This hour has 90 minutes

Susan NewhookA half-hour extension looks like a renaissance for the CBC suppertime news, writes Susan Newhook. But…As with many things CBC these days, there are a few buts.

At first glance, it looks like a renaissance for the CBC suppertime news. After years of cuts, the local supper-hour shows are about to become longer and start an hour earlier, at 5 p.m. (5:30 in Newfoundland and parts of Labrador, of course).


Like many things CBC these days, there are a few buts. The big challenges are obvious. Programmers will have to persuade viewers to move their local news habits back and they’ll have 50 per cent more airtime to fill, without  any more money or bodies. It’s all happening on the heels of the latest cuts to the battered news department, and in the midst of troubled times for the CBC and all traditional media. 

CBC_NightThe reason behind the move to extend the newscasts to 90 minutes from 60, and to go to air at 5 p.m., are not all that clear. The corporate line was that “CBC is juggling resources internally to create the extended newscasts at a time when the English-language service must make up an $85-million budget shortfall…CBC has rejigged its schedule around the supper hour newscasts.”

In fact, it’s the other way around: CBC has rejigged the supper hours around changes to its schedule. While CBC recently rediscovered the value of local news, these moves seemingly have nothing to do with that: there are no extra dollars or jobs attached. It’s all about maximizing ad revenue for the network.
The schedule change will sync the time slots for two US game shows the CBC bought last year. There were howls. Groups such as the Friends of Canadian Broadcasting said Wheel of Fortune and Jeopardy! were a waste of money and a blow to the Corp’s Canadian-content mandate. CBC argued popular demand meant bigger audiences and more revenue, and made Wheel the 5:30 lead-in for the 6 pm newscasts — seemingly good news for the news.

But, it hasn’t been making enough money. The CBC’s current head of regional news, Liz Hughes says many Canadians viewers continue to watch Wheel on US stations at 7 p.m. So, starting August 31, the CBC will also air Wheel at 7 p.m. between Coronation Street at  6:30 (Corrie’s viewer-addicts will follow it almost anywhere) and Jeopardy!  At 7:30.

Simulcasting the game shows means instant money for the CBC. When Canadian cable systems simulcast a program from a Canadian and a US station, CRTC regulations allow the Canadian broadcaster to bump the American channel’s ads for their own, and collect on the total number of Canadian viewers. (That’s why you see the same ads for your local furniture store on House, whether you’re watching Fox or Global; it’s also why we never see those mega-hyped Super Bowl ads.)
Moving the local and regional newscasts back a full hour in Canada is novel. The CBC offers no research, apart from some limited focus group feedback, on whether viewers are likely to move. Some skeptics here call the 5 p.m. start “a dead zone.” Since the return to an hour-long format in 2007, the suppertime programs have been slowly finding larger audiences, but ratings in most of the country are still small enough that the CBC talks about percentage increases rather than real numbers – Hughes says the supper-hour audience grew 110 per cent from fall 2006 to fall 2008.
The logistical and editorial challenges are in the extra 30 minutes of programming, something the news department didn’t ask for.  However, the rumours have been around for months and local news directors have been preparing. As the late, legendary CBC news manager Joan Donaldson used to say, if someone offers you airtime – never turn it down; take it, and then figure out what to do with it.

Hughes says Donaldson’s advice still rings true. “I think when the idea first came up, a lot of people … were suspicious of it, internally. I think now it’s really seen as an opportunity. And I really see it as an opportunity too.”

The plan is to break the 90 minute window into three connected programs, each updating or reframing breaking news and top stories. The managers don’t like calling that a programming wheel, because that suggests repetition. At CBLT in Toronto, news director Sophia Hadzipetros says it’s doable: “Right now I can look at the show every day and see three angles on (some stories)  that we could do over the course of 90 minutes, and there would be no fill.”

She uses an example from a recent pilot in which the lead story was a run of thunderstorms: “Five o’clock — straight news, a bit of weather.” New pictures and another angle would air at 5:30: “tornado warnings, (what’s going on) out in the 905 (area code), or a specific power outage – what you need to know.” The  6 p.m. show would wrap up the latest developments.

