COVER

NEWS AROUND THE CLOCK

CBC'S NEWSWORLD TAKES TO THE AIR

GLEN ALLEN August 7 1989
COVER

NEWS AROUND THE CLOCK

CBC'S NEWSWORLD TAKES TO THE AIR

GLEN ALLEN August 7 1989

In a dim, bare studio in Halifax’s 40-year-old Bell Road CBC TV building, equipment was still being installed last week for the July 31 launch of Newsworld, the network’s 24-hour all-news channel. An electronic camera switcher that normally takes a month to put in place was assembled over a single frantic weekend. A rehearsal of one news broadcast betrayed many rough edges, with missed cues, poor graphics and uninspired writing. The scene was much the same amid the last-minute chaos in Calgary, Winnipeg and Newsworld’s three other broadcast centres. In Ottawa, print journalist Kirk LaPointe, 31, was nervously preparing for his debut as a TV announcer. And the Newsworld headquarters in the CBC’s Bay Street offices in Toronto still looked more like a scene of devastation than a nerve centre of a national news operation. But, despite the tension during the countdown, Newsworld was on schedule for its early-morning debut on the television screens of nearly 4.5 million homes. Spanning six time zones, the network promises viewers nothing less than a new way of looking at the world, their country and their communities. Said veteran CBC TV reporter Whit Fraser, co-host of Newsworld’s daily Calgary-based broadcast, This Country. “We will tie Canada together in a way never seen before.”

Choice: In launching the first Canadian all-news television channel, the financially troubled CBC is gambling on the appetites of information-hungry Canadians for a steady diet of news. Having won the licence for a basic cable service on Nov. 30, 1987, after a long and bitter fight with private broadcasters, the network now faces the task of drawing and keeping viewers who already have a wide choice of channels on their TV dials—including the Atlanta-based CNN all-news network, which served as a loose model for Newsworld (page 42). But, by comparison, Newsworld is operating on an annual budget of $20 million, raised entirely from advertising and cable subscriptions, compared with CNN’s approximately $207 million.

Newsworld’s programming day begins in its Halifax studio at 7 a.m. (6 a.m. EDT; 3 a.m. in British Columbia) with Newsworld Morning, a six-hour roundup of news, weather, sports, arts and entertainment, and health news. Anchored by former Journal co-host Paul Griffin and CBC Radio and TV veteran Beth Gaines, the Halifax segment will feature newscasts every quarter hour and business reports every half-hour. Barring major ongoing news stories, that show is followed by two two-hour segments from Winnipeg and Ottawa, which include Parliament Hill coverage, in-depth reports and rebroadcasts of public affairs shows from the regular network. Then, at 4 p.m. EDT, Midday, the CBC’s noontime one-hour news and current affairs show, is rebroadcast from the regular network. At 5 p.m. EDT, Newsworld’s coverage shifts to Toronto for a one-hour summary of the day’s events, anchored by former National reporter Alison Smith. Finally, This Country airs from Calgary between 6 p.m. and midnight EDT, offering a variety of regional news broadcasts. Then, for the six hours until the process repeats itself on the following day, the channel switches to repeats of the day’s reports. Weekends will feature news reports interspersed with reruns of well-established CBC public affairs and information shows such as Man Alive, The Nature of Things and the fifth estate.

Foreign: The twin strengths of Newsworld, according to its head, Joan Donaldson, are what she calls its “decentralized” news and its ability to broadcast events as they happen from many locations. The channel will routinely switch to live coverage of breaking news. And more than three-quarters of its regular programming will be generated by staff in centres outside Toronto, including London, Newsworld’s only bureau outside Canada. As well, the channel will eventually draw foreign newscasts from more than 30 satellite feeds from Japan, Europe, the Caribbean and elsewhere. And in a unique case of public and private sector co-operation, Newsworld will feature special reports from staff members of the Financial Times, The Globe and Mail’s Report on Business, TV Guide and Toronto Life fashion magazine. Newsworld, said Donaldson, will offer “a new, challenging and quite historic way to take some of the filters off the news.”

