TELEVISION

Prime-time shakeup

The CBC gives itself a bold new look

VICTOR DWYER May 25 1992
TELEVISION

Prime-time shakeup

The CBC gives itself a bold new look

VICTOR DWYER May 25 1992

Prime-time shakeup

The CBC gives itself a bold new look

TELEVISION

One year ago this month, Ivan Fecan, vice-president of arts and entertainment at CBC TV, addressed 1,200 advertisers at a glitzy cocktail reception at the Pantages Theatre in downtown Toronto. There to unveil the network’s schedule for the 1991-1992 season, Fecan made the announcement, unusual for any network, that network officials had decided to make only one addition to the entire fall lineup of Englishlanguage programming. They would be adding the half-hour early-evening regional currentaffairs show Newsmagazine, and leaving almost untouched the network’s conventional format of mid-evening dramas and current-affairs shows, followed by the flagship news programs, The National and The Journal, at 10 p.m. “It all works,” said an enthusiastic Fecan, “so why change it?” Twelve months later, things had clearly changed a lot. Last week, CBC president Gérard Veilleux announced that he and Fecan, working with Trina McQueen, vice-president of news, current affairs and Newsworld, were launching a radical transformation of the programming lineup for the coming fall season at Canada’s national public network. “What we’re doing this year is simple,” said Fecan. “We are redefining prime time.”

Although some critics found fault with the new lineup, there appeared to be broad agreement both within network circles and from outside observers that the changes are innovative, ambitious and unique among mainstream broadcasters. Most dramatic of all is that, starting in September, The National and its 10-year-old current-affairs counterpart, The Journal, will move forward one hour, to start at 9 p.m. in most parts of the country—placing the hour-long news package in prime-time TV’s most watched slot. And in another surprising move, the network will eliminate its late-evening regional newscasts, while adding another half-hour to the beginning of hour-long regional suppertime newscasts. And it will kill the shortlived Newsmagazine.

Switching the National/Journal hour to the earlier time spot splits the prime-time hours into two blocks, which CBC officials said will be thematically distinct. The earlier block, running from 7 to 9 p.m., will offer a combination of mainstream and family-oriented dramatic programs, as well as such popular current-affairs shows as the 5th estate. The period from 10 p.m. to midnight will be devoted to a purely adult audience, with feature films, documentaries and entertainment programs. Said

McQueen: “The whole philosophy is to make an entirely different schedule from other North American broadcasters.”

The changes are the first stages of a new plan, to emerge over the next two to three years, that Veilleux has dubbed the “repositioning” of the CBC. Faced with the introduction over the next several years of up to 200 TV channels delivered by American direct-broadcast satellites—the so-called death stars—and by new cable TV technology, Veilleux has struck eight committees to rethink CBC strategy.

One change that is “very much on the front burner,” said Fecan, involves a proposal to create a CBC superstation called Northstar, to be beamed into households across the United States. As well, committees are examining the possibility of adding new CBC channels aimed at distinct audiences—so-called niche programming—as well as forging affiances with its broadcasting contemporaries. Within the CBC, meanwhile, Fecan said management is aiming at greater communication—what he called “cross-pollination”—between radio and TV services, and between its French and English divisions.

Last week, however, the focus was clearly on the unprecedented changes coming to the network’s prime-time schedule. “Instead of going head-to-head with other networks,” said McQueen, “our whole point now is to complement them.” According to National anchorman Peter Mansbridge, that sort of thinking is vital to CBC’s survival. “I am a firm believer that if we had not done something radical, we were going to have serious audience problems,” said Mansbridge. “In an era when many

Canadians get 40 or 50 channels, we absolutely have to look different. Now, we will.”

Fecan said that the new schedule also attempts to deal with two broad changes in the TV audience. The first is what he called “the greying of the information junkie.” Middleaged baby boomers, said Fecan, are going to bed earlier—often before the end of the Nationall Journal hour. At the same time, he noted, young adults and those with what he called “quirkier” tastes are often just tuning in during the late-evening hours. “What we will have now,” said Fecan, “is a two-hour block in which we will be able to give those viewers interesting, provocative programs.”

Among the shows that Fecan says he plans to run is Cinema Canada, which will include such offbeat and controversial movies as the critically acclaimed Jesus of Montreal, by Quebec film-maker Denys Arcand. Many of the shows would have required heavy editing in the traditional prime-time period, said Fecan. He is also putting the finishing touches on a weekly variety program to showcase Canadian entertainers, likely to be hosted by Ralph Benmergui, currently co-host of the CBC noon-hour current-affairs show, Midday. As well, Fecan said that he intends to devote a weekly twohour slot to Quebec dramas and documentaries, which will be dubbed or subtitled, beginning with the hugely popular 20-part historical drama Les filles de Caleb (Caleb’s Daughters).

The new moves were not without critics. Paul Audley, a Toronto communications consultant and executive director of the 1986 Caplan-Sauvageau task force on broadcasting policy, said it was “senseless” to put The National and The Journal in prime time’s busiest hour. Said Audley: “They’re doing on the main network what I thought they got the licence to do on Newsworld—put the news front and centre.”

And although CBC officials claimed that the

changes will be accomplished with no layoffs, some CBC employees were clearly bitter. Said Frank Cameron, who for 14 years has been the anchor of the Halifax-based late-night news show The Maritimes Tonight: “We are just

giving away our audience to other stations. They are taking a horrible, horrible risk with this—a risk that doesn’t need to be taken.” Advertising executives, too, were assessing the possible impact of the changes. Peter Swain, president of Toronto-based Media Buying Services, which purchases commercial time for advertisers, said that the net effect of the changes will likely be “revenue neutral, or

possibly the network will register an actual increase.” But, he added, “the overall strategy is ingenious.” Others in the industry clearly agreed. Said Michael McCabe, president of the Canadian Association of Broadcasters, which

represents privately owned stations across the country, including 29 CBC affiliates: “The CBC is staking out, quite boldly, its own territory.” As it jockeys for position in an increasingly competitive TV landscape, the CBC is showing that it is ready to take big risks.

VICTOR DWYER with DIANE TURBIDE and PATRICIA HLUCHY in Toronto

DIANE TURBIDE

PATRICIA HLUCHY