CBC: Beyond repair?

Ryerson Review of JournalismCBC hoped its news renewal would revitalize the sputtering network, but how much can you do with the same broken engine under the hood? This week we feature Tyler Harper‘s story from the summer issue of the Ryerson Review of Journalism.

In the din of the newsroom, an orchestra of hammers struck the first note. Old sets were hastily torn down and replaced by transparent desks, luminescent backdrops and television screens. As the sound of buzz saws and workboots grew louder, so did the pressure to meet the on-air deadline. Newscasters rehearsed their standups on unfinished sets. Staff complained privately about increased work hours. In the days leading up to October 26, 2009, the music playing out at CBC News was a cacophony of anxiety and uncertainty. And when the orchestra finished, the performance began.

Peter Mansbridge stood on the new set of CBC News: The National, grinning into the camera as kinetic text and colours flashed behind him. Gone was the generic background. Instead, Mansbridge walked from screen to screen, story to story, reporter to reporter, in a bright, plastic space where everything seemed faster paced. Stories were sometimes introduced on different parts of the set. Some reporters delivered their reports and standups live rather than on location. Retired General Rick Hillier stood at a desk as he talked about his new book. To everyone involved, it was an excruciatingly choreographed production.

Mansbridge appeared to be playing a different role. Previously dignified as the rock of Canadian journalism, the 61-year-old anchor now looked uncomfortably jovial, as if he were trying to be younger, to keep stride, to be cool. In the middle of a Wendy Mesley piece on the H1N1 virus, Mansbridge looked at her and awkwardly asked, “What’s up with that?” Mansbridge wasn’t the only player who seemed out of place: London correspondent Adrienne Arsenault filed a piece on a poll concluding Canadians don’t care about the British monarchy, and Mesley dressed up in a haz-mat suit and asked for a book on swine flu at a local Chapters. It was a broadcast without bite.

When the show ended and the curtains closed, the actors retired for the night. There was a sense of momentary relief among the staff. They had produced a show that, because of the choreography between reporters and screens, was near impossible to direct. Part had been taped prior to broadcast because, as one former staffer recalls, there were concerns it would “blow up on television.” Though the show wasn’t as smooth as producers would have liked, there were few lineup glitches and reporters made no noticeable mistakes.

Despite the supreme effort, audience reaction to the October 26 revamp of The National did not sound like applause. Globe and Mail columnist Rick Salutin called it “talking down to dim, self-absorbed viewers, with weak attention spans who don’t care about complex issues or, yuck, details.” One viewer wrote to the Globe asking, “How stupid do they think the audience is?…[T]he banter between reporters is even worse on this new program and totally unreal. The stories are much too bitty and the whole program comes across as unprofessional.” Furthermore, viewers did not flock to the new version. Opening night audience numbers hit 704,000, according to an article television critic John Doyle wrote for the Globe—just over half the audience of that evening’s CTV National News—but as usual, dropped off 20 minutes into the broadcast to 573,000. Low numbers are nothing unusual; CBC’s main competitors, CTV and Global, typically dominate ratings.

The most common criticism, that reporters, anchors and guests now stood up on The National, was easier to defend than more valid concerns of fellow journalists: Why were the stories shorter? What had become of the long-form pieces that usually ran in the back half of The National? Why were CBC’s star reporters such as Arsenault and Mesley filing puff pieces? And, finally, why did everything seem sensationalist and populist—the type of flash news associated with CNN?

The uncomfortable truth about the network’s approach to news is that it had to change. It had become stale and predictable. It was a common joke that CBC Newsworld, renamed CBC News Network, took weekends off, and The National hadn’t had a major overhaul since the early 1990s. It needed, as Doyle observed, a “shot of adrenalin.” But had CBC gone too far?  Read the rest of the story.