Fight: Initially, it was the CBC’s perceived central Canadian bias that prompted the most opposition to the network’s original proposal for an all-news channel. Two years ago, Edmonton’s millionaire broadcaster Dr. Charles Allard argued before the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission that granting the CBC such a licence would give it a “stranglehold on television news and public affairs.” And when Allard’s Allarcom Ltd. lost its own bid for a news channel on Nov. 30, 1987—when the CRTC granted the CBC its three-year licence—the businessman complained that “an historic opportunity to decentralize and diversify electronic news has been lost.” And Allard’s fight was not over. He appealed the decision to the federal cabinet—causing the CBC to miss Newsworld’s projected Sept. 1, 1988, start—and found ready allies in vocal western Tories and Alberta’s business community. Prime Minister Brian Mulroney himself was at one point reported to have opposed the commission’s decision, telling his caucus, “Instead of hammering us two hours a day [the CBC] will be hammering us 24 hours a day.”

In the end, the federal cabinet basically accepted the CRTC decision, but with some changes. It told the CBC to make room for private-sector involvement and to produce an equivalent service in French; to date, the launch of the French service is still being negotiated. A modified plan, including participation by the private contributors, called for a new start-up date of Feb. 15, 1989. But then Canadian cable companies, who will provide Newsworld with about three-quarters of its revenue, rebelled. They said that they had already raised subscribers’ monthly rates by $1 to $2 in September, 1988, and that they were unwilling to impose another hike so soon. The CBC agreed to postpone the launch until July 31. Now, cable companies will implement another round of increases on Sept. 1. Companies carrying Newsworld are allowed to charge each subscriber as much as 44.5 cents more per month for the service, 42.5 cents of which goes directly to Newsworld. But two Quebec companies, Vidéotron ltée and CF Cable TV Inc., are refusing to carry the English-only service, arguing that the cost to their mostly French subscribers is too much.

Confidence: Indeed, some industry experts express doubts about the appeal of an all-news channel generally, given the fact that there is a combined English-speaking audience of approximately 4.8 million a night for the CBC’s The National and The Journal and CTV’s National News. Gregg Keating, vice-president of operations of Nova Scotia’s Dartmouth Cable TV Ltd., which is offering the service, said that Newsworld’s 24-hour schedule may be too much of a good thing. Said Keating: “I think we are covered quite well by The National, The Journal and CTV news.” Still, many advertisers have expressed confidence in the new channel as an effective marketing vehicle—more than two-thirds of the slotted eight minutes of advertising per hour has already been sold for the first year.

Newsworld has also fared well among newspaper television critics, who told Maclean’s that they were looking forward to a Canadian version of CNN. Peter Duffy, television columnist for two Halifax Herald Ltd. newspapers, said that Newsworld’s plan to give regional news national exposure should appeal to people with a strong interest in other parts of Canada. And the Toronto Globe and Mail's TV critic, John Haslett Cuff, said that Newsworld could help to bring Canada together by “giving us much lengthier glimpses of other parts of the country.”

Debut: Still, for Newsworld’s staff, preparing for the debut was a major challenge. In London, Newsworld manager Cliff Lonsdale says that the bureau’s main recording machine is “a museum piece” that has been thrown out by the regular network. Added Lonsdale: “There is so little backup that I literally have to bring in tools from home and hammer away at the sets myself.”

Many of the 187 technicians, secretaries, reporters, announcers and producers are veterans of the CBC. But others, like LaPointe in Ottawa, are new to television. LaPointe, former news editor of The Canadian Press Ottawa bureau, is making his onscreen debut this week, hosting the daily two-hour afternoon show from Ottawa called Canada Connection. Said LaPointe: “I have never really been on camera before, and there is no small amount of fear. But there are enough people here who know what they are doing and they are gentle about it.”

But even the veterans at Newsworld acknowledged that the new jobs are challenging. Paul Griffin said that Newsworld Morning will likely be more demanding than anything else he has done. “After less than an hour on The Journal, you would be a bit drained,” said Griffin. “Six hours a day will be physically hard.” He added that, like CNN’s announcers, he will be called on to improvise with no script. “We are on air the minute something breaks.”

Great: Still, like many of his Newsworld colleagues, the silver-haired Griffin is cautiously enthusiastic about the all-news channel’s prospects. Sipping a beer after a July 21 news conference to promote Newsworld in Halifax, he said: “I hope that 20 years from now, people will say this was the beginning of a great network. And I certainly hope Newsworld won’t be remembered in some obscure video clip as a curiosity, as something that didn’t work.” Certainly, in the coming months, the CBC’s latest venture will be watched with interest by the network’s friends and foes alike.