Another facelift for the mother ship

Will new graphics, music and sets, and a fresh political image, help fix the ratings problem?

Another facelift for the mother shipThis won’t be your grandparents’ The National. At least, that’s what the folks at the CBC are hoping. In its seemingly never-ending bid to attract younger viewers, the public broadcaster is rebranding its newscasts, with new sets, new graphics, new music, new faces—new everything. Never mind that just last March, having made unsuccessful pleas for a bridge loan from the federal government, the CBC announced it was facing a budgetary shortfall worth a staggering $171 million. In all, 800 jobs would be eliminated, along with a host of television and radio shows. And many of the programs that survived the onslaught were facing drastically reduced budgets.

Indeed, The National’s current identity is a mere three years old. “Humming the new five musical notes that now introduce all our major newscasts will soon become a Canadian rite of passage,” Tony Burman, then editor-in-chief of CBC News, had promised when it was revealed. The 2006 overhaul also represented the ushering in of a new philosophy. In Burman’s words, it was “a sweeping, even radical beginning.” The changes were based on a massive study commissioned by the CBC that recommended its newscasts feature longer, more complex items and “fewer forgettable stories tied to contrived or empty news ‘events.’ ” “We needn’t be slaves to an outmoded, commercially driven, old-fashioned news,” Burman wrote in a 2005 memo to senior news staff. But 18 months after the format’s debut, he was gone and CBC News was embarking on another overhaul—this time in the opposite direction.

As in 2006, the changes audiences will see on TV screens are just the thin edge of the wedge—there’s a big shift unfolding behind the scenes. According to the CBC’s marketing materials, the latest iteration of The National promises more “live, event-driven news.” And virtually every news program at the CBC is likewise getting a facelift. Newsworld, the network’s dedicated news channel, is set to adopt CP24’s ticker-heavy aesthetic, streaming local weather, news, and breaking information using banners on the screen. Local news broadcasts have already been expanded to 90 minutes and their new format may provide a glimpse of what’s to come at The National. “It’s much more about being live and immediate,” says CBC Montreal news director Mary-Jo Barr, “being on top of stories as they develop instead of full thought-out think pieces looking back on the day.”

The revamp hasn’t been embraced by everyone at the corporation, with some saying it represents nothing less than an abdication of the CBC’s mandate. Critics point out that the shift away from more comprehensive news coverage dovetails with the CBC’s decision to hire U.S.-based consultants Frank N. Magid Associates, Inc., who made their name with the “eyewitness news” concept that’s been adopted by most local broadcasts south of the border. “Magid is a sore point among folks who work for local news,” says Lise Lareau, president of the Canadian Media Guild, the union that represents CBC newsroom employees. “He believes in short, snappy news, playing to fear [on issues such as] weather and crime. Basically, if it bleeds it leads—and mile-wide and inch-deep.”

Along with its formats, the CBC also appears to be questioning its ideological bearings. It has undertaken an ambitious three-year study costing an estimated $1.5 million to gauge whether its news division is as ideologically unbalanced as its critics claim. (One issue identified in a 2005 report on the news division’s operations was “that some in our audience, if not the majority, feel the CBC too often reflects a liberal perspective . . .”) CBC spokesperson Jeff Keay insists the study isn’t a direct response to those charges, but says it’s “something we can use, that’s got some empirical depth behind it.”

Regardless, the CBC is desperately in need of viewers. With its news show ratings stuck well behind those of its private competitors, it has struggled to attract ad dollars. Years of cutbacks have left local news broadcasts, usually much more profitable than their national counterparts, in especially bad shape. “The core issues at CBC News have to do with a horrendous financing problem,” says a former senior CBC News employee. “The existing strategy was a financial failure before the downturn. It has since turned from a financial failure into a financial catastrophe.” The network has tried to turn the tide by differentiating itself from its private competitors. Now it appears resigned to swim with them.

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