Mansbridge says, 'Get over it'

CBC News’s swirly, shiny and frenetic new identity: how’s that working out?

Little-known fact: when Peter Mansbridge first started subbing as CBC’s National news anchor back in the early 1980s, he had a nightly house audience. In the cramped confines of the public broadcaster’s old Toronto headquarters, the flagship newscast shared a studio with the iconic children’s show The Friendly Giant. So hanging on the faux castle wall on the other side of the room, Rusty the Rooster and Jerome the Giraffe bore mute witness to the great events of the era.

Sitting in his glass-walled office at the CBC’s current and far more spacious digs—the grandly named and appointed Canadian Broadcast Centre—the 62-year-old journalist shares the story to make a point. The network’s recent high-tech makeover of its news programs is hardly the only change he’s lived through in four-plus decades at the Mother Corp. Revamps are a big part of the TV business. And unlike past budget-driven exercises, this one at least sees the news division bumping up coverage, not cutting it back. “It’s a radical departure in look, not in substance,” says Mansbridge. “People are still looking for serious news. They just want it in a different fashion.”

And different is what they are getting. From the onscreen font—out with the Frutiger, in with the Stag—to the swooping graphics, to the hosts themselves, almost everything about the broadcasts has changed. After two decades of existence, Newsworld has been rebranded CBC News Network. (Audience research apparently suggested viewers found the 24-hour news channel’s original name kind of vague. And This-is-CBC-News-Dillweed was presumably too long.) There are futuristic new sets with clear glass tables designed to signal transparency, and a daytime lighting and graphics palette that makes liberal use of canary yellow, deemed to be the colour of “optimism.” Amanda Lang and Kevin O’Leary were poached from BNN for a late afternoon business roundup. Evan Solomon has replaced Don Newman as the host of the daily Ottawa political gabfest. And prime-time-clogging pre-taped broadcasts of the Antiques Roadshow and George Stroumboulopoulos’s The Hour have been cleared in favour of Connect with Mark Kelley, a live talk show that promises to “peel back the layers” of the day’s events, while still allowing the network to cover breaking news.

Local news—almost whittled out of existence in recent years—is back at the forefront on the main network, with expanded supper-hour shows, and a 10-minute recap at 10:55 pm. (In Toronto, the local shows get to use the news channel’s glitzy new set.) And the flagship National—now running seven days a week on both networks—has also undergone a facelift. Mansbridge, broadcasting from what appears to be the bridge of the Starship Enterprise (graphics and images fly past on a series of large screens, including a 103-inch LCD), moves freely around the set. The white side of the room with the clear desk is for hard news. The blue side, with the horse-shoe table, is reserved for softer, lifestyle pieces—a prominent part of the new mix. The pace of the broadcast has quickened, recognizable faces like Wendy Mesley in Toronto, and Neil Macdonald in Washington, are getting more air time, and there is a lot more jokey banter.

Behind the scenes, the changes have been even more dramatic. The separate news bastions—radio, local, The National, the news channel, the Web—have been forceably amalgamated, with all information and assignments now flowing through a central Toronto hub. “It’s really a forced transparency,” says Jennifer McGuire, editor-in-chief of CBC News. “We’re assigning across platforms. We’re one news service.” As part of the process, 1,000 employees have been reassigned (100 others lost their jobs in economic downturn-related budget cuts that saw a total of 800 layoffs across CBC and Radio Canada). Many are in the midst of mastering new skills, like news writers who now must consider the stage blocking and background visuals that should accompany their stories. And there is an obvious emphasis on live coverage and getting news to air as fast as possible, with reporters frequently going before the cameras to list all the things they don’t yet know. “When we did our audience research, the thing that popped to the top was ‘the real story’—the idea of how we know what we know and when,” says McGuire. “So we’re blowing open the process.”

