This caught my eye in a Ryerson Review of Journalism article on the challenges facing CBC News.
Derek Foster, an assistant professor at Brock University who has written several academic papers about the network, calls CBC’s attempt to establish a relationship with the viewer “a rhetoric of display. It’s a mode of presentation much like museums, which are constantly updating the way in which they try to appeal to their visitors. That’s the same thing CBC is doing. How can we encourage more visitors to come to our broadcast and how can we encourage them to stay through the half-hour and want to come back again? So they try to make it more homey.”
In a bid to use social media and get even cozier with viewers, CBC has placed a greater emphasis on The National’s Facebook page. Along with providing a space for comments, CBC also invites viewers to suggest the stories they want to see. And if you ever forget about it, Mansbridge is there at the end of The National to remind you CBC is online.
Such cross-promotion was given a greater focus after the (fall 2009) relaunch. On local news, sports stories were sometimes replaced by plugs for upcoming sports programming. On The National, the cross-promotion was more shameless. When Battle of the Blades, a ratings hit for CBC in 2009, ended its final episode, one of the stories on The National following the broadcast was an interview with one of the show’s executive producers, Sandra Bezic, that included her speculating on future spinoffs. Increasingly, it seemed as though CBC treated The National as a billboard rather than a sacrosanct news program. That’s because CBC no longer had viewers; it had fans.
“This is part of their new identity,” says Foster, “that they’re not necessarily going to educate or service people in the way that has been traditionally understood as the mandate of public service broadcasting.
“So CBC is now on Facebook and they’re saying, ‘Tell us what you’d like covered.’ Like they’re literally saying, ‘If you express enough interest in this story, maybe we’ll put it higher up on the actual nightly coverage.’ It’s quite fascinating, the degree to which they are trying to actually not just become more of a public broadcaster but more of a popular broadcaster.”
I would grudgingly say it’s worth reading the whole story.
The CBC (be aware I work for CTV News) of today is a public broadcaster that’s heavily reliant on advertising revenue. That can lead to … tensions.
One key question is to what degree should journalism at such an organization be driven by populism versus public service?
CBC has made a choice, in both entertainment programming and news, to go with the latter. A Globe and Mail article from April 17 suggested the strategy is paying ratings dividends.
“We strike a very good balance,” Stewart (Kirstine, CBC’s general manager of English-language programming) asserts. “What people have to understand, and I think they do appreciate, is that if an audience isn’t watching the CBC – whether it’s our reality shows, sitcoms or the specials – they’re not going to be watching the dramas either. Dragons’ Den almost reached the two-million mark, and it led into our new drama Republic of Doyle, which is attracting 800,000 viewers. Doyle is the highest drama launch we’ve had in quite some time. And it’s 100-per-cent Canadian owned and grown.”
What Stewart describes as “good balance” is, not surprisingly, a matter of dispute among many of this country’s independent producers, some of whom charge that, unless it’s fun and fluffy, the CBC turns most scripts away.
Ken Finkleman, who has made several series for the public network, including his CBC-inspired comedy The Newsroom, says that his most recent script for a half-hour sitcom, Good Dog, was roundly rejected by the network. So he took it to pay TV’s The Movie Network/Movie Central, which has green-lit 13 episodes.
Cable and pay TV, Finkleman says, are making the best, boldest shows on television. “Forget about dark and edgy; the CBC seems to only want warm and friendly,” says Finkleman, whose new sitcom is about an older guy (played by Finkleman) living with a woman half his age, knowing full well she’s there for his money. (He’s there for the sex.)
“If you want to turn people who are funny away, there is no better way than this,” adds Finkleman. “A senior CBC executive told me that Good Dog was ‘too niche.’ I sent a note back saying I have to give you credit for not only managing to express your opinion of the show in two words, but you also did so bilingually. So you’re doing a great job.”
I guess the question that flows from that is if the audiences of cable/pay TV will pay to watch dark, edgy fare, why does the CBC not think such niche fare will play on its network?
The RRJ article makes it clear that the changing strategy in programming is also affecting how the news is delivered.
At some point, I should do some thinking out loud about just how populist news should be.