Will CBC kill the 6 o’clock news? by Joel Eastwood
May 23, 2014
As it struggles with budget cuts and a changing media landscape, the public broadcaster considers overhauling its local TV news in cities like Edmonton, where costs are high, ratings are low and private broadcasters dominate.
Source: Toronto Star
EDMONTON—“Good evening,” Gord Steinke intones, and the camera sweeps toward the veteran Global News anchor sitting at a news desk in a cavernous green studio — green walls, green floor, even green cables snaking from the monitors.
On the screens in the dark control room overlooking the studio, Steinke’s surroundings are transformed. The expansive green screen is digitally replaced with a slick, computer-generated set awash with photos from the night’s top stories. The segment includes panoramic live shots of downtown Edmonton from the Global News helicopter.
“That chopper — we’re the only one in town with that,” Steinke remarks offhandedly during one of the bird’s-eye traffic reports.
Across town, CBC anchor Adrienne Pan reads the news in the broadcaster’s local newsroom with low grey cubicles as her backdrop. Over her shoulder, a single television displays headlines.
Every weeknight, as they sit down for supper, more than 100,000 Edmonton residents regularly tune in to Global’s 6 o’clock evening news. CBC struggles to reach a tenth of that number.
In the aftermath of the latest CBC funding crisis, which in April forced fresh job cuts and program reductions, Canada’s public broadcaster is taking a long, hard look at local TV news operations in cities such as Edmonton.
“Should we be in local news? And if we are in local news, should we do a 6 o’clock?” asks Johnny Michel, who oversees CBC’s English services in Alberta and B.C.
Global Edmonton anchors Gord Steinke and Carole Anne Devaney deliver the 6 o'clock newscast from their green studio. (For TV viewers, the green is masked out electronically and digital images are substituted.)
In 2013, the public broadcaster spent $1.1 billion on its TV operations, more than four times as much as the $273 million it spends on radio. That funding includes CBC’s 27 television stations, which range from major centres in Toronto and Montreal to farther-flung facilities such as Yellowknife; Moncton, N.B.; and Trois-Rivières, Que.
In the suppertime news ratings battle, both in major cities and across the country, CBC usually places a distant third to the two largest private TV broadcasters, CTV and Global.
As CBC hunts for funds, its top brass is asking whether it’s worth keeping those regional TV newscasts. It has launched an online survey soliciting input from Canadians, and president Hubert Lacroix has publicly declared news and local TV as being “at a crossroads.”
“We’re hoping to start a conversation with Canadians to get some answers,” Michel says.
Edmonton is a prime location to start asking those questions.
In Alberta’s capital, CTV and Global are waging battle for 6 o’clock news supremacy.
“It’s like Godzilla and Mothra fighting over the news in this market,” says Tania Nease, who plans advertising purchases at Mediactive, an Edmonton media strategy firm.
The Edmonton metropolitan area has a population of 1.1 million, a market Nease describes as a government town with many public sector employees.
Overall, Global captures about 10 per cent of total viewership, she says, and CTV about 8 per cent. CBC trails in third with 5 per cent. The gap is even wider in the coveted 25-to-54-year-old viewers — a demographic that advertisers will pay the most for, especially during the suppertime news hour.
Canadian specialty channels, by comparison, capture about a third of the market.
“Local viewership now only counts for a smaller percentage of what people are watching,” Nease says.
Instead viewers are turning to online services like Netflix. A recent study by the Convergence Consulting Group estimates 665,000 Canadian households will have cut their TV cord entirely by the end of 2014.
As Canadians turn away from traditional TV, advertisers are chasing after them.
In 2013, Canada’s private local television stations earned $74 million less in advertising revenue, which sank their total revenues by 4.6 per cent from the year prior, according to the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission. CBC was hit even harder, its advertising revenues plunging 11 per cent, in part because of the shorter NHL season.
CBC News Network, the national all-news channel, has fared better. It is available to 11.3 million subscribers through mandatory carriage in cable and satellite packages, and revenue grew 2.5 per cent in the fiscal year 2012-13 thanks to strong audience levels.
Amidst this decline in local ad revenues, CBC is also watching its public funding shrink. The full brunt of a $115-million reduction in government funding introduced in the 2012 federal budget is sinking in this year.
CBC is also reeling from the loss of the broadcast rights for NHL hockey, which were purchased by Rogers last fall.
All these factors came to a head in April, when CBC announced it would shed 657 jobs over the next two years to balance its 2014-15 budget.
Last week, Friends of Canadian Broadcasting said CBC executives are planning a fresh round of cuts, including making Radio Two an online-only service and merging some English and French programs.
The arm’s-length watchdog group, citing “high-level” sources inside the network, also said CBC is considering putting children’s shows such as Arthur and Poko and prime-time programs including Republic of Doyle and Best Laid Plans on the chopping block.
Alberta was one of the first regions to feel the pinch of last month’s budget cuts. Calgary will lose its weekend TV newscast — instead there will be one provincewide show broadcast from Edmonton.
The Edmonton bureau also lost five full-time jobs and a part-time weekend news reader because the weekend radio newscast will be broadcast from Calgary alone.
Michel says the programming consolidations are a way to maximize resources and trim the cost of running both television studios.
“There are still reporters and there’s still the newsgathering available in Calgary that will be covering Calgary stories over the weekend,” he says.
About 100 English-language journalists work in CBC’s Edmonton newsroom, divided between radio, television and online content. In comparison, Global Edmonton has a team of about 160 people working on its local TV news.