When the changes debuted at the end of October, there was a lot of noise about the “CNN-ification” of CBC News. (An American consultant, Frank N. Magid Associates, worked on the revamp, but provided advice on audience tastes and structural issues, not the look or content of the broadcasts, say CBC executives.) And many of the reviews of the new look were less than kind. Richard Stursberg, the CBC’s executive vice-president, has labelled such criticism “pathetic,” sloughing it off as sour grapes from media competitors. “[It] revolves around whether people are standing or sitting,” he said in November. For the record, Mansbridge says he finds all the concern about him no longer having a chair touching, but is really quite comfortable. “It’s an hour-long show. If I can’t stand for that long, I’m really in trouble,” he says.

And three months into CBC News’s swirly, shiny and frenetic new identity, the more pertinent issue might be whether viewers are coming along for the ride. The network says the newscast portion of The National is now averaging around 650,000 sets of eyeballs a night. The number dips to around 550,000 for the second half of the show. But that’s still well below the 759,000 viewers the broadcast was averaging in the fall of 2008. Some of that has to do with the introduction of a new ratings measurement system—a portable, pager-sized device that captures a signal from whatever television you’re watching, rather than the old set-top boxes. When the change was made at the beginning of September, two months prior to the makeover, The National’s ratings fell off a cliff—reportedly down as much as half a million viewers on some nights. CBC execs say they are still struggling to understand why the switch in technology has had such a drastic impact, but it doesn’t appear to be affecting their prime-time ratings—this past fall was the network’s best in five years—or those of their competitors. The CTV National News with Lloyd Robertson averaged 1.24 million viewers a night through the fall, up more than 30 per cent from the year before. Global National News, anchored by Kevin Newman, is drawing 1.03 million a night, an increase of more than 200,000 viewers an evening. It is not exactly an apples-to-apples comparison—CTV goes to air at 11 p.m., Global National at 5:30 p.m., and both shows are just a half-hour—but at the end of the day, says Jonathan Whitten, the executive producer of The National, the ratings are what the ratings are. “We don’t sit around at night and whine about our lead-in shows, or being up against CSI. That’s just the way it is. Those are facts.”

Over at CBC News Network, which has just over one per cent market share, about the same as the CTV News Channel (formerly known as CTV News Net), there is excitement about an uptick in viewers for the morning show, and The Lang & O’Leary Exchange has doubled its audience for the time slot. But other programs like Connect with Mark Kelley are struggling.

And some of the more in-your-face elements of the new CBC News have been dialled down in recent weeks. There are fewer moving graphics, and they’re not travelling quite so fast. The text that crawls across the bottom of the screen has been brightened, and the camera work looks a lot less shaky. “Peter’s still walking,” says The National’s Whitten. “We’re just better at shooting it now.”

Jennifer McGuire says the network will measure the success of the revamp three ways: the quality of the journalism produced in the new format, the engagement of the audience, and just who is watching. “We care about audience breadth, as well as tonnage.” And executives argue that they have little choice but to shake things up. In a fragmenting news market, audiences are demanding more information, in more interactive formats, with fewer filters than in the past. The National is offering its full broadcast online each night, as well as a stripped-down 10-minute early Web edition at 6 p.m., and a four-minute download for mobile devices. (There have been some technical problems with the latter, but the service now has 28,000 subscribers, up from 2,500 the first week.) “We want to try and make some inroads into a generation that’s not into TV,” says Mansbridge. “It’s been an issue for the last decade or two —the audience is getting older. And that’s a ticket to a problem.” Viewer research also revealed another troubling truth: news consumers no longer make much of a differentiation between the CBC and its competitors in terms of trust, or where they turn for the big stories or coverage of Canadian issues. “It’s fair to say that alarmed us,” says Whitten. “And generally, there’s the same level of dissatisfaction—everyone is getting a C+. That’s the sobering part.”

Reversing such long-term trends by an on-screen revamp and behind-the-scenes restructuring seems like a long shot. (Mansbridge delivered The National from a virtual set, sitting in front of a green screen for six weeks as the studios were renovated this fall. Not one viewer noticed.) But it’s hard to damn CBC for trying.

Sitting in his office, the veteran anchor says he figures people will soon forget the show ever looked any different. Having lived through so many past network experiments, he is philosophical. Nothing could be as bad, he says, as when they paired him with Pamela Wallin and moved the news to 9 p.m. back in 1992. “That one really smelled.”

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