The Horror! The Horror! CBC News gets an extreme makeover

Peter McNellyA barrage of bullets has hit the CBC as TV critics, journalism professors and CBC mainstays attack the re-launched news, but news veteran Peter McNelly may stand alone in calling for a ceasefire.  

Last Monday, CBC Television News re-launched itself with a slick new look and a bracing new format. The result was shocking. Not the changes themselves – the CBC had been telegraphing them for months with a new emphasis on hard news coverage and live on-the-scene reporting.

The shock was the overwhelmingly negative response. The CBC’s website was jammed with angry posts. Emails were flying. The tweets were outraged; and The Teamakers blog, where disenchanted CBCers go to vent their spleens, was packed with predictable excoriations.

If the critics were to be believed, the barbarians in CBC’s upper management had sacked the cathedral and defrocked John Doyle’s “Pastor Mansbridge.”  The charges implied the CBC had committed the journalistic equivalent of a crime against humanity.

The indictments:

  • Peter Mansbridge was – wait for it! – standing instead of sitting
  • The news stories were – blame the news doctors! – too short and, ipso facto, superficial
  • The National‘s new set was – oh, dear! – too colourful
  • And those big video screens – how crass! – just like CNN

Unnoticed in all the hubbub was a significant editorial change for the better.  The CBC’s recent unification of its assignment desk has had the salutary effect of bringing to television dozens of sharp CBC Radio reporters whose talents are blossoming on camera. It’s like having hired a whole news team while keeping your other one intact. Some day, this editorial arsenal is going to blow CTV and Global news away on a big story.     

It’s easy to attack this new emphasis on live coverage as superficial, or news on the cheap. But all last week, CBC News Network tapped its editorial bench strength with dozens of live hits on the H1N1 story at clinics all across Canada. The CBC was doing its job as a national broadcaster: Connecting viewers from coast to coast to coast on a major breaking story. We were seeing the unified assignment system in action, and it looked great.

The change comes at a price. The CBC’s tradition of finely crafted visual storytelling is taking a big hit. But You Tube and cell phone video have all but replaced this venerable craft.  Who needs a fleet of camera crews when citizens record the house fire next door, the beating in the laneway and the hit and run accident at the intersection?  

As for The National, it looked like it had just awakened from a ten-year coma. Gone were the endless headlines. Gone, the faux Wagnerian splendor of the old set with the anchor enthroned in some Valhalla of the gods. Gone the bloated, dull news reports delivered in what seemed an interminable 2:45 seconds or more.

And, most refreshingly, gone was the CBC’s patronizing “eat this, it’s good for you” attitude toward its own journalism. In its place – a driving effort to get the news, to get it fast and to bring the audience into the story.

Ever since the Mulroney and Chretien governments’ budget cuts to the CBC in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s, the corporation has been struggling to decide how to define itself.  The debate has generally followed two lines of argument.  

The first argument is that CBC Television News should adopt what’s been called the “PBS” model. In this scenario, the CBC would focus on in-depth reporting and analysis and stop competing with the private sector for viewers. Who cares if anyone watches as long as “the decision makers” do?

The other model, the one on which the CBC has finally and clearly bet the house, is to join the 21st Century with all the modern media tools it can muster and go determinedly after a younger audience.

When you look at the ratings, this strategy seems obvious. On Oct. 29th, for example, sixty percent of The National‘s audience was fifty-five years old or older. For CTV, the figure was 56 per cent, according to BBM Canada. The numbers fluctuate, but the trend is somewhere between 55 and 60 percent.

Television news as we have known it for the last three decades is facing a demographic death sentence. Young people won’t watch it, and it’s not their fault.  

In the digital era, the stalls at the marketplace of ideas are fully stocked. Discerning information consumers must now navigate a multimedia menu to stay informed. The good old days of omniscient father figures in anchor chairs telling the children what they need to know are over. CBC Television News has simply admitted this and moved on, bravely and dramatically.  

By mid week, the bugs and glitches were being smoothed out.  On Thursday, The National gave ten minutes of coverage to the H1N1 story, leading off with a beautifully written report by Ioanna Roumeliotis. So much for superficiality.

Mansbridge’s At Issue panel was sitting down – not standing – and joking about it. Rex Murphy followed, barking away, as always, more cur than mudgeon. The CBC’s news universe had not come to an end after all.

Those in the choir of denunciation lament that CBC Television News has turned its back on them. Broken a tacit understanding between the broadcaster and its viewers to keep doing things more or less the way it has always done them.

But an organization that sees itself in a fight for survival will do whatever it thinks necessary in order to survive. That’s what the changes at CBC Television News are really all about. If the people who turned up their noses and turned off their remotes never watch CBC again, it’s a risk the CBC is clearly prepared to take.

Journalism does not belong to the people who make it. It especially does not belong to those who imagine their mission is to save journalism from its perceived vulgarities. Journalism belongs to all of us.  

This is particularly true in the CBC’s case because we pay for it. Instead of complaining, we should wish the CBC well; because this time, they just may have gotten it right.

Peter McNelly has been teaching broadcast news to Ryerson journalism students for seven years. He spent 20-years as a producer, editor and manager at CBC in both television and radio news, and as a training consultant for CTV News.

Five journalism watchers live blogged for J-Source during the first airing of the relaunched The National on Oct. 26. Read the commentary here.