Tim Spelliscy, station manager for Global News Edmonton, is blunt about CBC’s plan for a weekend provincewide newscast: “It’ll never work.”
“The people from Calgary will think, ‘Well, the newscast is coming from Edmonton; I’ll watch a Calgary-based newscast,’” predicts Spelliscy, who has been with Global in Calgary and Edmonton for almost 35 years. “At the same time, the newscast that’s coming out of Edmonton, they’re going to have to put a lot of Calgary content into it, so the viewers in Edmonton won’t like it either.”
Spelliscy points to other changes that he feels will undermine CBC’s attempts to increase its TV audience, such as bringing in new anchors and moving around the time of its weeknight newscast.
“If you keep moving things around, you’ll never find an audience, and the audience won’t find you,” he says.
In contrast, he says, Global has built its commanding lead with a consistent format, program times and branding, relentlessly promoting its onscreen talent.
“Every time you look out of your truck window, your face is on a bus,” Global anchor Steinke says ruefully.
Journalism professor Chris Durham trains Alberta’s next generation of television reporters at the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology.
He says CBC doesn’t have the latest “technical doodads” or the same level of self-promotion as the private broadcasters.
“They’re a trusted old grandfather who you respect and admire, but you’re a little bored of his stories,” Durham says.
But he listed CBC’s other strengths, including a diversity of voices, a strong connection to the community grassroots, and high-calibre journalism that doesn’t always translate into high ratings.
“Are they covering the street fire that’s down the street with a live truck? Are they covering the bank robbery at the time? And covering all those events that happen in a day that people want to see at the end of the day when they get home? No,” Durham said. “They’re more focused on issues. Do they, for example, do a four-minute piece on the vanishing wild horses of Alberta? Yes. And they do a wonderful storytelling approach to it.”
Gary Cunliffe, managing editor of CBC Edmonton, readily admits the challenge faced by CBC in encouraging entrenched viewers to break their loyalty to the competitors.
But just because fewer people are watching doesn’t mean there isn’t value in the CBC, he says. Cunliffe staunchly defends the importance of the work of CBC’s journalists, particularly its award-winning investigative team.
“This newsroom has broken almost every story about Alison Redford,” he says, referring to a series of files revealing an expense scandal that led to the Alberta premier’s resignation.
That original reporting usually goes out first on CBC Edmonton’s well-performing morning radio show, Cunliffe says, which means everyone else has the story by the time the evening newscast rolls around.
“Should we disappear, I think there’d be a hue and a cry from Global and CTV and the Edmonton Journal about the loss to journalism,” he says.
Other defenders of CBC in Edmonton point to the value of having a network paid for by the public that isn’t ultimately concerned with the bottom line.
“(CBC) has what, as a Canadian, I’ve always perceived to be the freedom to report and to maintain standards of journalistic integrity the other people sometimes don’t have the luxury of maintaining,” says Michael Brechtel, director of advertising and creative strategy at Berlin, an Edmonton marketing and PR agency.
Michael Fulmes, the news director at Global, shrugs off the suggestion that the private broadcaster is beholden to the bottom line.
“We wouldn’t be in the news business if we were there to make money, because there’s very few stations in this country that make money off of news,” says Fulmes, who has spent 37 years in the industry.
Fulmes is sitting in his office, where a wall of TVs is tuned to his competitors’ stations — CTV, CBC News Network, and NBC for good measure.
He says Global’s success is hard won with a focus on local stories that people talk about.
“We’re very focused on our news agenda in terms of what we think our viewers want to see. We’re very focused on the community,” Fulmes said. “It’s relating to the folks and what resonates with them.”
He says CBC has the luxury of being able to devote resources to investigative stories that don’t always connect with viewers.
“I would do those stories, too, if the majority of my revenue came from taxpayers’ back pocket,” he says.
And, Fulmes asks, how do you measure the value of “public interest” reporting, if not by the number of people watching?
What both sides agree on is that the industry is going through a tremendous change, what Michel calls a “seismic shift” that’s reshaping Canada’s local television landscape.
The CBC executive says the basic expectation that viewers will tune in at suppertime to learn what happened that day is broken.
“Right now, what happened today is right here,” Michel says, pulling a white iPhone from the inside pocket of his crisp grey suit jacket.
In contrast to its TV operations, CBC has had success online. Ad buyer Nease says CBC.ca is one of her top sites for purchasing online ads because it has a solid number of regular viewers.
The site attracts 6.8 million unique monthly viewers, according to CBC’s third-quarter 2013-14 financial report.
In order to better serve Canadians, CBC must build on that digital success, Michel says. That means revisiting the CBC’s mandate, set down in the 1991 Broadcasting Act, which compels the broadcaster to provide both radio and television services — a directive he calls “antiquated.”
“It does not meet the realities of today’s world. So there needs to be a fundamental change in our mandate. But what that mandate is — we need all stakeholders to take part in shaping it,” Michel says.
The Edmonton bureau is already moving in a digital direction.
Last fall, it became the first CBC newsroom in the country to have an integrated executive producer position overseeing and co-ordinating the newsroom’s television, radio and online operations to avoid redundancies, Cunliffe says.
It’s also experimenting with new television formats beyond the suppertime news, such as Our Edmonton, a weekly hour-long current affairs show that is shot by a two-person team on location around the city.
“One of the things that is quite deliberate about Our Edmonton is (the host) is not at an anchor desk,” Cunliffe says.
“This is a show that says, ‘Yeah, we live here. We exist.’ It’s not a green screen from some other location.”