News isn’t always breaking across Canada between 5 and 6:30 p.m., but the approach – the jargon inventors call it “elementing” – can be applied to other stories too. Hughes says the  new shows are designed so viewers can watch the whole 90 minutes – but won’t have to. “I think we’ll have people joining us earlier now, and probably staying longer. The six o’clock show is still the main event…very fast-paced, very comprehensive.”

The head of the CBC’s biggest union says there is promise in the big picture. “We all like the idea of local news expanding,” says Canadian Media Guild president Lise Lareau. “We all recognize local news is something TV should do more of, especially the CBC.” 

The prospect of producing a newscast with 30 more minutes of air time doesn’t worry the boss in St. John’s. News director Janice Stein says every day “we have more material than we can fit in our show (Here and Now).”

Other small regions won’t be able to stretch their resources. In PEI, the newsroom lost another four full-time positions this summer. They’ll do the first half hour, at 5 p.m. and the last half hour, but the 5:30 segment will come from Fredericton. It will be the first time that Compass, a staple of island culture for decades, has not been produced entirely in PEI. Andrew Cochran, managing director for the Maritimes, says the change is meant to reduce duplication of effort.
However, producing television news that’s both fast-paced and comprehensive is more labour-intensive than it appears to the average viewer. Lareau argues the CBC is “going to the wheel system because they think that that’s going to be a way you can do supper hours (at 90 minutes) with fewer bodies…There’s going to be a lot of skirmishing”  over how much updating is done, and “over what’s professional and what will…do.” 

The managers say the merged TV and radio newsrooms are more efficient all around. The mantra these days is that everyone is a ‘content provider’ and works for every program and platform as needed: radio reporters for television, network reporters for local, and everyone for online.

Most of the new shows will make extensive use of social media for audience involvement in real time, with reporters joining the on-air hosts for live inserts. Cochran points to reporters tweeting news updates from their smartphones as one way the CBC is moving to new media. He says teams will tell stories across platforms: for example, a producer can file tape to the web while the reporter does an on-camera hit for 5:30, or edits his story for 6 o’clock. Technology — and changes to collective agreements — help too. Anyone can take video from a server, without having to share a single tape, and anyone can shoot a stand-up for a colleague.

In Halifax, Cochran says “Some days, I know, it seems more challenging than others.” But overall, an integrated newsroom, he adds, “generally feels bigger than x (television) plus y (radio).”

There was a flicker of enthusiasm from some of the journalists I spoke to who were otherwise guarded. In fact, no one would comment for attribution. Many seem weary, wary or both. Just a couple of weeks before the launch of a new show, most still aren’t clear on how workloads and workflows will be affected, apart from a change in their shift schedules.

One former insider is already weary just hearing about the changes. Watching from the outside, where he can say anything he likes, Howard Bernstein sees the 90-minute window as the latest of many bad moves for local and regional news at the CBC. The former executive producer of local news in public and private television in Toronto says CBC bosses have “done everything they can over the years to wreck any chance for local news.” 

When Bernstein ran CBC’s Toronto newscast in the 1980s, audience numbers for the country’s 12 supper hours often beat those of The National but, he says, the network still cut them in favour of network news, and the practice has continued.

One of his contacts recently wrote an anonymous guest column about the new order for Bernstein’s media blog, Medium Close Up. The writer, who Bernstein says is a “long suffering” CBC journalist, says the  move will send the local news “to a dead zone where it will be unlikely to ever get a significant audience ever again…weary CBC staffers have to swallow idiotic statements from news executives that say, ‘It’s really quite thrilling to be able to expand our local news coverage…'”

In any environment, the combination of a new airtime and a new format is a risky exercise in television news: The National worked at 10, and flopped at 9.  It’s a very different world from the glory days of the 1980s, and no one expects viewers to show up in droves, but the big question of who will watch one, two or three half-hours of news starting at 5 p.m. looms over all the others.

Susan Newhook is an Assistant Professor at King’s College School of Journalism. For almost 20 years, she was a researcher, reporter and producer at CBC News and Current affairs. 

(Image by sashafatcat. Used under Creative Commons license.)