TORONTO – Veteran anchor Peter Mansbridge’s departure from “The National” is ushering in “the next phase” of CBC’s flagship news program, the public broadcaster’s editor-in-chief said Tuesday.
In a letter to staff, Jennifer McGuire said that she will personally oversee “a process to build on its strengths and position it for ongoing success” over the course of the next year.
“The news industry is undergoing fundamental changes but the bedrock values of quality, integrity and depth that Peter stands for will always be with us,” McGuire said a day after Mansbridge announced plans to step down July 1.
But just because Mansbridge is resigning as anchor and chief correspondent doesn’t mean he’s leaving CBC entirely.
“Peter will continue to have a role with CBC. We will have more to say about that in the future,” McGuire said.
The venerable newsman had been hinting for years at plans to retire from the news desk before his 70th birthday, and made it official with an announcement on the Labour Day broadcast.
“This next year will mark 30 years since I was named chief correspondent and anchor of ‘The National’ … a position that’s an honour and a privilege to occupy,” Mansbridge said in his distinctive baritone.
“It’s been an amazing time to help chronicle our history, but I’ve decided that this year will be my last one.”
The time is right to start refreshing CBC’s national hallmark, said several media observers, noting in part that “The National” is routinely trounced in the ratings by the private rivals “CTV National News with Lisa LaFlamme” and “Global National with Dawna Friesen.”
Mansbridge’s departure also comes at a time when the very notion of having a news anchor seems increasingly irrelevant, said Janice Neil, the chair of the school of journalism at Ryerson University.
She noted that digital media has transformed the way news is delivered and consumed, with the evening news no longer considered “by-appointment television.”
“The role of the anchor is no longer the voice of authority, it is not the voice of God, and certainly no longer only a male job,” said Neil.
“You don’t have to be a news junkie to find out things that are happening throughout the day, whether on social media or however else you’re getting it. All networks have to decide: What is it that they are giving people at the end of the day that they wouldn’t have got if they’d been following the news for the rest of the day?
“Or, if they had been following the news for the rest of the day, what else are we going to do? What is going to be distinctive and what is going to be adding value to our audience’s information about what’s happening?”
Neil said this is a chance for the CBC to try something new, suggesting that could include “a younger, hipper chief correspondent” and possibly multiple anchors.
Among the potential Mansbridge successors are established CBC anchors Ian Hanomansing, Diana Swain and Wendy Mesley. Neil also pointed out that CBC has a history of pulling talent from the regions, suggesting Vancouver’s Andrew Chang could also be in the running.
Back in June during a CBC launch event, Hanomansing waved off suggestions he was the heir apparent, saying said he was happy with his job anchoring national newscasts from Vancouver for CBC News Network.
“I said this many times over the years and I actually believe it,” he said. “Who knows what ‘The National’ would look like after he leaves and who knows who management has in mind for that job?”
Former CTV head Ivan Fecan cautioned against changing too much, too quickly.
“Changing an anchor is a big change and if things are working, you don’t want to give people more reasons to go somewhere else,” said Fecan, who oversaw the hand-off of “CTV National News” from Lloyd Robertson to Lisa LaFlamme in 2011.
“So when we did the change at CTV, very little changed aside from the anchor. There were a few graphic tweaks and whatnot but the rule in television news is that you don’t make radical changes, you make them very gradually.”
Professor and author Wade Rowland encouraged the public broadcaster to take a risk and experiment with a new format.
“They might try having a newscast that originated from different regional broadcast centres on different nights, something like that, so there wasn’t just one anchor,” said Rowland, a communications professor at York University and former journalist who used to work at CBC News.
“There’s an opportunity there for CBC to invent something new and much better. It could solve some real problems we have in this country with newspapers going under, with resources for regional broadcasting almost vanishing, especially in the private sector because there’s no profit to be made there anymore.”
He too, questioned whether an anchor was even necessary, pointing to the role’s little-known origins in the United States as “essentially, a marketing position” that evolved into “the face of the network.”
“Which is fine if it’s Walter Cronkite but not so great if it’s Brian Williams, for instance. And we’ve just adopted that here in public broadcasting when there’s no need for it,” said Rowland, whose books include “Canada Lives Here: The Case for Public Broadcasting,” and “Saving the CBC: Balancing Profit and Public Service.”
“We don’t need to market public broadcasting’s broadcast in the same way private broadcasting newscasts are marketed. And if we went about it in a different way, the news would be more distinctive and you’d have a choice between formats and so on.”
CBC managers will have to weigh their priorities carefully, added Fecan. Do they measure success by ratings or the quality of in-depth news stories that might appeal to a more committed audience?
Fresh changes could kick off a new era at the CBC, which Fecan believes is “on the comeback” thanks to some current TV hits and a more supportive federal government.
“I think everyone will be sorry to see (Mansbridge) go but at the same time, it’s renewal. And renewal’s a good thing.”
With files from TV columnist Bill Brioux