December 26 2005


December 26 2005

Now the good news

CBC News is about to unveil a thorough rethink


£ £ T ^P ▼ e are in a period of considerable change in the media world,” says CBC News supremo Tony Burman. “In the next five years, there will likely be as many changes in the way Canadians consume news and information—and the way that news is produced—as we have seen in the past 50 years.”

Some significant changes can be seen very soon, when CBC News in January unveils an across-the-board rethinking

of its look, sound, and—most significant of all—its content on its various networks and platforms.

The changes are being made with the public in mind. As Burman, Editor-inChief of CBC News, explains: “As we began to shape our long-term strategy, we concluded that a starting point must be a detailed, extensive study of what Canadians want and need from their news media. That led to our News Study, and our efforts to respond to it.”

In the most extensive study ever made of the subject, 1,200 Canadians were asked what they thought about all Canada’s news media, including the CBC. The response was in part bracing. “When it comes to ‘how we tell the story,’ ” said the subsequent report, “we’re (at times) too stuffy, too predictable and, frankly, a bit boring!”

So—debuting on Jan. 9, as the crucial final stage begins in Canadas election campaign—here comes the new news: with overhauled graphics, colour scheme and music, and rather more profound changes to the way CBC reports the news.

As well as commissioning the survey, Burman oversaw the subsequent report, “CBC News Study: What Canadians want’ and need’ from their news media,” a copy of which landed a few months ago on the desk of every news and current affairs employee at CBC TV, CBC Newsworld, CBC Radio and

Canadians let their opinions about radio, TV and Internet journalism be known by way of diaries, hand-held electronic devices and focus groups. Whatever the method, and although

Having now reminded itself of the first rule of broadcasting—‘Know thy audience’—CBC News is poised to transform itself

many positive things were said as well, themes began to emerge on the downside: the CBC was seen by some as being “for older people,” “not cool,” “not entertaining,” “not visually appealing,” “depressing and confusing,” “elitist.” “It’s all monotone,” “the CBC hasn’t changed in 20 years”—“it makes me fall asleep.”

Having now reminded itself of the first rule of broadcasting—“Know thy audience”—CBC News is poised to transform itself. Over the past year, the feedback, from users of TV, radio and the Internet, has been analyzed in 85 in-house discussion groups involving a total of465 staff across Canada. Their challenge was as clear as it was ambitious, Burman reminded them in a memo attached to the News Study: “If [this] reflects what Canadians think of Canada’s news media, and what they expect of their CBC, what do we intend to do about it?”

What have they done about it? The most obvious changes will be, of course, the cosmetic ones: emotive music and

striking graphics. “We had to ask ourselves, ‘How are we presenting ourselves to the public?’ ” said Burman. “ ‘Do we come off as an integrated, renewed organization?’ The answer could only be ‘Yes’ if we changed the way we looked and the way we sounded, and made it more interesting, made it more engaging, more accessible and more contemporary. And that’s the impression people will have when we introduce the new look and sound.”

Burman wants to keep the details a secret. He says the graphics will be “dynamic, strong, clean and accessible. They will cut through a lot of the clutter viewers see on television today.’’The colours will change, though he won’t say to what. “We’d like viewers to have a bit


of a surprise when they tune in for the first time... so were not giving away too much of the colour palette.”


As for the music: “We are designing a mnemonic—five notes—that will start all of our news programming on CBC Radio and Television and link all of our news programs on all platforms. This will be a signal to viewers and listeners that what they’re about to listen to, or watch, is a CBC News program.”

For Burman, however, it is what’s underneath that matters most.

Many Canadians said they want in-

tional coverage, but “international made local.”There is also a new weather service, and within a year, a new sports service, as well as more “news worth paying attention to” and less “ambient static.” Reporters will be

Here comes the new news: with overhauled graphics, colour scheme and music, and rather more profound changes to the way it reports

encouraged to “park excessive ‘caution’ at the door.” Among other things, they will “get out of the parking lot” in doing stand-ups, and “get off the Hill” in covering politics.

“Canadians generally seem to feel that the media define news in a very narrow way,” Burman told me. “Journalists often see the world in compartments, narrow categories, that don’t connect to the

daily lives of Canadians. So their message to us was to be far broader in what we define as news... be far broader and deeper in what stories we allow on your newscasts. And to a journalist, that’s an interesting issue.” The goal will be to have far more “enterprise” stories than simply hits of “agenda” news.

Heaton Dyer, Program Director for CBC Newsworld, says that the network will be offering more of both: more breaking news and live coverage as the day unfolds, but capped off in the evening by a groundbreak-

ing documentary. Even current affairs programs such as CB C News: thefifth estate are going

broader and deeper than their traditional newsmagazine format.

“We are piloting new constructs,” says Julie Bristow, CBC’s Director of Current Affairs. One strategy is a “journalistic movie of the week,” mixing drama with investigative reporting. In January, the fifth estate will air Black Dawn: The Next Pandemic, which explores through drama and journalism the potential

international response for dealing with a hypothetical emergency. Bristow says producers grappled with the fact that viewers are scared enough, so its thrust is not alarmist. “It’s arming people with information. We don’t want to terrify viewers,” she says. “We want to give them the tools to live their lives.”

While there are changes that viewers will see immediately in January, the process of thoroughly renewing a news and current affairs operation as extensive as the CBC s will, says Burman, evolve over the next two years. Over that period, it will lead to the creation of new feature segments and new programs highlighting the value-added journalism CBC News wants to emphasize.

In a note to staff several months ago about the CBC News Study, Burman acknowledged initial reluctance on the part of some CBC staff. But he said the CBC is committed to this mandate for change and that his colleagues are, too.

“Revolutions—even polite Canadian ones—require bold action, and this document outlines a blueprint for bold action... If, as the expression goes, ‘journalistic cynicism is the refuge of the mediocre,’ these discussions [in response to the News Study] never slipped into cynicism. They were often skeptical and challenging, as they should have been, but this only strengthened the outcome... This is not the end of this story. Far from it. It’s a wonderfully inspiring beginning. Onward...” ■