COVER

VIEWERS’ CHOICE

CTV was the big winner when CBC repositioned its nighttime news program

DIANE BRADY August 30 1993
COVER

VIEWERS’ CHOICE

CTV was the big winner when CBC repositioned its nighttime news program

DIANE BRADY August 30 1993

VIEWERS’ CHOICE

COVER

CTV was the big winner when CBC repositioned its nighttime news program

With his sombre suits, deep voice and full head of silvery hair, Lloyd Robertson is the very model of the network newscaster. Since 1976, when he became the anchorman at CTV News, Robertson has conveyed the day’s headlines with a reassuring air of authority. “He is as comfortable as your most comfortable shoes,” says Henry Kowalski, CTV’s chief news editor. If, as Kowalski suggests, the CBC tries to make its newscast a “thorough and sober journal of record,” his show aspires to present the news in the language of a folksy fireside chat. At first glance, it seems that the success of CTV News stems from that formula. Canada’s only national private network now draws more than 1.3 million viewers to its 11 p.m. newscast, while CBC’s Prime Time News tops 800,000 most weeks. But CTV’s superiority may be due more to scheduling than to intrinsic appeal. The private network saw its audience numbers soar by a stunning one-third last November after CBC moved its national news to 9 p.m. from the 10 p.m. time slot—and ended its 11 p.m. regional newscasts. “The CBC gave us a big boost,” admits Kowalski. “But we were already edging up on them.”

CTV and a smattering of regional networks appear to be the big winners from CBC’s gamble in “repositioning” its schedule. Although 1.3 million viewers tuned in to the much-touted Nov. 2 debut of CBC’s Prime Time News, the numbers soon fell to well below the one-million mark. In contrast, the Nielsen ratings for CTV’s 24-minute newscast jumped from about one million to 1.3 million viewers between October and November alone. Although the news void in CBC’s schedule created many of those converts, industry observers say that CTV can claim credit for at least part of the gain. “It is not just CBC’s demise that accounts for CTV’s success,” says Michael Nolan, an associate professor of journalism at the University of Western Ontario. “It has built up a fairly respectable reputation since it started in 1961.”

But, faced with hundreds of channels on the broadcast horizon, CTV executives will have to do more than maintain that reputation. And to cope with the onslaught of new viewing options, president and CEO John Cassaday plans to build up the network’s presence on the small screen. In addition to so-called multiplexing—offering the same programs on other CTV-owned channels at different times—the broadcaster is planning to flank its main menu with specialty services. Executives intend to apply by September for a licence to run a 24-hour headline news channel. (The Global Television Network is rumored to have similar plans.) CTV is also working on a proposal for a regional sports network. The goal is to muscle in on as much airtime as possible to expose the network’s fare and entice fresh advertising dollars. “The converter is like a buffet table where people load up on things they are comfortable with,” says Cassaday. “As you see more and more clutter, you get more and more inconvenienced in finding what you want.”

Meanwhile, CTV hopes to cut the time that it devotes to Canadian drama. The network currently devotes three hours of prime time and one hour outside of prime time each week to domestic drama. In a May application to renew its broadcast licence for seven years, the network sought to cut two half-hour programs on Saturday morning, The Littlest Hobo and My Secret Identity. Cassaday argues that public broadcasters should have more of a responsibility to air Canadian drama. “If I was running the CBC, I would be focusing my dollars on drama,” says Cassaday. “If you get a billion dollars of public money every year, you have to convince people that you are more than just CTV in drag.”

Like CBC, the private network is also moving away from traditional headline news. In November, CTV News added Face to Face, a debate segment, and Goldhawk Fights Back, an ombudsman service hosted by Dale Goldhawk. At that time, the show also introduced regular health segments and biographies. This fall, two new segments are planned: Pocketbook, consisting of anecdotes about dealing with the recession,

and Inquiry, an investigative feature. Says Cassaday: “You need a willingness to make changes to win in this environment.”

Some television executives, however, contend that fears of vicious competition in the expanded TV universe are largely exaggerated. “Another few thousand stations may just mean another few thousand Gilligan’s Island reruns,” says Doug Bonar, vice-president of operations and news at Global Television. But Cassaday is loathe to gamble that the so-called death stars and other technologies will leave traditional networks unscathed. “If you are not providing a truly distinctive service,” the CTV president says gravely, “you will be lost.”

DIANE BRADY