such an operation in Canada are there if you look for them. First of all, there is a familiar fact to be faced: relatively speaking, Canada is a small market. Then there are the regulations that cover broadcasting in this country and which, at first blush, would limit an all-news channel to the revenue it might be able to obtain from cable subscriptions. Under the current rules of the game, cable companies cannot originate the sale of advertising. But there are other equally powerful arguments in favor of an all-news attempt by someone with vision and courage. Canada may be a relatively small market, but a market one-tenth the size of the United States is not an inconsiderable one. Of all Canadian programming, news is the only kind that Canadians prefer to the imported variety. As Gerard Malo of the Bureau of Broadcast Measurement pointed out, in every Canadian market the only kind of programming whose ratings are consistently rising is news and current affairs.
It is clear that what the future holds for conventional broadcasters in this country is a smaller and smaller share of the television market. Cable TV was the first cause of a major market fragmentation. Pay TV, if it is successful, will divide the pie into even smaller pieces. When video cassette recorders become widespread, the audience will be able to record programs and watch them when it is convenient, not when they’re broadcast. So, what the industry faces is the continuing disintegration of two major cornerstones—the mass audience and the concept of prime time. It will be the specialist who survives, and the news specialist is likely to be the safest of the lot.
You may detect a vested interest in my espousal of this cause, and if you have, you’re right. I’m 47 years old, worn down by about eight years of daily newscasts that represent something like 2,500 hours of live television. I feel that I have enough left in me for one more adventure. One way or another, when all-news TV happens in Canada, I would like to be a part of it.
Peter Trueman is the news anchorman for Global Television.
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